When I was around thirteen or fourteen my father asked me, if he were to dump me in downtown Ottawa would I be able to find my way home. The answer was a decided no. Then again, to be fair to my younger self, my parents did and still do live in an area more copiously populated by cows than humans, at least a twenty-minute drive from the nearest public bus stop. The only way I could’ve gotten home was either by hitchhiking or a $200 cab ride.
Still, his point had been made: when it came to navigating my own city streets, I was hopelessly, almost hilariously ill-equipped. I knew nothing of Ottawa’s public bus routes, how much a bus ride cost (the answer—then and still—is too much), or where to get on or off. I didn’t know the difference between The Market or The Glebe, nor did I know how Orleans fit in with Nepean.
Ironically, my father never asked me what I would do if he were to abandon me in a nearby woods. Years of camping every summer had made me inordinately comfortable among towering trees and scampering woodland creatures. I hadn’t been scared by The Blair Witch Project, rather I’d been infuriated by it, shouting insults and instructions at the hapless characters, rooting for the witch to kill these doorknobs already! You’re blubbering and wetting yourself because you lost the map? Who the hell maps a forest? I mean, for shits sake, there’s a river right there, just follow it and it’ll eventually take you to civilization, guaran-damn-teed!
I hated that movie.
But the fact remained that, though I could easily find my way out of a northern forest, if dropped in the middle of downtown Ottawa, say somewhere near the Rideau Center or at the base of the Peace Tower, fourteen-year-old Andre would have been forced to join a roaming troupe of squeegee kids in the simple hopes of surviving.
Fast forward about twenty-five years and I am sitting on a bus taking me from the Kuala Lumpur International Airport to, I think, my hotel in the Malaysian capital. I inserted that qualifying “I think” in there because, honestly, I’m not entirely sure where this bus will drop me. Upon purchasing my ticket, I was told that it would take me directly to my hotel, but this is one of those tour-sized aircon buses and there’re about ten of us so I kinda sorta doubt this thing’ll be cruising through a city that covers 240 square kilometers depositing visitors all over town.
It’s well past nine at night and this is my first time to KL. The city is just a dark smudge against a darker sky. The bus has been rolling for nearly forty minutes, which seems long. Still, I’m not worried.
Then I see them, like a pair of glowing rockets aimed at the moon: the Petronas Towers. Ah, okay, yeah, I’m fine.
It comes to me just like that: I realize that, knowing where the Towers are, I can find my way to my hotel. No problem. Though I’ve never been here, I know there’s a metro stop near the Towers and another near my hotel, right next to Masjid Jamek. Worst case, obviously, I’d just take a cab but, really, now that I can situate myself in relation to the Petronas Towers, a cab won’t be necessary. Hell, I could likely even walk to my hotel from here. It’s night and it would take me an hour, maybe more, but, yeah, no problem.
To many of you, this wouldn’t seem like much but, in that instance, I was reminded of my father’s challenge and realized just how far I’d come. For me, that I’d gone from a boy stymied by the streets and intersections of Ottawa—more a large town than a proper city—to a man capable of navigating a metropolis like Kuala Lumpur, sight unseen and after nightfall, well, it felt pretty damn good.
Sure, adulthood should and does account for a lot, but I know plenty of grown people who, if dumped in the middle of a strange city in a strange land, would promptly succumb to panic-induced diarrhea, shitting themselves copiously and extravagantly among the street vendors and beggars. And, yeah, by this time I’d traveled a fair amount, but most of my serious travels had been accomplished in the last two or three years, so I was still comparatively new at this. But, even in such a relatively short period of time, traveling—and particularly traveling solo—had taught me that, y’know what, I’ll figure it out. Solo travel had given me the confidence and self-sufficiency to know that, in most cases, with just a bit of research, I’ll acclimate myself to nearly any city and non-violent situation.
Like I said, to a guy who once got lost at a four-way intersection outside the fly-speck village of Vars, knowing this feels pretty damn good.
Eventually, the bus pulls into a parking lot, stops, and the driver indicates that I should get off. This was definitely not my hotel but, once off the bus, a man waiting there points at a minivan. I climb in, he joins traffic and, within minutes, we pull up to my hotel. No need to figure the city out just yet, but I sleep soundly knowing that, if and when I have to, I could.
And if my father dumped me in downtown Ottawa? Well, I’d take a $200 cab ride to my parents’ home and insist that he pay for it ’cause there’re still no public buses that go that far out and who in the hell lives out here, anyway?
Interestingly, my parents will soon be visiting me out here in Thailand. I wonder how my father would react if I dropped him in the middle of Bangkok and told him to make his way back to my place . . .