“The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one’s own country as a foreign land.” – G.K. Chesterton
I’m sitting hunched over my strangely molded slab of metal and plastic, pressing at it and hoping for a response, desirous that something rescue me from the meaningless wash of the social media news cycles, feeds, people, demons. I need something human, something different. And then, like some lesser demi-Columbus, I stumble upon a glowing treasure of the Internet.
It’s midmorning and alongside my Facebook and Gmail lies a browser tab full of European street signs, which I consider closely, looking for one I recognize. I switch back to another tab, which displays a deserted two-lane street through an evergreen forest with no distinctive landmarks except for a yellow-orange circle on the roadside stating the speed limit in kilometers. It could be a street almost anywhere in the world. And that’s exactly the problem.
Wooded lanes are the bane of my existence when I play GeoGuessr. I grew up in the American south, so I at least know when the trees are not of the deciduous forests of the Eastern U.S., but I’m no botanist, and I mistake one street for Nebraska when it belongs to Western Australia, netting me a whopping zero points and a bruised ego. It could just as easily have been in Bolivia or Botswana, Finland or Fiji.
The premise of GeoGuessr is quite simple: You are presented the Google street image of five different locations, from anywhere in the world (there are other game modes that can limit it to certain areas or countries). You are free to move about the scene, just as on Google Maps. You can walk down the road; you can zoom in on landmarks, names, signage, anything. The goal is to point out on a map of the world where, exactly, you are seeing. The closer your estimation, the more points you get. It is fun. It is enlightening.
I get another nondescript road next, but this time I am aided by some handy life experience, the summer I spent in rural Minnesota. Those rows of corn stalks and the familiar-looking trees must be in the American midwest. I guess Iowa. It was in Wisconsin. Not bad.
GeoGuessr presents challenges like these at every turn, a series of whodunnits with our glorious world as the only culprit. They will demand every ounce of ingenuity you possess. At first you’re gonna approach it all confident-like. Like I did (“I’ve been to some countries. I got this.”), you’ll tell yourself that you can do it without the help of a search engine or Wikipedia, with just your wits to guide you. But then you will see strange structures and political advertisements and store windows that just might scratch at a long-buried childlike curiosity about everything. When that happens, take my advice: Give in. Make some searches. Explore. You’ll find delight in locating a single branch of an international chain to within five feet and getting full points on the challenge. Strangely, it is equally thrilling to try navigating the website of a Japanese convenience store and have your guess thrown off by hundreds of miles because you don’t know the difference between a mom ‘n’ pop and a conglomerate in other countries no matter how worldly you think you are. Turns out these stores are as common in Japan as 7-11s in New Jersey, but, of course, I didn’t know that.
After a few rounds, you start to feel a bit smarter. You know with an absurd pride that those little mailboxes that in America could be mistaken for lawn ornaments are in fact indigenous to Scandinavian countries. You learn that company names and addresses on highway trucks are only really useful for identifying the country but can lead you hundreds of miles away from where you need to be. This is perfectly logical to any American such as I who has taken a long road trip and noticed exotic license plates on the interstate. But you don’t realize that when you’re trying to get your bearings in Brazil, which, by the way, is a country approximately the size of the galaxy. And don’t get me started on Canada.
There is something profound about this little browser game. It is an opportunity for complacent, comfortable people like me to get thrown back on their own ingenuity and resources. It is a game for travelers and outdoorsmen that, paradoxically, is played over the Internet, from your bedroom, in your pajamas. The traveler would have it that nature and the wide world are great things, great things, greater than any person. Communion with the world can cow even the greatest ego; no one is great in the vast rice fields of China or at the foot of Kilimanjaro.
But I tend to think that the opposite is true, that the world is only a large collection of small things and that revelation and humility are in mailboxes (or websites) just as much as mountaintops, if you know how to look at them. What makes Brazil, Brazil, is as much the shape of the headlights on the motorway and the flowers in a small apartment balcony pot as it is the bustle of Sao Paolo or the stunning beaches of Rio. And that is what this game brings to light.
When the world is made into a mystery, the normal thoughts of the tourist flutter away. We must actually see to know where we are. The allure of the world lies at the place where the mind meets the mailbox. Ultimately, it is more about appreciating how small we are than appreciating how great the universe is, and that in turn makes the earth far greater than it ever could be if we strode across its surface assured of our own omniscience.
To play GeoGuessr is to assume the role not of the tourist but of the pilgrim. We are not in the place to assimilate everything into our lives but for it to assimilate us, to become lost in the identity of the other. It teaches us that the solution to being lost and alone is not to grow taller than the mountains and broader than rivers. On the contrary, that is the ultimate loneliness, for nothing will be worth our time. But if I can become small enough, the keys of my laptop will loom like fiery mountains and the motes of dust before my windows will seem like dandelions, driven by the wind.
Some might say that Google Street View is a triumph of mankind’s dominance. It is an astonishing accomplishment and a victory to photograph all of the world’s streets. But the deepest expression of that victory is my ability to learn awe walking down a long outback road sitting in my room, the two experiences meshed, mystery drawn into a non-mysterious space, the world made my home.
No speed limit necessary.
Photo from Flickr.