It happened again this week. I was walking along the Main Road when a couple wearing safari vests and brand-new khaki trousers stopped me and asked me in a foreign accent, “Do you know where Marco’s Restaurant is?”
This has happened to me a number of times, and each time it causes me great anxiety. It’s not always Marco’s Restaurant, of course – sometimes it’s a hotel I’ve never heard of, or the Butterfly Park, which I’m pretty sure is nowhere around here, if it even exists. I should just say, “Oh, I’m not sure, sorry,” but I never manage to do that because I’m so determined to be helpful.
We all like to see ourselves in certain ways, and one of my ways is as a guy who is friendly to visitors. I think of myself as the sort of chap who greets travellers with a smile, who goes out of their way to be hospitable and to help. With locals and with my friends I am surly, uncharitable and evasive, but I like to imagine tourists from Japan and Canada and Zambia going home after their holiday and thinking, “Wow, South Africa is such a great place, and the people are so friendly,” and all because they’d happened to run into me.
I’ve always been very lucky with strangers when I travel. Once in Dublin I went out to do some sightseeing. It was a sunny day so I didn’t take an umbrella, and I hadn’t been in Ireland long enough to know that a sunny day as what the locals call “God’s practical joke”.
An hour later I was standing lost on a sidewalk in a downpour, trying to make sense of a map so un-water-resistant it might as well have been printed on candyfloss. A little old gentleman in a flat cap and mackintosh and holding an umbrella stopped and said, “Are you an eejit, standing out here in the rain? And no brolly, you must be soft in the head. Where’s it you’re looking to go then?”
I told him, and he gave me detailed directions and then he growled something gruff and gave me his umbrella and walked away. I tried to chase after him to give it back, but he just waved me away and carried on walking, shaking his head and muttering about numties without even the sense to take proper precautions against the weather.
Once in Istanbul I became lost in the back alleys beside the Golden Horn and a man who didn’t speak English left his wife sitting on a park bench while he walked me 25 minutes back to a main thoroughfare, smiling and nodding at every attempt I made to thank him, then gave me a paper packer of chestnuts and disappeared back into the crowd.
Kindness makes a difference. Unkindness sits in the memory. It doesn’t matter for the rest of my life how many friendly strangers I meet in London (not that I can think of any right now) – to me London will always be a cold, miserable hellscape populated by loathsome toads and soul-eaters because of the first time I caught the Tube, when I tried to ask some bloke with a briefcase how to buy a ticket and he kept on walking without replying, and then the next bloke swore at me. Those two creeps have poisoned my attitude toward the place. Even though I have friends that I dearly love who live there, if an asteroid were to crash into London tomorrow I would smile out of sheer reflex.
I want people to think of South Africa the way I think of Ireland or Turkey, so I’m forever wandering over to lost-looking strangers and asking if I can help, or leaning over to the next table in a restaurant and offering unsolicited advice about where to go and what to see. But sudden unexpected questions about directions are my kryptonite.
I have no internal map, and I always panic. Marco’s Restaurant? That sounds familiar. Have I heard of Marco’s Restaurant? Have I been there? Where is it? Is it that way? Is it the other way? But wait, I’m taking too long. Does my hesitation look like reluctance? Is he formulating a bad opinion of me and therefore of all my compatriots?
And so I find myself confidently guessing and pointing and saying, “It’s not too far.” And then I walk away furiously hoping I had it right. Sometimes I’ll walk fifty metres and then be confident I sent them the right way, and feelings wash over me in warm relief.
Other times I’ll suddenly realise I had it terribly wrong, and then I’ll chase after them like a crazed mugger.
This week I realised only once I’d reached home that instead of Marco’s I sent that nice elderly couple to Mario’s. Maybe they liked Mario’s, or maybe right now they’re telling their friends and family about the jerk who made them miss their lunch meeting with old friends by sending them walking thirty minutes in the wrong direction as some kind of sick practical joke. If they happen to be reading this: I’m sorry, guys. There are some pretty good South Africans out here: don’t judge them all by me.
Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer, author - follow him on Twitter