Wednesday, 17 October 2012

First steps in the London area

I've finally moved from Birmingham to the London borough of Merton, specifically Wimbledon. I really love it so far. It has not been anything like I imagined. I was dreading the move just a little because everyone knows I'm scared of big cities. I was going to write about something totally different today but it appears I should get this out of the way. I get disoriented by the hustle and bustle and intimidated by all the confidently striding people in big cities. Even more significantly, I realise now that I have never gotten over my fear of crossing busy streets. There is a reason why I have this mild phobia. I think it's mild because it doesn't actually stop me from going about my business. It just means I get a little tense and act jerky... like running across the road at exactly the wrong moment!

I grew up in a small village with one main road running through it. It was a somewhat busy road because back then in the 80s, it was the only way to get from the main town of Kumba, to the General Hospital and the government offices. Like most Cameroonian semi-urban settlements, most villages kind of spring up along busy main roads which act as the lifeline of the settlement. Formally, most rural settlements sprang up along rivers, streams, lakes, coastlines and, usually navigable bodies of water. Today thanks to busy roads, villages look nothing like the typical hurdle of huts in a forest clearing or on the plains. Villages are now the beginnings of urban towns and cities with rows of houses spring up along busy roads.

When I was little in Kumba Town, drivers acted like they owned the road, and were entitled to drive fast, running everything and everyone over! The usual victims were dogs, goats, and chickens, but occasionally,  a child or an adult would get run over by a speeding yellow taxi-cab, a "clando" (unmarked clandestine taxi-cab) or a private vehicle. When this happened, the driver would almost always immediately go on the defensive, and act like the pedestrian had just jumped into the road from nowhere. If it was a child, they always tried to insinuation that the child had been playing in the road. If the child was not badly hurt, he/she would probably get the beating of their life for trying to mess up everyone's day! If the child was badly hurt, then who was right depended on how forceful the child's family was about the matter. The driver was usually required to transport the child to the hospital (this is the General Hospital Road we're on at the moment), and pay the hospital bill. Apart from this, I don't think people usually got the police involved in these sorts of matters. I think it became more complicated if someone died, and even then, most often, there would usually be an out-of-court settlement, probably in a customary court (local traditional court). In my head, the road belongs to drivers who are often reckless, and I have to watch my back as a pedestrian!

I completely forgot about this fear until a few years ago when I moved to the UK and couldn't afford a car. Suddenly, I became a pedestrian in a city. Despite my fear, Birmingham was manageable. In fact, now that I think of it, apart from the six months when I lived in Edgbaston and had to cross the road at a roundabout, navigate an underpass and then cross two busy double lane streets to catch the bus to work, my stay in Birmingham was almost stress free, owing to where I lived for the most part.

My second challenge in a big city, is public transportation. I only learned how to catch the bus about two years ago. Before I did that, I thoroughly learned most of the streets on foot within the city centre. I remember taking the bus for the very first time in Washington DC and getting lost. The thing about taking the bus is you have to at least have an idea of where you are going so you can ask the driver to let you off at the right stop. You also have to catch a bus that is going in the direction you want to go. On this very first time of taking the bus, I was on my way to a shopping mall with a family acquaintance and we both got lost because we didn't have a clue where this mall was located. I can't remember how we got home. That was a long time ago, but I'm none the wiser about this big city routine... catching the bus.
My first trip to the library was to print out my CV. 
The local mall.

Wimbledon station from across the street
Wimbledon station at around 10am on Monday morning. 

Being able to cross busy streets safely is an integral part of living in a big city.
These help if one pays attention

Having a bit of control in the matter.

So far, I've taken the bus once from Wimbledon Broadway, to Colliers Wood tube station. I can do this easily now because I have already walked thirty minutes towards different directions in and around the area. Taking the tube, the train or the tram is quite easy because there are line maps to plan the trip. To me, taking the bus is like a journey into the unknown! I'm not afraid of speaking to strangers or asking for directions. That is not the real reason why I'm afraid of getting lost. It is the reliability of the directions given that I am wary of! I have found myself walking around Birmingham for two whole hours asking for directions despite the fact that some of the directions were given by a policeman! It is just frustrating. I have also been lost for more than twelve hours in Yaounde at night, and had to rely on the benevolence of complete strangers who provided me a safe place to rest my head until they could get me to a police station in the morning. I was a teenager then and when word about it got back to my cousins and uncles, they dismissed it and instead made up stories about my going missing deliberately... out having fun. The things people think I get up to sometimes. Hopefully, that misconception has been clarified today. I got lost in a big city.

Wimbledon Theatre at the bottom of Broadway

I guess my main problems boil down to simply being afraid of being run over and dying... or just being really embarrassed if I don't die right away! The fear of finding myself in the frustrated situation of being lost in a place where the majority of people are clueless. Wimbledon turns out to be quite laid back. Not many people seem to be hurrying anywhere and there are many mothers with strollers. The shops are predominantly Argos, Mothercare, Gap Kids, H&M Childrens, Next and Debenhams. The Library is filled with mother/toddler groups. Broadway is a somewhat busy street with double lanes and I have to remind myself that I don't have to run across when the walking man turns green. The green walking man is my friend!

I will have to get a new phone on which I can access some sort of trip planner. But first things first. I need to get a job and re-establish the security and flexibility that comes from having a steady income. Once that happens, I'm getting all the gadgets I need to conquer other areas of London and overcome my fears/insecurities about big cities once and for all. For now, I've got my Oyster Card and I know how to use it.

Oyster card and travel map.


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