The Importance of Getting Lost

That last afternoon in Alexandria, Egypt, wandering back to town from the catacombs of Kom Ash-Shuqqafa, smiling children just getting out of school for the day approached me in the narrow alleys, on the streets, one by one. “Hello, mister. What is your name?” they said in tentative, hopeful English. “Hello, mister. Where are you from?” School kids in Egypt are always smiling, always friendly, always eager to practice their English. They say hello and smile, and are happy if you say hello to them. These children followed and took turns greeting me, until they’d all had their chance to speak to me and the time had come to part ways.

At the corner I turned west, or north — I couldn’t tell which. Opposite from where I had come from earlier. I wasn’t going back past the butchers and mechanics. All I knew was I was near the top of a hill. Below me lay the city spilling out onto the seashore like an Islamic crescent along the Mediterranean. I followed the avenue and the useless sun. After a half hour’s walking, I turned right onto a wide boulevard. Follow the main streets when you lose your bearings. Stay with the crowds. Businesses and banks, people getting off work, cars honking their horns. I was going downhill … in the general direction.

Three days before in Luxor, I walked the length of town following the avenue of Sphinxes between the Luxor Temple in the center and the Temples of Karnak to the north. Where the sphinxes ran out, and the dirty roads became impassable — where even the caliche drivers won’t follow — I took a detour, beside a ditch where the archaeologists were digging for more lost sphinxes. Some small boys came up to me. “Hello, mister,” they said. “Give me a dollar.” These were not smiling school kids. They walked with me, offering guidance. They steered me the wrong way. They only wanted money. I paid them off in small change and ink pens. Something to tell their friends about.

If you don’t get hopelessly lost at least once on a journey, you really haven’t been there at all.I remember a former girlfriend getting mad at me in Sevilla. We had crossed the river to view the other half of the city. We were wandering, and she was getting tired. We were looking for a flamenco bar a taxi driver had told us about the night before, an authentic, nontourist place in the working part of the city. It was getting late, and she was mad because I wouldn’t ask for directions. I knew we were lost, but it was a nice afternoon and I was enjoying the walk among the parks, apartment towers, and little bars and cafes.

Getting lost is part of the adventure. If you don’t get hopelessly lost at least once on a journey, you really haven’t been there at all. You see another side of things. You meet people that way. You see how people live. You stand out for a while, but people respect that. You just have to be smart about it. If it looks unsafe, go back the way you came — or better yet, hail a taxi. Don’t go out alone to unfamiliar places after dark. Stay on busy streets and in well-lit areas. If you get too lost, ask a merchant or cafe waiter. Or get a cab.

Back in Alexandria, the boulevard bent, revealing the corniche below. Beyond the rushing cars, the sea glistened in the late afternoon sun, the fishing boats coming back to the harbor. At the top end of the corniche, the fortress beckoned, only an hour before the sun set.

Photo: Medina, Fes, Morocco.

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