21 Aug

Navigating Around The World

magnetic fields

Photo Credit: IKO


I reach the bottom of the stairs and turn right. Nothing is familiar.

Where is the little pond with the statue and waterfall? What about the cafe that was there just this morning? What has happened to all the landmarks that I so carefully memorized on my way up?

‘Where are you going?’ Jason asks patiently, as if we haven’t played this scene out a thousand times before.

‘Oh…I’m just checking out what’s over here’ I reply over my shoulder.

I hear a low, mumbling ‘Mmmmm, hmmmm’ from his direction as he waits for me to retrace my steps and join him.

‘Ready now?’

‘Yep’. Oh, there’s the pond…and the waterfall…and the cafe. I had just turned the wrong way…again.

I am awful at navigation. Beyond awful if truth be told.

I can almost always be sure that if I get to the bottom of a set of stairs, or come out of an elevator, or off an escalator, or am faced with an east/west/north/south exit ramp that I should go with my gut…and then promptly turn around and head in the exact opposite direction.

My mis-sense of direction is that strong. It’s like my internal compass has a permanent magnet near it; constantly steering me wrong and, even when right, it can’t be relied upon.

I try, I really try.

We recently moved to Calgary and I had heard that navigation is easy as the city is laid out in a grid with north, east, west, and south quadrants. Avenues run east/west and streets run north/south. Center street is, well, the center of the streets and the river marks the north/south determination. Easy, right?

I am a menace on the roads.

First off I must have the map oriented in the direction that I am driving. Of course that assumes that I know the direction I am driving. (I bought a globe compass for my dashboard to help with that piece. See…I am smart.)

Then I have to know which 54th and 7th I am heading to. Is it Ave first, and then Street? Or Street and then Ave? Is it in the NW, NE, SW or SE quadrant? Because, believe you me, there is a 54th and 7th in every freaking one of them!!

If I want to head west, and I’m traveling north, does the road I’m on have traffic lights allowing me to turn directly into the direction I wish to travel? Or does it only have ‘right-side’ exits meaning I must actually head in the opposite direction in order to travel in the correct direction? Do I really want to head west or have I gotten it confused again? At this point I am trying to picture the map in my head…heading north, the destination is to the left on the map…yep, that’s west.

All this is going through my head at the same time as I contemplate which lane to be in, whether the lady ahead of me wants to get into my lane, what’s my speed, do I have enough gas, what did Paul really mean today when he said that the report needed ‘tweaking’, and what are we having for dinner again?

Don’t worry. I have a system. A series of little maps in my head that get me from Point A to Point B every time. I memorize how to get from here to there and back again. Lots of here’s to there’s. Just don’t ask me to make a detour. And, if there is a new Point B I write it out in large handwriting and tape it to my dashboard. Seriously.

So how on earth did we get our sorry asses around the world you ask?

Simple answer; Jason. The man is a navigational wizard.

Not only could he get us from country to country and city to city using official maps with regular map-type markings, but he could get us around any city, or country-side, or neighborhood using just the slightest hint of map scribbled on a piece of paper or directions given to him by some random-man-standing-on-the-corner who doesn’t even speak English!

I was constantly astounded as we rounded a corner and, low-and-behold, there was our hostel and I once again (although briefly) knew where I was again.

I trusted him implicitly, and relied on him heavily.

I can only think of one time that I was left to navigate on my own. He was sick in Cusco, Peru and needed me to go to the pharmacy to get some medication. We looked at the map together and plotted a route. I took the map with me. And promptly got lost. It must have taken me more than an hour to return from, what should have been, a 10 minute jaunt to the corner. He didn’t even so much as ask me if I had lost my way. He simply thanked me for the pills and waited for my inevitable confession of wandering around not knowing where I was until, miraculously, something looked familiar. He never left my side after that.

I spent a year wandering the world, seeing fabulous sights, creating unforgettable memories and having the time of my life. What is the greatest lesson I learned in all of this?

Never piss off the one person in the whole world who can get you back home!!

03 Aug

The Great Descent From The Great Wall

This is a guest post by my friend Glenda of PapersScissorsRocks. She has traveled the world for work and always manages to get a great story!

I was fortunate enough to be able to go to China on a business trip in the fall of 2008. I say fortunate now but I have to say that I was pretty apprehensive about going. How was I going to manage with the language, the food, or the culture? I knew I was going to be accompanied by some local business colleagues for part of my trip but I was also going to be on my own for a while.

It turns out, I had absolutely nothing to worry about. Well, mostly….

