Happy New Year.
Congratulations for making it to the year Tweny Tweny (my little acquired British accent is now in place). Others would pronounce it Twendi Twendi and that is ok 😅😅. We know them, no tribes mentioned. If you read my last week’s blog post, you know that I went to London for my New Year’s celebrations. London’s New Year’s fireworks is an international event. I am currently in Cardiff. I had to come back. London chases you away in a way only Londoners can explain. I am broke. I know it’s only the 6th of January, so hear me out before you judge me 😰.
Is it me or does everybody else think that London is too expensive a city? Well, if you haven’t been to London, just read and nod with me. I am going to be brutally honest with you concerning my frustrations with London City. It’s my 5th time in London now. Twice for work and thrice on personal/ students’ errands.
Let’s tackle my perambulating efforts in a bid to understand London. Imagine after one year in the UK, there’s no way I will go back home and tell people I couldn’t get my way around in London. No way! Nitaambia watu nini 🤷🏾♀️🤷🏾♀️
I am trying. Trying really hard but … allow me to admit it’s no mean feat. London City is not your usual Nairobi City. I am a ninja in Nairobi. I drive and cut through Nairobi traffic with my 😎🕶 on, and matatu drivers respect me. I am used to getting my way from point A to B even if I don’t know the area very well. I use google maps a.k.a ‘Njeri’ and off I go. It’s taken me some time, but come on, for almost a decade now, I have horned my driving skills, and therefore, I am a qualified driver. For those who drive in Nairobi, I hear this axiom quite often, “If you drive in Nairobi, you can drive anywhere in the world,” well, let’s correct this to- if you can drive in Nairobi, then, you can drive anywhere in Kenya 🤪🤪
London, the City.
London is complicated, complex and confusing. Period! Please understand, I am a little-travelled. I tick over 20 countries that I have been to. But, it’s different from visiting a country when you have airport transfers and taxis waiting for you. It’s different when you are in a foreign country for work and you have transport allowance. It means you can go anywhere using taxi and attach receipts upon returning. It’s different when you are on holiday and you have an itinerary that includes taxi pick-ups. It’s different when you are going to a foreign country and your friends or family are waiting for you at the airport. That has been my life. But now, this is different. It’s a different ball game altogether.
I have friends in London. I would love to visit them as much as I can. I have pending invitations, but I am afraid, I might not visit everyone during my time as a student in the UK. I cannot afford it. The transport system in London is my biggest pain! Therefore, I can only visit one person at a time 🤣 😅
London exposes me. London makes me feel so helpless, vulnerable and blonde 🙁. My younger brother will be so glad to hear this confession. London makes me question my IQ! London leaves me broke. There’s something about London that doesn’t add up. At least for me. All the shops behave as if they know my name. The bold “SALES” markings invite me 500 meters away. The shoe shops, I kid you not, call me using my three names.
Central London is almost what you encounter when you are in Nairobi, somewhere in between River Road and Commercial. Cars hooting, people walking and running, left-right, centre. Pickpockets on a mission. Everyone is in a hurry, either real or imagined.
Confusion number 1
The transport system that is so dramatic, crowded, busy, fast and unapologetic about idlers. Imagine you have just landed in London, either at Heathrow, Victoria Coach Station or even at the London Central. You know your next point is in Canning Town. The question is, how do you get there?
You have various transport possibilities at your disposal in London. You can use the bus, train, tube, tram, underground train, DLR or taxi (for a taxi, you have many options including Bolt, Captain, Uber, Via Van, London Taxis, Black taxi’s). Uber has always been my to-go option.
It’s easier to use a bus from Cardiff to London, it takes roughly three to four hours. It’s also quite affordable. You can pay anything between 20-50 pounds (Ksh.2500-6500) for a round trip. I am told you can spend less if you book in advance. Well, I haven’t paid anything less than 20 pounds yet.
With a clear plan to spend my New Year hosted one of our family friend’s (Aunt Hanifa), I arrive excited to experience how Londoners celebrate New Year. I land at Victoria Coach Station (VCS) at 4.30pm on Thursday, 30th December. For the last 3 hours I have been going through the London map to figure out how to get to her home in East London.
Upon arrival, I realise, it’s already getting dark. I say to myself, if I use google maps to the Victoria Station (its different from VCS) to catch a train or bus, it will take me forever. I decide to use Uber. I feed in the postcode and make a request. It will arrive in 5 minutes and it will charge me between 18-24 pounds. To me, paying this amount, is worth all the pain as long as I don’t have to keep stopping to read the map or pay attention to the voice-overs at each destination.
