There are good ways of getting lost, and there are bad ones. If in a good way, getting lost is like a bonus track of an album, like something extra to enjoy on top of a thing already immensely enjoyable.
While my hard work desperately looking for a place had too often come to be an exercise of futility, in an area and at a time that I feel safe, and as long as there is no rush of getting back on track, I would let go of my reasons and submit to my gut feelings to go astray consciously, like tying off a boat and let it drift away. From that moment, I stop predicting what might come my way. Very often, when I stop trying hard to find the route to my destination, the place I want to go would appear right before my eyes, like a magician’s trick, at some point of my wild wander. In a pleasurable off-course adventure like this, the best ending would be to see a friendly local standing right around the corner when I need to find someone to show me the way back. For a few lucky times, it actually happened this way.
Some places are better locations if you ever have a choice as to where to get lost. Small towns in Europe and in Central or South America, for example, are great destinations when it comes to this. Indeed, the generally uniform architectural styles in these towns make them likely contenders to be the best getting-lost locations. The good thing is, even if you are lost, you can never go too far adrift in these towns given their small size. Plus, they are usually safe to roam around for solo travelers. Turning off your antenna on the lookout for tourist attractions, you might find the real beauty of these towns in a random winding alley or a decrepit building that is never marked on map.
As for big cities, the best locations to go astray are probably those with subways. At whatever spot you start feeling tired after a series of detours, or when your feet feel like retiring, the subway sign is the most comforting thing to see when you want to end your adventure. You can always place your trust in the subway that it will bring you home, wherever it is.
At the end of an adventure, everybody wants to be home, isn’t it?
Trinidad is a beautiful town in Central Cuba. Colonial houses neatly line the cobblestone streets in the town centre. If you consciously eliminate the slightly dilapidated state of the facades or the coarse interiors of the once gorgeous buildings out of the corner of your eyes, you might easily feel lost in space with an illusion of being transposed from a remote tropical town to a refined neighbourhood somewhere in Spain.
Sprawling out from the centre, you find closely-knitted single-story houses bordering the two sides of the grid-like streets. Stopping at a junction, your eyes sweep through the view of the outdated decor of a grocery and the meagre supplies at the counter. Now you move your eyes back to the street. There you find the fascinating scene of a bunch of happy kids running after each other under the scorching sun, their skin glowing and their frizzled hair gone wild. Now the clues are too obvious to ignore and you know that you are in Latin America, afterall.
As you walk on, you feel like you are wandering in a life-size fairy-tale village town. The exterior of the otherwise plain-looking houses are painted in a saturation of brilliant tones, like they are covered by candy wrappers. You find honey yellow, carrot, apple green, peach, all delicious colours. Embraced by these cheerful hues every day, one would expect the people living here can hardly be too upset by anything.
As with most other towns in Central and South America, the main plaza marks the centre of the town, where all kinds of social activities take place. From late afternoon, the plaza starts to buzz. In their makeshift playing field, young men juggle and dribble with a worn-out soccer ball. Under the shades of a palm tree, a cluster of middle-aged men chat with animated gestures, their cold beer and cigarettes in hand. On the benches, the elderly park themselves comfortably, enjoying the last sunshine before the sun recedes slowly behind the belt of mountains in the background.
The plaza is the best spot in town to watch sunset. The Parroquial Church is the only prominent landmark in the plaza. Right next to the Church is a wide cascade of stairs. When the golden hue of the falling sun generously splashes all over the plaza, tinting the church facade from creamy yellow to a palette of harvest gold, the outstretched stairs become a blank canvass for the people to play with their dancing shadows while their silhouettes grow longer and longer – a surrealistic ad-lib magic show to watch.
When the night falls, the vibe of Plaza Mayor heats up further. The best entertainment in town is about to begin. Tourists and locals fill almost every inch of the stairs after dinner, waiting to see the plaza turn into an open-air dance floor.
As soon as the first note of salsa music flows, happy couples walk to the centre of the plaza with joining arms and snappy feet, bodies move in sync with the rhythm, ready to dance the night away.
A lighthearted mood soon spreads across the plaza. Even if you are too shy to show your dance moves, you can easily forget the time and spend your whole night just perching on the stairs, soaking in the party music and breathing in the cool air.
It is almost eleven-thirty. I have been chilling on the stairs for a few hours. I have finished my last sip of mojito. My feet have been tapping with the salsa beat all evening that they start to get sore. I am still in a cheery mood, but I know it is time to retreat.
The place I am staying is not far. From Plaza Mayor, I reckon it is just a matter of a few turns. When I left the B&B in the afternoon, I cautiously took in all the distinctive features around the place by heart. I forced everything I saw into my visual memory – the sign of the grocery at the corner, the colors of the walls of the neighbouring houses, and the design of the grille of my B&B, so that I would be able to find the way back. With my pitiful sense of orientation, it is just sensible to be extra careful.
Currently I look around. At this hour, the town looks utterly different from the one in daytime. Street lamps are there, but they are much dimmer than they should be. My hand torch is neither too helpful. Wherever I move it, it lets out feebly a narrow beam that lights up only one tiny spot at a time.
I start to recall the memory of my way to the plaza, in reverse, and follow a long and narrow street. I turn when it crosses with another. A long and narrow street with the same single-story houses on both sides emerges. Then another.
And then I do not know where I am anymore.
The charming colours on the outer walls of the houses that look like candy wrappers in daytime are no longer distinguishable, and are replaced by a monotone of blackness in varying shades. All the houses now look no different than one another. There is no other landmark to locate.
The night grows deeper. A couple of men are chatting at the corner of the street in front. My eyes watch them unflinchingly but I keep walking. They do not seem to take any interest in my approach. I know it might be my only chance at this late hour to find someone to ask for direction, but I would rather not. Getting lost can be dangerous, but letting random strangers know that you are lost can be far more dangerous. When I am getting close, I take care to straighten up myself even more and force that extra-confident look. I act as if I know where I am going. The fact is, I don’t.
After that corner where the few men gather, I walk further on, and the street gets even quieter.
I am now consumed by a maze of darkness.
Panic overwhelms me. This is not good. I hear my inner voice forcing myself to try to find my reasons.
‘Think! Think!’ I am telling myself.
I try to get back my composure, and my brain tries to rearrange the mess of things inside my head. I know the B&B should not be that far from the plaza. I must stop walking further. I search my visual memory, and recall the sight of some warm light seeping through the windows of some houses when I walked up here.
My head becomes clear. I must get myself out of this unending darkness. Turn back and find the light!
I turn around. My eyes are now focused on just one task. The warm light of one house is beckoning me through the lace curtains from not far off. I get closer, and faintly make out through the curtains the shape of an elderly couple watching TV.
Tentatively I give a knock on the door. I tell the old man the street name of my B&B and ask for his help.
I have been right. The B&B is indeed not far. The only thing I got it all wrong is to forget that my own sense of direction in the night will get even worthless than in daytime. I do not know myself enough, afterall.