Tuesday, January 16, 2007

As Promised...Trouble on London Transport

As promised in an earlier post, I'm going to share with you the harrowing tale of getting lost on public transport in London. As I mentioned earlier, this happened on our second day here, as we were trying to find our way around.

Let me just begin by saying that the transportation system in London is amazing and complex. Because of major congestion in the central part of the city, public transportation and walking are the best ways to get around. Also, we have no car right now! So, we're pretty much limited to public transportation. Not that we're itching to get out and drive in the opposite side of the car on the opposite of the road with signs we don't understand, mind you! That all being said, public transportation is our main mode of getting around this week (and honestly, probably for the next 9 months), so we needed to venture out and try it.

We went to Picadilly Circus for our transportation questions as they have a London Transportation Information Centre. We got our travel cards for the time period that we're here and were sent off with some good advice and information about tubes, trains, and buses. We caught our first bus and got down to the Kensington area south of Hyde Park. We spent the day looking around Hyde Park and the area where we'll probably be living. There are some challenges to getting around in London by foot, but we're armed with the wonderful little resource called London A-Z, which has been literally invaluable on this trip. In fact, if you're planning a trip to London, you shouldn't come without this little gem. Two of the challenges seem to be the street signs, which I mentioned earlier aren't on posts, but are on the sides of the buildings, making them more difficult to see. Second challenge? The streets tend to end abruptly and then continue on as another street, going on the diagonal at times plus there are many little "squares", like Leicester Square for example (more like circles) making the whole layout more complicated than the strict vertical and horizontal streets that we're used to.

Tired, and needing a place to look at our map without looking vulnerable, we ducked into the Hilton Paddington Hotel. While there, we decided to have afternoon tea. We spent an hour or two there and then headed out, armed (we thought) with the proper information to catch the bus back to our hotel area in Covent Garden. When we got outside, although it was only around 4:30 or 5 pm, it was dark. That alone was making me feel more vulnerable. We got to the crowded bus stop. A man, seeing our confusion, tried to help us, but I brushed him off, thinking he wanted some spare change or something. (I know, that makes me look really ugly and suspicious, but it's the truth.) As soon as he got ready to get on his bus, he asked once more with force, could he please help us. He saw that we were confused. He asked us where we were trying to go. After hearing about where we were wanting to go, he said, "That's what I thought! You need to be on the other side of the street. You need to catch the x bus." We humbly thanked him. I could tell he was irritated that we wouldn't take his help at first.

We crossed the street and waited for a few minutes for the next bus we'd need. It came fairly quickly. It was a double decker, so we went upstairs and got a front seat window for the view of the city. I wanted to go back to the hotel, but hubby kept remembering a particular route that the lady at the information centre had told us earlier where we'd see all the sights of the city. He was certain this was the bus and the route. Since it was night, the sights would be all lit up and beautiful. Why not just stay on the bus as far as it goes and then come back, he wondered? I wasn't convinced, but seeing as how my overly vilgilant personality can grate on his nerves after a while, I decided to support his sponteneity. So, we kept going. All the way down Regent Street, past Picadilly Circus, past Trafalgar Square, past the West End Theatre district, past the London Tower and Bridge. All throughout this time, I kept gently (?) reminding hubby that we didn't know exactly where we were going, and shouldn't we just get off, or shouldn't we ask someone or SOMETHING?!? He was confident that this bus was going to get to the end of it's route, turn right around, and come back the way it came. So we kept riding.

We got to see parts of London that I'm sure most tourists don't get to see. We got to parts of town I was certain I didn't want to be stranded in. Finally, we got the end of the route. And the bus lights went off. "SHOULDN'T WE GO TELL HIM WE'RE ON THE BUS?!?" I begged my husband. But there was another gentleman on the bus too. Surely he knew what he was doing. Things would be fine, he assured me. A few minutes later, the other gentleman on the bus, the man that hubby was certain knew what was going on, looked AT US and asked us a question about where the bus was going!! Bad idea to do what the other guy is doing when he doesn't seem to know where he's going either! That man went downstairs and inquired of the driver and apparently got off of the bus.

Finally, hubby conceded to asking the bus driver where we were going. When he went to ask the driver his question, he was yelled at by the bus driver. "Don't you know what it means when the lights go off?!" he screamed. Uh...no! We don't! Or we wouldn't still be on the bus! Apparently when the lights go off, the route's over. Now, if we were seasoned patrons of public transport, maybe we would know this, but we didn't. So the bus driver made us get off the bus. Right there! In the middle of the place we didn't want to be stranded. We were stranded. Oh, the horror! The only comfort I had at that moment was that the bus that we need to take back into central London was right in front of the "bad" bus. So, we ran up and began knocking wildly on the doors. Hubby motioned that we needed to get on. But that bus wouldn't let us on, because we weren't at an official stop! We were indeed stranded. Desperate by this time, because I was really ready to cry, hubby asked a kind couple who were getting ready to cross the street what we should do. They kindly told us to take the train back into town, then to take 2 tubes to get back to our hotel area. We had never taken the tube. Or the train. But we did as she said and after a few confusing things with the tube stops and exchanges, we were back in our hotel area, which at that moment, although thousands of miles from home, felt like home. Because at least it looked familiar. And clean. And tourist-y!

So, that is the story of getting lost on public transport in London. I must say that we're getting around a bit easier now. We did take a wrong exchange yesterday, but we were able to figure it out by ourselves. I was so proud of us!

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