Map-reading and the direction of modern manhood

Maps by Thomas Abbs via Flickr
Maps by Thomas Abbs via Flickr

I’m a cocky little sod. I ride around London on my bike and I think I’ve got a good handle on the city’s geography. Zone 1 at least. If I had one of those rickshaw bikes or a cab I reckon I wouldn’t embarrass myself.

But of course I would. I don’t have the Knowledge. That’s the skill only the cab drivers have isn’t it? Don’t you have to pass a test or something? Isn’t there a thing called the Blue Book that is packed with routes and maps that only cabbies know

I don’t have a Blue Book. I’ve got a good idea of how to get from one place to another but when I stop to think about it a cabbie’s knowledge is far more detailed.

There’s that saying that men don’t like to ask for directions and women don’t like to read maps. There’s some truth in it. The truth may or may not have a biological basis but in any case it’s certainly influenced by culture and society. As men we’re expected to be competent at things like this. Map reading was a prescribed activity for cub scouts when I was young, but I reckon the girl guides were let off. (I might be wrong: the guides wouldn’t be much use without knowing how to guide.)

I’ve been in the position a million times where I could have asked directions but I wanted to figure it out myself. To be honest, I find it fun to figure it out. If I have a map and a compass or a street sign then I enjoy the job. Do I enjoy it because if I get it right I’ll have achieved something? What is it exactly that I’ll have achieved? How much of my success will I feel in my cock? Seriously, how much feeds into my being a man?

auto rickshaw by Matt J Kelley via Flickr
auto rickshaw by Matt J Kelley via Flickr

In India, they must have a different vision of manhood and maps. I recently spent three weeks in India taking auto-rickshaws around towns and cities, and rarely did the driver know where he was going. I would state my destination and he’d either agree or ask for more info. Even when I gave him more info he might not know for sure but we’d shoot off anyway. Even if he’d agreed first off he still might not know. Just one Indian head wobble – to say yes – was enough to set us up for an adventure.

I found it funny that a driver didn’t need to know where he was going before he set off. It also frustrated me because it sometimes took us ages to find whatever we were looking for: a hotel, a university I was visiting, or whatever. But mostly I guess I was bemused. Even when we’d made it close to where we both thought we needed to be, and even if he started to get a bit tetchy, scrunching up his face as he searched around for a sign of the destination, he would just accept the situation. This is how they do things on the roads. There are few street signs so if you know a street name it’s no use to you. Many streets don’t even have names. I honestly don’t know how they do things in India.

But anyway, an auto-rickshaw driver without hesitation will ask for directions. He’ll pull up next to an old man in a dhoti and they’ll start talking or arguing – it’s never clear. And at the end of it the driver will have at least 10 per cent of the final leg of the journey sorted. When that’s over, we’d ask somebody else. I remember once going back and forth along the same road several times due to poor directions or the driver’s poor adherence to them.

The drivers were almost always men, and they almost always only asked men for directions.

India auto-rickshaw by McKay Savage via Flickr
India auto-rickshaw by McKay Savage via Flickr

There is no way a London cabbie could live with himself if he had to ask for as many directions as an Indian driver. But it’s just a different system. In London our knowledge is supposed to be individual. The driver is supposed to have the Knowledge in his head. That’s why he takes the test. The idea is to transfer the Blue Book into his memory. In India, the Blue Book is crowdsourced. Every person, or at least every man it seems, has a single page or a chapter in their memory. So if you’re a driver you just tap into this when you need to.

The split between the individual and collective society is also seen when you’re on the bus. In Britain you’re not supposed to touch the person next to you. In India, your fellow passenger may well place her baby on your lap for safe keeping.

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