Walking in The Urban Jungle: A Guide To Getting Lost in Cities.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir

Getting lost is one of mankind’s biggest fears, be it in the woods like a children’s fairy-tale, or in the maze of unknown streets in a very real city.

Getting lost in a big city is a very strange, surprisingly scary feeling. You’re not confronted with the wild, there is no threat from nature, and except for the occasional surprise with traffic, you almost never end up being in direct danger. But there is still, at first, something scary about an unknown city.

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You see streets in perspective, buildings lined-up that don’t make any sense. Everything is unknown. Virgin. You’re a stranger. People live their lives and don’t pay attention to you, except maybe for a quick wandering look, an inquisitive ‘what are you doing here’ glance. And it reflects into you. You wonder what you’re doing here as well.

Some people find comfort in following the precise route mapped out by guide books, or in getting everything planned in advance, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, with a carefully designed itinerary. But no matter how well planned a walk in a foreign town is, you always find yourself more or less lost at some point. Add to this not speaking the local language, a different alphabet, a culture entirely different to yours, and you end up not only far away from where you’ve started, but also far out of your comfort zone!

I’ve been in this precise situation many times, like last April in Panama City:

I was walking around with a girl from Colombia who didn’t know the city either. We were walking around the old French district, made up by classically architectural buildings that reminded me of the streets of Bayonne in the Basque country, near my hometown. The neighbourhood is quite touristy and relatively safe. We walked around and after some time exploring the area, we decided to go see the bridge of the Americas, bringing together North and South America over the canal of Panama. We had a quick look at a map and decided to follow the shortest path. After a few minutes walking, we arrived at a local market, where we stopped for a bit. Getting out on the other end after 20 minutes wandering, we continued in the same direction and quickly realised the neighbourhood was a lot less friendly. We asked an old man who we saw at the market place if it was the right way upon which he told us, a little embarrassed, that this was a dangerous area. He waived at a police motorcycle passing by, ridden by 2 two heavily armed commando men. The old man explained to them where we were heading and they told us to follow them. The following 15 minutes were unreal. We walked through a rough neighbourhood, one of those they call ‘favelas’ in Brazil, escorted by the motorcycle, one of the commando men raising an automatic gun so that all would see it. We were afraid, more by the situation than the people who were just giving us surprised looks as we passed through. Looking back, I’m glad about getting lost here. It meant I got to witness parts of the real Panama, parts that they don’t advertise to tourists, parts that don’t make up the regular sightseeing bravado. It was probably safer to be escorted, but I wish I could have stayed longer in that neighbourhood and talked to some of those who lived there.

The fear you feel at first is the fear of the unknown. It’s natural, and the more you travel, the more you get accustomed to it, and it becomes not only a usual situation, but a situation you seek out and thrive in.

After all, not only bad things come from getting lost. It is a sure fine way to get the most out of a place, to see secrets that you might never have stumbled upon otherwise. Again, in the wild, it might become a dangerous or even deadly situation very fast. But in a busy town or city, it’s almost always safe to get lost. This experience in Panama might have been one of the rare exceptions which could have escalated into peril.

You end up walking to the end of the perspectives, making sense of these buildings lined-up. You start to figure out the town. You start to figure out the town. Take some time to stop where you want for food or just to talk with people on your way. If you wander long enough, you will end up in unmapped territory, parts of town beyond the display of landmarks and monuments for the flows of tourists. If you’re lucky, maybe even travel in time, back to the old pats of the cities. You’ll get to discover local shops, cheaper places to eat better food, maybe even make a friend or two on your way and be invited to drink and dance in a local samba club in Rio.

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More than all of this, you’ll get to feel the real city vibe. When you have been walking for a while, – even more when doing this by yourself – you become more aware of your surroundings, what is happening around, and your senses become more acute. Louis Aragon talks about this unexpected “moment” when you get caught into a place and your full awareness allows grasping all the little things that you otherwise let slip. Walking in cities allows slowing down the pace enough to find this moment and stopping where and when you feel like.

You may not be astonished by one wonderful panorama, but by thousands of little details and the endless flow of faces passing by. The fumes coming out the opening of the underground on a chilled winter morning. The smell of local pastries sold by an old woman in the street, the most delicious you’ll have had during your entire trip. A wonderful piece of street art at the corner of a lane. The reflection of yourself in front of a cute little shop, into the glasses of this giant skyscraper across the street. A few birds scared away and finding refugee far up on the cornerstone of an old building, drawing your attention to the details of the art, hand-made a few centuries ago, and putting you’re perspective into new dimensions, not only in space but also in time.

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When you walk in a city, never forget to look up. It’s almost always guaranteed you’ll discover a whole new dimension full of surprises. Maybe someone at their balcony, maybe a cool rooftop bar, maybe a hot air balloon passing by. It’s always interesting.

Likewise, don’t forget to open up to all of your senses. “The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” is a saying often attributed to Rudyard Kipling. I don’t know who did write it originally, but it is an important truth. Smells might not always be nice, but they define places more than anything else. They are the real, unfiltered and uncontrolled soul of a city. And if you pay attention to them, smells are often, along with the people you see, the most vivid memory you keep from a place you have visited.

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The people and the smells in the streets make for constant evolution, even if the architecture doesn’t change. And sometimes, passing by a familiar place at an unusual time builds a completely different atmosphere. I personally love going for a walk in the places I’ve lived for years, just to soak up my surroundings and take photographs. Photography is my excuse to spend a whole afternoon wandering in a familiar place. And every time, even in Pau where I’ve lived for more than 2 decades, I discover and rediscover things, streets and atmospheres.

So, I guess my point is get out there! Even if you’re home and can’t travel far away, walking in town is always an experience worth your time. And next time you’re traveling, give aimless wandering a try.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” – John Muir