In A World Without Travel, I Can’t Get Enough Of The Google Maps Game

For the last couple of years, I’ve worked extremely hard in order to allocate a few weeks in September or October to travelling. I’ve put in extra hours on the weekends, and chased deadweight opportunities when I could have been playing guitar or having a beer with my friends. It’s October 2 now and I’m beginning to feel as if this year’s hard work is finally about to pay off — it isn’t.

I’m not complaining. There are far bigger problems in the world than me, or anyone else, having the opportunity to explore somewhere new. But we’re allowed to miss these things, because we’re all human. And I do miss travelling — it’s one of my absolute favourite things to do. So when my friend introduced me to GeoGuessr last week, I quickly became enthralled with its simple but brilliant premise.

Here’s the deal with GeoGuessr: you’re dropped into a random country somewhere in the world. The only tools you have at your disposal are Google Maps street view and your own logic. The aim of the game is to guess which country you’ve been dropped in, but doing so is far easier said than done. Imagine somebody puts a blindfold on you, spins you around 20 times really fast, and pushes you in a random direction. You take the blindfold off, wait for the dizziness to dissipate, and have a look around — where are you? You’re in your back garden, where you were playing dizzy dizzy dinosaurs.

Now imagine the scale of that becomes global, and instead of seeing your potted plants and the poo your dog did by the shed this morning, you’re surrounded by unfamiliar architecture and signs with kangaroos on them. Sure, the kangaroo sign is a dead giveaway — but what if it’s an ordinary stop sign? Loads of countries have those — you could be literally anywhere.

This day last year I was on a plane to Osaka. I was due to land in the evening and get a train straight to Kobe, where Ireland were playing Russia in the Rugby World Cup the following afternoon. Today, I’m sat in my kitchen nursing a lukewarm cup of coffee while my dog has a nap beside me. It’s nice, don’t get me wrong — but I had a sort of itch to explore, so I booted up GeoGuessr.

I’m immediately dropped into an area that looks familiar. The architecture is definitely Portuguese, and the trees are pretty tropical. Even the colour of the stone, and the green-and-white police cars… “This is Goa,” I think to myself. “Yep, this is the Portuguese quarter in Goa, I was here two and a half years ago.”

Wrong. Senegal (which also has Portuguese architecture, so I wasn’t being completely illogical — I was just being completely wrong by *checks notes* 9,715km).

Ok, we’ll have another go. I wake up in a football stadium — no, it’s cricket. I have a little look around and see signs for the KSCA, before coming across something that says Karnataka. Now I know I’m near Bangalore, and of course it’s the “Karnataka *something* cricket association” — lovely, this time we really are in India. One point for me.

In GeoGuessr, the aim is to go on as high a streak as possible. So when you’re on zero, fine, it’s worth having a guess. But when you’ve got even one point to your name, the gloves come off. Fortunately for me, the next one is easy. I recognize the road signs, the traffic lights — even the graffiti style is something I am inherently familiar with. Despite already knowing where I am, I have a look around for a laugh, and see a Thai takeaway that’s about ten minutes down the road from me opposite a giant Tesco. We’re in Ireland. This game is going easy on me, probably because of the whole, “your guess was almost 10,000km away” thing.

I’m proud of the next one — I knew the signs were in either Spanish or Italian, but they were so formal and sparse that they could have been either. The small print was blurred when I zoomed in, and “veterinario,” the only word I could see, means veterinarian in both languages.

So I dug a bit deeper. “Right,” I thought to myself. A-ha! The cars are on the right side of the road… But that’s the case in Spain and Italy. But what about the cars themselves… There are an awful lot of Puntos knocking about, and that one at the roundabout looks a bit like a 500. Common denominator? Fiat. We’re in Italy — three points to me.

 

I’m honestly really enjoying my backpacking trip across Google Maps at this point. The next one is easy as well, which makes things even better. I literally spawn on a street with three Mexican flags on it — where on earth could I possibly be? Four points. Let’s go.

The following country was tough. I deduced from the road signs and restaurant names that it was English speaking, and I picked up that everyone was driving on the right. There was a harbour here opening up into an ocean, so we’re not land-locked. It was cloudy, but not like a cloudy day — the entire urban landscape represented an area that deals with overcast weather on a regular basis, sort of like where I’m from in Ireland. Outdoor seating areas in bars, sure, but a massive emphasis on indoor activities — when you live somewhere on the coast and that’s the case, it’s usually because you’ve only got a few months of the year when it’s actually warm enough to do anything other than sink pints in the pub. So I thought, let’s use that to our advantage — all the restaurant names are pretty generic, like “Mac’s Bar” and “The Brew Shop,” so we need to find something unique to the location. Is that a watersports shop? Perfect. “Wharewaka” — we’re in New Zealand, aren’t we. Correct.

For my next point, I got an easy one. Four way intersections, a Paramount theatre, green signs reading “9th Avenue,” and a massive flag with loads of stars on it — 52, to be exact. The noise for a correct answer sounds lovely, even for the sixth time in a row.

Here’s where things took a turn for the worse. I knew it was Nordic, judging by the shop names. Loads of umlauts and that. Sweden, Finland, or Norway. But which one? Listen, I hadn’t a clue, so I said it was Sweden because I remembered Lars Umlaut off of Guitar Hero 3. Turns out it was Finland, and Lars Umlaut is actually Norwegian. I was fuming.

I decided to see if I could break my record of six. I started off beside a building called “Les Corsaires” that had about a million Peugeot 306s parked outside. Reader, it was France. Two seconds later I’m teleported between a German flag and a Swiss one. There are loads of Audis and Mercedes… It could be either one! It’s the bus with “Berlin City Tour” scrawled across the front that nets me my second point.

Next I find a shop with “Huevos” on the storefront. Spanish speaking — oh, look at the graffiti. That lad’s holding a Chile flag. Three points. Spanish signs again — “Banco de Guatemala.” Four points. German speaking — but we just had Germany? Lots of trees everywhere… it looks a bit like Vienna, doesn’t it? Five points for Austria. The next place is somewhere I have definitely never been, but the sign for Iasi tells me it’s Romania. I’m on six again, can I beat my previous record?

Right, all I have to go on here are signs, because this place is incredibly rural. The language looks Slavic, or maybe Baltic… I can’t tell the difference, too much of the writing is blurred. After ten minutes of roaming around aimlessly, I reckon it might be Latvia. Lithuania! No! One country away! I’ve had enough of this bullshit.

Except I haven’t. In all seriousness, there was something genuinely lovely about taking half an hour out of my day to remind myself how different places are to one another. Whether it’s the rules of the road, or the language, or the architecture, or the urban landscapes… The magical thing about travelling is that you get to learn about something new. This reminded me that, sure, it’s disappointing that I’m sitting here, on October 2, wishing I was doing something similar to what I did this time last year. But there’s a lot more to it than getting on a plane and sleeping in a hostel dorm — most of which we can still experience by taking time to learn about other countries and cultures in our own time, which is something we should probably all be doing anyway.

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