I got lost in Helsinki yesterday. On purpose.
The desire to do this started after getting lost by mistake. In 2010, after walking through the grounds of the Grand Palace in Bangkok, my friend Marty and I tried to find a tuk-tuk driver to take us back to our hotel.
(For the uninitiated: the tuk-tuk is a small open-air vehicle, a motorbike with a cart behind it. It’s the modern equivalent of the rickshaw. The prices for a tuk-tuk ride are negotiated each time.)
The palace has many visitors and the drivers try to charge ridiculously high prices because people will pay them. After trying four times to negotiate a lower (and legitimate) price, we decided we’d take a bus.
We were clueless about Thai buses. But we hopped on one, paid the fare (I think it was 8 Thai baht, the equivalent of 25¢ in the U.S.) The bus driver didn’t speak English, so we asked people around us if they spoke English, to no avail. Finally, someone yelled out, in Thai, toward the other bus riders. When no one responded he looked at us and shook his head no. Even people who don’t speak a language understand when someone is asking if they speak that language.
We settled into our seats in that very hot and un-airconditioned bus as it drove deeper into the city. The Thai language on the street signs, though beautiful to look at, was useless.
Here are three examples: ซอย, ถนน, and ตรอก. These are the Thai words, respectively, for “side street” (soi) “major street” (thanon) and “alley” (thok.)
I asked Marty if he thought he would recognize the tops of buildings near our hotels. He thought he might and so we scanned the skyline to discover something familiar.
I realized we were lost, and I felt something surging through me, a mix of excitement and fear. We didn’t have the address of our hotels with us. My mind was racing as I tried to figure out how to get back. It seemed as if my whole body — all of my senses — became focused on figuring out a solution. I remember feeling so alive.
Now I lose myself in every new city I visit.
Yesterday, in Helsinki I walked down Bulevardi then turned and kept going this-way-then-that-way willy-nilly till I was completely lost. I felt that zap of excitement when I don’t know where I am. My observational powers go into hyperdrive. I was conscious of every bend in the road, every window and sign and shop name. I looked closely at everything.
I noticed smells, too. Once, Bill and I got lost while driving backroads in North Carolina. We found our way back by smelling for the aroma of baking bread. Near the house we had rented was a huge pastry warehouse that reeked of sugar and yeast. We rolled down the windows and followed our noses back home.
Like in Thailand, Finland street names aren’t helpful, but for a different reason. They’re too lengthy for me to memorize. Korkeavuroenkatu is an example. I’m sure some travelers could do it.
Marty and I found our way back to the hotel, of course. It required getting off the bus (we thought we recognized some buildings) but we’d made a mistake, and we walked for a couple of miles through fascinating neighborhoods. Some parts of Bangkok are new and modern; other parts are dilapidated and feel as if you’ve been transported back to some earlier time.
We considered getting a cab but didn’t have the address of the hotel. This was back in the dark ages (five — cough — years ago) when cell phones didn’t readily connect to the internet.
We wondered if a cab driver would recognize the name of our hotel? We hailed a taxi, and the driver spoke a little English. He didn’t recognize our hotels, but we were lucky. He was willing to help us.
As he drove us around we played “Is that it?” in the backseat. His calls to central dispatch were unsuccessful. That taxi driver was a hoot — he enjoyed the fun of it, and his English was strong enough to play along. He even turned off the meter.
I remember how intensely aware of my surroundings I became after getting lost on that bus. The feeling is addicting.
Next time you’re traveling, get lost. For once, leave the cell phone behind. Discover your own resourcefulness. The objective is to create the puzzle, and then solve it. It’s an adrenaline rush.