I had my first experience of the legendary city of ****o yesterday. And at the end of 24 hours, these were my impressions:
- Advice is great. And is wonderful to fall back on if you have jumped into a new city and then realize that you can’t actually swim.
But if you are anything like me and you like to get your hands dirty, sometimes it is best to learn about a new city yourself. Making mistakes as you do. So take the wrong bus from the airport to your hotel. Because it will mean you’ll end up having a good conversation with the stranger sitting next to you. Because the wide eyed wonder of what comes next is the best way to experience life.
- Two countries in the world are renowned for keeping time. This was one of them. And so when the bus was 5 minutes late, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal in any other country, but in this one, it was almost disappointing …
So take every stereotype for what it is: an attempt to break a foreign culture into bite-sized morsels that are easier to make sense of and therefore less strange and less disorienting. Stereotypes are never 100% accurate.
- A metro system – any metro system in the world – is intensely overwhelming. Something to do with the speed of the trains and the winding tunnels. It is a feeling similar to Alice disappearing down the rabbit hole.
And most big cities rarely have a single transit system. More often than not, there is the city lattice and it crisscrosses another transit system that serves the suburbs. Throw into the mix that English is not the primary language in this country and you have – what can only be described – as a living jigsaw experience!
I was bewildered for the first 15 minutes. Commuters walking determinedly. Winding tunnels with omnipresent detours and scaffolding pointing to continual improvement. (How very Kaizen!)
I stood at a ticket terminal, staring at its screen, trying to figure out which route I needed and how much I needed to pay. More than once, I became aware of the polite queue behind me waiting for me to finish so they could buy their ticket. And so I cancelled my transaction and stepped aside. As soon as the queue watered down, I lined up again ready to give it another try.
Once I had that first ticket to a more central destination, everything fell into place. The border to my jigsaw was complete.
And this was where advice from a colleague – and Google Maps – helped enormously! Never underestimate the great gift of technology when you are negotiating a public transit system in a new country.
(I had a moment where I felt incredible empathy for any traveller hoping to use public transport in Kenya where matatu routes are not on Google Maps, let alone fares being structured enough to give a new traveller an indication of what a trip will cost. Hats off to the multitude of European backpackers who arrive in Kenya and hopscotch their way across the country.)
So with a S**** card, a pre paid card that can be used across transit systems, I successfully navigated my way to a meeting, changing three trains along the way.
- First impressions:
– Safety first. Wonderful metal gates on most train platforms keeping passengers off the tracks. And with station names in two languages – *******e and English- Narrow seats. So there is a thin passage of space between the en of your shoulders and the start of your neighbour’s. And yet personal space is not encroached. Possibly partly to do with their narrow build (yes a generalization), or because of their quiet and non-intrusive presence.
And everyone’s hands are visible. No concerns about strange fingers rifling through jacket pockets.
– Whizzing past cities and neighbourhoods, I noticed the small sizes of the homes. Two storey structures. Squarish. Casting barely a shadow. With small cars tucked into their elbows. Many had a garden patch outside – not with large flowering trees but rows of leafy greens with the odd citrus tree – plump with oranges and lemons even at the start of Spring – and the omnipresent cherry blossoms. shyly displaying a blush of pink.
Every capital in the world has a healthy sprinkling of blacks and greys in their outfits. But in ****o, there was an even healthier respect for beige as the go to colour. But better than the easy on the eye beige, was the lace on the collar and the embroidery on the skirt of these heavy woollen jackets. A lovely feminine and frilly touch to attire that is usually sombre and sober. Non binary. Agender.
– Respect for culture. Clouds of beige jackets and then a colourful burst of k***** in fuchsia pink and bottle green. Paired with the standard white socks in platform slippers (which by the way is a footwear choice that I could definitely get behind considering I spent most of my childhood wearing socks in Bata slippers).
Some locals see the throwback to culture as a indication of how their country has not globalized, is still too rooted in tradition. I saw it as a healthy recognition of history and heritage. A respect for where they have come from; guiding the path of where they will go.
– Futuristic infrastructure in the cities. Sculptured architecture and plastic pedestrian tunnels that hover above motorways, connecting skyscrapers. Paired with office blocks that could have been designed on a factory line with their square windows, yellow lights, box frames. No surprise that this country – with its dedication and penchant for principles is the first to have robots replacing humans.
Day 1, with its rich collection of first impressions, was done. My body clock is still not allowing me much sleep but my pace of walking in the subway today will be a little faster, a little more self-assured.
And where fuzzy memories of V****** will be outlined by my Uber experience, ****o will be defined by moments in its subway.