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18 October 2013

The kindness of strangers

In my teens, I spent a fair amount of time hiking a sparsely populated semi-arid island landscape. Agriculture, here, was a peasant economy marginally above subsistence, herds of sheep and goats scattered across sparse hillsides around tiny, isolated villages.
We would pass through these villages, stopping in their cafés for coffee or cola. Sometimes we were welcomed, surrounded by curious villagers eager for news of the outside world beyond the immediate horizon. In those, the distinctions between us (British, French, German, USAmerican) were incomprehensible; we were all, collectively and simply, “English”. In other villages we saw nobody but the café proprietor; young people in dusty khaki walking clothes and boots, carrying rucsacs, bore too much resemblance to soldiers and were best avoided on a general precautionary principle.
In the empty, rocky, soaring spaces between villages, we gradually learned never to ask directions from a local inhabitant.
When, at a fork in the unmapped and barely visible path, we asked a wandering goatherd something like “Which is the way to Melou?”, we always got a long and detailed set of directions richly supplemented by story and gesture. Alas, our genially helpful informant had (as we eventually realised) never heard of Melou, still less did he know how to get there, but didn't like to say so. This was not dishonesty; it was, on the contrary, a cultural reluctance to disappoint, a refusal to deny travellers what they requested. We would, in the early days before we understood this, often follow the instructions we were given. Trekking many kilometres of hard country in the wrong direction, before map and compass eventually convinced us of our error, we would eventually arrive in Melou tired and several hours late.
Curiously, I've now discovered a similar phenomenon in the urban landscape of England's home counties.
Coming out of a Hilton hotel at nine in the morning, I stopped at reception to ask where I could catch a bus into town. (At this point I can hear Julie Heyward, with her low opinion of buses, chortling already.) The reception manager didn't hesitate: he pointed confidently out of the door and said “go out of the hotel gate, sir, and turn left. At the junction turn left again and you'll see the bus stop”.
Outside the hotel gates I turned left; and left again at the junction. I was on a busy six lane dual carriageway, with no sign of a bus stop as far as the eye could see. Undeterred, I started walking.
As I walked, a woman emerged from an underpass, talking on her cellphone. I asked about bus stops. She paused, muttered “Hang on, Mum” into the phone, pointed back into the underpass, and said “Through there and follow the path, it's by the garage”.
On the other side of the underpass the promised path headed in the direction of town, which was encouraging. I walked for about a quarter of an hour, without seeing either a bus stop or a garage, until I met a dog walker coming the other way. To my question he replied, pointing on down the slope in the direction I was walking, “Turn left at the bottom, and just follow the path”.
At the bottom of the slope was a fork in the path. I turned left. Ten minutes walking brought me to a garage, which rekindled hope, but there was no bus stop near by. I went into the garage, where the assistant greeted my enquiry with a blank expression and the puzzled words “Bus stop?” Fair enough; she didn't know, and didn't pretend to. She disappeared briefly and returned with her manager who pointed out of the door and instructed me that I should “cross the road, turn right, keep going, you can't miss it”.
Across the road, having turned right and kept going for some time, I could no longer see the garage behind me and still hadn't found a bus stop ahead. Nor, it occurred to me, had any buses passed me.
Open clearway gradually gave way to houses, goods yards, small industrial premises. About an hour after leaving the hotel, I finally found a bus stop; the timetables inside suggested that every bus which stopped here would take me into town, so I stood and waited. Less than five minutes later, a bus arrived.
The driver gave me a very strange look, when I asked for the town centre, but took my money and issued me with a ticket. The reason for his reaction became clear when, before I'd even had time to sit down, we turned a corner and pulled into a bus station. I had arrived, having walked the whole way and then bought a ticket for the last fifty metres or so.
At the end of the day, I made my way back to the bus station. I discovered the right bus service, boarded it, purchased a ticket as far as the Hilton. Starting Google Maps on my phone, I carefully watched both the landscape outside the bus window and the little dot which showed my position as it crept between town centre and hotel. The route never touched the dual carriageway along which I had been directed by the reception manager; it followed smaller roads through residential estates. It never came within five hundred metres of the garage, nor of the underpass and the path beyond.
When I got off, I discovered that the bus stop was behind the hotel, not out of the gates at all ... starting from the gates, I would have had to turn right, right, and right again (not left and left), away from the junction (not towards and through it).
I stopped at reception and explained all of this to the reception manager. He smiled, spread his hands, shrugged expressively, and said “I don't know, sir; I never catch the bus”

1 comment:

Geoff said...

In a different time, sat on a wall with friends in a small welsh village/town, waiting for the pub to open. Occasionally a car would stop and the driver ask for directions. We would with the gift of fake honesty send the driver on a marvellous journey.
When I lived in Somerset, taking "Uncle Geoff's" kids for a ride I would, much to the amusement of my passengers ask the way to Merthyr Tydfil.
Nowadays if I ask someone for directions they tend to give them in much detail, hard to remember; might have got it and then they repeat the instructions which muddle with the earlier ones and I get lost.