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Not all those who wander are lost. --J.R.R. Tolkien

Folding up the map

--by Snigdha Manickavel, syndicated from thehindubusinessline.com, Nov 11, 2014


Who knew that one day maps would become obsolete, unwanted, unloved, languishing under piles of telephone books, VCRs and reams of writing paper?

To unfold a map is to unfold adventure. Listen carefully as you smooth out those well-worn creases and you will hear the snapping of sails over a perfect blue ocean. Close your eyes and you will feel the steady, increasing rhythm of a train leaving the station. Your map is your ticket. To sit before an unfolded map, tracing out uneven lines of untouched road, is to feel small and humble. This world is large, barely knowable, our time here already running out.

I have loved maps since I was a little girl and my days were filled with them. In school, we had maps on our pencil boxes, maps lying in wait on the back covers of notebooks. We had maps curled up and lurking above blackboards, waiting to be yanked down. We even had globes to spin, which we did repeatedly with our eyes closed to determine where we would live when we grew up (often, disappointingly, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean). When we still didn’t know who we were, a map could at least tell us where we were, and this was warm and comforting.

Just a few centuries ago, cartographers were the heroes of a generation; courted by kings, coddled by empire builders and military strategists. The early cartographers of the Survey of India worked cloaked in secrecy, using Buddhist prayer beads to count paces, disguised as monks. The core of cartography is curiosity, the desire to explore the world around us. If knowledge is power then the pull of the unknown is more powerful still.

I never imagined that one day maps would become something that no one used any more. Obsolete, unwanted, unloved, languishing under piles of telephone books, VCRs and reams of writing paper.

I understand the allure of satellite-based navigation systems — that a smartphone with GPS receivers and mapping can make you feel invincible when facing the open road. I can even understand why some argue that these devices are the next logical step in cartography. However, it is hard to imagine that the spirit of Captain James Cook would be smiling down upon the soul who insists on using only turn-by-turn navigation. That he would applaud the idea of exploration being reduced to the mere input of a destination, compressing this world of ours into an unwieldy video game.

The best journeys are not the ones where you follow a blinking arrow but the ones where you throw a map into your bag and hope for the best. As you drive with your creased and flimsy companion, you are forced to look around you again and again. To match what is on the paper with what you see. You know that a map is a powerful tool but you also know that it is not enough. A folding map would never presume to estimate your time of arrival. It knows that an important part of travelling is to never be too sure of anything.

When we gaze at our devices and scurry through the world in thoroughly efficient ways, we are forgetting the most important part of our sojourn on this watery planet. To connect with the other people who are here with us. How can even the hardest heart not be touched when strangers come forward to help and guide when you are lost? People who gaze at you, curious and pleased that you have met. Even though you’ll never see each other again, even though you have nothing to offer in return.

When someone draws a map for you, a series of lines in the fine red sand at the side of a road or indecipherable grids on the back of a receipt, they are showing you how they look upon this world. A hand-drawn map is precious and unique. It is a way of learning that this world is beautiful and strange. Hard to describe to strangers and never exactly the same for two people.

To trust your GPS is to forget how fragile and interconnected our world is. Batteries will drain and networks will disappear, and even the most reliable of gadgets will let you down for no good reason. That lonely satellite revolving around our planet does not care about the tree fallen across the road, the broken water pipe, the unending wedding procession with the shell-shocked bridegroom on a horse.

A folded map is a thing of beauty — quiet and dignified. It exists to remind you that the world cannot be folded up. Its wonders are to be experienced and explored, not explained. With every wrong turn you take, you are shaking adventure out from the insides of your pockets. This journey has just begun.


This article originally appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine. Snigdha Manickavel is a freelance writer based out of Hyderabad, India. You can read more of her work here.


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