The Thing about Directions

Dr. John Patrick Ojwando
Published: November 2013

Striving to find your path in a new land or trying to help others retrace their directions can be a daunting task because with such intriguing encounters, come moments when you flourish or fault on the script, shares Dr. John Patrick Ojwando.

Passing-Through1A thought struck me the other day when chancing upon a video clip that has been doing the rounds on the social media for some time now of a young girl giving directions to her house.

In the video clip, supposedly, taken in the West Indian Island of Jamaica, the girl offers a lengthy description accompanied with a series of gestures “of turns”, “trees” and “someone’s vineyard”and then concludes, “That is my house”.

Commenting on the video, Blogger Jolie says the thing about Jamaicans is that they do not know the names of streets. “We only know landmarks, nature and where stoplights are located”, she writes.

According to her, you will hear a lot of “go so…and then go so…’’while simultaneously they move the hands in different directions as the little girl to show what they mean. Aside, if you ask a Jamaican about how long it takes to get somewhere, the response will always be, “it don’t tek long, it’s just up di road.” On further reflection, I am reminded of my childhood days. Such an experience could have been the trigger for a travel advisory that I grew up saddled with as a child, the elder members of the family probably wary of such an eventuality. I guess it was borne out of the fear of giving wrong directions or by taking matters in our hands; we could be putting our lives at a risk.

The more I think about the video clip, the more I am convinced there are a lot of people out there, as experience shows, who will find themselves going the same route and offering conflicting signals confronted with direction seekers. To them, the distance is always “just up the road”, “down the road” or “at the bend down there” regardless of the locale.

To get around the challenge, a friend of mine insists she always asks two to three people before taking a final call. In this way, she is sure of making it to the right place or at least wander close by. But what if the points of reference transform into harbingers of wrong turns?

For a sizeable number, it is the elderly on the streets they are comfortable sharing their predicaments. Others take to auto rickshaw drivers or may be the traffic police to the rescue. I guess it is for these reasons that many are making a beeline at the mobile stores to take advantage of the numerous technological marvels and their astounding apps.

As a resident in the city, thanks to my insatiable appetite to foray far and wide, I have never missed a chance to build on my fledgling knowledge of the city’s streets and roads even with my smartphone for company. What I have gained from the exercise has been an engulfing fascination for the city, its respectable and wayward ways enough to build a survival kit that could well rival the famed Lonely Planet guide. Through the burgeoning encounters, there have been moments of joy as well as anguish when I find myself reaching out to people in distress –friends and strangers alike seeking directions to their various ports of call. While a sizeable number turn away from me cursing themselves for their error of judgment the moment they realise I am just another “outsider” in the city, there are those fascinated by the fact that someone from far lands can fit the role and enthusiastically give directions in a different setting far removed from his own. I have witnessed some linger on showing an uncharacteristic interest to strike a conversation. Yet others simply don’t care once their needs are met. The latter category will always walk away as if the help you have just accorded them is their divine right and that they have no obligations whatsoever to offer any word of gratitude.

It could be a five minute drive or two hour drive but always, “it’s just up di road.”
-Blogger Jolia

In this quest, I have also improved in no small measure my hold of the local lingua franca, Kannada. Things get better when you see the looks of utter surprise as you offer to provide a local with directions to a particular terminus.

In one shot, my ‘bits and pieces’ of the local language come in handy making me the darling of the direction seekers. “Nanage ee jaaga ke hooga bekku. Swalpa dhaari helithira” (I want to go to this place, could you please give me the directions). “Illihogi” (Go here), “right thakoli”(Take right),“left thakoli”(take left) “illanadre seedha hogi”(or keep going straight)“aa crossuge hogubittu allindha mathe left thakolli” (Go take that cross from there take left again) or “Mahatma Gandhi Road? Swalpa munde?” I can be overheard in conversations respondingto the calls of duty from desperate citizens with the airs of a seasoned tour guide.

Such experiences have become so ingrained in my everyday routine that it has become almost my second nature to butt in whenever discourse on the city’s routes ensues.

The locals, like any other community I have encountered, take pride in their cultural practices and show uncanny appreciation for the efforts made by ‘outsiders’ to integrate into their system no matter how miniscule the efforts may be. To them, it is an indication that someone indeed evinces great interest and has respect for their culture, language and people. Here, I am reminded of the Swahili, a Bantu ethnic group whose members reside in the area encompassing the Zanzibar archipelago, the Tanzania seaboard, northern Mozambique and coastal Kenya, my home country.
Often dressed in their brilliantly coloured local fabrics, the way the Swahili communities take to strangers is worth mentioning. They will accost you with a friendly smile or hug before getting into a conversation that can sometimes linger on for hours on end. Such is their respect for out of town people. But they also consider it downright rude to be approached or requested for favours (seeking directions included) without uttering a word of greeting, ‘jambo’ (hello) or asking about their well-being.

I will not be true to myself if I distance myself from the prevalent notion that finding your footing in a new land or helping others to do the same can be a daunting task. Because with such intriguing encounters come moments when you fault on the script as I found out recently.

Commuting on one of the busy thorough fares in the city, I was witness to the plight of a cab driver seeking directions to Whitefield. He was ferrying a family of six to what I figured out must have been a religious amber to the famed Sai Baba Spiritual Centre. Arriving at the passage signal not sure of which turn to take, the incessant honking from vehicles streaming from behind only added to his nervousness.

Keen to be of assistance, I decided to wade through the traffic just managing to draw his attention. “I guess you will have to take a turn to the right once the passage signal turns green.” Unknown to me, what had always been a non-existent passage signal on that stretch of the road had been given a new lease of life by the concerned authorities. As the driver took the penultimate right instead of driving ahead of the new signal to take the turn I had indicated, without any hope of reaching out to him again, I could only watch the tail lamps of the vehicle disappear in the distance heading to their scheduled Whitefield.

I wonder how many kilometres the driver might have traversed before a good Samaritan advised him to retrace his way back. Even then, it was not lost on me that I was the culprit in this script that went awry, notwithstanding time and wasted gasoline.

Shaken by the experience, I have become so careful these days that whenever I encounter a stranger seeking directions, I often find myself fumbling even for route maps to places I frequent on a daily basis. Could this be the reason many others of my ilk find it difficult to provide guidance whenever people come calling? Or is it that some of us find sadistic pleasure in seeing poor folks getting lost? I guess there can be no answers to such nagging questions though I have grown a tad wiser. When in doubt, the surefire way is to seek, seek and seek. It could prove to be the difference between an entire family going missing on transit or touching base at their preferred destination, just in time for a fulfilling ‘darshan’, in the not so distant Whitefield, one of the city’s spiritual abodes!