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For The Directionally Challenged

For The Directionally Challenged

Here's Google Maps to the rescue if you are feeling lost. And we mean directionally

Srinath Perur
July 12 , 2016
08 Min Read

In 2008, I got it into my head that I wanted to go to the geo­graphical centre of India—the point at which the cardboard cutout of a map would bal­ance on a pin. Having figured out the coordinates, I needed a way of knowing when I actually got there. So I made my pockets considerably lighter and bought a GPS receiver, a serious piece of equipment that would not have looked out of place in a lab. I justified the expense by telling myself it was a purchase that would serve me through a lifetime of exploration and adventure. I used it exactly once. Soon, we had smart­phones with built-in GPS receivers, and then we had mapping apps.

Lewis Carroll and Borges have both made reference in fiction to maps that are “mile to the mile”. That is, maps so detailed that they are exactly as large as the territory they represent. In both stories the maps end up not being used—the point being that a map that approaches the scale of the world is of no use. We need maps precisely so that we have a compressed representation of reality. (Carroll’s story has farmers pro­testing that spreading the map would block sunlight to the whole country.)

But both Carroll and Borges were thinking of maps made of something like paper or parchment. Today, it’s possible to think of something ap­proaching those maps on a screen. Just pinch and zoom until you have a map of the area corresponding to the screen of your phone. With satellite imagery complemented by high-resolution photographs from cameras on the ground (though Google’s Street View is not yet available in India), we’re not too far away from an actual-size repre­sentation of the world.

Zooming out, what a marvel it is to look at oneself from above, traversing the earth. This powerful combination of mapping and positioning means that we can now send people texts letting them know exactly how late we will be to meetings. Where I previously sent optimistic “Sorry, running 5 mins late!” messages, I now look at Google Maps, my blue dot motionless in a deep crimson segment of Bengaluru traffic, see its ETA diagnosis, and say: “There in 23.” I’m always surprised by how accurate it is.

In the last year or so, Google Maps has made efforts to be more useful and more widely used in India. And to show and tell about this, they recently took a bunch of journalists and blog­gers on a road-trip from Chandigarh to Kasauli. The idea was to use Maps to get from Chandigarh airport to the hotel, and then onward to Kasauli.

It turned out there were a number of things I had no idea Google Maps could do. For one, when the phone’s language is set to ‘English (Indian)’, it can give turn-by-turn directions in Indian-accented English, which is less disorienting than being guided in India by that nice American lady with the metallic voice. Then, there’s navigation available in (somewhat stiff) Hindi, and soon presumably in other Indian languages, which might get a lot more people comfortable using Maps.

Perhaps the single feature that will have more Indians using Maps is the ability to use it offline. Internet ac­cess outside cities can be unreliable, precisely where one most needs a map. And, in any case, no one likes to be saddled with data charges. Now, sec­tions of the map can be stored on the phone after a chunky download and used without an Internet connection. (It was the absence of this feature in Google Maps that forced me a couple of years ago to download another maps ap­plication that worked offline. I’d often find myself waking up signal-less in a train in the middle of the night, needing to know between which stations I was. I estimate I get a dozen more hours of sleep a year by not having to keep jump­ing off berths to ask someone.)

Right after I arrived in Chandigarh, there was a moment of benign conflict between technology and human. As we left the airport, Maps’ navigation sug­gested a turn off the wide airport road and I conveyed this to the taxi’s driver. He had been asked to let me direct him, but he still felt the need to turn around and tell me politely that I was being an idiot. The road I was asking him to take was a small one and would delay us. He was right. It was a severely potholed road, passing beside fields. It was also narrow, meaning we were often stuck behind puttering tractors. It was shorter than the other route, but Maps did not know about the condition of the road. In Bengaluru, where every other person on the road is using Maps, I trust it with ridiculous-seeming detours to avoid traffic. On this route in Chandi­garh, there were clearly not enough tractor drivers using Maps, and it kept revising its estimated time of arrival. At least in the absence of data, local experi­ence seemed to work pretty well.

That seemed like it broached a larger issue I’d been thinking of: how does easy access to maps and information change the way we travel? Part of the charm of travel is the uncertainty of it. If I never had to ask directions to any place, if I could always pull up the closest petrol pump or restaurant or ATM along with user reviews (as you can on Maps), what possible reason could I have to talk to someone, to have a human moment? Was all travel to attain the numbness of a commute? My experience with the taxi driver suggest­ed that even in well-mapped out cities, there was enough reason to believe that my phone didn’t hold all the answers.

This would get more evident after the roadtrip, when I took off on my own in Himachal Pradesh. From Kasauli I first wanted to go to Mandi. Maps showed it to be not very far away—150 kilometres, more-or-less straight north, around 5 hours. This was by car, and there was no information about how to get there by ‘transit’, which in this case was my mode of travel—bus. The closest bus stand to the resort we were staying at was Garkhal, and I got there in the morning with my luggage. I ducked into a tea shop and asked what time the next bus to Mandi was. There wasn’t one. The tea-shop owner turned to a bus conductor sipping tea. He said it’s probably faster and easier for me to go to Chandigarh and take a direct bus from there. But I felt that would be roundabout for what is after all a simple journey north. There must be a way of getting there using the smaller roads? Of course. He outlined my strategy in authoritative tones: I was to head to Dharampur and then make my way towards Arki, close to which was a high­way with frequent buses to Mandi.

The villages and towns on the way were connected by bus based on how frequently people travelled between them, and this was presumably de­termined by the pattern of life that revolved around what those settle­ments had—markets, cantonments, temples, proximity to a highway. The most frequent buses tended to have short routes—20 or 30 kilometres along a hilly road. So, my journey proceeded in stages. I took a mini-bus to Dharam­pur. A packed one to Subathu. Then I rode on the roof of a bus to Kunihar. A mini-bus to Arki. One more to the nearby highway junction of Shalaghat. From there, a shared taxi that took me to Ghagas. A bus to Surendranagar, and yet another to reach Mandi. It took 10 hours, and only because a third of the distance was covered quickly in the taxi. The whole journey was done asking-asking, as we say. There was no other way.

Later still in that trip, I did a few short hikes. Maps could tell me which paths were shorter, but it takes a per­son to say that it looks likely to rain and a particular path gets more slippery when it’s wet, or to say that a track is shorter than another but much steeper. (Maps does seem to consider the steep­ness of a path, but not too effectively. And certainly, it won’t factor in how tired you are, or how much your left knee hurts. Not yet, at least.) This is how mapping apps get used in prac­tice—in combination with people. Like the man in Bangkok who once directed me to a railway station by pulling up Google Maps on his phone, giving me a sense of where I was, and then orient­ing me correctly.

The taxi driver who dropped me at Ghagas was a kindly man who knew I was exhausted from a hot day and too many buses. And I still had some way to go. “Log achche hain, guide karenge,” he said, as he dropped me off. He said I didn’t have much longer to go from there, only about half an hour. In my palm, the combined might of cartogra­phy and satellites and algorithms told me otherwise. Maps was right this time about how long it would take, but I swear it felt shorter for that sweet lie.


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