Saturday, October 13, 2007

Traveling About Town and the Matter of Perspective

Growing up as I did in midwest suburbia -- and full as I was of American teenage fluff-for-brains -- I was positively mortified (my exact words at the time) whenever staying after school for a meeting of one kind or another meant that I had to ride the city bus home. In high school, driving your own car was cool. Taking the bus? Not cool. As in, so low on the “cool” scale that it didn’t even register. All I could think about on those rides home was, What if someone I know sees me? It's embarrassing to admit now, but back then practicality meant nothing; image was everything.

When I lived in Nairobi, in the IMI guesthouse on the corner of Ole Shapara Road in South C, there was a matatu stop just outside the front gate. I was single, so while there were times I reserved our team vehicle in advance, there were plenty of times I didn’t plan that far ahead. A visiting friend from another TMO team helped me take the adventurous step of actually getting on one of the matatus and riding it into town to see where it went. After that, there was no looking back. Any time I wanted to meet a friend, shop or just get out among people, I hopped onto one of the matatus and was downtown within a matter of minutes. Ahhh, freedom!

The thing about matatus back then was that they were nearly always crammed with as many passengers as could physically (contort their bodies so as to) fit into the mini-bus, regardless of designated seating. I became so used to being squashed up next to people I’d never met that one time, as the matatu waited for passengers, I found myself in the middle of the bench seat just behind the driver with a woman sitting right up next to me. I’m telling you, our bodies were touching from our shoulders all the way down to our ankles, and it was at least 20 minutes before I realized we were the only two passengers on the matatu. I went right home and wrote my mother that I had officially lost all sense of personal space! Not that that was a bad thing. I took it as a happy sign that I was feeling at home in Nairobi, adjusting to my new surroundings and letting go of cultural assumptions that were of no benefit there. But I digress.

Here in England we are blessed to have a car. When Matt isn’t away on assignment, he walks to the office -- so if I need to go somewhere beyond our little village I can drive if I want to. Of course, there is the Tube. (Which the kids love and which I find to be infinitely more relaxing than getting them in and out of car seats, fighting traffic, finding and paying for parking, getting the stroller in and out of the boot, etc.) And, of course, there is also the bus.

Red double-decker buses pass us all the time as we’re out and about, but until today I hadn’t taken the time to figure out any of the local bus routes. With the train, you can pick up a free copy of a Tube map at any station, take it home and study it to make sure you know where you’re going. Once you get on the train, there’s another, enlarged map to remind you of each stop along that line. With the car, road maps are for sale at most newsagents, and if you’re not from here, you can always invest in a SatNav to help you get where you need to go. (Which we did, as no English road follows a straight line, nor does it retain the same name from one end of it to the other. Sad to say, my normally keen sense of direction is rendered nearly useless in this country.)

Since I’m usually accompanied by either one or both of the children, in the 15 months that we’ve lived here I’ve settled for the comfort of the two Known options (driving or taking the Tube) as opposed to the Unknown realm of taking the bus. But lately Jack has been asking to ride the bus... And today we finally did! I had a destination in mind, I asked some mums about it during a play date yesterday and this morning during Matt’s men’s Bible study, the kiddos and I set off for one of my favorite shopping areas a few towns away. It has always been a bit of a pain to get there by car, find parking, etc. but now I can’t believe how easily (and cheaply) we got there on the bus! And, guess what? At the main station where we ended up, I even found a bus guide for this entire area of London. I’ve been poring over it all evening and am so excited to have demystified the enigma of public transportation. (Which, by definition, is how the vast majority of people go about their lives every single day. How hard can it be?)

Allllllllll that is to say that, as time goes by, I’m getting more and more adjusted to living here. But isn’t it funny that I could feel so liberated (and most definitely cool) just by riding the bus?

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