No, this isn’t an alien-conspiracy theory post (sorry to disappoint). Signs of all kinds punctuate our lives — they inform us, warn us, teach us, engage us, sometimes bewilder, amuse or anger us. A lot of times people ignore them — something I see almost daily when I’m out driving! But signs tell us so much about the culture and the times. I especially find signs in foreign countries fascinating, and the ‘fire gathering place’ sign from my post two weeks ago reminded me of that as well as inspired today’s post.
I started out taking sign photos on our travels as place markers, really, although to my hubby’s dismay I remember the location of 99% of the photos I’ve taken, as well as details and how to get there. But after a while, some signs began to catch my eye because they were intriguing in their message, or off-the-wall, or so emblematic of a place/time. I have hundreds of photos; this is just a tiny selection.
Signs that make a statement
As our small safari tour was leaving Nairobi to head towards our first game reserve in Kenya, this sign jumped out at me. The university was clearly making a very strong stance about corruption. This trip was a last-minute creation, after the original adventure I’d put together for Egypt had to be cancelled due to the Arab Spring revolution throughout many parts of the Middle East, so I didn’t have time to learn a lot about Kenyan politics before we arrived. I looked the subject up as soon as we got home, and found that corruption had become rife in Kenya, particularly in the government, a sad state of affairs since the country gained its independence from Great Britain in 1963.
As you enter Colonial Williamsburg from the Visitor Center, you journey back through time along a walkway paved with stones that highlight what your life would have been like in certain eras. You might have to read this one a couple of times to understand its import. Unfortunately, 156 years later, slavery still exists.
We’ve seen many billboards like this on our road trips through the central-southern part of the U.S. Interestingly, on the opposite side of the highway we’ve also seen big boards advertising a chain of sex-toy shops, so one might wonder about the chicken-and-egg sequence.
Although the Troubles in northern Ireland flared up over two decades ago, they’re still very fresh in the minds of the people, and there are still strong feelings on both sides. Peace is fragile there; when we were there two years ago, Brexit was looming large and threatening to start things all over again. You can take a Black Cab tour with a guide who’s both knowledgeable about what went on and sensitive to the people who still reside in areas like Shankill Road, one of the most violent hotspots at the time. Many walls are painted with either commemorative artwork, or messages like this one that encourage the young adults now to avoid getting caught up in hostilities.
If you like to drive yourself when travelling, directional signs are a godsend, of course. Here we were entering the Skyline Drive in Virginia from a midpoint — there are a limited number of access points — so this sign helped us determine which direction we needed to go in.
There are several hop-on/hop-off bus routes in Dublin, Ireland, and signs like this are dual-purpose: they help you find your way when you disembark, and they list both the traditional Irish name for a place as well as the English-language version, thus keeping an ancient language alive and vibrant. It’s entertaining to try pronouncing the Irish versions.
You don’t see many of these anymore, a row of clocks telling you what time it is currently in different parts of the world — useful if you’re a business person or want to torture yourself with jet lag by reminding you what time your body might still think it’s in. They were a fixture in black-and-white adventure movies from the 1930s and 1940s. This one was located in our hotel in Lima, Peru.
Some signs become famous in their own right.
Some are iconic because they represent a location that’s world-famous,
Others capture an entire culture in their visual structure.
These are the entrance gates to Buckingham Palace. There’s no verbal pronouncement of the location, but there doesn’t really need to be, does there? If you’re standing in front of these gates, through which visitors may not pass, you’ll be duly impressed by the lavish stonework of the supporting columns and the magnificence of the crests, indicating that what lies beyond is the preserve of one of the last remaining monarchies in the world, as well as all the history and pageantry associated with it.
Shush!! Evidently impatient truck drivers passing through this crossing between districts in Peru are wont to blow their horns when they get tired and fractious.
The safari lodge we stayed at in Livingstone, Zambia, is located inside Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. If you stay there, you’ll have wild animal encounters every day — zebras wander around the grounds drinking from water drainage troughs along the paths (not that it rains much, but the spray from Victoria Falls shoots high up above the lodge’s roofs and falls as a form of rain), monkeys that will tear apart your room and all your belongings if you make the mistake of leaving a window open, and crocodiles lurking in pools of water. No touching, please. We saw one brainless tourist narrowly avoid getting kicked in the head after he tried to pet a zebra, despite the warning signs.
This may not look like a warning sign, but it is for anyone who’s gone to Africa to bunji-jump in one of the most famous locations in the world. The sign indicates the exact spot on the Victoria Falls Bridge where the Zambian side of the Falls and the Zimbabwe side meet, and this is where the bunji-jump station is located. Why does that matter, you may ask? Because if a jumper has an accident while they’re flinging themselves off this perfectly good bridge, neither country has to claim liability.
These instructions at the remote archeological site of Tiwanaku in the Bolivian Andes are also clear as a bell, even without words.
I think it’s fair to call this TV screen a warning sign. We’d just found out the day before that a Category 3 hurricane, which had appeared out of nowhere, was heading directly for our vicinity. It had pounced on Florida as Category 5, but had thankfully downgraded by the time it reached us. All we could do was keep an eye on the news, download the Red Cross alert app onto my phone, rearrange our touring plans, and hunker down in our hotel room with some dinner in the fridge and battery-operated candles on the dresser.
That morning, after a hurried trip to see the Yorktown Battlefield, we did spot some helpful signs like this one, should the need arise:
Some signs do try, but they’re just not much in the way of real assistance.
This wall sign at one of the convents in Peru may have meant something to the residents, but for tourists, trying to figure out where we were in the maze of winding streets and rooms in the little city-within-a-city in Arequipa was not aided by looking at this.
When signs don’t exist
There are times when the absence of a sign imparts a lot of information…
In the display window of this store in Lima, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.
The lack of a sign may also be either a deficiency on the part of the powers-that-be, or the lack of an infrastructure through which to sue if you’re injured. Here our group is scrambling down one of the most terrifying staircases (I call it that loosely) we’ve ever descended, at Machu Picchu in Peru. There was no railing to prevent us from falling several thousand feet down into the Urubamba river gorge on the right of the stairs, and only a sheer rock face on our left to use for some dubious comfort as we felt our way down the worn rocks stuck into the ground. We dared not take more than one step at a time. I wanted to kiss the ground when we got to the bottom.
What was really aggravating was watching the locals scamper down as if it was nothing.
Come back next week for more on the subject of the wild and crazy world of signage. All photos are by me and all rights reserved.