So, Macedonia makes it the 50th country I’ve visited in my lifetime. This post should really be titled “How I learned to make interactive maps” to remember where I’ve been.
A couple of years ago, an acquaintance mentioned to my colleagues that she had traveled to Guam with me on a coverage. I said I had never set foot in Guam. Ever. But she was so insistent that for a second I thought: did I really go to Guam and forget all about it?
The answer is no. I had never been there, but it led me to think that there might be places that are slipping from my memory, though I loved being there at the time. (I forget where I put my car keys at least once a week, or is that twice?)
While I don’t keep a diary, working as a journalist all my life has taught me to mentally store details, atmosphere and conversations, to take down notes even when I am not working. After I started my travel blog in January, I told my friend Cedric in Paris that I wanted to make maps of my wanderings to remind me of the stories I’ve been wanting to write for years, also because I’ve lost thousands of pictures from some trips because I keep accidentally deleting them en masse.
He taught my how to do it over Skype, which was frustrating at first because I don’t know how to do shit on Google, then it got fun — and then obsessive. Each map can only have a maximum of 10 layers, and I’ve done mine per country. You can be as specific as per city and its sights or attractions if you have the time.
So here’s an example of how you can plot your travels. Trust me, don’t start until the weekend because if you’re anything like me, you’re not gonna stop till they are finished. Start mapping!
My friend Gautier is on the phone with Andrej, whose flat in Krakow we are renting for the night. He’s telling him how desperately lost we’ve been all day.
The plan was to drive from Prague (my nth time in just a couple of months) to Wroclaw for lunch, buy shitloads of Polish vodka as we cross the border, and then on to Krakow.
And the next day, drive to the Tatras, the mountain range that sits on both sides of Poland and Slovakia, and just slum it there, and then return to Prague on Saturday. Well, that was the plan. And we all know what happens to the best-laid plans — they’re like the good intentions that pave the way to hell.
We pick up the car in Prague’s Central Train Station — a white Hyundai; don’t laugh, it is actually a fast compact car — and things are looking good. The Garmin GPS gets us out of the confusing parking lot near the National Museum, and out of the city even with the many blocked roads due to construction. The highway signs are clear: to Wroclaw, to Warsaw.
Less than an hour later, the stupid GPS begins acting up, taking us off the highway and onto country roads. “In 500 meters take the exit.” So we do. We are using only one GPS at this time, I haven’t activated my phone’s GoogleMaps yet.
So we drive. For hours. On roads with nothing to see except roundabouts and farmlands growing what would eventually end up on the rocks in some bar in Warsaw or Hong Kong or Kansas.
We find a town and stop by a big supermarket for Gautier to buy Czech beers for Andrej, and I ask directions from two ladies in the parking lot. They don’t seem to understand my question, “What is this town, where are we?” It seems incomprehensible to them that someone is asking where she is. Finally they point to a sign. Apparently we are still in the Czech Republic.
More country roads. More roundabouts and the f*cking GPS is getting on our nerves (obviously its software hasn’t been updated). We are literally going around, driving by the same place over and over again, and trying different roundabout exits to see if they’d lead us to the highway. I am this close to throwing this piece of shit out the window, but if there is anything I have learned from Gautier, it’s “That’s life.”
I finally turn on GoogleMaps on my phone. Now we have two GPS (or GPSes I guess). And they are disagreeing like a divorcing couple — the Garmin tells us to turn right, GoogleMaps tells us to turn left. Garmin says we are 50 kilometers from taking an exit, GoogleMaps says we are 90 kilometers away. A difference of 40 kilometers — who can tell which one is right?
Gautier and I have a serious discussion on which one to follow. He is noncommittal, he says he’d leave the decision to me since I am behind the wheel.
Then he tells me the story of a tourist who fell off a cliff driving because he followed his GPS, which turned out to be horrendously wrong. I say I don’t believe him, he says google it. (Days later, when we are stuck in traffic going back to Prague, I tell him about the traffic jam in China that lasted a week. He says he doesn’t believe me, I say google it. It turns out to be 10 days.)
Anyway, after several hours of driving and multiple stops to load on coffee, we cross the border. We buy the aforementioned shitloads of Polish vodka as planned. Gautier tells me that the Czech Republic — possibly Poland too though it is unlikely — has zero tolerance on drunk driving as he opens a bottle in the passenger seat. But we have crossed the border now, and anyway I don’t need to be reminded twice — I just want to get to our destination.
“Do you know how many people die from road accidents every year?” he asks me when someone cuts me off on the highway and I brake suddenly.
Well, no. I hadn’t exactly googled that in my spare time, but now that you’ve mentioned it, tell me, s’il te plait.
* * *
We reach Krakow just before it gets dark, excited to finally be in the right city. We are fewer than five kilometers from our destination. At this time, the two GPS are agreeing on which exit to take to get us to the city center.
Gautier and I cheer — really, we yay!!! — and then they announce we are merely two kilometers from Andrej’s flat. More yay! Gautier takes another swig from the bottle of Soplica vodka (he’s not driving, don’t be alarmed). I can smell the hazelnut from the driver’s side and I can’t wait to park this car and see just how accurate his description of “this is the best f*cking vodka in the world” is.
Then we are only one kilometer away at an intersection. Garmin says go straight, GoogleMaps says turn right. I follow my phone.
Six hundred meters, and the Garmin is adjusting its route.
Four hundred meters. They are starting to agree again.
Three hundred meters. My heart is pounding and my mind is pleading: Please don’t fight. Two hundred meters. They both tell us to turn right.
And this brings us to when Gautier and Andrej are talking on the phone. “We have two GPS,” Gautier is saying, “and they have been telling us to go in opposite directions all day but now they are actually agreeing.”
“It’s like having two boyfriends,” I say, but no one is listening to me.
In total, we have driven seven hours and missed Wroclaw. But the situation is finally starting to be funny to me. Like it’s not my fault that the stupid Garmin’s software is not updated. Like I haven’t been crap on this road trip. Like I’m not tired and sleepy. Like I am myself again — just happy to be in a new place.
So, we finally wind up near Krakow’s historic Old Town. It is raining as it has been intermittently going through the highways between the two countries.
He spots the street number and sees Andrej waiting in the rain with an umbrella, dressed in white linen trousers. He looks a bit like a modern-day hippie and speaks with a British accent which, he says later, he got from watching John Cleese. (What if he had watched Billy Connolly when he was growing up instead? Feckers!)
Gautier jumps out of the car and I parallel park, a task I am normally very bad at. But in one go, I fit the white Hyundai on a lovely, rainy street in Krakow on what, for the rest of Europe, is a blistering summer evening in July.