By Isaac Imaka
I will not call it culture shock. No!
The Alfred Friendly Press Partners orientation lecture on understanding the American culture and character was designed to prepare us for shocks, but not for this.
But what, then, will I call what I went through on the night of Saturday, April 4, my introduction to Miami?
Time check: 8:20 p.m. I’ve landed at Miami International Airport. The pilot earlier announced that we were landing 40 minutes ahead of schedule.
Finding my way around the busy airport, even for a first-timer, was easy. Just read the screen instructions and follow the arrow. In no time I harpooned luggage off the baggage carousel, put my driving permit in my breast pocket and headed to the Budget car rental office.
No one was at the arrival area waiting for me with the usual sheepish smiles and “‘How was the flight”’ inquiries. I was to drive myself to the hotel and a car was rented for me in advance.
“Sir, here is a copy of your contract, and the map of Miami, “ the man at the counter said, after I ticked off all the rental boxes. “Take the elevator to the basement, the car is parked in slot D-35 and the keys are inside.”
“What, won’t you give me a GPS?,” I asked him in an almost begging tone. “I have never driven here and its nighttime.”
“You have a map son; GPS will be at an extra cost,” he said, this time giving me a straight look.
Refusing to listen to any extra money talk, I, in a manner depicting a regular renter, I took the stairs straight to my car.
“I will download GPS onto my phone,” I told myself as I whistled away.
That was the beginning of what I now call an involuntary slump into a navigation abyss.
I sat in the car in silence for 30 minutes coming to terms with the fact that I was about to drive in an alien area, akin to walking into darkness in an alien village—you never see the thorn lying in wait ahead that will pierce your toe. Armed with a freshly downloaded GPS, I punched in 8720 NW 33rd Street Miami Florida 33172, clicked to show directions and bingo — I was eight miles away from my hotel and it would take me 13 minutes without traffic.
Emerging from the underground parking lot, I found myself on a highway, too busy and fast. I braked for a second and immediately came back to what I was supposed to do for at least 13 minutes.
Keep an eye on the GPS, read and internalize the direction. Keep an eye on the speedometer to stay above 60 to avoid being a drag on other road users. Keep an eye on the road signs. Keep an eye on the lanes and arrows. Keep calm.
I did well for the first 10 minutes. Then a speeding heavy truck whizzed past my light Ford Focus and almost threw me off the road — so I felt.
In a split second, I missed the exit ramp and the GPS failed to calibrate. Then the phone power died. Panic set in and like a house of cards my driving world came crashing down.
Thirteen minutes became four hours and 33rd street became an undiscoverable cheese as I turned and turned in a widening gyre in the Miami road maze.
At midnight, nearly four hours after touching down in the Sun City, I gave up. I randomly parked in what looked like a residential area. I was determined to lock up my car, recline the driver’s seat, sleep and wait for daylight.
That’s what would have happened had it not been for one courageous man.
Courageous because of the more than 10 people I tried to ask for directions, he was the only one who stopped and gave me his attention. We both laughed because, as it turned out, I was just one street behind the hotel. So at close to 1 a.m., I entered my hotel room, exhausted and hungry.
What distinguishes Miami from other big U.S. cities is its location right next to the beach. It’s flat, and you can discern human heads from treetops while still up in the sky. The closer the plane gets to the ground, the clearer you see palm trees standing at attention and in unending lines on both sides of the roads.
No, you will not see revelers crisscrossing in shorts and beach shirts. Miami is a city like any other with hustlers and a corporate working class. It just happens to have good beaches. You will see cars, many, many cars, whizzing in a web of roads; and before you land, if you are lucky, you will have a glimpse of the traffic gridlock, one thing, apart from beaches, that perfectly defines Miami.
Lucky, because if you see it before you land, you will have a full version of what awaits you on the Miami roads. I wish I had looked closer and prepared myself.
It was not cultural shock. I choose to call it an involuntary slump into the navigation abyss.
Driving in Miami? No thank you, I will get my way around on metros and on foot, at least for now!