Notes From A Muddy Island: Transport

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It’s two months this week since we took the rather life changing trip from South Africa to the UK to come live and work here. Instead of one long post on everything, I thought I’d stagger it into bite sized chunks, dedicated to one topic at a time.

Let me talk about transport first, because it is one of the more iconic things about London, in some strange way. We’re spoiled in South Africa – because assuming we’re financially ok and in the workforce, we generally drive everywhere. Or are we spoiled? I’m not sure.

Back in Johannesburg I’d step out of my house at around 07:00, dodge a couple of somewhat large lizards around the car a few metres from the front door, and set off on the twenty minute drive to work. Comfortably lost in my own thoughts, until I pulled up in the parking lot of my office, to ascend the stairs and get to work. Total steps – probably 20.

London is slightly different. You have to be ready for a personal space invasion. I get on the tube at Buckhurst Hill station, up on the edge of town, and then get off at Holborn to walk to work. As the train gets closer to the city centre the train fills. And fills. And fills. Before you know it some big geezer in front of you backs further and further into you, to a point where you can study the hairs in his ears, make patterns with the wrinkles on his neck, or worse, smell that he may not have showered that morning. Total steps – probably around 6000.

Walking. So much walking. After just two days of going into work and back my trusted Woolies work shoes were badly wounded. A hole at the bottom and the sole coming apart. Off I went to buy new shoes, a massive grudge purchase for someone trying to limit spending. For the first time I was paying more attention to a shoe’s sole and heel strength than their design. This in itself was a mistake, as I should have been paying attention to how the shoe felt on the back of my ankle. Naively I decided to do the entire work journey the next day in brand new shoes. My feet were destroyed, specifically the back of the ankle. They’d even bled quite badly, to a point that I was worried the bleeding behind my foot might be noticeable.

On the following day, equipped with two pairs of socks, at around midday I had to go with a colleague across town to an agency. A trip that involved lots of, you guessed it . . . walking. My feet screamed with each step. My rather good looking female colleague glided along like someone ice skating, while I struggled to keep up, trudging along like Big Foot holding one in on an urgent trip to the lavvy. Do all South Africans walk like this, or just this weirdo?  

In the evenings I have to make my way from The Strand through Covent Garden to get back to Holborn Station. The area is densely populated with tourists from all corners of the earth. It’s quite a thing walking through endless tourists while not being a tourist. There’s a rather annoying holiday euphoria about  them all, as they stroll along, in the high spirits one tends to be while travelling. It left me with an interesting question one day. Is the primary reason people travel more to do with getting away from their mundane lives or actually seeing interesting things? I’m starting to believe it’s the former. I’ve followed tourists over the Waterloo Bridge and noticed that they hardly looked up from their phones.

But it’s not all negative. Having worked out that I walk 5km per day, I feel quite good about the whole ordeal. I’m walking 5km per day more than I was at home. As a consequence I’ve actually lost weight, despite drinking more beer than I was in SA (see post on that in the next few days).

The issue of the shoes and feet was quickly resolved by using my orange trainers, and then swapping them out at work. I can pull off the look with jeans and a K-Way jacket. I haven’t attempted the orange shoes with a suit jacket yet. But hey, I’m in London, nobody knows me. Who the hell cares if I look like a spaz. Better that than broken feet.

Speaking of shoes, you notice them. Particularly in the underground, if you’re lucky enough to sit. Usually because you have nothing else to do and you’re tired of what’s going on on your phone. You don’t want to disturb the people sitting directly in front of you by looking looking straight at them, so you glance above them, or you look down . . . at their shoes. Old ones, new ones, vellies, loafers, work shoes, high heels, trainers, trainers trainers. So many trainers. But also, so many questions. Often I look at some shoes and wonder How the fuck do you walk more than 500 metres in those without ruining your feet? I never thought I’d look at shoes this way before.

For the first time in my adult life I’m not driving. And it’s ok. Actually, at times it’s great. No car repayments, no car insurance, no despondent Fuck! under your breath as you read about a petrol price increase next week of R1,73. No road rage. In Johannesburg driving was a bit of a schlep, often leaving me with serious doubts about my fellow human beings and their intelligence. Now a leisurely walk to the train in the morning allows some sort of reflection and peace. Similarly, the walk from the train in the evenings in the all too fresh air is often pleasant, and much needed after a day cooped up in an office.  Unless it’s windy and raining. Then give me the damn car.

This reliable public transport reminds me again of another thing South Africa has failed at. Comparing the busses that are always on time and the reliable trains to a dilapidated taxi veering around Johannesburg breaking traffic laws that haven’t even been invented yet brings me quite a bit of sadness. Also, in a tube carriage it’s quite strange to see people who could very well be some sort of high level director alongside, for example, a construction worker. Social classes mashed up together like woolly sardines. As if that would happen in SA.

So much to observe. Even on the trains. Especially on the trains. Often I observe the non-observance of others. I’ve noticed people who never looked up from their phone at all in a 30 minute train ride, their expression remaining completely unchanged. In the evenings I look at one or two faces and wonder what types of lives they’re going back to. What types of homes wait for them? Is he going back to a loving family for a wholesome meal, or is he going back to sit on his own in a dirty apartment, doing a little cocaine while death metal plays in the background?

Ordinary lives. And I’m one of them.

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