When I travel, it’s usually for a week or less at a time, because that’s all the time I can get off from my day job. So I try to be efficient and maximize my time. I create an itinerary for each day of my trip—where I’ll go, what I’ll do, and when. I usually try to cluster activities around the same general location if I can, to eliminate wasted time backtracking.
My biggest nemesis when it comes to sticking to my agenda is getting lost. I swear to God I must spend anywhere from half a day to a full day getting lost in a new city before I finally get my bearings. It’s frustrating, aggravating, and disorienting. I can feel the precious minutes of my all-too-brief vacation slipping away from me the longer I’m lost.
Believe me, it’s not for the lack of maps and directions. I am anal-retentive about carrying maps and notes and directions on me. But I confess, I am a bit directionally-challenged. It’s especially bad when I travel to European cities, with their maze-like streets and alleys.
Part of the problem is that on my first day, I’ve just arrived from my redeye flight, having been awake for 20 hours or so (because I can’t sleep on planes), bleary-eyed and groggy. I can’t check into my hotel until the afternoon, so I’m forced to wander a city where I don’t speak or read the language very well with a barely-functioning brain.
Is it any wonder I get lost for the better part of a day?
On my first day in Paris I managed to find the metro at Place Republic and the correct train line to get to Notre Dame. Beyond that, there was quite a lot of wandering back and forth to find the cathedral, then the Latin Quarter, and then my way back to the metro I’d arrived on. At one point, a young Asian woman with an American accent stopped me and asked me for directions to Notre Dame.
I looked around to point her in the right direction, but I couldn’t spot the cathedral over the rooftops where we were standing. I was mortified when I realized I couldn’t even remember which direction it was in. I had just been there less than 20 minutes before! Oh the shame.
On my way back to my hotel, a young French woman approached me in the Metro to ask me for my help figuring out her route. She spoke no English, and I didn’t speak enough French to tell her “Oh honey, you are asking the wrong person for directions.” When we realized we couldn’t communicate verbally, we looked at each other, shrugged, and began poring over the map together anyway.
She told me the name of the attraction where she was going (I can’t recall which one it was now), and I drew along the metro line that I thought she needed to take with my finger. “Take line 4,” I told her. She repeated “Four?” “Oui,” I said. She thanked me with a smile and left.
As she walked away, I thought: I really hope I didn’t just send her into some terrible neighborhood.
Despite how frustrating it is for the Type A planner in me, even I have to admit, good things can come from getting lost. In Barcelona, I planned to visit the Picasso Museum and the City History Museum on the same day. It seemed pretty straightforward: Just head down Via Laietana, turn left onto Carrer de la Princesa and then right onto Carrer de Montcada for the Picasso Museum. Then go straight across Laietana to the City History Museum.
On my first pass down Via Laietana I missed the turnoff to Princesa and walked all the way to Port Vell. I had to double back. Once I found Carrer de la Princesa, I did the same thing, missing the turnoff to the Picasso Museum and instead hitting the end of the road. Augh!
But there was this beautiful building across the street, and I thought “Well, as long as I’m here, I might as well go see what it is.” It turned out to be the Zoological Museum. I saw lots of families with young kids going into the park next to it. It looked like maybe there was some sort of festival going on. It was free, so I wandered in to check it out.
It was kind of cool to see how families in Barcelona spend a Saturday in the summertime (a lot like Vermonters, as it turns out). I wish I’d known at the time that this was just the tip of the iceberg–just a small portion of Parc de la Ciutadella, a huge park area with more museums, a lake, and a zoo. (Next time, Barcelona!) After I’d wandered around a bit amongst them, I returned to my original mission and eventually found the Picasso Museum–down what seemed more like an alley to me than an actual street. No wonder I kept walking past it!
I had just as much trouble trying to find the City History Museum. I couldn’t believe it. On my map, it looked like it was right off Laietana. I should have been looking right at it. But somehow, I could not seem to find it.
I wandered all over the place, down side streets and alleys, and across plazas. I must have covered every square inch of the Barri Gotic neighborhood. I’d been walking all day, and I was exhausted. Just when I was about ready to admit defeat and give up entirely, I stumbled across it quite by accident.
It was worth the struggle. During the journey, I ran across a (peaceful) demonstration in a little plaza, some cute little shops in quiet alleyways, and a busker—a woman playing guitar in the street—all things I would have missed if it had been easy to get from the Picasso Museum to the City History Museum. And I’m glad I didn’t give up. The City History Museum was my favorite museum in Spain.
It’s true: You do often encounter people or sights that you wouldn’t have if you had gone straight from point A to point B. It also helps you get the lay of the land better for future reference. But there’s more to it for me.
You know that saying “Anything worth having is worth fighting for”? That’s been the story of my life, and it has continued on into my travel life. Sometimes, it’s such a struggle to find what I’m looking for in a strange city that when I do, I want to do a fist-pump. I met the challenge and overcame it! It’s my Rocky moment.
Getting perpetually lost during my travels has been a learning experience for a control freak like me. What I’ve learned (the hard way) is that getting lost isn’t always a bad thing. I just need to remind myself not to get stressed out about it. I think I should start building a few hours of “getting lost” time into my future travel itineraries. God knows I’ll need it.