Get Lost! Seriously, go get lost!

Our latest column from William Thomas

Apparently, getting lost is good for you. But grocery stores don’t count. Not particularly proud of it, but I’ve been lost on sea and land and yes, even in the air. Flying with a friend at the stick of a single-engine Musketeer out of Orillia and headed home to Niagara, we were suddenly engulfed in thick fog. Travelling blind with no instruments, John dropped out of the clouds, too quickly for my stomach’s sake and pulled up before we hit the land. Did you know that unlike commercial airlines, tiny, personal aircraft do not come equipped with barf bags?

So yeah, when it comes to travel, I’m a one-man lost but always found department. I know the word ‘where’ in 19 languages including Urdu. And honestly, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I can’t tell you the number of great people I’ve met, the hidden treasures I’ve found while travelling where others have not tread. I love pouring over maps, highlighting routes and calculating arrival times. I hate Google maps and GPS. I despise the voice of Siri.

So I’ve been ridiculously lost at times, but never so hopelessly turned around I didn’t know which end was up. But Noel Santillan has. Several years ago Noel was sitting on his couch in New Jersey watching Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano erupt in flames and ash and he said to himself – I gotta go there! Really? Because my recollection of that event was that planes were grounded all over Europe and North America as most people struggled to avoid that disaster. But not Noel. “Oh look! A big fire! Anybody got gasoline?”

So last February, the 28-year-old Sam’s Club marketing manager found himself driving his rented Nissan north out of Iceland’s Keflavik airport with his GPS guiding him every mile of the way. His hotel was on Laugarvegur Road, a thoroughfare he could not pronounce let alone find on his own. So he just drove – into daylight, into remoteness, onto icy roads. Noel drove and drove. Sleepy, jet-lagged and hungry, Noel reset the GPS which told him to just keep on driving. So he did because he trusted the technology. Finally the GPS directions ended at a lonely house on the edge of a tiny fishing village that was so forlorn and boring even The Vikings had avoided it in favour of the north shore of Newfoundland. Noel walked up to the house with his hotel reservation in hand where a woman informed him, between fits of laughter, that no, his hotel was 380 kilometres south, in the capital of Reykjavik, actually not far from the airport. This town named Siglufjördhur was on Laugarvegur Road, not Laugavegur Road. Expedia misspelled his destination by adding an unnecessary “r”.

A few things became abundantly clear to “Noel The Vole.” Another hour of driving and it would have been Santa Claus giving him directions. Also, the entire country of Iceland could use a serious spell check losing about 37 million ‘j’s’, ‘k’s’, and ‘f’s’ to start with. And man, was he lost! Oh, and the nice woman in the lonesome house at the upper periphery of the planet? (In Icelandic, that’s spelled ‘pjlajfektj’ and pronounced “plan-et.”) Her name was Sirry.

So Noel checked into the local hotel where his host was a woman named … wait for it … Sirry. The first Sirry posted his odyssey on Facebook and Noel woke up the next morning an internet star. Reporters came by for interviews; townsfolk flooded the hotel for selfies. Authorities in Siglufjördhur opened up their pride and joy, Icelandic Herring Museum, offering Noel a free tour

complete with a video highlighting the intricate salting process of fish and I’m thinking – okay, enough is enough! I’m all for punishing the poor bugger for digital stupidity, but for gawdsakes – he didn’t kill anybody!!! Pretty soon Noel Santillan was not just the biggest ting to hit Siglufjördhur since nylon fishnets, he was featured on BBC and written up in The New York Times.

As The Lost Tourist story went viral, the manager of his hotel offered him a free stay and the town’s restaurant gave him a free fish dinner. (Probably herring done in a light, but tasty fjkuljinf sauce.) Some local ne’er-do-wells got him drunk on Brennivin and took him to the local strip club … where even the strippers knew his name. (In Iceland, it is legal for peelers to strip right down to an open parka and one mukluk!)

The dark consequences of trusting technology too much have seen a 64-year-old in East Chicago, Indiana drive off a demolished bridge, killing his wife. So many people have died lost in Death Valley, California, officials there refer to it as “death by GPS.” After defeating a rebel insurgency in their country, Nicaraguan troops proudly reclaimed the territory by planting their national flag. Unfortunately they were using Google maps and they were actually in Costa Rica.

Nobel Prize winning breakthroughs have discovered that humans have their own natural GPS system in the hippocampus section of the brain and when we use it to figure out things like mapping, directions and navigation, we actually grow the brain by literally producing more grey matter. The more we rely on technology to find our way around this world, the more our inner navigational shuts down and then it’s an icy road down to memory loss and Alzheimer’s Disease.

So I hate to say I told you so, but all those times I was getting lost like “a Noel in an Icelandic haystack” … I was getting smarter every time I yelled: “WTF am I?” When it comes to travel, trust me, a map, a compass and a good pair of binoculars and you are good to go … and get lost.

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