Without Directions

Traveling usually involves departing from point A and arriving at point B. In the hectic days filled with errands and responsibilities, we look for maps and directions that will tell us the most efficient way to get to our desired destination. However, when the luxury of a little bit of extra time allows, it can be refreshing to step away from the directions and wander. Not only do we give ourselves time to enjoy unexpected surprises that might pop-up, but we remember to trust our intuition and internal compass.

Humans have drawn and gazed at maps for centuries. From the roughest scribbles of ink on scraps of paper, shaped into outlines of city blocks and the wiggly form of arrows that provide a sense of direction, to the precise, detailed topological lines on geographical maps, stacked into dense textures, we use maps to realize where we are and how we get from here to there. Today, interactive maps glow from the screens of phones and tablets, nimbly swiveling left and right as we move, following us like a reassuring local guiding us obediently to our destination. Maps are meant to guide us, to demonstrate a sense of scale and location, and define the next steps we take.

Despite the safety and security afforded from knowing the lay of the land and the way of the road, there is something to be said about the anxiety and thrill that comes from navigating a puzzle or venturing into the unknown. The undiscovered frontier is tempting, and whether this frontier refers to the continents across the seas (Columbus) or the plains beyond the mountains (Lewis and Clark), we push through and forge new paths.

Of course, much of the world has been mapped and studied, and there are not many unexplored faces of the earth remaining that no man has ever been. As individuals travel through, they take along memories and experiences, then leave behind their traces. We are awash in quickly-snapped pictures, raving reviews, and painstaking itineraries that create a bubble of familiarity when we navigate a new place. Such recommendations and tips are helpful: they keep us safe and warn of the unsavory. But what is it like without them?

Imagine that you are walking down a street that splits before you. On your left is a stairway, on your right an alley lined with restaurant awnings, and ahead of you, storefronts with brilliant signs. Let us assume that there is no particular place you have to be, and that time is not of the essence. Which way would you choose to go? Your decision would probably be colored by your personality and preferences, and the decision to turn left or right or head straight on would be dependent on your whims. There is something to be said about having the luxury of time and the mobility to explore wherever your curiosity takes you, without an agenda driving you to follow a prescribed path.

Traveling without directions is about more than fulfilling our desires. There is an allure in finding something unexpected, or stumbling across a surprise. Even more so, traveling without directions removes us from our daily context and creates a new framework in which to visualize ourselves and our surroundings. Consider that forgoing a map requires confidence in yourself, an understanding that you might get lost, but a belief that you will find your way again. It requires trust in your sense of intuition and the inherent navigational skills of the human body. It invokes an awareness for where you are, and remembering where you have been.

Modern day life is permeated by directives and prescriptions for a successful life. In society, people carry titles, are defined by their occupations, and are tied by who they know and who they are related to. We have become obsessed with knowing every intimate detail of who we are as individuals, tracking everything from calories to sleeping minutes with numbers, and recording where we have been in pictures with dates and locations stamped onto them with the fidelity of a record-keeper. In a world where you are supposed to belong in your own specialized niche, traveling without directions creates a welcome respite from always having to know who you are, why you are here, and what you are doing. This creates a freedom to leave behind these constraints and truly see what is around you.

Streets of Venice

I. Venice, Italy

Several months ago, I was in Italy for a conference. At the encouragement of colleagues and friends, I had decided to embark on the two-hour train ride to Venice on one of my spare days. Seven AM on a Friday morning found me on the train, traveling by myself, and speaking no Italian. My sum knowledge about Venice was as follows: it sits on water, the train brings me directly into its heart, and that the purchase of a highly detailed map is recommended to navigate its canals, side alleys, and squares, which are usually diminutive enough to lack reference on a standard tourist’s overview map—but that I’d get lost even with a map. That wasn’t a comforting notion for first-time lone traveler, with a train to catch the same afternoon and a shuttle to board for the airport in twenty-four hours. However, I had found, during my last minute internet browsing the evening before, that asking locals and store-owners for directions every few turns generally worked out quite well for finding your way to any destination. Furthermore, I had stumbled across an odd recommendation, which was to traverse the city with the intention of getting lost, and then worry about getting back to wherever-it-was later. Upon arriving and finding that even using the restroom required a couple of euros, I dispensed with the purchase of any map at all and simply turned into the first side street I found that would remove me from the widest roads, congested with tourists.

