Thursday, June 16, 2011

Underground Activity

So here I am in London in summer. Which means it’s awful.

It always amuses me that the English have the nerve to call this kind of weather summer. Outside, the sky is grey and dank, and it’s raining cats and dogs. I have to head out to lunch in a bit and all I can think about is which raincoat and rubber boots I should wear. Meanwhile, inside, I’m wearing a fleece jumper and trying to decide if I should turn on the heater.

Last year, when I was here for summer, we had a few days when the temperature reached 25 degrees Celsius and the English all insisted on calling it a heat-wave. And as if to prove their point, a few little old ladies dropped dead from heat stroke. As Saffy pointed out on Skype at the time, it’s a miracle the British ever stayed in Singapore long enough to claim the place as a colony.

But what fills me with greater dread is the thought of having to take the Underground Tube to lunch. I’m always surprised the Koreans and Japanese don’t set more of their horror movies down in those musty, icky, drab, filthy rabbit-warren tunnels.

Amanda once made the mistake of venturing down there to take a train to Knightsbridge to shop. When she emerged, she rushed straight to Harrods, bought a completely new outfit and gave the sales assistant firm instructions to either burn her old Pradas or donate them to charity.

“Oh my God, it was so incredibly revolting!” she later reported once she was safely back in Singapore. “The air was putrid. You can literally see a grey pall of…of…crap floating in the air! Oh God, I hope I don’t get a respiratory disease!”

The other thing about the Tube is that you always need to be prepared to just sit there for ages, stuck in some dark tunnel in a stationary train. Invariably, there’s a signal failure somewhere ahead of you, or there’ll be severe delays (they actually say ‘severe delays’ on the PA) caused by someone falling onto the tracks. “That’s just bloody rude!” Saffy fumed when she was an hour late for ‘Lion King’. “Couldn’t they have just fallen off a bridge or something?”

That’s all assuming the train drivers don’t go on strike, in which case you might as well cancel all your appointments for the day as it’s almost impossible to leave the house because (a) it’ll take hours to get to where you need to go by bus; and (b) you can’t afford to take a taxi since it’ll cost you £5 just go down to the street corner. Meanwhile, on weekends, three quarters of the train lines are shut down for maintenance work.

And don’t get me started on how uncomfortable the actual trip is when the trains are actually running. The stations and trains aren’t climate controlled, which means it’s hot, claustrophobic and stuffy in summer, and freezing, claustrophobic and stuffy in winter. And during peak hours, you’re jammed in tighter than a Sammi Cheng concert.

“How is this a First World country?” I remember Saffy complaining on the trip back to our hotel after ‘Lion King’.

All of which makes me think with amusement about the hullaballoo during the General Elections when all anyone could talk about was how awful the MRT is. My Facebook friends spent days complaining about the pitiful state of the trains. Another moaned that she could never get a seat while her friend replied on his Blackberry that he’d been standing for the past ten minutes in the southbound train to Raffles Place.

To which Amanda posted a reply saying that at least you had network coverage in the MRT. “There’s no signal in the Tube!” she wrote.

Paul replied, “What Tube? Where r u?”

My point is that sometimes, you just don’t know how good you have it till you go somewhere else and see how other people live. Sure, the MRT trains are crowded. But at least they’re clean, modern and efficient, and, more importantly, they work. Imagine if the entire MRT network was shut down every weekend for maintenance and repair work. Or if there was no air-con on any of the trains. Or phone coverage. Or the air quality in the trains and stations is so bad that when you wipe your face, the tissue actually comes away a murky grey.

So, here I am, staring out the window at the dreary rain and wondering if I should just cancel lunch and make a phone call to my travel agent to catch an earlier plane home to Singapore. And can we also talk about Heathrow?

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