Get lost

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I have a terrible sense of direction. Back before the invention of Google maps and GPS, I routinely got lost driving around my hometown and had perfected the art of asking for directions at gas stations before I turned 17. Even now, I often have to call my husband to remind me how to leave Decorah. ("I just passed the Decorah airport. I'm going the right way to Minneapolis, right?").

This is a little personality quirk that I conveniently forgot to mention to my colleague, Aaron Lurth, Luther College instructor of photography and director of Visual Media, when he asked if I would like to co-lead a J-term class on street photography in Asia. In fact, I not sure he still knows, even though we are currently speeding over the Pacific Ocean heading home from a scouting trip to Hong Kong and Shanghai. (Editor's note: I work with Aaron... he quickly figured it out.)

Now, although I've both traveled and lived abroad, I have never been to either city. Both sites are ideal for the kind of course we are developing—one where we embed students and their cameras in a location and through a series of photographic assignments and critiques help them to move beyond the tourist snapshot and learn how to create visually interesting photographs that also tell us more cultures undergoing significant change.

Before Luther will let any faculty member take twenty students to a country with which they don’t have intimate knowledge, the Center for Global Learning sends the faculty leaders on a scouting trip to each of the scheduled sites. The primary purpose is to solidify housing and travel arrangement and begin to hash out the day-to-day schedule for the course.

So last Tuesday, Aaron and I, along with Jon Lund and Chelle Meyer from the Center for Global Learning, left Minneapolis. A short 32 hours later, we landed in Hong Kong. After sleeping through our jet lag, we began our seven-day blitz, orientating ourselves to each city, checking on accommodations (Are the rooms as nice as they seem to be on the website? What about fire exits?) and making housing reservations. We explored public transportation (How best get the students out of the densely populated Kowloon district to the outer islands where they can experience a radically different side of Hong Kong?). And of course, we checked out local food options and scouted the best places for great barbeque, Hainanese chicken rice, and dim sum.

More importantly we discovered that the Hong Kong metro system is easy to navigate and given the city’s British connections and current role as an international travel destination, signage is usually in English as well as in Chinese. This, we found, is also true of Shanghai, which struck us as a rapidly changing place that has been radically transformed over the last 10 years. Here, as in Hong Kong, we tried to find areas of the city, such as the neighborhoods of the French Concession, where we could embed the students, allowing them a chance to get to know at least a small part of the mammoth city intimately in their short stay.

It may seem that much of this can be done via the internet. But what you can’t do on the internet is get a sense of the flow of the metro system, the rhythms of a neighborhood, and at least the beginnings of an understanding of the spirit of a place. These scouting trips allow the faculty leaders to get comfortable with a place, so they are equipped to help the students feel comfortable enough to open themselves to the possibilities and insight that comes when one gets lost.

This may sound like a contradiction. Isn't the point of getting comfortable in a city to prevent you from getting lost? On the contrary, actually. The confidence that you can eventually get yourself back to familiar surroundings allows great freedom to explore unfettered. It opens the possibility of popping out of the metro at a new stop and finding yourself some unexpected place where you have never been and where you might never be again. Our students in particular, come from a generation who hasn't often had the luxury of getting lost, a condition that Rebecca Solnit muses over in her new book, "A Field Guide to Getting Lost."

For Solnit, getting lost is a "state of mind" rather than simple geographic unknowing. She writes that the word lost, "really has two disparate meanings. Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing." When you get lost "the world has become larger than your knowledge of it." It is a lovely thought – at one level getting lost simply means that you have extended your known word, which is precisely what we try to cultivate on these study abroad travels. And when our students reach the limits of their known world unexpected and wonderful things can happen.

Getting lost isn't to be feared for as Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, his own guide to getting lost, "Not till we are completely lost, or turned we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations."

For a class that is designed to move students past the easy tourist shot, this is where we want them to be – on side streets and underpasses, looking the opposite direction of the legions of tourists taking selfies with the Pudong skyline behind them, finding the moments of beauty and curiosity amid the speed of modern city life, and maybe finding a bit of themselves in the process.

Photos for the blog post taken by Aaron Lurth, director of Visual Media.

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is an assistant professor of art history at Luther College. She teaches courses from ancient, medieval and renaissance art to art of the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as a Paideia 450 course in the Paideia program. She also serves as the curator of the Luther College Fine Arts Collection.

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