Travel Tips Tuesday: Never Getting Lost

The first time I visited Kenya, a friend invited me to stay at his apartment. I asked him for his address and he chuckled in reply. His house didn’t have an address. It wasn’t on the map. Though his street had an name, no one in Nairobi would use it.

Navigation is Culturally Defined. Around the world, people navigate differently. In the US, we rely heavily on street names and principal directions. But this form of navigation is a product of culture and history: directions that reference street names and intersections are extremely helpful in cities on a grid, but fall apart in other locations. Even the way people give directions varies based on culture and where you grew up.

I like maps, but over the years I have learned that sometimes there are better ways to get around. Here are a few tips to help you get where you need to when your GPS device won’t do the trick.

1) Forget GPS, Landmarks are the Kings of Navigation

Use landmarks.

This is the first step for navigation in most countries—especially in places that don’t rely on maps or addresses. To get to my friend’s apartment in Kenya, he told me to ask for Adam’s Arcade, a small but old shopping mall in the city that just about everyone knows. From Adam’s Arcade, I turned at the roundabout (another landmark) and then took a left turn at a specific guest house.

When you are trying to find your way to a specific restaurant or attraction, try to find out what other landmarks might be nearby. I have a favorite restaurant in Paris for which I have never been able to give directions to a cab driver in French. But I can tell him about the library across the street and I get dropped off right in front every time.

Keep in mind that landmarks are cultural. Big landmarks might always work, but in some places a particular shop on the corner, a small sign, or even a tree or house might be the preferred local landmark.

2) Not Everything Has an English Name

That said, if you’re traveling in a place with a language barrier, you may discover that places have a different name than the English in your guidebook—or your pronunciation is way off. You could try writing it down, but in Thailand for example, my written Thai is just as non-existent as my spoken Thai, so that won’t help at all.

Try creating cards with important destinations in English, the local language, and a transliteration(pronunciation guide in English letters) of the places you need to go. At your hotel you can ask someone to help you write this down.

3) Don’t Take Untested Help

Asking for directions is always a great idea. You can practice your language skills, make a new friend—and maybe even figure out the right way to go. The tricky part is that a lot of people you approach may not know where you are going.

The first time you approach someone in Turkey and ask them to point you toward a specific museum, they might happily send you off in a given direction. What you don’t know is if they are (1) correct, (2) know what you are looking for but forgot where it is, (3) think they know what you are looking for but actually don’t or (4) have no idea what you are looking for but do want to help so they will take a guess. Asking for directions can send you on a frustrating hunt across the city.

How do you weed out the people who don’t know where you are actually going? Test them.

  • When I ask someone for directions, I’ll always use a reference point to make sure they know what they are talking about.
  • I’ll try and ask them to repeat the destination—you’d be surprised how often you might be misinterpreted.
  • Ask if that is near something else that might help confirm if you are talking about the same museum or a different one.
  • Finally, sometimes I pull out a map and ask my helper to look at the map with me to point to my destination.

4) Get Lost!

Despite all of my tips for maps and landmarks, sometimes, you actually just want to get lost. Getting lost can be the key to exploring a new place. Of course—do so safely. Know the risks, and maintain a good sense of your surroundings.

Wandering with nowhere to go, minimal intention, and no urgency, will often take you to the most amazing places on your travels.

What are some of the most amazing places you’ve discovered by getting lost?

– Adam