I had a busy week, working both in Beijing and Guangzhou. Fortunately, I finished up work on a Thursday and wasn’t leaving until Sunday afternoon so had two and a half days to explore. Friday was spent visiting Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. Everything was absolutely amazing, the architecture, the colours and the sheer size of everything. I have to say that when I first saw Tiananmen Square, I thought “Wow, that’s BIG!” The same thing was going through my head when I kept walking and walking and walking through the Forbidden City. It is amazing to see but be prepared to spend quite a while there (and wear comfy shoes). The smaller Temple of Heaven is beautiful also, being set in amongst a lovely green space.

A friend of mine worked in Beijing during the Olympics and she kindly put me in touch with friends of hers who worked at the Canadian Embassy. I spent that evening with my new Canadian friends eating the most delicious Schezuan food I’ve ever had. Oh…and the hottest… the sides of my tongue were numb by the end of the meal.

No trip to China would be complete without a trip to the Great Wall. My friend recommended I go to a less popular, more rustic (not restored) but absolutely spectacular section of the Great Wall called Simatai. I was lucky enough to find tour company that went there and piled in with nine Chinese tour mates for the drive.

Fortunately, two of the women in the group spoke a bit of English. They helped me out and ended up being my saving grace that day. The drive was harrowing as drivers were using the two lane highway as a four lane by using the shoulder as a lane. People pass going around curves and more than once I feared for my life as we stared down a big truck!

Luckily, we arrived safe and mostly sound. My new friends helped buy my ticket for the wall and we headed off for the first leg of the trip. It was then that I realized that we were to board a small, open, two person gondola. I held on tight as we went up; the creaking and groaning of the cableway was a little unsettling.

Once at the top it was a short 20 minute walk found to the top. The views took my breath away as I marveled at this feat of engineering more than 2000 years old.

My new friends and I spent the next few hours exploring. I didn’t spend my whole time with them as I didn’t want to impose on them too much but we did take each other’s photos. I hadn’t thought to bring food with me either so ended up having to buy a package of Ritz crackers from a little refreshment table. The wind picked up significantly while we were up there so, with steep stairs and no guardrails, I definitely had to watch my step. I’m known to be a bit clumsy so was missing having someone or something to hold on to sometimes!

The wind made for an interesting change of plans.

We realized it was time to head down to meet the van to return to Beijing but tlearned that the gondola was shut down due to the wind. Plan B, hike back down… quickly. I had no idea where to go so I followed my friends. We went down what seemed like endless amounts of stairs. It must be noted here that these stairs were built for small Asian feet not large size 9 feet in Doc Martens like mine. I almost got vertigo going down as I had to keep watching my feet.

All of a sudden, we stopped. They spoke to a guy…I was handing over money…getting a ticket (which I didn’t look at and shoved in my pocket)…and walking down a small spiral staircase. There I discovered how we were going to get back to the van in time. We were going to be ziplining over a large body of water!

Going on a zipline was on my ‘to do’ list but I didn’t think was going to be doing it in order to descend from the Great Wall. All I can say is WOW, what a rush! I was absolutely giddy. Words cannot describe the feeling and alas, I have no photos either (in to much of a panic to get down in time for the van as well as tucking things into my jacket so they wouldn’t fall out!). I did find photos and video to get an idea of the extent of it.

People often ask if I had a helmet. My response “Helmet? No helmet…what I really needed was a lifejacket”. We made it back to the van in time and back to Beijing. I was so thankful that those two women had befriended me. They were my saving grace! A note on this adventure – I discovered, sadly, this section of the Great Wall is closed indefinitely.

That evening was spent relaying my adventures to my friends and a bunch other Canadians, over another absolutely amazing meal (where I discovered the only way I will eat eggplant is if it is breaded and deep fried).

I absolutely loved China and would definitely go back but would want someone who spoke the language with me.

My words of wisdom for China?

  • Take cabs (they are cheap, I usually hate cabs but loved them in Beijing)
  • Take the Beijing subway (it’s cheap and clean)
  • Take a travel guide with you that has Chinese characters in it (so you can point to it when you are taking a cab to tourist spot of choice)
  • Get your hotel to give you their business card (again, for the cab driver)
  • Be prepared for squat toilets (carry tissues with you)
  • Don’t sit in the front of a tour van or bus (makes the drive that much scarier)
  • Go to the Great Wall (any section you can),
  • Try all the different kinds of delicious mushrooms (I was in heaven!)
  • Don’t be afraid to try any of the food (you’ll rarely be disappointed… I hope).

See my Flickr Set for more photos of China.