We have maps. We have GPSs. We have 5-year plans. We have everything laid out ahead of us to specifically prevent ourselves from losing our way. That’s just smart living; getting lost is scary. It’s frustrating. It’s an encounter with the unknown, the unforeseen and the unpredictable.
It’s these exact same characteristics that make getting lost every once and while so important. It can teach us lessons, the hard kind. The kind you can’t really absorb any other way.
It teaches us how to find our way
It was my first night in London. The first time I’d ever been anywhere really without my parents or good friends. I’d ventured to a pub just a few blocks from my dorm with a couple of new acquaintances. After a couple of hours of pint drinking and bond forming we split up to go our separate ways home. It was dark by then and after walking a couple blocks I realized I had absolutely no clue where I was.
All of a sudden the formerly pleasant Victorian streets of London transformed into the menacing big city. It really couldn’t have been later than 11pm, on Holborn High Street, but I might as well have been roaming Anacostia in the middle of the night. I’ve traveled a lot since then and gotten in some scary situations but I still distinctly remember the sharp panic I felt when I realized I was lost in this huge city where I didn’t know anybody.
I took some deep breaths to calm myself. I was afraid to whip out my map- I didn’t want to look like an easy target tourist (I’ve since realized that even the native Londoners carry A-Z maps in their back pockets. London is just that sprawling). So I just picked a well-lit direction and walked until I found a landmark I recognized and was able to guess my way home.
Since then I’ve been lost more times than I can count, in London and other places, in good neighborhoods and bad. I no longer have a panic attack when I get confused. I know now to just keep walking until I find my way out of whatever I’ve wandered into.
It leads us to new discoveries.
Just 3 months later I was in Venice, a trip I’d planned totally under my own steam (my very first!). Everyone says you should get lost in Venice and it’s not very hard to do. The city is a labyrinth of narrow alleys, wooden bridges and surprise courtyards. I threw out the map and wandered aimlessly for an afternoon. Around each corner was a new jewel: a funny statue, an adorable bridge, a bustling Christmas fair.
These aren’t the sorts of things you can set off to find with a map. I’ve often found that the best way to experience a city is to wander aimlessly and see what comes your way.
It gets us off the beaten track.
My friend Liz and I have different ideas of what constitutes fun. She really likes using her long, tennis toned legs to climb things like hills, while I trail behind, whining. This is how I found myself being dragged up a very steep hill in Sarajevo. The idea was to see the Sarejevsko brewery, but we’d clearly picked the wrong hill as I huffily pointed out (note: some of the hills around Sarajevo are NOT safe to wander around due to unexploded landmines, but as long as you are sticking to paved paths you should be fine). I was starting to get pissed about our pointless exercise, when we reached the crest of the hill to find this:
A view not in any guidebook. That shut me up right quick.
Directions, maps and plans are about control. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, you need goals and plans, other wise your trip, or your life, will just be an aimless wander. Direction is important. Equally important though, is learning when to throw out the plan and see what’s waiting around the next corner.
(header photo by frielp license: Creative Commons)