Whether in dense forests or an unfamiliar city, being lost is a primal and disorienting feeling. It’s a risk you run every time you visit a new place. Old-school handheld maps and modern technology such as google maps have revolutionized how people travel, but there’s no leaving your comfort zone without inevitably feeling it, sooner or later: I don’t know what I’m doing. I don’t know where I am. I don’t know what to do next.
Here are some pointers to help you acclimate to a new city, blend in, and find your way.
1. Use your mobile mapping device wisely.
Google maps and other global positioning apps like it have revolutionized traveling, especially for tourists who like to make their own way around. Before arriving in a new town, scout the best way to your destination via your cell phone, decide whether you’re going to find your way via public transit or on foot, and save the location.
When you arrive at the city, step to the side – out of foot traffic – and open the map. Determine your first set of movements (for example, forward three blocks, left six blocks, etc.). This next bit is the tricky part: once you know the first steps of your route, turn off your phone and put it away.
This action may make you wildly uncomfortable at first, but trust yourself. Simply follow the directions you noted. When you arrive at that point, step out of the flow of foot traffic again, retrieve your phone, and check your next steps. If you’ve walked off-track, simply retrace your steps and then do the same.
There are several benefits to this system. For one, you’re not walking with your phone in hand, declaring yourself a tourist to everyone you pass. You’re walking through a new city, observing your surroundings, and making the first pass at memorizing your way to your destination (if you’re traveling to and from your new city by train, you’re also memorizing how to return to the train station for the next leg of your trip).
More importantly, this method allows you to raise your head and be more present. By breaking your journey up into easily memorizable sequences, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to take your new city or town in, to nod hello to the people you pass, to take note of florist stalls, cafes, or grocery stores. You’re not just walking to your destination, you’re taking in your surroundings, information that will prove useful if you forget your phone at home one day or your battery dies, and you have to find your way on your own.
It’s also a process that becomes increasingly easier with each new city. The more you practice it, the more you’ll trust your short-term recall, the more you’ll enjoy getting quickly and easily to your temporary home – not to mention actually enjoying the process of traveling, as opposed to just arriving – and appreciate all the stages of being in a new place.
2. Learn the basics.
Once you’ve arrived at your lodging, ask your host for any recommendations in the immediate area: a good cafe to get a coffee, his/her favorite restaurant, a nice park. Sometimes hosts demur, suggesting they’re all good, or they may provide so many options you can’t remember them all. If possible, make note of the names: you can always look them up on google maps later.
The first thing I look for in a new town is the grocery store, as it’s a good way to eat both locally and cheaply. If you can, visit the grocery store on your first or second day in town on a sort of scouting expedition, without buying anything. Devote some serious time to the experience, and try to figure out how you would purchase multiple items from the store.
In Europe, for example, the process of buying fruits varies from one area to the next. In some stores in Spain, shoppers not only bag their own fruit, but weigh it themselves at a scale in the produce section, and then apply the ensuing price sticker on the bag for the cashier to scan at the register. In a larger city, that may be done at the register. Instead of asking locals for assistance – some or all of whom may not happen to speak your native language – use the scouting expedition to understand how locals shop.
Does the woman next to you bag her tangerine and punch a number on the scale before she gets her price ticket? Does the number on the scale match one found on the sign right above the tangerines? Observing how locals act, and following their actions, enables you to blend in and feel more at home in your environment. You won’t to find a restaurant for a midday snack: you can sit on a park bench, snack on what you bought for yourself for a fraction of the price, and people-watch as the locals go about their day.
3. Make a Venn Diagram with your location at the overlapping center.
Using your lodging as the central points, explore a different area around you each day. Give it a decent amount of time, and pay attention: find something to pique your curiosity (the ripcord for this experience is if you feel you have wandered into an area that is sketchy or unsafe, in which case you should quietly and immediately backtrack to a point of safety – but in decades of traveling, I’ve never felt the need to use this option). You may like some areas more than others, and some may be more attractive to you. But by exploring a variety of areas around your temporary home, you get a better sense of a city and its people, while always being able to find your way back. Within three days, your expertise of the area will have expanded by leaps and bounds, and you’ll find yourself referring to google apps less and less.
4. Be a return customer.
When you find a space or business that you enjoy, like getting your coffee from a particular cafe, return to that place. I tend to find a cafe for my morning coffee – one with more locals than tourists – and return there every day. You might feel out of place at first, but a few days in, you’ll be a little like a celebrity: the serving staff will remember your order, they’ll chat with you when they bring your food to the table, and so on. There’s a fine line between being out of place and being something special, and locals appreciate travelers with an appreciation for their service and business.
In fact, cafes and restaurants are one of my favorite ways to interact with locals: if I have a great experience, I’ll introduce myself to the waiter or waitress, and I’ll remember their name when they offer the same. The next time I walk in, I greet them by name. You better believe that leaves an impression, and now you have an objective person you can ask for advice about what to see, what other places to visit or eat, etc.
If you really want to sweeten the pot, leave a decent tip. It may not be common in Europe, but that doesn’t mean people don’t appreciate it. I’ve had cashiers at a gelateria in Italy light up like a christmas tree from a 50 cent tip, and they were even happier to see me the next day.
5. Use a good translation app.
Before you leave for your trip, download a good travel app on your phone. I’ve had excellent luck with the google translate app, which allows you to translate between 90 languages, scan images to translate text (very helpful for menus), get results both in written and spoken form, and even translate while offline. This means you can type in a question in English, enlarge the translated question, and show it to the person. While visiting the Court of Miracles in Pisa, I used my google translate app to ask the stern-looking police officer if it was possible to enter the church to attend mass. She not only pointed me in the right direction, but kept exclaiming “bella, bella, bella” over the app. In just a few seconds, I’d been able to ask her a question respectfully, discreetly, correctly, and politely. Who wouldn’t respond well to that?
6. Abandon your technology and follow your instincts.
When you get nice and comfortable, it’s time to shake things up: leave your phone at home. That’s right, set out on a simple expedition and leave your life preserver behind. Stretch yourself a bit beyond your usual boundaries: go down a side street you’ve never taken before, walk into a different stop, try to find that public beach that’s two blocks beyond the area you know. This isn’t a ‘full speed ahead’ model, but it’s important to try: you’ll both test your working knowledge of your neighborhood and have to find your own way back to your comfort zone, AKA the area you already know. If you get turned around and feel that “I’m lost” panic creeping in, you can always turn back and retrace your steps to get back to familiar territory. But before you do so, be sure to consider the following:
7. Remember you’re an explorer on an adventure.
You’re not lost: you’re discovering new territory. Technology can be wonderfully helpful, but it’s meant to supplement the human experience, not serve as a substitute for it. We were not meant to wander this world alone, no matter how far we roam, and travel can give you hope in humanity like no other experience. Ask for help. Mention the street for your lodging, or the grocery store you passed on your way there, or your favorite cafe. People from all walks of life will, I promise you, literally stop what they’re doing to help you. They will put down their phones, stand up, and escort you to the corner, where they’ll mime the way for you. When you walk as far as you can on their suggestions, stop and ask someone else. It’s intimidating, but not difficult: just pretend people are your own personal google maps. You’ll be surprised how helpful and affirming an experience it will be.
When you find your way back, you’ll have learned two things: first, getting lost is disorienting, but it’s the fear of it that gives it so much power, and you have an incredible amount of control over that. Secondly, the world around you – even a new part of the world – is by and large very friendly. It’s happy to help you. Thank the people who took time out of their lives to help you find your way.
And the next day, do it all over again.