Updated: May 19
Despite rapidly improving mapping programs and good ol' physical maps, there are times when we need the assistance of a local. Directions are given in a myriad of ways and with varying degrees of accuracy. Some people will include time estimates, some prefer to estimate distance. Very often directions are given using a local landmark, or a description of markers along the route. Some people give incredibly detailed and precise directions. I've been sent in the wrong direction or directed up a steep hill. A few helpers have been quite vague... and one fellow sent us on an absolutely treacherous "scenic" route.
Iceland was a particular challenge for navigation. Road names can be long... longer than fits on a road sign or a map, so one or both might be abbreviated. Often the abbreviation is different on the map than it is on the road, just for an extra challenge. For drivers, those crafty Icelanders put town names on very low signs hammered into the ground about 100m before you need to turn. The much more noticeable big blue signs name various businesses and amenities offered.
Every set of directions given in Falkirk Scotland used the Union Chippie as a reference point. We were directed to turn or drive past this elusive fish and chip shop on our way to everywhere. We never found the chippie. We were convinced it didn't exist. I googled and was shocked to discover there actually is a Union Chippie, although it's the New Union Chippie... in a small shop in a strip mall. Note to the people of Falkirk: The Union Chippie is not the fabulous landmark you think it is.
In a different incident, a helpful man told us to go "through the stupid dottie thing" (read that with a strong Scots accent). Since my travel buddy and navigator was listening intently and nodding, I assumed she understood. She didn't and was relying upon me for the translation from Scots. We eventually figured out that the stupid dottie thing was the mini roundabout marking, painted on the road. We spent the next 4 weeks giggling every time we saw one. There are a lot of stupid dottie things in the UK.
A delightful young man in Saint John, New Brunswick insisted on walking us right to the door of the market we were seeking, even though he had obviously been heading in a completely different direction. On the pleasant 10 minute walk, he charmed us with a lively tour including many recommendations for shopping, food, nature walks, coffee, and market merchants to visit. He shared a few funny stories and one very strong warning. He pointed and said very seriously "You ladies are not to go down there. That's a hurtin' street..." The phrase "hurtin' street" has become a descriptive part of my vocabulary.
Perhaps one of the most confusing directions given is very common in English-speaking countries. A traveller will be directed to head "down" the road, or that the museum is just "up" the street... and things may be "uptown" or "downtown." The speaker knows precisely what direction that is however the traveller sees a flat road with no hint of a hill or valley. You tell me... which is up and which is down? Just as confusing are those direction-givers who seem to think I have an internal compass as I'm told to go north or south. Do other people actually know compass directions instinctively? Is that a thing?
Sometimes, the directions given are not helpful but once in a while, they are wrong, wrong, wrong. In the Seville train station, a local ex-pat offered assistance as we were consulting a paper map. She wasn't familiar with the address but, eager to be helpful, checked her phone and sent us off. After walking with heavy backpacks for almost an hour under the scorching Spanish sun, we eventually made it to our lodgings.... about a 3 minute walk from the station.
The absolute worst and most terrifying example of getting bad directions takes us back to Iceland. It was later afternoon and we were ready to find our campsite for the night. When we made a quick stop for gas and a soft drink, the nice gentleman suggested a much better route than the one we had planned following the Ring Road. He assured us it was more direct, more scenic, and much more pleasant than the next portion of the highway. We had no reason to trust him, but we did. Within moments of pulling off the Ring Road, the "road" became a mud path. The van wheels hit the mud and wet slate and slid around like a drunken ice-skater. I swear all four wheels were going in different directions! I gripped the steering wheel, gritted my teeth, and we eventually made it safely to the other side. I don't know what that dude was used to driving but it sure as hell wasn't a camper van. If my curses work, he should still be picking fleas from his tender areas. Mapping programs are getting better, and one day very soon, we may never need to ask for assistance and directions. We will no longer be confused or lost in foreign places. However, I am not sure that I'm eager for that day. I won't miss being sent on the wrong or dangerous path but I will miss the interactions with friendly locals and some great stories. I'm sure to need directions after following a scenic route... I do (usually) love a scenic route.
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