I don’t use maps. Left, right, straight ahead, are confusing terms — too dependent on the direction you are facing or how you hold the map. And, anyway, I typically confuse left and right, one spin, from 12 o’clock to three o’clock and for me, the map has become a tangle of misleading lines. I read somewhere that London cab drivers’ brains show unusual development in the part responsible for topographical orientation. That part, in my brain, has a hole. I get lost when I use maps.
My strategy in a unfamiliar place is to exit the door of my sleeping place, circumnavigate the building, taking in the sights, or sites, street names, orienting myself to ‘home’, looking back at the front door, memorising buildings, landmarks. I look for spires or cranes or high rises. I look at door colours, memorials, monuments. I allow myself to veer from the circle only for short distances at first – into interesting side streets with small busy restaurants, those with tired, or unfashionable décor — where the ‘real people’ eat. I carry a phrase book, and a note book. My sleeping place’s name and address is in the note book. If I become disoriented I ask for directions, looking suitable helpless – (it is no act) point to the address in my notebook– and someone will point me in the approximate direction. I like when the sun is out. I understand north. If the finger points east. I bear east. I make detours around areas heavily populated by camera toting visitors. I spend five minutes or so in any church with an open door.
Tom, the pleasant, patient cybervoiced presence on my Sat Nav looks after me when I drive. He tells me three times which exit to take at the roundabout. ‘Go right at the roundabout – third exit. Third exit. Exit the roundabout’. I talk back to him. Thank you, Tom. OK. OK. I heard you. Turn around when it is safe to do so. (Must’a took the wrong exit at the roundabout).
Been there. Done that. Got the tee shirt. One woman, who shall be nameless, told me she didn’t like Scotland. Her whole experience of Scotland was a single visit to Glasgow. I’m happy to confess I still don’t know Scotland. I’m becoming familiar with a one area, SW Scotland, but even then, each time I take the Dee walk I encounter a place I do not know. A bird I’ve never noticed before. An abundance of rose hips, and fatter than I’ve ever seen. The old scuttled boat has lost yet more blue paint.
One night, tenting north of Lytton, British Columbia, Canada, I crawled out of the tent in the middle of the night. Shivering. The temperature had dropped. I squatted to pee, look up and saw for the first time in my life, Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Stars as big as blinding suns. In my astonishment I forgot how cold I was. There is no tee shirt for that. Another night, tenting by the Nimpkish River, North Vancouver Island, I woke up sopping wet, the ground sheet, the sleeping bag, and me. I found out that night the Nimpkish is a tidal river and that breaking camp in the middle of night, dripping with water, is another experience for which there is no tee shirt, instruction book or map.
Recently I bought a smart phone with a camera. But I’ll continue to leave photography to the professionals and map reading for those whose brains are adapted to the exercise. I comfort myself with the wonderful idea that the map is never the territory and no photograph can capture this experience. And this: recently in Budapest I left my sister and her man squabbling over a map and the route back to our hotel. I’ll use my method, I told them. I asked just one person. He pointed. I arrived at the hotel a full 15 minutes before them. I deserve a tee shirt for that one.