Why getting lost isn’t a bad thing

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Navigating via tourist brochure, Thailand. 

There is nothing more unsettling than being completely lost in a foreign country, wandering the streets aimlessly, franticly attempting to find your bearings before you curl up into a ball and sob. My next overseas trip is to America and begins with some time in New York City. The thought of getting lost in one of the biggest cities in the world is at the forefront of my mind. But getting lost is a fear every traveller must contend with, no matter how strongly some may deny it.

Without exaggeration, every person I have talked to about travelling has a story about getting lost. This isn’t a negative reflection of the people I associate with, more an example of how easily it can happen. I’m not suggesting that every person gets lost while travelling, either. I’m confident that at some time in recorded history, a person went on an extended trip and never once lost his or her way. But let’s be honest; I have the ability to get lost in my own town, let alone an overseas city, so this clearly isn’t something I can relate to.

It can be as simple as assuming you can figure it out by yourself. A couple of friends of mine got lost one evening on the mean streets of Paris. While Paris has the catch cry as the “City of Love”, if you miss your train and your phone battery runs dry, it can be far more intimidating. They were left to search a way back to their accommodation in an unfamiliar country where the people spoke a language they couldn’t understand. With no plan to speak of they thought they would do the most logical thing and make their way towards the closest major landmark to their hostel (an effective tactic in most situations). This happened to be the Eiffel Tower, a handy landmark to have at your disposal. Unfortunately, as tall as the Eiffel Tower is, when wandering the streets in the dark, surrounded by three story buildings, this simple task became slightly more complex. One near mugging later, and with the help of some other more friendly strangers, they were able to navigate their way back to their lodgings, just as they were resigning themselves to sleeping on a park bench for the night.

This situation is fairly familiar. Slightly extreme, but familiar none the less. While having one too many sneaky beers at a French pub may have contributed slightly to the situation, it does show how easy it is to find yourself completely lost. That being said, alcohol can turn the most navigationally confident person into an incompetent wreck. But if you make it back home and have made some new friends along the way, what has really been lost?

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Tanzanian swimming hole in the middle of nowhere.

 

Some locations can be confusing without the need for booze to make things worse. Take a city like Hanoi, for example. I love this city, I really do, but the place is a crowded labyrinth, filled with alleyways and side streets, ready to swallow you up if you aren’t paying attention. Not only do you have to contend with street names that are impossible to pronounce let alone remember, but you have to battle millions of people going at a hundred miles an hour as scooters fly past so close that you can smell the breath of the rider. Simply crossing the street requires the concentration of a chess master. Taking all this into consideration whilst attempting to find a particular restaurant, for example, is like trying to teach a cat to speak Russian- bloody hard work. I know many a person who has tried and failed at this task of international street navigation, giving in and hailing the closest taxi. It should be remembered though that this isn’t defeat, this is common sense.

I’ve also had experience with lost locals. Whether it is through a language barrier or incompetence, from time to time the people who you have either asked or paid to help you out can make things worse. In our particular situation whilst in Tanzania, our taxi driver/pretend tourist guide had no idea how to get to any of the places we wanted to see. To facilitate our needs, he had to repeatedly pull over and ask people strolling on the side of the road which direction to head. I am aware that entrusting a taxi driver with tour guide duties is not recommended. I fail to find any suggestions in Lonely Planet guide books endorsing the practice. But if a taxi driver cannot get you to where you want to be, what hope have you got? We did eventually find the most incredible waterfalls and swimming holes I’d ever seen, but not before our driver asked every passing Tanzanian how to get there along the way.

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Tanzanian waterfall in the foothills of Kilimanjaro

 

Ninety per cent of stories people tell of getting lost end perfectly fine. The other ten per cent make better stories. The point of these stories is not to make you believe that finding your way in a foreign country is an impossible task or a scary proposition but rather that getting lost isn’t a bad thing at all. It’s going to happen so just remember to be calm. If you start panicking like a groom at the altar, you’ll end up a mess and no closer to your goal. Besides, some of the more beautiful places in the world have been discovered by accident and some of the best memories are made trying to figure out where you are. Chalk it up to experience- geographical embarrassment is only temporary.

Wayward Tip: Write down location addresses if you are concerned. I like to have the address of my hotel on me at all times just in case. If all else fails you can whip out an address and someone will help you out.

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There is always a someone willing to help, Vietnam.

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