September Challenge: Where’s North Again?

I’ve got a terrible sense of direction. In fact, even after one year in London, I occasionally find myself taking a complete different course. I blame those small curly alleys that characterize Europe’s oldest towns. I love them – they’re mysterious, obscure and full of history. But they’re charm distracts me and confuses my senses. I get hypnotized by the narrow streets, old bricks and tiny windows… And suddenly, I forget whether I was walking north or south.

Me and My Map in Buenos Aires, Argentina

I still can’t understand why I couldn’t get a cab that night.

It all began with a school trip to Madrid when I was 12. I was enchanted by the colors, variety and abundance of clothes in one of the big department stores and, at the time to return to the meeting point, I was lost. I exited the store to a different street and couldn’t figure out whether I was meant to go to my right or my left. I wandered for what I felt were desperate long hours (but probably was only about 30 minutes), trying to locate something familiar. I asked other pedestrians for directions, but everyone seemed to be as much as a tourist as I was at that time. I did make it back to the meeting point eventually, but no one was there. Thankfully, I am a kid of the 1980s with a very tech savvy grandfather that handed me a bulky yellow and black mobile phone and taught me how to use it in case of an emergency. I called up the hostel and after about 20 minutes of despair, one of my teachers came to pick me up and tuck me in the bus back to the airport.

Seriously, people, mobile phones are Heaven’s creation.

That was just the beginning of my realization: I suck at giving, taking and understanding directions.

Over time, I’ve misdirected myself, my friends and my family in several different countries. The most recent one having been in London. I ran out of my temporary apartment in Marylebone (a neighborhood I love and know very well) to meet a friend. After rushing for 10 minutes, I reached Baker Street. I stopped for 10 seconds and thought “This doesn’t make any sense“. I did, though. I had just ran towards the exact opposite direction for 10 minutes.

The years have taught me to live with this disability. I embrace getting lost in a new city and occasionally finding hidden gems that make my travels unique. Last year, I ditched the map and got lost in the streets of Lisbon. The year before, I visited Venice and soon realized that the real charm of the city is away from its touristic attractions.

Not carrying a map and giving in to the adventurous city explorer in you is often a good thing to do, but the ability to read a map or intuitively find back your track in case of distress is, well, useful.

September Challenge: Learn how to read a Map and improve my natural sense of where north is.

The 1001 Uses of a Map, in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Fashion is only one of many uses I can find for a city map in Buenos Aires.

Not only do I want to work on my orientation to avoid missing a plane back home from China or arriving late at important meetings (yes, I’m usually late because I get lost… not because I’m sort of spanish), but also because it’s a skill I’ll require to be a real day skipper. You see, I haven’t given up on my dream of hiring (or even buying) a sailing boat and spend a few months sailing along beautiful and dramatic coastlines. And as it seems to be the case, orientation is key.

I even have a plan:

  • I’ll take a map with me at all times. I might not use it. But it’ll still be useful to have – specially in a country like China, where I can’t really explain myself verbally.
  • I’ll take pictures of street signs of the roads I particularly like (or know!).
  • I‘ll be observant. Sometimes, a particular shop, building or square helps me to find my way back. This is also the reason for which I usually give directions like “walk on the left of the park towards Benny Room boutique, turn left where the black Champagne bar is and walk straight down to the road until you find a dark blue wooden bar”. No road names. No north-south. Only points of interest (or in nautical terms, waypoints).
  • I’ll try to think of the direction I’m going every now and then. Maybe I should buy a tiny compass for this.
  • I’ll always wear my Garmin watch when I go walking/running. Even though its first use is to track my fitness training, I’ve also used it when simply going for a walk. It stores my track, which I can then analyze online – I can see the height differences and the exact route on a map. This way, at least I’ll see what turns I’ve made (and then probably laugh at the many time I walked in circles).

Do you have a good sense of orientation? If so, please tell me your tricks!

PS: I am traveling in China for 9 days – to follow me on the road, please come and join my Facebook page or follow me on Twitter!

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5 Responses to “September Challenge: Where’s North Again?”

  1. ZhuSeptember 2, 2012 at 2:22 AM #

    My tip? Move to North America, it’s easier here with the straight roads/streets! We usually use intersections when giving directions, such as “Bank and Slater” or “Laurier and Lisgar”. I rarely get lost here thanks to the grid-like city planning.

    I can’t tell where is North or South or whatever. I always get that wrong! Feng is great at that though, saved us many times when traveling. I’m good at figuring out my way when there are stores around, I use them as clues. Other than that… I’m helpless!

  2. kristinaSeptember 11, 2012 at 6:58 AM #

    I generally have a decent sense of direction and a pretty good memory of places I have been. I remember the location of shops, restaurants, caf├ęs in different cities I liked for years :) Don’t have a clue how I do it though :) In case you have an iphone, there is a compass installed. I used it in the souks in Morocco – as I was soooo lost there!!! :)

  3. MonicaSeptember 11, 2012 at 10:23 PM #

    What a brilliant challenge! I’m exactly the same, I get lost absolutely everywhere I go and have a terrible sense of direction. In fact, if it’s possible to be born without a sense of direction I think I was.
    I can’t get anywhere without my iPhone but it would be interesting to see what would happen…
    I’m looking forward to seeing if you become more observant and notice the little things. Keep us updated!

  4. ReaseSeptember 23, 2012 at 2:38 AM #

    Before I moved to Buenos Aires, I had the worst sense of direction ever. My mother got me a cell phone as soon as I started driving and I cannot tell you how many times I used that phone to call someone, in tears, begging them to help me figure out where the hell I was. In my hometown, we give distances in periods of time, not distance (not 30 miles, more like 25 minutes) so that didn’t help.
    When I moved to BA, I really got so much better. At first, I did what you plan to do – I carried a map everywhere. I’d look at it anytime I had a chance, try to find myself on it, and try to guess if I was facing north, south, or whatever.
    I also use landmarks, and that’s fine, as long as you look at streets too! I use the landmarks more of a reassurance “Oh there’s the bank! I’m going the right way!”

    You can do it! I’m not amazing, but since moving back to the US and getting back behind the wheel, I haven’t made one crying phone call!

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