Which Way is North?

This story about feeling lost in downtown Melbourne was chosen as a Travelers’ Tales Editor’s Choice.

By Laurie McAndish King

They say the Polynesians navigated by squatting low between the two hulls of their ocean-faring canoes, testicles dangling into the water. The combination of ultra-sensitive skin, keen attention to the subtleties of ocean swells, and nautical lore handed down from father to son enabled these ancient tribes to explore the uncharted waters of the South Pacific, and eventually to locate and populate the thousands of tiny islands there.

Phoenicians navigated by the sun and stars, the Vikings accomplished their impressive feats using mysteriously carved stone disks called solskuggj”l; Aboriginals trekking across the vast Australian outback can actually smell water. My own father has an uncanny ability to align the hour hand of his watch with the shadow of the nearest church steeple and somehow determine which street leads back to his hotel. This seems to work for him anywhere in the northern hemisphere, with the higher latitudes providing the most accurate readings.

Personally, I have no navigational abilities or aspirations; in fact, I relish the off-kilter sensation foreign locations inevitably induce. I love wandering through a new city, with no idea in which direction my hotel lies. There are no familiar streets, shops, or restaurants. No nostalgia — or even local memories — of friends, family, fine wines, or lost weekends. I have no profession, no religion, no identity, except what I choose to invent. I can view the world through new eyes, and I generally spend quite a lot of time trying to figure things out.

Things that ought to be simple enough, like which way is north. In Melbourne, Australia, for example, the Central Business District (CBD) is a grid on an angle; it heads northeast. Even knowing that, I cannot, for the life of me, get my bearings in Melbourne. Partly, it’s because the official city map is — for some random reason — rotated 90 degrees clockwise and shows my hotel on the southeast corner of the CBD, when really it’s on the northeast. For a while I thought this might be an idiosyncrasy peculiar to the southern hemisphere, perhaps some sort of cartographical counterbalance to the thing about drain water circling in the opposite direction than in the northern hemisphere. But I have discovered that drain water usually — though not always — goes down counterclockwise, no matter which hemisphere you’re in. Anyway, it was not just the map that confused me.

One day, after having lived and worked in Melbourne for several months, I began to feel at home, and decided I had had enough recreational disorientation. I resolved to walk up and down the streets, paying particular attention to the sun at intersections, and, finally, figure out which way was north. The weather was perfect: hot in the sun, cool in the shade, light breeze, bright blue skies. I walked down Exhibition Street, willing myself to achieve some minimal state of orientation, and repeating what I hoped would be a helpful mantra, “South on Exhibition, South on Exhibition, South on Exhibition.” But with the sun warm on my back, something felt seriously wrong; even walking in and out of the shade of skyscrapers, I was disoriented.

Continuing south on Exhibition Street, I arrived at a corner where the once-grand Southern Cross Hotel was being completely remodeled to include luxury apartments and up-market shopping. Steel I-beams supported scaffolding over the sidewalk, and I considered crossing to the other side, but was more in the mood for a construction site than for the opal stores across the street. The scaffolding would provide cool shade, and I’d had quite enough of tourist shops for the day.

Someone had spray-painted a message on each consecutive vertical I-beam, drawing the reader in with every step. The first said: Welcome. Then: Enter, Look, Read, Be Silent — each running down an I-beam. Inside the scaffolding, a small gap in the overhanging canvas left room for the artist’s message, sprayed in neon orange on plywood:

110 million land mines
90% war victims are civilians
40,000 kids starve to death daily
1 dead princess
80% W pop = 3rd w’80% W goods = 1st w

I had stumbled into another dimension of Melbourne, a parallel universe in this tidy city with its graffiti hidden discreetly away. How many other worlds existed here, patiently layered, unseen by tourists?

I walked on and the I-beams said: Take it All, Use it All, Shop a Lot, Consume, Forgive, Forget It, No Guilt, Nothing. Suddenly I was out of the scaffolding and back in the bright sunlight. Across the street, a sign announced: Opals’Australian Souvenirs’Tax Free!! Around the corner — west on Collins Street — the signs said: Wedgwood, Waterford, Cartier, Bally, Hermes, Louis Vuitton.

And there I was, standing in the sunshine, still trying to feel which way was north.

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