I am a big fan of public transit and walking to get where I need to go, and not just because it helps me get more exercise and reduce my carbon footprint. I find that removing the steel, glass and plastic cocoon of an auto dramatically increases my awareness and experience of the environment around me. Once, in attempt to explain my emerging wanderlust to my father, I tried to explain that I, “Really just wanted to get some new dirt on my shoes.” That was on my first trip to Hong Kong, also my first to Asia several years ago. I burned a fair amount of tread tromping from Mid-levels down the mountain to Central, around the island and back up each day, but one need not travel far to have a rich experience navigating in the real (non- air conditioned, leather seated and shock absorbed) world.
The other day I was headed into New York City to meet a team member for a volunteer consulting project I am doing through the Net Impact Service Corps. I live in New Jersey, so while not a long trip, this does take some forethought. This day however, armed with only the rough memory of the train schedule and the meeting place, I simply stepped out the door and went on my way. Forty-five minutes later I was at my destination and enjoying a pot of tea and bento box lunch. How did this happen?
Our apartment is in a small town on one of the NJ Transit rail lines, a short walk from the station. The tracks are actually just off to one side of our building and the low rumble of passing trains has a surprisingly soporific effect when heading to sleep. This choice of location was intentional. After boarding a train and arriving a short time later at Penn Station, I disembarked and quickly made a beeline clear across the station, through unmarked passages, directly to the uptown 2/3 subway platform I needed. Knowing the orientation of the tracks going into the train yard makes it easy for me to know which direction to walk when I pop up into the station. The colors of various waiting areas, vendors and crowd flows enable me to fly through the labyrinthine station without really paying attention to the directional signage. Reaching my intended stop, knowing that my meeting place was a few blocks lower than the station exit, I walked back down the platform against the direction the train had been going and took the last set of stairs. Again, signs not really needed. I knew my destination was due east, so when I felt the noon sun on my back ascending the stairs to the surface I instinctively turned right, not bothering to look for many visual cues. A couple minutes’ walk and I had arrived.
A fairly good memory and lots of repetition do go a long way. I have enjoyed enough time wandering around the city that I have a pretty detailed map burned into my mind. But my map is not just a rough outline of the street grid and transit arteries. It also includes all of the sights (looking up 7th Avenue at the Ernst & Young sign hanging over Times Square is a quick north-south bearing point), sounds (Cantonese chit chat means you are probably close to some good Dim Sum, but Mandarin is better is you want Xiao Long Bao), and smells (over-roasted nuts, just above the western-most exit of the Herald Square subway station). You probably will not find those in any GPS.