The art of giving directions.

I spend a lot of time on the road. Today when driving from Tennessee to North Carolina, I came across a section of Interstate 40 that was closed for an exit or two. The NC DOT had several signs posted, a radio station with updates on repeat, a Twitter feed with updates and a friend warned me it would likely be closed and I should proceed with caution. Despite the signage they had for the 20+ mile detour, my friend and I used an app on her iPhone to ensure we didn't take a wrong turn. Of course we didn't. My trip was delayed only slightly and the NC DOT was very thorough in their warnings. 

We've all become increasingly more dependent upon smartphones and GPSes to help with directions. I rarely get lost when I arrive in a new city and usually have a pretty good indication of how long it will take to get around. But what happens when a GPS doesn't work?

In Costa Rica direction-giving is an art reserved for those who reside in the country. Locations rarely have street addresses. In fact, many streets don't have street names!! If you're mailing a letter to someone in Costa Rica you will write the directions on how to get to the location on the envelope. This was really hard for me to understand. For example, the address of my Spanish immersion school in Heredia was: 

150 metros este de la entrada del cementerio de San Joaquín de Flores, Heredia, Costa Rica (or 150 meters East of the entrance to the cemetery in San Joaquín de Flores, Heredia, Costa Rica)

And in Monteverde:

25 metros antes de llegar a la bomba, Monteverde, Puntarenas, Costa Rica (or 25 meters before arriving at the gas station, Monteverde, Puntarenas, Costa Rica)

When I was a kid, I prided myself in my ability to give directions. Though I was the youngest in my family, my father often passed the direction giving baton to me if he could not do it. I remember updating the document with written directions to our house, with my father, when the Weddington city limits sign was erected outside our neighborhood. 

I remember learning that you couldn't always give directions to something based on it's proximity to Mama Jo's house. And Mama Jo wasn't even related to me. Instead you actually had to use the road names from time to time. Mama Jo's house is at the intersection of Potter Road and Chestnut Lane. Mama Jo died about 20 years ago, but the house will always be hers. 

I remember going to AAA with my father to pick up a TripTik for a road trip we were getting ready to go on as a family. And I loved it if I was the one who got to flip through the pages and keep up with the course we were taking. 


 AAA TripTik. Thanks for the photo  Year of Adventure .

AAA TripTik. Thanks for the photo Year of Adventure.

I remember painstakingly writing down the directions to get to UNC Greensboro from my parents house when my sister first went to college. I felt unbelievably sophisticated that I knew, by heart, directions to a location in another city. I didn't even have to consult a map.

The use of smartphones has made my direction giving and direction understanding abilities dwindle. They are now pathetic. Over the weekend I got lost when I couldn't enter an address in my smartphone. I even drove past the location I was going to twice and got frustrated when Google Maps couldn't accurately give me the information I needed. The directions on one of my favorite hiking sites just about give me heart palpitations and more than one trip has started with me getting hopelessly lost. 

What does this mean for us as a society?

I like how direction-giving in Costa Rica reminds you of the history in a place. It might not be the most efficient way of getting around, but you never hear a Tico complain. Everyone just knows where the tree near my mother-in-law's house used to be (even though it has been down for at least 25 years). In the US, we'll continue to use our street addresses and smartphones to get to our destinations and in both locations we have tools like Google Street View that will help us find our destination. 

I tried Googling the Weddington City Limits sign I mentioned earlier. Within seconds, I found a close intersection, identified the approximate street number and using Google Street View was able to "walk" past the sign

As a person who fully embraces technology, I love being able to find information I need so quickly. As a person that once prided myself in the art of direction giving, I can't help but feel sad direction-giving skills are no longer necessary. My husband is Costa Rican so I will be regularly *forced* to use old-style direction giving. This makes me happy, but I don't think Google is going to catch up with the cultural references that happen with direction-giving any time soon.

So if you need directions from me in the future, don't be surprised if you get two versions, the Google Map version and the version chock full of historical references.