Getting Lost

Madeleine McGuire - LaGrange, Illinois
As heard on the This I Believe podcast, June 8, 2015
Madeleine McGuire

As a college student traveling abroad, Madeleine McGuire found herself separated from her group, stranded in a train station in Morocco. She didn't know where she was, and she did not speak the local language; however, one interaction with a perfect stranger helped her overcome her fears of being lost.

Age Group: 18 - 30
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I can still feel the blazing desert heat as I stood there on the platform. My suitcase was jammed between the doors of the train that was pulling away from the station, and my professor was frantically signaling something incomprehensible through the nearly opaque windows. I was alone with a student I had met a mere 14 hours before, and I only had a stale bread roll from the airplane in my hand and a used train ticket in my pocket. There may have been other people waiting on the platform at the time, but I don’t remember them.

I was in a foreign country where I thought my fluent French would help me get by, but it turns out we had transferred trains in one of the few Moroccan towns where Spanish was the second language. I speak English, I speak French, I speak very broken German, but I do not speak Spanish. My classmate was not speaking at all. Her hands were clenched in fists and her eyes were sternly fixed at the train tracks. I was staring at the Arabic characters on the sign a few feet in front of us, blinking my eyes and imagining the lines dancing across the surface into some comprehensible map to our destination. We were lost, and there was nothing we could do.

“Savor the misery,” I once read on a poster. I don’t remember what it was for, but I can still picture the bright red letters and the chalky background behind them, and I was picturing them there in the dry heat at the train station in Morocco. I thought it was masochistic at first, like I was supposed to find some pleasure in excruciating pain or the mental torture of being lost.

In those hours of absolute helplessness, Annie and I sat cross-legged on the ground. Eventually we started pulling our distraught eyes away from the train platform and out at the landscape around us. How did I not see the orange dunes behind Annie’s head? Or the pristine white skyline of Casablanca when I squinted my eyes together? The sky was completely clear, the air was dusty, and I think I was allergic to something in the atmosphere, but my god, it was beautiful. A woman sitting nearby smiled at me, and I felt like the blanket of fear and anxiety that was smothering me had just lifted away. This moment— a silent reassurance between complete strangers—helped me realize everything would be okay.

That day, I realized that being lost means finding what you really believe. Annie and I had the chance to disconnect from everything we knew, to look and see and soak in everything around us. As time passed, I still hoped our professor would find a way back to us, but I also knew we were sharing an important moment that was so deeply introspective and defined more of my identity as a young student and traveler than any other experience in my college career.

I now believe in the kindness of strangers. I believe in patience, in friendship, and companionship. I believe in taking time to see the world around me, to find something beautiful in the most mundane. I believe in not just looking, but seeing. I believe in living in the moment.

That day in Morocco, I came to believe that being lost is sometimes so much more meaningful than being found.

Madeleine McGuire wrote this essay for a class assignment at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. She graduated in 2011 with a degree in Art History, and she currently lives and teaches in San Francisco, California. Although smart phones everywhere are helping travelers stay on track, Madeleine is committed to unplugging and taking a wrong turn... at least every once in a while.