18: The Lost Art of Getting Lost

In the 1960’s, if you wanted to meet another traveller on the hippie trail it took a little work. If you knew where they were going to be, then you could send a message poste-restante; you could communicate via a third party back home; or you could leave a message on one of the trail’s noticeboards on the trail, such as the one in Istanbul’s Pudding Shop.

Reading the accounts of the Beats in their globe-trotting days, it’s striking how convoluted some of the arrangements were. The modern world’s communications are so much faster – cheap telephones, mobiles and email have made everything more connected. You can be sitting in a cafe in Nepal and an SMS will arrive asking if you’re coming down the pub that afternoon. At home, the way people arrange to meet have changed too. The complicated arrangements of my teenage years are so far back it’s hard to recall how much work went into them, how difficult it was to work around train delays.

Another change surrounds being lost. I’m not sure where I first encountered the idea – probably Warren Ellis – that there is a generation of people growing up who will never experience being lost. Now our phones can tell us where we are and, even when the battery fails, passers-by have their own phones, making their directions reliable. I can remember being overwhelmed by London, when the only option to find a place was sneaking into a newsagents and flicking through an A-Z; now, the Internet and my phone collaborate to lead me through streets I’ve never seen. Their maps update instantly, telling me what the traffic is like at the very moment. I can now phone ahead to an appointment to say that I’m delayed.

I wouldn’t ever want to give up this technology, the benefits far outweighing the losses. But there is a certain type of being lost that I love. All but my most recent trip to India were made without a phone. Nobody knew where I was and I couldn’t send messages if I was stranded. I would pass beautiful landscapes and have no idea where they were, stop at tiny stations whose names were written only in the Hindi script that I’ve only recently learned to read. At moments like that I felt free.

In Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost she quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” We will soon need to teach ourselves new techniques for getting lost.

If you want to follow what I'm up to, sign up to my mailing list

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *