Saturday, January 10, 2009

Maps and being mapless

I love maps. When I got my first job with a decent salary attached (I believe it was the grandiose amount of $7,500 per year - this was a very long time ago) my first big purchase, before furniture or a better car was a huge folio-sized atlas of the world published by The Times of London. I loved that atlas and pored over the names and exotic shapes of places I would probably never see - including, no doubt, the tiny country of El Salvador. After years as a city planner and historic preservationist, I'm oriented to maps as a fundamental tool and way of finding myself in the world.

This will not work in El Salvador. Texaco used to put out a pretty good map of the main parts of the city of San Salvador, but two years ago they said they were reprinting it to put in the new ring roads....and now it's just not available. I cling to a much-folded Texaco map on which I am very carefully entering key places - Archdiocesan offices, lawyer's office, landlady, water bill. Google Maps turns out to have an exquisitely detailed map of San Salvador with all the latest roads included, which is comforting. But no one here uses maps. Street names are shown for major streets at major intersections: otherwise you have to know or guess. Directions are mostly given by landmarks or stores.

I've learned a few landmarks, but as yet I have no reliable sense of direction in this city, and all the streets and all the businesses and all the houses look remarkably alike to my gringa eye. Driving is an extra challenge, because there are very few places where you can turn left onto or off of main streets. Some left turns can happen in roundabouts, but in many cases you have to plan an intricate path to get where you want to go. There's nothing but experience that will help you: forget about the map.

Today I walked to the city's biggest mall (and the largest mall in Central America), Metrocentro - it stretches out like an octopus, a wing here, a third story there, a leg to the side: it's immense and intricate and always full of people (who mostly aren't carrying any purchases, just walking and looking). Know how there's a nice map of the mall inside every U.S. shopping center, with a list of stores by type and a "you are here" dot? In MetroCentro there's no map, no directory. But there's lots of helpful people who helped me find a feather pillow and printer ink.

So it seems that I'm going to have to spend a lot of the next weeks getting lost, asking directions, doubling back on my tracks, wondering where I am, asking directions, getting lost. I'll still mark everything on my map. I just know that it's not going to help me much.

1 comment:

  1. You are describing to a tee or a dot my experience of arriving in Seattle, 1997.
    Directions were almost always given by local landmarks; such as, "turn at the espresso stand just before the big bush." And having shopped many times at Pike Place Market without a floor plan the experience seems similar, smaller but similar.
    Enjoy your explorations!