Please note that I couldn’t wait to drop Geography classes during my high school days because I loathed maps. My mind is not wired to read maps. There’s a unique name for such people. We suffer from ingraphicacy, simply defined as the inability to understand maps. Whoever invented maps has a special place in hell 😡😡. He/she must have been a very selfish person to imagine that everyone understands maps. Well, it’s ok, I try to understand maps because I don’t have much of a choice. But what the heck? How on earth should I figure out where East, West, North, South, Central London is? Why should something so critical like transport be so hard to understand? In every bus or train stop, you can spot someone looking bored trying to figure out their next move. You can see it on their faces and just like me, I look at them and I go like; I feel you. You and I will make good company in the same WhatsApp group 🤩🤪
Let’s appreciate that we all have different abilities. There are people with great spatial understanding. One such person is my former boss Ms.Kagwiria Mbogori, the Chairperson at Kenya National Commission on Human Rights. She can write a book about my struggles. It could be a matter of attitude, but hey, the truth is, I struggle like any other person. I am willing to learn. I am tempted to create a self-help group dubbed “We struggle to understand London-be patient with us.” It is so important that I learn the transport system in London, I will save my money. In one trip to London, I realise I use up to 150 plus pounds (almost Ksh. 20,000) just for taxi, yet, I could use 20 pounds for my entire trip.
I have summarised transport survival tips for you while in London, just in case no one tells you about these;
- Remember your address/destination. Have it on your phone, memorise it or have it written down somewhere else. Phones go off, pray that yours doesn’t go off when you are in London.
- Get yourself a journey planner/ map and download an app called- City Mapper. Use it as your guide in deciding on the kind of transport to use. It will give you a rough estimate on time, price range and the easiest route to use.
- Have money with you, in cash and on your card. Buy an Oyster card. You can use it for bus and trains alike. Alternatively, buy a transport day pass, it will save you some money.
- Do not be shy to ask for help. The ticketing officers are quite helpful. Sometimes, they might struggle with understanding your accent, but they are very helpful. No one will get a Nobel Peace Prize for mastering the transport system in London. It’s ok to feel as blonde as I do.
- Finally, be encouraged. Even Londoners, still find the transport system a hustle especially when there is a change of route or even the slightest disruptions with the schedule, which happens quite often. “Patience, never mind, most of us, even after many years in London, still struggle to understand the system,” remarked my friend Aisha as if to console me.
Oh, this is important. Ignore the love birds. Stay glued on your map. Everyone seems to be in love. How could that be possible? I guess, I know the secret. It looks like the majority of the people in London are tourists and many tourists are either lovers on vacation or even young people on a mission to explore the world. Imagine how painful it is to nurse a break-up in London. It can be traumatic.
While navigating through London may sound like a pain in the neck, I must acknowledge people who make my stay in London worthwhile. 🥰🥰. One such person is Aunt Hanifa Said. She’s an aunt for hire to many of us. A woman in her own league. We eat Kenyan food every time we visit her. Pilau, Biriani, Samaki wa kupaka, Maharagwe ya nazi, name it. A woman who is genuinely interested in our well-being as students. I wake up to a ready breakfast, not the fake English one. One that she takes her time to prepare. The only time I woke up to a ready breakfast in Cardiff was during my birthday. Thank you, Dr. Pamela 🙏🏾🙏🏾
As I prepare to leave, Aunt Hanifa is in the kitchen making some chapatis and pilau for me to carry back to Cardiff. Enough for my three housemates and I. On the mention that I have chapatis from London, Sidney who loves chapati gets a reason to call me after every hour, to make sure I don’t head anywhere else upon landing at the Cardiff bus terminus. He even offers to come and wait for me at the bus stop despite the drizzles. On getting home, I find them ready with the stew, waiting for the chapatis — feasting we did. God bless you Aunt Hanifa 🙏🏾🙏🏾.
Aunt Hanifa, in you I have found a temporary replacement for my mother and I love you for everything. Your hospitality is unmatched. I don’t mind dealing with my transport issues in London as long as I get a chance to visit you again and again 😅😅.
To my friend Aisha, through you, I have toured the famous London’s Eye, Millenium Bridge, Backingham Palace, St. James Park, City of WestMinister, Oxford Street, Pickadilly Circus, Harold Avenue, Trafalgar Square and 10 Downing Street; the official residence and the office of the British Prime Minister. Chevening Scholars Sabeehah and Krishna, your patience in helping me get to understand London, is truly appreciated. Esther Kahumbi and Dickens of BBC, I promised to visit. I will.
I am not giving up on you London. I will return!.