In our May-June International Issue, we highlighted an article by Canadian Geographic on the challenges involved with standardizing toponymy—the science of place names. The magazine featured the Inuit people of Nunavut in northern Canada, who use “descriptive” names to identify where certain places are located. The method works for locals, but is often confusing for newcomers and humanitarian workers.
Elsewhere, reporter Andrea Gourgy faced the same problem—but with a new twist. When working in San José, Costa Rica, she felt rather directionally challenged when locals started giving her directions that were all in relation to “the old fig tree.” She writes in Verge:
Indeed most addresses in Costa Rica are given in relation to a known monument. Where’s the pharmacy? It’s 20 metres north of the jazz café. Where’s the jazz café? It’s 10 metres north of the church. Where’s the church? Why, it’s just across from the old fig tree of San Pedro, of course. But where the hell is this damn tree? I deduced that most addresses given in San Pedro—the upscale suburb of San José where I was renting a room—were dictated in relation to the old tree…this tree seemed to be the key to unlocking the entire navigational system of the area.
To find anything, Gourgy first needed to locate the fabled tree for a point of reference—but she searched endlessly. Finally a taxi driver clued her in on one very crucial secret: “The tree, of course, it’s no longer standing. Now we just give directions from where the tree used to be.”