The Art of Being Lost (Navigating abroad in the days before SatNav’s!)
By Matthew Lightfoot
Mazeophobia. Whilst not quoted in medical dictionaries, an internet search tells us that the word denotes a fear of getting lost. Safe to assume then, that no Mazeophobics will be users of DriverAbroad.com, as getting lost is one of the only certainties facing drivers abroad. No matter how skilled your navigator’s map reading skills, or how sophisticated your sat-nav is, there will come a point on your travels when you realise you haven’t got a clue where you are. To some, this is a mild irritation, an inconvenience which slows down your progress and eats into valuable sight- seeing time. To others, getting lost is one of the great joys of independent travel in a strange country – a chance to challenge your powers of recovery, meet the locals and maybe demonstrate your skills in the art of mime.
I fall firmly into the latter category. Getting lost whilst driving abroad, to me, is as much a part of the journey as dodging donkey carts and having dubious fuel poured into your tank from a bucket at an ‘unoffical’ gas station. Getting lost pushes you firmly out of your comfort zone and into the unknown, forcing you to rely on the kindness, and navigational skills of the locals.
Kindness is never a problem in my opinion, and whenever I’ve found myself hopelessly lost, wherever in the world I am, I’ve always found that local people are more than willing to stop what they’re doing and point me in the right direction. What’s often more of a challenge is their navigational skills. Often, it seems that the map I’m waving in front of their confused face is the first they’ve ever seen. On more than one occasion, I’ve watched as a passerby knowledgably traces a route with their finger whilst silently mouthing local place names…whilst holding the map upside down!
The most common cause of confusion is maps with place names written in different alphabets, particularly in Eastern Europe. I always attempt to buy a map with place names in both Roman alphabet letters and the local version of squiggles and shapes. If you only have a map with Roman lettering you may as well leave it in the glovebox it in most of Eastern Europe! Ukraine is one of the most confusing countries in terms of place names on maps and signs. Take the City of Chernivtsi – depending on where you bought your map it could be described as – Чернівці,(Ukrainian) , Czernowitz (German), Cernăuți (Romanian), Черновцы́ (Russian) or even טשערנאוויץ (Yiddish). The fortunate coincidence of a map written in lettering your passerby recognises and that person being able to read a map is very rare in my experience!
Street signs are also a major challenge when written in an alphabet you don’t recognise- Even if you can’t pronounce place names correctly, you can have a good attempt if they’re written in your own alphabet. However, written in a different alphabet and you’ll struggle. Would you guess that a sign saying 東京 is directing you to Tokyo? What about a Sri Lankan road sign in Sinhalese? Would cඔලොම්බො be directing you towards the Capital or to the beach? That’s another good reason to have a dual alphabet map, though even with one, you’ll still need to slow down at a junction to decipher the symbols!
Aside from language difficulties, I’ve found that people’s urge to help can often be a major hindrance. In many countries, saying that you can’t help would be an unthinkable insult to the traveller. The local you’ve consulted will therefore confidently point you in the right direction, whilst repeating the name of the place you’re aiming for. This could mean they understood perfectly what you asked them and correctly pointed you on your way. Unfortunately, it may also mean that you mis-pronounced the name of the town completely, that they failed to understand a word you said and pointed randomly anyway. I once made a circuit of Lake Sevan in Armenia after checking my location with a local on the outskirts of town. “Sevan, Sevan” he repeated, nodding his head and pointing back down in the direction from which we’d just arrived. Against my better judgement we turned round and headed in the wrong direction round the lake, into a run down post-industrial shanty town. Feeling gloomier with every advancing mile of abandoned factories and the shells of never completed hotels, we suddenly spotted the famous church on a hill overlooking the glimmering waters of the lake…unfortunately the town in our sights was at the other side of the lake, around 20 miles back in the direction we’d just come from! If making a major directional decision, my advice is to ask two separate locals, If they confidently give the same answer you should be Okay to proceed. If they don’t, further investigations are needed. If multiple passers-by give different answers, you may need to go with the majority ..or the ones who sounded most certain, and least lost!
The art of mime is an invaluable asset to a lost self driver abroad. Left turns, right turns, hills, tunnels, cross roads – all are easy to mime for travellers experienced in the art of getting lost. Airports, beaches, lakes, castles and markets are somewhat more of a challenge. Probably my best mime was to demonstrate a railway level crossing to a Romanian policeman near Bucharest. He fixed me with a steely glare and never gave a hint of a smile as I ‘choo-choo’d’ my way past him in the style of a steam train under the watchful gaze of a group of hideous truck- stop hookers. He pointed back down the road and a sharp right after the level crossing and we were on our way….
Perhaps it’s the prospect of an impromptu mime act or just the unusual sight of a stranger in town, but stopping to ask directions tends to draw a crowd in a small town. Many is the time I’ve stopped to ask a solitary passer by directions. We go through the usual sequence of mis-pronounced names, puzzled looks, maps upside down, scratched heads and furrowed brows. By now, other locals have noticed that something unusual is occurring and they begin to wander over. They exchange opinions with the first passer-by, furrow brows, have a turn at holding the map upside down, and summon a friend. And so it goes on. Until a great crowd of puzzled, chattering locals surrounds the lost driver, all trying to be helpful and all pointing in different directions!
The key to handling being lost is not to panic. Most accidents are caused by a last minute change of direction. A shouted “left, right…no left, straight on..no right!” from your navigator as you approach a junction sends you swerving in multiple directions. A recipe for a collision. Pick a road as you approach and stick to it. You can always turn round and retrace your steps if needed.
Also, a bit of pre-planning goes a long way. If you know you will have to negotiate a City Centre, with one way systems, dead end streets and mysterious signs, it’s a pretty sure bet it will end up with you being lost. And being lost in a City is not the same as being lost in the countryside or a small town. It will invariably end with you and your navigator almost coming to blows as the normal stress caused by City driving is multiplied tenfold.
If you pick up a rental car in the City Centre, ask the rental company if they’ll drive you to the outskirts or to the major road you intend to take out of town. Most will oblige for nothing or may just charge you the bus fare back to the office for their employee (small locals firms are more likely to do this than the big multinationals.) If you’re heading into a City Centre, ask for some expert assistance. Flag down a taxi and explain where you want to go, then point at your car, and mime to the driver that you’ll follow him. (I told you the art of mime is important!). What’s also important is that you convey that you want him to drive slowly (the standard mime for ‘slowly’ is a slow downward swipe of the hand with fingers outstretched). I’ve had some hair raising, car chase style encounters while following taxis. In Buenos Aires once I became convinced that the driver had forgotten our arrangement and thought I was an assassin tailing him. Faster and faster, he accelerated and swerved across 6 lanes of traffic with me frantically trying to keep up with him. He seemed genuinely disappointed when we arrived at our destination and I was still close behind, sweating, shaking and cursing my luck at picking a frustrated formula 1 driver to follow.
So, you see, any Mazeophobics amongst you have nothing to fear when driving abroad. Look upon being lost as a unique opportunity to challenge your linguistic and navigational skills, see places other travellers never see. And potentially do a mime act for a whole group of mesmerised villagers!
Matthew Lightfoot is the author of The Two Week Traveller which tells of his adventures in 150 countries and is available in ebook and paperback from all Amazon stores.