#34 - People Asking Me for Directions

There is some contention in this household about the fact that no matter where I am--whether I'm standing in my own neighborhood, or in a foreign land--someone will always come up and ask me for directions. My wife thinks it's because I look non-threatening and people feel safe approaching me. I think it's because I'm a man who looks like he knows what's up. Either way, the fact remains, I could be standing on the street in Nigeria and someone would ask me for directions. (Little would he know I was just waiting to help a member of the Nigerian royal family secretly transport a fortune in contraband currency to the US--an effort for which I would be handsomely rewarded.)

The truly odd, and somewhat annoying, thing about being a guy who always gets asked for directions is that I also happen to be a guy who never knows where anything is. This, I admit, is my own fault, and happens because I never pay attention to where I am or how I got there. I am aware of this as a deficit in my personality, and when I get lost I'm endlessly frustrated because, once again, I'd promised myself that this time I'd really concentrate.

Picture this perfect storm of annoyance: I'm lost. I'm standing on the street recriminating myself for not paying attention to the directions (again!) when someone comes up and asks me where the art museum is in a city I've never been to before. Yeah. F that.

A lot of the time I get asked for directions, it's in a big city like New York. Now this, it seems to me, makes sense. I would think in a place with a large population there are a large number of directions being asked for, and therefore, whether I'm being perceived as non-threatening, or as a Man Who Looks Like He Knows What's Up, I should logically receive a heftier slice of that traffic. I'm also unsurprised when I get asked for directions in places where I look like the average largeish, white native: Germany, Sweden, Austria, all of your 'lands (Eng, Scott, Ire.) But the most remarkable and, in a sense, "collectible," instances of People Asking Chris for Directions are those that occur in a place where I'm clearly foreign.

My Top Two Instances of Being Asked for Directions in Places Where I'm Clearly Foreign

1. I was in a fish market in Saigon, Vietnam and I had just finished shooting Bag-of-Frogs-Bag-of-Eels-Lady (who, by the way, killed the frogs people bought by grabbing their legs and smacking their heads on the ground.) I was standing on a street corner engaged in an odd interaction with the older gentleman pictured below. He looked very friendly and was sitting on a strange, hand-cranked tricycle contraption that someone had clearly Frankensteined for him out of a wheelchair and some discarded bike parts. I was staring at him, and he was staring at and me, when he slowly raised his hand and held up four fingers for a long time and with great significance. I was trying to figure out what "four" might mean in our relationship, when a woman started tapping my elbow. I looked down and she said something in Vietnamese which, obviously, I didn't understand. I gazed at her shaking my head for a few seconds until a young hustler type screeched up and chased her away with a furious display of pointing. It wasn't until she nodded her thanks and headed off in the direction he'd indicted that I realized of all the people in the market that day, she'd decided the six-foot-two, two hundred forty pound white man was the one who knew the way to the manta ray stall. (Or someplace like it.) Once I'd fully registered my amazement, I checked back in with ol' four fingers, but he was already cranking off down the street.

2. Once again, this occurred in a market. This time in South Africa. I was part of a small group and we'd been shopping for crafts and things in Cape Town. I had finished my shopping early and was standing next to our wise and wonderful driver, Abdul. Abdul and I were cloistered under a grove of trees with about eight other cab drivers enjoying the shade and talking. Other than Abdul, who was a caramel-complected Egyptian, and me, all the other drivers were black South Africans. In spite of this, a young guy seeking a certain cafe decided I was the one to ask. I merely raised my shoulders and deferred to my companions and then we all laughed once he'd headed off.

Now that I think about it, that small stand of trees saw a lot of action that day. Not only did it bear witness to my second favorite instance of being asked for directions, it was also the site of the single greatest one-liner I've ever been a part of.

The Single Greatest One-Liner I've Ever Been a Part of
1. As I mentioned, Abdul and I were standing under some trees. While these trees were the perfect height for Abdul, they were a little too short for me and the lowest leaves brushed my forehead.

"Abdul," I said, "I think I need a taller tree."

"Stay there," Abdul replied. "It will be taller."