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Confessions of a GPS addict

Navigating in Cross-River State

Off the beaten path in Cross-River State

I once left my office more than an hour early for a meeting that was technically a 15-minute drive away. I was in a new city; map on the dashboard and nerves carefully strapped under the seatbelt. Exactly one hour later I spotted my office to the left – like a lost dog I’d managed to sniff my way home. Through tear-blurred vision, I stubbornly tried again and found the building, just in time to watch my colleagues head for their cars.

That was before the GPS. Now, no matter where or why I travel, I stash a GPS in my suitcase. There is no doubt about it; the stress of getting around in my mobile life has decreased by 90%. The remaining anxiety is due to a lingering unease: once I was repeatedly led straight into a construction site, and another time the entire city of Quebec vanished from the map – in both cases I was using a no-name GPS in a rental car.

OK, so you can’t trust it entirely. But when you first move to a new place the GPS is that friend you don’t yet have who shows you around the neighbourhood. It tells you how long it will take to get there (traffic and construction remaining equal) and what the shortest or quickest route is. If you know how to ask, it will tell you where to park and where the nearest restaurant is.

My husband and I argue about the voice to use: he can’t take orders from another man, but my little black box is tuned to the soothing male voice I have come to regard as an uncle. In the last car we rented while on holiday, the female voice (but not the male one) said please before every change in direction: “Please turn left now.” That made things much better – but we still used mine as a security backup – two GPSs are better than one.

In Lagos, navigation systems exist. But like most expats and well-to-do Nigerians, I have a chauffeur. This saves me the stress of having to drive in a country where significant numbers of motorists bought their license without taking a course of passing a test first. Finding addresses is complicated: street names and numbering systems change: #7 Kofi Abayomi road can be right next to Plot 3077 Chamberlain Street.

I have been very grateful to my reliable driver for the stress-free outings through Lagos. But I’ve noticed that being a passenger makes me an observer of the city rather than a participant. I people-watch in traffic jams, check how far they’ve gotten on the construction projects, read billboard signs and smile at the passengers crammed into the van next to me. But it’s more like watching a movie: I’m not in there, elbowing my way through the five rows of cars in a three-lane road. After five years, I miss the challenge of the journey and the connectedness with my fellow commuters.

My passivity in the car got me reflecting on my GPS-dependency. I admit that while the GPS is an important ally when first mapping a new city or getting unstuck in one that we are visiting for a short time, it can also limit one’s knowledge of it. In his TED talk, Happy Maps, Daniele Quercia says that human beings tend to focus on getting from point A to point B. This is efficient and practical. And once we’ve discovered that route, we are creatures of habit and will always take the same path. But while it may be the quickest or most efficient way of getting to B, it may not be the prettiest or calmest or most interesting.

To my great relief, Mr Quercia has designed a GPS system that gives you direct routes to where you need to go, and other routes that make your journey longer, but happier.

So I guess the lesson learned is that my GPS is my best friend when mapping out the bigger picture in my new neighbourhood, but I also need my hands on the wheel and my feet on the pavement to really become a part of it.

TED Talk:

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