How Paper Maps Can Bring People Together
“Follow the market until you reach a brick building with a red awning on the corner. Get the tuna drizzled with honey, manchego and pear tapas – it’s the best!”
Maps are fascinating – both works of art and science. It’s hard to resist the invitation to travel through one, follow its winding roads and study the names of its unknown towns. But beyond their beauty and usefulness, I love their ability to bring people together.
When I was in college, big pocket guides like Lonely Planet were still the default mode of navigation. I vividly remember going to the travel section of bookstores before a flight to comb each shelf for a slice colored with the name of the city I was heading to: Beijing, Istanbul, Madrid, Hanoi, London. After finding an edit for the right place, I’d rush home to look into it, highlighting interesting cafes and chipping away at the pages with enlarged sections of the map for particularly winding or crowded neighborhoods.
Like many students, my friends and I traveled often and on a shoestring, taking a trip every school break or long weekend, so we often shared our copies among ourselves. At first it was just about saving what little money we had for each of our trips, but after a while lending our books to each other became almost as rewarding as taking them on trips. for ourselves. Once we retrieved a guidebook from whoever we had left to borrow, we were delighted to see the marks they had left in our copies. Krista loved to walk, and I loved following her penciled routes through her favorite streets or markets that had been the busiest. Jillian always found the best restaurants in any city, and she left tantalizing descriptions in the card margins of exactly what she ordered at each location, like a secret menu just for us.
Everyone tries to take a picture of the castle from the square, but if you hike a mile or two along Rue Montitlan, you’ll be uphill looking at the whole town center. It’s steep, but it’s the best view in the whole city.
The old man who runs this cheese shop used to live in Brooklyn — if you tell him you live there too, he’ll give you a little bite of his special blue cheese!
An even greater pleasure than reading our friends’ memories, we all found out, was to visit the same city after that and use that same guidebook. Tasting the same delicious cheese that Jillian discovered, or being able to enjoy the same magnificent view of a palace that Krista found, made those moments even more meaningful. It made us feel closer to each other, able to share some of the same experiences in the same place, even though we were actually far apart.
Then Google Maps was invented. More than a decade later, the paper maps and guidebooks feel like a relic lost in time. It’s hard to resist the convenience and security of GPS when driving, or when you’re late for a meeting, or just in an unfamiliar place, but while I appreciate the accuracy of electronic maps, that closeness and that shared joy that I miss the paper versions used to give me. A small part of me feared that the magic of mapping—that feeling I used to get every time I opened a hard copy—was lost forever.
But then, in the summer of 2016, I went to rural Mongolia.
The Mongolian countryside is vast, beautiful and isolated. Miles and miles of rugged, grassy steppes, dotted with the occasional tree, marmot hole, yurt or herd of yaks. It’s a rare place where there is still no internet connection and no cell phone signal. I lived in a nomadic horse camp for a month, where I helped ring up and saddle the horses from the herd that would be ridden that day, took visitors on horseback rides, prepared some meals, cleaned the yurts and taught the children at camp some English. Our yurts were hours away from the nearest town, and a trip to email, make a phone call, or send a letter required planning a week in advance. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been so disconnected from technology for so long.
One day, during a torrential monsoon, I slipped into the largest yurt normally reserved for visitors. I briefly tried to clean it, as the ground had become covered in mud during the wet day, but it was still raining too hard. Soon I gave up and started browsing the tangled shelf of knick-knacks where the nomads stuck whatever the tourists gave them or forgot to take when they left, in case someone else could make use of it. . There were old watches, flashlights without batteries, baseball caps to cut out the sun’s glare, useless charging cables and a pile of moldy paperbacks.
One of them, I realized, was a tattered and long outdated Lonely Planet guide to Mongolia.
That old, wonderful feeling of discovering a connection with someone else who had been where I was before came flooding back to me, like a surprise reunion with an old friend. All over the margins of each page, written by countless different hands, were notes. Horse stories, weather, friendly nomadic families nearby, safe routes, good food, adventures experienced. There was something very magical about that moment in seeing stories of the remote, austere landscape I had passed through alone for weeks, left behind by people who had come this way before me and wanted to leave behind the stories of their experiences for others to find and share. It was like making new friends, even though we were countries or years apart.
Even after the storm was over, I spent hours flipping through this guide page by page, like I did when I was young, relishing every squiggle and note.
There’s a camp somewhere here with the best airag! The head rider, Buynaa, loves to sing. If you know “Let it Be” by the Beatles, do this one – I taught him the words.
The general area that this other rider had circled on the map must have been no more than a few hours from ours on horseback – and on my first night with my nomadic hosts, one of the youngest riders, a teenager named Munkh -Undrah, had invited me to sing by the campfire.
“Do you know the Beatles? he asked enthusiastically.
Sitting there holding this battered Lonely Planet I wondered if Buynaa had taught Munkh-Undrah the lyrics to “Let it Be” after learning it from that visitor and then years later Munkh-Undrah wanted to sing it with me ?
My second novel Cartographers, is my love letter to cards, and those feelings of wonder and friendship they have brought me over the years. The brilliant and innocent Nell Young discovers after the death of her famously brilliant, but aloof and aloof scholar father, that a seemingly worthless card in his belongings holds a dangerous mystery, and she sets out to uncover what secrets this card and her father, may have been hiding for decades. It’s a story of cartography, but it’s also a story of family, intimacy and love. By following the map where it leads, Nell not only discovers the answer to her mystery, but more importantly, learns that maps are not just paths to places, but also paths to human connections.
These days, whenever I’m about to set off on another adventure, one of my first stops is a bookstore – both to look for a new read to take on my journey and to browse the used books for a complete Lonely Planet guidebook of the scribbles of travelers who took it before me on their travels and left their memories there.
Peng Shepherd’s new book, cartographers, is now available at your favorite bookstore. This essay is part of a series spotlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club – you can join the conversation and discover more of our favorite book recommendations.
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