By Brett Younger
One way to explore a new city is to take a wrong turn, get lost, and discover new places by trying to figure out how to get back to the one place you know. This is something Carol and I tried shortly after getting to Santiago. Our experience was complicated by several factors.
I have no sense of direction — nada, ninguno, cero.
A few days after arriving in this city of six million I went to several convenience stores, a metro stop, and a tourism center (!) asking for a map only to be told “No. Es dificil.”
The GPS on my phone doesn’t work south of Florida.
I do not see well enough to read the tiny letters on the tiny street signs that show up at random intersections.
It was late at night. It was not late when we got lost, but I understand now why elderly people don’t drive at night.
We were in a country where we speak only a few words of the language and recognize even fewer. For instance, to an uneducated ear listening to high speed Chilean Spanish, derecho/right sounds a lot like recto/straight ahead. I do know Estoy perdido/I am lost, which I used repeatedly.
The people we asked for directions were more amused by my pigeon Spanish than distressed at our predicament.
I stopped at a WalMart where the parking lot attendant found it hard to believe that anyone could get where we were while wanting to be where we wanted to be.
A woman taking out her trash was certain it was at least sixty kilometers, which sounds pretty far, to our house.
I tried to ask a street juggler at a busy intersection for directions, but he refused to break character. He seemed to think I was disparaging his art.
I stopped at an outdoor café where a young woman thought, “¿Me puedes ayudar? Yo quiero ir a casa/Can you help me? I want to go home” was the worst pickup line she had ever heard.
We live two blocks from the tallest building in South America. You might think this would make it easy to get home, but our lighthouse turns out the lights when it’s dark.
Chile feels no need to note the direction of the highway on which you are traveling. For instance, I spent a significant amount of time assuming that Costanera Norte went north and that if you were going the other direction it would be Costanera Sur, but this is not the case. (I have begun to suspect confusing signage is a clever way to encourage public transportation.)
Streets change names every few blocks for no discernible reason.
There are two roads named Americo Vespucio. One of them does not go where we needed to go.
One of the streets I most needed, La Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins, is always called Alameda, because who wants to keep saying La Avenida Libertador General Bernardo O’Higgins? It’s still unclear why someone from Atlanta should be expected to know this.
We came really close to looking for a taxi and paying to follow them.
We eventually got home, but I have been lost frequently enough in the last three months to have time to reflect on this experience. A variety of religious faiths use the journey home as a metaphor for salvation. Jesus talked more about people being “lost” than being “sinners.” The language of lostness is worth reclaiming if we recognize the despair of getting lost and the joy of finding our way home.