“Get lost” is an insult you hurl at guys trying to pick you up at bars. Like when one of the visiting college rugby players says to you, “I’d love to pour wine on your belly and drink from it.” But not when the super awkward guy tries to be cool and says, “I like your shoes.” At this point, you look down to remember what you are wearing and say back, “Thanks,” only to look up for the next painful question, “So. Um, where did you get them?”
But “getting lost” is often touted as a wonderful way to see a city or explore a new place. It’s supposed to be how REAL travelers travel. Authentic travelers were born with a compass instead of a heart. They have an unflappable attitude and wear sensible shoes, the proceeds from which support a tiny school of delightful children in Myanmar.
And I could never be one of them.
Getting lost can be fun for those who are confident in their abilities to make it back to START. For the rest of us though, getting lost can be an exercise in keeping the turtleneck sweater from closing in around our throats and trying to breathe. I wouldn’t say it’s a debilitating dis-ease, but “getting lost” is like getting really lost for folks like me and it’s not fun.
Of course, it didn’t help (or did it?) that I worked for a children’s summer camp and dated the program director (I’m not bragging) for three summers. Grizzly Adams and the director were part of Colorado’s Search and Rescue team and constantly carried their 2-way radios with them. They listened to the “Texan or Californian hunter who got lost in the mountains” report on a regular basis.
So, the fear of getting lost in the woods was a reality because I heard about those who had to be helicoptered or carried out and how AVOIDABLE their mistakes were and I didn’t want to be the next victim broadcasted over the radio for smarter people to enjoy. Equally scary was when the directors were called away on an emergency rescue, and so we had a camp counselor training thing-a-ma-gig before the kids arrived every summer.
The best part was watching those videos of real life reenactments of hikers getting lost and/or not being prepared. My “favorite” was the guy who ignored the incoming signs of a thunderstorm as he headed up the mountain with his wife, kid and dog. They didn’t have any water, but they had a bottle of wine! Booya! Needless to say, the dog was the only survivor.
I don’t think I discovered just how bad my sense of direction was until I started to drive across the U.S of A. If my choices were left or right, I’d chose the opposite direction of where I needed to go. Repeatedly. Yeah. I used to jokingly tell people that I was Lewis and Clark in a past life, but for this life, I had used up all of my sense of direction.
My ex found it entertaining that I had to rotate a map in order to get oriented or that if we went upstairs I would have no idea what was below me. He used to ask me which way to go and then head in the other direction (bastard). It was amusing for him that I struggled and so I learned to lean on him for these kinds of things. But then we broke up and I realized the danger of depending on someone else.
I had just moved to Cuenca, Ecuador and to kick start my arrival, my couchsurfing host did not show up at the airport. So, after waiting for what felt like dinosaur ages, I hailed a cab into town. I found a hotel and started to feel better, unpacking, undressing, anticipating that hot shower after international travel, but the shower was cold.
Now, I heard this was common, but I wasn’t going to pay full price for a non-working shower, so I got dressed and told the front desk. She couldn’t get it to work and couldn’t offer me anything else so I left. I packed, hailed another cab and tried my luck with the only other place I had written down in case of an emergency.
The place, it turned out, was closed. I was starting to feel really dejected and utterly exhausted. I thought about heading to the school where I was going to be teaching, but that would entail hailing another taxi with all my heavy crap, smelling like God knows what, when a woman spotted me and offered her guest house which was across the street.
Then the original guest house owner found me and pulled me back (the owners were sisters) and I finally got a hot shower, felt healed and human again. Next, I sought out nourishment before I made my way towards the school on foot. I had a hotel map (which like all hotel maps are limiting) and found the school with little problems. Yes, I went to the old location first (stuff I wish they’d tell you!), but after checking in and all that I decided to explore my new town. Woohoo!
I practiced Spanish before I arrived, but it was like I hadn’t practiced at all when I asked simple questions. I had a map, but it was like I didn’t have one at all when I tried to make sense of where I was at. I wore an L.L.Bean fleece jacket with a shell, but it was like I wasn’t wearing anything at all when the rain came pouring down.
Downtown Cuenca is probably easy to navigate for those who have a solid sense of direction. It’s a grid system with street names clearly marked on buildings. But for someone like me it was a nightmare where everything looked the same, and the cobblestones became a challenge in the rain causing me to twist my ankle which further added to the misery of me trying to find my way back to the guest house.
The city is also on a hill or steep incline which now I realize I could have used to my advantage in order to understand where I was at, but I was “getting lost” in my new home looking up and enjoying the new sights, sounds and smells. I wandered in what was probably circles for a long time in the cold rain. When the sun began to set, I started to panic. Where was the brave, independent expat now? If my friends or family could have seen me they would have been mortified by my stupidity. I was mortified by my stupidity. Questions like, “I can’t be lost forever, can I?” entered my unhappy brain. I tried not to think about the shopkeepers who saw the girl in the pink jacket go by dozens of times. I tried to protect my soggy map and dignity. I tried not to cry.
By the hand of Zeus or some mythical creature, I was spit out of hell onto the street where I knew my guest house was. It was dark and I held it together long enough to get my key from the front desk, drag my soggy self up those stairs, take off my wet jeans, shoes, etc and step into the hot shower. Then – I cried.
Sitting on my bed, I did a guided meditation that evening which made me cry even harder, but it was one of the few familiar things I had/did from my former life, so it made me feel better. And I told myself that I had to learn directions because I didn’t want to endure another ass-whipping from north, south, east and west.
The good news is I worked on directions like I would in building any skill. And by the time I left Cuenca, I felt like I had a decent grasp of the city. I made it a point to always be aware of how to get back home. I never really relaxed in cabs, but paid attention to where I was going and tried to soak in sights and landmarks – a habit that I still do to this day.
When I returned to Thailand, I learned to drive a motorbike which forced me to learn directions, in the best way possible. I also changed homes several times which further cemented my understanding of Chiang Mai. And I didn’t rely just upon driving, I used public transportation and I walked a lot, too.
So, by the time I went to Austria I was ready for the next step. This happened when my family and I were walking in Vienna and we got separated by crazy circumstances, I learned to ask the locals a lot of questions and take it in stride when we got on the wrong bus. I had to take care of my mom who was with me and I was also with my sister-in-law (who, at that time hadn’t traveled outside of the US much) and one of my nephews, so I felt like I had to be the leader which helped me, actually, be confident. Later, my brother (who trained with the Army special services) poured over the map with me and told me to rotate the map according to where I was. Ha!
So, getting lost, yeah, I don’t take it lightly. Folks with an excellent sense of direction, I hope they realize what an exceptional gift they have. Nowadays, I’m the one helping out with directions and I’m proud whenever I’m told, “You give really good directions.” Cause, man, three dimensional space is confusing, yo. Of course, my current partner has a worse sense of direction than I ever had, so I’m in charge of where we need to go and how we need to get back. Thank you very much.
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.” – Douglas Adams