Alleyways in Venice

My first steps took me alongside the walls of homes and businesses, many displaying pots filled to the brim with the jeweled tones of flowers, spilling from balconies and windows. I ventured further into the winding alleyways, often flanked by buildings several stories high that cast shade and shadow over pedestrian routes. I would hear locals and tourists before I would see them, the sounds of foreign languages bouncing off of walls and corners reminding me that I would need to squeeze to one side of the narrow walkway when we eventually met and passed one another. Every one hundred or so paces, I would be confronted with the option to turn. Some turns would take me into a small square or courtyard, usually with a small store or a dribbling water fountain. From the open windows drifted sounds of morning conversation, dishwashing, radio music. Occasionally, I would find myself at a familiar junction; had I already been here? I would take a different turn, and disappear into a new passageway.

One alleyway introduced me to the methods of Venetian trash collection. Little plastic bags, neatly tied and round with refuse, sat on the doorways and steps. Ahead of me, a man pushed a large wheelbarrow-shaped bin, reaching down and tossing the bags into his cart as he went. In a city where emergency vehicles often have hulls rather than wheels and canals are wider than streets, this appeared to be the solution to a potential problem of maneuvering garbage trucks through tight spaces.

Courtyard in Venice

One of my favorite surprises that day was a little bookstore. Tables and crates of prints and postcards, sitting outside in the sun, were the first to catch my attention. I thumbed through a series of botanical prints, some nestled in crisp plastic protectors, then through long boxes of black and white postcards, many of them from decades ago. Some were black and white photographs, others were miniature reproductions of famous works of art set in embossed borders, like frames made of paper. I stepped indoors, where stacks of old sheet music and books in various languages were jammed together on shelf-lined walls. By the doorway, behind a couple boxes of old photos, I found a dozen or so canvas postcards, individually painted and dated on the back to the 1960’s. When I left with a handful of prints and postcards, I felt a satisfaction of having found something treasured and special—only to turn back, an hour later, to purchase a few more.

Columns in Venice

II. Sequence, Richard Serra

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

Mazes are curious objects. Some are drawn on paper, displaying an array of lines and patterns. Others are large, constructed to allow people to move through them, rather than to allow people to watch from above. They are designed with a puzzle in mind, inviting the curious to wander inside and teasing them with twists and turns, presenting them with the ultimate satisfaction of finding their way to the goal on the other side.

Man-made mazes are odd in that they welcome the experiences of being disoriented or lost. They do not have to be expansive to create such feelings. Not too long ago, I wandered through Richard Serra’s sculpture, Sequence, in San Francisco’s new Museum of Modern Art. Made of massive steel plates that dwarf the visitors that walk inside, it twists and coils, with walls leaning away or toward the viewer in a way that makes you feel like you, too, should lean sideways as you pass through. From the outside, I had a sense of its size; although expansive, it is encapsulated in a room, which led me to believe that walking through it would take a brief moment. On the contrary, when I stepped inside and followed its curves and turns, I was bemused by how long I felt like I was inside. Sometimes, I would pause and look up at the ceiling, squinting at the tops of the windows that peered over the steel sculpture, trying to regain my sense of orientation. Which way was I facing? When, exactly, had I been turned around? The sculpture isn’t a maze in the sense that there are paths to choose; there is really only a single pathway through it. However, as I wound my way through, I experienced the same loss of direction, and I was surprised when I suddenly emerged on the other side. Somehow, I also felt a sense of triumph, as if I had discovered the way out of something larger than me.

Rooftops of Venice

All images were taken in Venice, Italy.

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