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Her World

Some Lessons in the Art of Getting Lost in Strange Places

October 11, 1998|SUSAN SPANO | TIMES TRAVEL WRITER

I have a good sense of direction, like a dog, which comes in handy when I'm away. Still, landing in a foreign city where you don't speak the language and can't even read street signs is likely to turn any traveler into a panicked preschooler separated from Mom.

To help me get my bearings, I carry a map, a guidebook and a foreign language phrase book, all of which I study closely during the plane trip. Not only does it pass the time, but it enables me to hit the ground running when I reach my destination, with vital information fresh in my mind.

This approach served me well about five years ago when I landed in Sofia, Bulgaria, discombobulated by jet lag. In the airport, a throng of shifty-looking, aggressive taxi drivers tried to convince me to let them take me into town. Instead, for about 10 cents I caught a public bus that dropped me off by a bridge in the eastern part of the city. Most signs had Cyrillic (Slavic) lettering, and those that were in the Roman alphabet didn't appear on my map (the names of many streets had changed after the fall of the Soviet regime). Nevertheless, on my map I located the bridge where I stood, and proceeded to use parks and other landmarks to orient myself. Eventually I found my way to the main tourist office, where I booked a hotel.

Most experienced travelers advise that you reserve a hotel room before you arrive in a foreign city and take a taxi straight there, as opposed to relying on inexpensive--and occasionally erratic--airport buses, as I did when I arrived in New Delhi last year. It only cost about 30 cents, but when it dropped me off near Connaught Place I couldn't figure out which way to walk to get to the New Delhi YMCA, where I had a reservation. And the driver of a motorized rickshaw who said he'd take me to the "Y" in his rickety moped-powered cart later claimed that it had closed, in an effort to drop me instead at a hotel where he could claim a commission. I figured out his scam and gave him a piece of my mind--but it made for a rather shaky start to my visit.

Even veteran budget traveler Rick Steves, author of "Europe Through the Back Door" (John Muir Publications, $19.95), often takes airport taxis because an efficient arrival is one thing that's worth the expense, he believes. Steves also reconfirms his hotel reservation by e-mail or fax, not only to make sure he's got a bed for the night but to request directions and, when available, a map.

To avoid unsettling, Kafkaesque arrivals, and to help orient himself in a new city, Rudy Maxa, the host of National Public Radio's "Savvy Traveler," uses centrally located grand hotels (such as the Plaza, on Central Park South in New York) as geographical touchstones. There, he says, you're likely to find taxicabs and a concierge (willing to help anyone who wanders in, with a $20 tip up front). The neighborhoods around a city's ritziest hotels are generally well heeled, with locals used to handling foreign tourists. And even if you can't afford to stay in a luxurious landmark such as Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel, you can use the bathroom there and have a cup of tea while plotting your next step.

This was precisely my plan one polluted October morning two years ago when I landed in Beijing. I was by myself and traveling on a budget, so I didn't want to take a cab. Besides, I like riding those slow airport buses, my map in hand, because it gives me a chance to talk to people and begin orienting myself. Still, I find it ironic that (according to my Webster's) one of the definitions of the verb "orient" is to turn to the east. Almost every time I've traveled to the Orient, I've gotten hopelessly lost.

By the time I landed in Beijing after a 22-hour flight from New York, I'd memorized the Chinese 'I like riding those slow airport buses, my map in hand, because it gives me a chance to talk to people and begin orienting myself.'

characters for north, south, east, west and the numbers one through 10. I knew there was an airport bus that passed by the big, Western-style Beijing Hotel near Tiananmen Square and, in a general way, how to walk from there to my own cheap little inn on a winding alleyway about a mile north.

So when the rattletrap bus stopped at the revolving door of what I took to be the Beijing Hotel, I alighted, shouldered my bag, and gamely set off. But soon the street I'd chosen turned into a narrow alley and took a swing in the wrong direction. Sweat collected on my brow, and people started staring.

I read somewhere that the more lost you get, the more you have invested in staying lost. If you just carry on a little farther, you'll come out right, you think. So I went on, far too long, until I finally surrendered and hailed a cab. Later, I realized that I'd mistaken the Beijing Toronto Hotel for the Beijing Hotel--meaning that if I'd kept walking, I probably wouldn't have figured out I'd gone wrong until I hit my head against the Great Wall.

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