Can you uber-navigate your way home in a foreign country?
A couple of years ago, Uber was a word that few people really understood although, as in expressions like uber-smart and uber-stylish, it was sometimes used as a sort of superlative that at least showed some relationship with its usage in mainstream German.
Today, Uber has become a verb in mainstream English as in, “I’ll uber when I clear customs at the airport” meaning that I’ll click on an app on my smartphone to request a car to meet me at a convenient point to take me to my first meeting of the day.
Around the world, Uber is fast impacting the traditional taxi services which, in many places, have long offered a somewhat indifferent service to customers. Uber offers different levels of service from the simple to the sophisticated and, in some parts, even motorcycle transportation.
As always, the benefits to the customer largely radiate from the individual service provider and, in the case of Uber, this means the driver. Generally my own experience has been good although once in Australia I had a driver that could not tell left from right and therefore found it hard to follow the instructions of the Uber GPS system that had already specified which route he should follow when taking me to my destination.
Yesterday, however, proved to be different.
I clicked on the Uber app and arranged to be picked-up from the Bangkok hotel where I had been in an evening meeting. As Bangkok traffic is notoriously unpredictable, I took the precaution of waiting at the porte-cochère of the hotel and eventually noticed a car hesitantly hovering around the entrance from the street. “That must be my car”, I thought and waved frantically to attract the attention of the driver since if he were to drive around the block it might be an hour or so later before I would see him again.
I was lucky, the driver spotted my frantic arm waving and picked me up but it was then that my difficulties really began. The driver could not understand what the GPS was telling him. In the language of perhaps ten years ago, he could not read a map even when the GPS presented that map to him in a very sophisticated but straightforward manner.
It was late and I was tired. Once I had recovered from the initial exasperation, I thought I should work to solve the driver’s problems and my own: I would navigate and he would drive but we had very little language in common.
But hang on! the only words I needed in Thai were those for ‘left’ and ‘right’ and, having established those words, we set out on our journey through what must be one of the busiest and most confusing road networks anywhere. How do you say, “Change lane to the right” in Thai?
The driver seemed a little bemused by what was happening and persisted in making utterances that, from their tone, seemed to imply thinly veiled panic on his part. However, we reached my destination and, as I got out of the car I glanced back over my shoulder to see him staring at his GPS with a deep frown across his forehead. He drove off. Would he get home, I wondered? I hope he got home easily; he was a nice man whose only failing was that no-one had ever taught him to read a map.