Thursday, April 23, 2009

My Ancient GPS

I've been to India as a tourist three times. The first time was in 1996 and I toured the southern part of the country, Kerela, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Before I left my then home in Wellington, New Zealand, I did my homework, got vaccinated, devoured guidebooks, checked the nascent web for travel warnings, redirected my email. I thought I was prepared, until I was in a smaller city and discovered that the street signs were only in Malayalam, a Dravidian language with its own script that is totally unreadable to someone who only knows the Roman script we use in English.

I was in trouble. I'd been covering a fair amount of ground that day, and was miles from my hotel. I wanted to get a bus back to the city I was staying in, and there were plenty of buses, but they were only marked in Malayalam and I couldn't read the destination signs. I got lucky, there was a family standing at the bus stop and the son spoke English; he was able to tell me which bus to catch and it only cost me a few minutes telling him about my country. I had a couple of other experiences like this and once hired a Taxi to go around the corner.

When I got home to Aotearoa I knew I would go back to see Mumbai in Maharashtra and continue up through Rajastan, Gujarat and the Punjab and I didn't want to get lost again. It took me 18 months to go again and in that time primitive hand held Global Positioning System (GPS) units became affordable and available. These early models didn't have maps or tell you to "Take the second exit at the roundabout", but I knew I could use it so I bought a Garmin one.

Once my destination was programmed in, it could point an arrow there, give me straight-line distance to it, and it could remember about 100 or so destinations. This was really all I needed, when I arrived at a town I recorded the location of the bus or train station and my hotel. If the tourist map told me a destination was close I'd program a guessed location for it and could follow the arrow. This method of navigation took me to some interesting places where tourists normally don't go: sedate farmers' vegetable markets, a street of jobbing arc welding businesses, busy chicken markets; real India and not just the tourist destinations.

I had to use my commonsense too. If the little arrow was telling me to walk through a brick wall it was obvious I needed to detour, but sometimes it wasn't quite so obvious. I ended up in a couple of "interesting" locations where I got cheerful hellos from the locals, but strongly felt it was safest to smile, wave, say hello back, but keep walking. I also once got steered straight through a squatter camp, I knew where I was going, but by the time I knew it I had a choice of walking through or detouring over a mile.

Thanks to my little Garmin GPS I never got lost again and enjoyed my second and third trips with far more confidence than my first. Twelve years later I still have it, and it still works. We now have one with a map and spoken instructions for the car, but the arrow and distance still serves me well for navigation on foot or for long distance cycling. When it does finally wear out I'll replace it and I'd never consider doing another overseas trip without a hand held GPS.

Originally published on Qondio