Confessions of a Map-Challenged Traveler

Well, this is a little embarrassing.

I have a confession to make.

For all the hours I’ve spent in my life exploring unfamiliar cities on foot … for all the times I’ve led other people around the great cities of the world … for all the planning that goes into my daily itineraries … I have a rather serious deficiency in a kind of basic life skill.

My name is Vanessa, and I cannot follow maps.

Technically, I’m rarely truly lost. I have a pretty good internal compass; I can tell what direction I’m going in relative to where I’ve been, and I can always find my way back to wherever I started. I can follow directions given to me verbally (“turn right, then left”), as long as you point me in the proper direction first. Once I find my way somewhere, I’ll be able to find it again, even years later.

I can also read a map in the traditional sense of tracing a route from Point A to Point B on paper. But as soon as I try to implement that route on real streets, everything falls apart. Streets that I saw on paper disappear from my mental picture of the route. (I also can’t give directions very well, because I forget half the streets along the way.) And chances are good that if I think I need to go right to reach my destination, I actually need to go left.

I think the main problem is orientation, and figuring out where I am in relation to the map. I love the old bit from Friends where Joey has to “go into the map” in London (watch it here); I can relate.

You would think the map apps in smart phones would be a boon for someone like me, but often they make things worse, because you can’t “go into the map” (if you try to rotate your phone, the map moves, too). In Quito, I was able to pull up Google maps while I was in a café for lunch, so I could plot out how to get to the bus stop I wanted. I thought I had it figured out and I walked out of the café with confidence – in completely the wrong direction. I kept checking my map as I walked, but I couldn’t for the life of me find the street that was supposed to be right there! So finally I retraced my steps (I’m really good at retracing my steps) to where I had started twenty minutes earlier. Fortunately, there was a travel agency there, so I went inside and asked them (rather plaintively, I suspect) how to get to the bus stop. It had been so close; if only I had turned right out of the café, instead of left.

It was that experience in Quito that finally brought home this realization for me. And it occurred to me that I compensate for my weakness without consciously realizing it. For example, I rarely try to seek out specific restaurants or shops. Instead, I just choose a neighborhood and wander through it until I find something appealing. I’ve always thought that I was just being more spontaneous and open to discoveries, but truthfully, I think my subconscious has long been aware that my chances of finding a specific destination are slim, while the chances that I’ll get frustrated in the process are high.

Fortunately, if knowledge is power, then my acknowledgement of my map disability should help me navigate the cities of the world better – primarily by freeing me to hand the map to someone else.