You just landed in a foreign country after a 57 1/2 hour flight from Des Moines.
You’re tired. You’re hungry. You’re jet-lagged.
You manage to get through immigration and schlep your bags onto the metro. You emerge from the bowels of the subway into the blinding sunlight…and realize you have no idea where you are.
Sound familiar? Getting lost in a foreign city happens to the best of us, the rest of us, and the most seasoned of travelers.
We all get disoriented sometimes.What do you do when you don’t know where you are?
1. Don’t panic
First of all, you are in a city, not an Amazonian jungle. There is food and shelter (and probably a McDonalds) on every corner. Relax. Everything is going to turn out just fine.
2. Ask the locals
Not only are people almost always willing to help, asking for directions gives you a great excuse to talk to folks if you are feeling lonely.
If you’re female and feeling a bit scared, perhaps ask a local woman. This is a good way to practice your foreign language skills anyway (always learn the most important words: ‘thank you,’ ‘hello’, ‘excuse me’).
Don’t worry about a language barrier. If you are reading this article, you are fortunate enough to know a language that is spoken all over the world, and a smile is universal.
3. Look for big landmarks
In cities like Chicago, New York, and Paris there are some pretty tall, famous buildings usually visible no matter where you stand that can help you get your bearings.
Even the roughest New Yorkers sometimes emerge from the subway and need to find the Empire State Building so that they can orientate themselves and continue to the Carnegie Deli.
4. Pack a compass
Break out your trusty old compass, or go old school and seek out the sun. No matter where you are in the world, the sun will always set in the west (I’m making the assumption you aren’t lost at the North or South Pole).
If you know the general layout of the city, you can walk until you reach a river, park or major avenue.
5. Check out the tourist information office
Even if you’re not lost (yet) drop by this helpful place, if for no other reason than to get a good map. These goldmines of free maps and advice are typically located in airports and in train and bus stations.
6. Prepare in advance
If you are staying at a hotel that was recommended by your guidebook, there is often a city map in the book with the hotels marked on it.
While you are biding your time on the 10 hour train, bus, or airplane ride to your next destination, see where your lodging is on the map in relation to where you are coming into town and make a plan on how you will get from point A to point B.
7. Grab a business card
When you first check into your hostel or hotel, always take a business card (so you have the address and phone number with you at all times-to show taxi drivers, etc.) and also find the hotel on your map and mark it.
8. Retrace your steps
Always make a mental note of landmarks as you pass them, so that you can retrace your steps later if necessary.
9. Find a local pub or bar
Sit down. Take a load off. Have a drink. Repeat. You will start to feel better, I promise. And of course, you can then ask the bartender or friendly local next to you for some help.
10. Stay lost
You’re traveling! You’re in a city! How lost can you really be? Open yourself to serendipity and just wander around, taking in the sights and soaking up the vibe of the new place.
One of the best things about travel is embracing the unexpected, and being ‘lost’ is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, in most cases losing your bearings leads to a fun adventure.
Imagine you’re a contestant on the Amazing Race, even though there’s no prize money at the end.
Some final thoughts…
Figuring out a new city, its infrastructure, its transportation options, and its layout can sometimes be frustrating, but also quite rewarding once you master the system.
I always feel like entering a new country presents a fun, new challenge and if you can find your way in a place like Hanoi…well, you will feel like you can do just about anything.