With Help from Google Maps: Seeing things differently

By Austen Sharpe, CASA Chile Spring 2017 (Brown University '18)

In my mind, there's no questioning the superiority of google maps, but I've got a bone to pick. When following a route up close, the map occasionally rotates and reverts to showing the full length of a trip. In Santiago, where my mean transport time was over an hour, this unsolicited shift in perspective was drastic and irritable. As if on cue (just moments before my stop), the blue orb neatly skimming along the street would abruptly change velocity and I'd be left frantically pinching to the screen, guessing when to request a stop. That said, this annoying little flaw always managed to remind me of one important fact: I was in Santiago.

At such low magnification, google overwrote the street names with that of the city—an action that highlighted my true geographical location more so than the instantaneous one that was jiggling down the street in a bus. Something about visualizing my location from a bird’s eye view has always been a powerful way for me to connect with whatever place I’m in. It’s one of the few paradoxes with which I’m at peace. That is to say, in a moment of immense mental elasticity, I’m stretched into space and thwacked back down to earth, hard, on my feet, and humbled by the reminder that said place is neither a spot on a map nor a society in isolation, but an intricate blend of its macro and micro presence. And I am there moving through it. Wow!

When I’m at home in Massachusetts or Rhode Island this doesn’t happen as spontaneously. Not only am I using google maps less, but I’m just less triggered by seeing the name Providence or Boston on a map. This time, in a purposeful search for wider perspective, I left the country. And in Chile I found myself in a loaded catapult—launched into this sort of hyper conscious mindset frequently. After spending two and a half years at Brown and a lifetime in the arena of New England education, I was thrilled to feel something new. Whether I really understood it before I left, I needed to go.

I’m an environmental studies concentrator (read: I love nature), so the obscuring of street names was one thing, but my most visceral experiences actually came from the roads that were nameless to begin with. While in the Atacama Desert on a trip with CASA, myself and the two other exchange students found ourselves with a free afternoon and, before long, with some bikes and sandboards. I looked right for the part of “gangly adolescent daughter to Buzz Lightyear and Rey from Star Wars” as I rode through the red canyons with a board strapped to my back. All the while I was in awe—dumbfounded again by the impossible brand of omnipresence that I felt. Happy. Far from routine.


But, let me tell you—it was hard. The beauty, the strength of these places seemed to always come with a catch. Many of the stunning vistas that we encountered were owned by mining companies. Oftentimes the mountains were obscured by smog. In Chile, not only was my day to day experience more visceral, but my understanding of human’s dominion over nature became livid. I learned about Chilean environmental law and policy in the classroom, from indigenous peoples, and through my own eyes. There’s the popular notion that people will begin to do something about climate change once they experience it for themselves, but once pollution is routine there is little force left to jostle any shoulders. I saw the city drown each evening in a grey soup-like color I’d never seen before, saw people avidly trying to change that, but saw others turning a blind eye. There is no waiting to be done. I returned to the US more thoroughly convinced than ever before that no amount of proof will ever be enough. I apologize for sounding grim here, but in studying these things I find my motivation in the presence of extremes. There’s a lot of hopelessness and a lot of empowerment. You spin it to your advantage. You use it as a flame. In some cases, you come home and you see things differently. Maybe just enough to whip out google maps and re-see where you are.

Go, study abroad! (that’s my advice)