He spoke with a mild African accent, if you know what I mean. Not the sort of accent you’d call soft; rather, mild. But it wasn’t his accent that first caught my attention. It was his linen robe made out of several stripes of different colors, carefully sewn together, as if to last an entire lifetime. He was just about to pass me when, after a moment’s hesitation, he stopped right in front my face.
He asked about a place in my town, and could I take him there. I slightly raised my eyebrows in an expression of surprise, but immediately checked myself and said I wouldn’t mind.
There was a dull silence before either of us said another word. I can still hear the streetcars screeching over the bends and the pep talk of the early-morning engines, encouraging the two of us to start a conversation. But none of us really felt like it.
It wasn’t that we found each other uninteresting. There were tons of questions I could have thought of, in fact. Still, maybe we just didn’t know what to start with. And maybe we suspected that the answers would anything but quench our curiosity.
“Watch out!” I said, noticing that my companion had stepped onto the road after he’d looked the wrong way.
“Oh,” said he, “thank you.” Another pause followed.
“You know,” he suddenly turned to me, some 10 meters past the road crossing, “this isn’t the first time it’s happened to me. But I must say I’ve been lucky so far.”
He frowned a bit to himself. “This,” he continued, pulling up his sleeve,” is as bad as it got.”
He now revealed a purple bruise on his arm. “Not too bad, huh?” he asked me. “And, of course, a couple scratches here and there.”
I smiled politely, or intended to, for that matter. I never knew if he’d noticed because he just went on explaining.
“Back home people drive on the left side of the road, you know? Don’t ask me why. It’s always been like that, I guess. But then – you guys have been driving on the right side as far back as anyone remembers. Maybe it’s something to do with the hemispheres…”
“They also drive cars on the left in Britain,” I objected.
“Do they,” he seemed surprised. “Well, I guess that ruins my theory, then.”
“I’m afraid so,” I nodded.
For another minute my companion seemed to be absorbed in his own thoughts. He pressed his lips together and bit one corner of his mouth. A second later, his eyes had spotted a bakery.
“Hey,” he exclaimed, “can we stop over for some breakfast?”
“Sure,” I shrugged my shoulders.
We bought some nice pastry and ate it with hot cocoa as some sort of religious ceremony. I looked around a bit every now and then, only to find people employed in the same ritual. My companion noticed it and smiled.
“Breakfast is breakfast,” he said, “whether you drive your car on the left or right side of the road.”
We slowly finished the pastry and the hot cocoa, and left the bakery. Yet, out of the corner of my eye I could see him taking in the smell of fresh bread for another 100 meters. And I was doing the same.
“As I was saying,” he started over again, “back home people drive on the left side of the road. What do you suppose – which is better? To drive on the right, like you do, or to drive on the left, like we do?”
“Left sounds good,” I blurted out not to offend my companion.
“Nonsense,” he replied. “Do you think fewer accidents happen when you drive on the left side of the road?”
“Not here,” I attempted to joke my way off the subject.
“Nor anywhere else,” my companion said. He seemed determined to go on, so I let him talk.
“The truth is neither of us really knows which is better. That leaves us with two possibilities – either both ways of driving are equally good (or bad, when it comes to that), or one of them is better, but we can’t really tell which.”
“I suppose so,” I shrugged my shoulders again.
“Now, if both ways are equally good, both your people and my people can lie down and sleep and feel safe. But what if one these ways of driving is wrong – what then?”
It began to dawn on me. “You’re not trying to tell me you came all the way from Africa to figure this one out, are you?” I asked unbelievingly.
“No,” he said quickly. “That’s not the only reason I came. There are many more questions waiting to be answered.”
“Like what?” I was curious.
“Oh, you’ll see for yourself,” he waved his hand, “once you’ve made this question your major concern.”
“You must be joking,” I guessed. “There are things far more important than that. I don’t have time to spend my life trying to figure out which side of the road is better to drive on.”
“Then,” he said with an almost theatrical gesture, “you’ll never know the answer.”
That left me stunned and for a good while I could not bring myself to say anything. I just stood there, watching the cars and motorbikes quickly passing by. Were people naturally right-handed or were they left-handed? Did they naturally prefer cars or motorbikes? Would younger children prefer the same means of transport as the older ones?
I finally realized what had happened inside me. I managed to make the left-or-right question the center of my attention for once. And all the other questions were beginning to come up. I turned to my companion, quite satisfied with myself, but – my companion was no longer there.
At first I thought it was a miracle, or a sign from some deity. I found out a minute later my wallet was missing and so was my cell phone. Even worse, I still didn’t know which side of the road was better. But I decided if this was the price to pay, it really wasn’t worth knowing anyway.