I hate it when I don’t have time to thoroughly explore a city.
I’m visiting Marrakech in a few days — to sample foods and take a whirlwind tour of the city with a chef friend who’s seeking inspiration for her next restaurant endeavor — and I’m already psyching myself up to not become frustrated by the pace we’ll have to adhere to out of necessity. Place to place to place to place, with barely a moment to breathe in between; barely a moment to stop and use all my senses, allowing a richer context to take shape around me.
I was teaching a week-long workshop on Design Thinking in Santiago, Chile just a few weeks ago, and had to cope with the same vague discontentment with my surroundings.
There was so much going on, and though Santiago suffers from what I call ‘Big City Syndrome’ — with a lot of its rough edges worn down by the Westernization machine that seems to overwhelm most cities with over a million inhabitants, drowning them in McDonald’s and trendy coffee shops — there was plenty I knew I wasn’t seeing. Wasn’t exposing myself to.
I caught whiffs of distinctly Santiagoian culture that I wanted to inhale more deeply, but because of my schedule (four hours of teaching per day), and because of the short duration of the visit (seven days), I could only wonder over the bouquets in passing.
I was fortunate to be staying in a young part of town, however, and I found that just by meandering about, I could discover a lot about the culture that was tucked away in the nearby buildings. There was a high school a few blocks from my flat, and a few universities a few blocks from that, and there was a fairly distinctive voice in the calligraphy and imagery tagged on the walls; wheatpaste and paint greeting me to and from home every time I ventured out into the city, helping me navigate the twists and turns and octopus-armed alleys and dead-ends that were pervasive and confusing until the second or third day. Until I started noting the graffiti in earnest, letting it guide me home.
There was a wheatpasted meerkat that helped me tell two otherwise-identical alleys apart: one that would take me down an endless spiral of tiny fountain-centered plazas and shockingly slim backalleys, and one that would swing me past a school, near a small convenience store, and back home.
After a day of hard work, standing and speaking in front of a class, and (depending on the time of day) an hour or two on the sardine-like (or rave-like, depending on how optimistic you’re trying to be) subway system, I looked forward to the little guy’s excellent posture and line of sight guidance toward home.