One of the many scary things about the new city is how I'd lose my way every now and then. When I arrived here, I was given a set of maps of all dimensions and sizes from the department. There were a couple of campus maps, departmental maps, and city maps as well. Yet I hardly realized their utility till I started to venture out on my own. The first day I was to make it to the orientation, I had taken directions to the department by someone. Yet the moment I stepped out of home, I was lost. I have a strange liaison with ill fate. If there is one right answer among a couple of wrong ones, I usually pick up all the wrong options first. It was a wintry morning and the moment I stepped out of home, I was supposed to decide whether to take a right, or a left, or to walk straight. I had confidently taken the left. When I realized after some futile minutes of walking that this was perhaps not the way, I had come back to where I had started, and then taken the straight road. Well, I had finally made it to the orientation a couple of minutes late, having finally taken the right one.
What's the big deal? You can always ask people.
That's what I thought initially. But this doesn't work in the US. There are no pan shops where you can ask for directions. There are no roadside shops or tea stalls where you can ask for help. There are no rickshaw pullers who will take you to the correct address. And people do not ask others for directions. They carry their own maps. Needless to say, they know how to read maps as well. That was not the case with me. Not initially at least. I had no idea how to read maps. Here, people drive from one corner of the country to another taking directions on the internet. And usually there are maps at all the major bus stops so that you can figure out where you are.
Yet I needn't even have ventured out to the city to have been lost. My campus was good enough. So huge is the campus that for weeks, I used to get lost on my way to the department. It was embarrassing asking people, since no one asks for help. They read maps and find their own way. Even when I finally started to read maps, one would see me all disoriented, a map in my left hand, me scratching my chin with my right hand, looking this way and that way. If I had to go to the right, chances were high that I would take the left. That is how I survived the first few weeks.
Then, I started to get to know the campus better. I made a note of all the bus routes that would run from my home to the department. It was embarrassing asking the bus driver every time if that particular bus would cross my department. On umpteenth occasions have I got late for class, having taken the wrong bus and realizing only a little too late. On umpteen occasions have I been lost in the maze that my department is, unable to figure out the alleys, the wings, and the corridors. Honestly, I felt so lost here. I know Calcutta so well that I would give others directions. And here early in the mornings, I would freeze in the cold, huffing and puffing, trying to figure out my way.
Eventually I managed to do fine. Eventually I managed to read maps and get on the correct bus routes. So here I was waiting for the bus one fine morning, exhaling hard intentionally to see the whiffs of water vapor go up when I saw a lady looking a little lost. She looked to the right, and then to the left, and then got pensive. She seemed a little lost, as if she was trying to figure her way out. She looked at me. I smiled. My eyebrows arched.
You need some help ma'am?, I blurted in my recently acquired American accent, only to realize a little late that I myself was unfamiliar with the city and could do with some help myself.
Well, I am trying to figure out my way to the Downtown, she said.
Oh well, there is no direct bus for Downtown here. However, you can go straight, turn left, and keep walking till you reach the next bus stop, which is the "Khampus Porkway" (as they say "Campus Parkway" here). You can take 70, 71, 72, or 74 from there. They are quite frequent. Don't take 43, it'll take a long time before you reach there.
It seemed I said everything in a single breath, without realizing. The lady's face lit up, she smiled, thanked me, and went away. It is only then, standing alone in the bus stop, that I realized what I had just done.
I had just directed someone someplace.
I had just directed someone someplace in an unknown city.
And I had given the correct directions and the bus routes. The shortest one too.
Wow, having lost my way all this while, I had actually helped someone locate someplace in the city.
It was from that day that I developed a more intimate connection with the city. I started to notice the buildings and the roads a little better whenever I ventured out. And perhaps from that day, I subconsciously let go off my inhibitions and let the city welcome me.
I was no more a stranger here. I was now a part of it. I let a little bit of the city's soul reside in me. I felt a certain sense of belonging now.
It was not long before I figured out not just the correct roads to my campus, but the shortcuts, the trails, and the connectors that took me to my destination in a shorter time.