Sunday, April 25, 2010

Google Maps and Irrational Exuberance

Sometimes knowledge is power, and sometimes knowledge makes you do stupid things.

Over the last few years, Google maps have improved their coverage of Malawi. Internet service has also improved, so looking at the maps is possible when the connection is good. A few weeks ago, Liz, who runs with me a few time a week, and I ran around one of the mountains in Blantyre called Soche. We got most of the way around before we were slightly lost and had to have someone put us back on the right path. In the end, we managed to get around it comfortably in just under three hours.

I liked the experience so much that I did some research on Google to see if it was possible to run around the mountain near our house called Michiru. Low and behold I found a road that went neatly around the mountain. I printed out the map; taping together the multiple pieces of paper required to print it and highlighted the road. It was obvious that it was longer than the way around the last mountain, but it didn’t look too much longer. I put it with some other maps waiting the opportune time to try out the route.

I was suppose to run this morning with a couple of people, but it was raining hard, so we did not end up getting out. After church, the rain had ceased and it was cloud covered and cool, and I had a couple of hours; a perfect opportunity to pull out the map. I got home, changed straight away, put on a small backpack with a liter of water, a phone, some money and a couple of packets of Gu energy gel.

I was off and running. I ran out a road that I knew headed to the airport. At about mile five I was joined by two young men in flip flops who thought it would be fun to run with me. After about a mile and a good chat, Jim and Wyson turned off to their village. I passed the airport at mile eight after about an hour and ten minutes. I was content as I figured it was about the half way point.

About a mile past the airport I asked for directions to confirm what the map was showing. I was told that I should proceed on the road, turn left, go up a steep hill and then down into Chilomoni (near where I live). The man thought it would be about eight kilometers (5 miles). I knew he was not right, but was encouraged that it sounded close. I followed the road, which quickly narrowed and deteriorated to mud and streams in some places. I began passing through many villages, surprising the inhabitants who began to ask where I was going and where I was coming from. It was easier to just explain that I was coming from the airport than to try and explain that I had started at the same place that I was now heading. The children I passed gave mixed responses of “Azungu! Azungu!”(white person) or the smaller children ran away when they saw me coming.

As I passed the half-marathon point (13.1 miles) I gave myself a ten minute walk break and filled up my backpack water supply from a local clean well pump. At about mile fifteen, things began to fall apart. My calves began to cramp from the hills and I had to walk some. As I passed a local school I asked one of the men how far it was to Chilomoni he said it was only one kilometer. I was encouraged. As I came to the top of the next hill, I recognized none of the hills near my house. My calves were really hurting and I began to wonder if I should have skipped lunch. I met some men who looked like they were coming from church. They said it would be eight kilometers (5 miles) to Chilomoni and that I could find some food at a small shop just up the next hill. I was happy they had told me, because the small store was just a house that I would have passed. There was not a whole lot available, but I did find three Cokes and two pieces of bread. Five minutes later I felt like a new man as I headed up the road. My phone rang, the first in a series of calls from Heidi, who was beginning to wonder what was taking me so long and if I needed to be picked up. I could not honestly tell her how to find me without having her follow the same road that I had taken. I was sure I would not be much longer, Chilomoni had to be over the next hill. … It wasn’t.

It was beginning to get dark. At each school I asked its name for a landmark in case Heidi did need to come pick me up. Just for fun I also asked how far it was to Chilomoni, one kilometer was the standard answer. I began to feel more confident when I entered one village that had electricity, I was coming closer to the city. I inquired about the school, the distance to Chilomoni and if there was a shop where I could find a Coke. They had a nicer shop with a few more things. I drank two Cokes and had a short chat with the owner and another man in the shop. As I left, the second man followed me out and informed me that the shop owner was the village Chief and that he wanted his assistant, the man following me, to escort me to Chilomoni, as it was completely dark now. I appreciated the gesture and quickly accepted, Malawi is known as the “Warm Heart of Africa” for a reason.

After walking for 30 minutes Byson reflected on the fact that we had probably walked for more than a kilometer. We could hear the music from some local bars and I began to see the outlines of familiar topography. We walked the route that Byson considered the safest for traveling in the dark. When we hit the tarred road that I knew, we parted ways as he had something he wanted to do in town. I ran the rest of the way home thinking that I should have put my headlamp in the backpack, but was glad of the reflectors on my shoes. I arrived home having covered just over 25 miles. Not sure how soon my curiosity will find its way to Google maps again.