When Getting Lost is a Good Thing

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)

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Stephanie Yoder is a girl who can’t sit still! She is the co-founder and editor of Why Wait To See the World. Learn more about her here.

    • Thanks! I always *think* I have a good sense of direction and managed to prove myself wrong…

  1. Rebecca says:

    Great Blurb! I hate reading about Americans who are going to go off travelling and they ask “will my blackberry work?” so they can use the maps feature like alllll the time on it.

    If I am going to a first world country, where I know I can get an english/local map, I usually don’t buy my map until I arrive, so I can see what the locals use. (ie: the A-Zed!)

    • I have a GPS system for my car and I even feel kind of icky using that sometimes, I don’t know why. Don’t like being told what to do I guess.

      • Yes but there are some benefits to having your blackberry work abroad aside from not getting lost, like being able to figure out what kind of restaurants are around etc. But I understand what you both mean.

    • the longer you travel the easier it is to become laid back about these things. It helps if you don’t have to rush from landmark to landmark.

    • I swear, that city was just impossibly pretty. All of those red roofs and hills. Total must see.

    • It’s true= even if you DON’T want to get lost in Venice you wont have much choice, its inevetiable.

  2. Good topic!
    I spend I long time in the African bush without GPS or maps. You learn to actually watch where you go and put certain landmarks on your hard-drive (brain). Now being back in Holland everybody uses a tom-tom in their car and when the thing makes a mistake (due to road works) everybody gets up tight and nervous. I don’t have that issue as I am still watching where I go.
    .-= johan´s last blog ..When Service Providing Fails =-.

    • That’s a good point that constantly relying on maps hardwires your brain a certain way. It’s important to be able to find your way on your own.

  3. London is the place to get lost!!! I think I’ve gotten lost in London more then anywhere else and i refuse to get my map out so i don’t look like a tourist!!! Mind i have gotten lost in Sydney alot and i go there all the time so i’ve just accepted that i’ll never have any sense of direction!!!

    It’s so true some of the best times and hidden gems are found getting lost, although i wouldn’t recommend it with 4 bags of grocery’s in the pouring rain walking in the wrong direction for half an hour LOL
    .-= Sasha´s last blog ..Helping Haiti =-.

  4. I don’t think you could have said it any better. Sometimes getting off the beaten track is exactly what we need. All too often we just follow what others have done before us instead of making our own path.
    .-= Eric´s last blog ..MatadorU =-.

  5. What a great post! I’ve had that panicky feeling of “oh no I’m lost!” several times on my travels but the feeling of accomplishment I feel after finding my way is well worth it in the end…and clearly it’s never been overly dangerous as I’m still here to tell the tale!

    Kathryn @Travelfusion

  6. Getting lost is good some times. In fact it’s becoming rare due to technology (I got gps on my phone and managed to make my way home after missing bus and refuing to pay for a taxi in a foreign country) that people are taking trips and getting lost on purpose to see what they find. It’s good for the soul.

    • I know sometimes it’s hard to remember how we survived without phones and gps! Definitely important to get back to those roots once in awhile.

  7. I am a firm believe that getting lost is one of the greatest things that can happen to you! One of my favorite tactics when visiting cities is to take the Metro to a random stop and try and find my way back to the place I’m staying. If I get seriously lost, I can always hop a taxi back to my hotel…

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