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Jeff Wise

Jeff Wise

Posted: January 21, 2011 11:13 AM

The most exciting thing about travel for me is the delicious sense of disorientation, that Alice-in-Wonderland sense that even the smallest, most mundane details of life have been switched around. For me, getting lost in a strange place isn't necessarily a bad thing at all. I like the sense of being totally cut off from the predictable world of my everyday life, immersed in the strangeness of the new. I recently wrote in Travel and Leisure magazine about how traveling without navigational aids can boost your awareness of the world around you.

As it happens, a friend of mine, the travel writer Matt Gross, has been thinking along the same lines. Matt spent years traveling around the world writing the Frugal Traveler column for the New York Times. Now he's penning a column called "Getting Lost," in which he describes his attempts to deliberately disorient himself in places around the world that he has never visited before. I spoke with him about how he stumbled onto the topic.

Most of us try hard not to get lost. Where did you get the idea to deliberately throw yourself into the experience?

Part of the idea came from so many years of highly researched professional travel writing: Before I'd go anywhere, I'd know the map, the neighborhoods, the restaurants and stores and museums I'd want to hit up, the people I was going to meet. It's a great thing to know how to do, but it felt less than spontaneous, almost a cheat, in fact. That's because I've always looked at travel as a way to challenge myself, to get away from the normal everyday life where I know what's going to happen and how to deal with it, and to put myself in situations where I don't know how I'm going to react.

And when I thought about my own travel history, I realized I'd never really, truly been lost, not since I was almost 8 years old. But lostness is an experience that millions of people experience all the time, and I wondered, honestly, what it felt like. How would I react if I lost my way? Would I panic? Would I adapt? What would happen next? But to find out the answers to these questions, I knew I'd have to reject the approach to travel that had worked for me for so long. Out went the guidebooks (which I never used anyway), the maps (which I adore), the online social networks (which are invaluable), and, finally, the comfortable sense that I knew what I was getting myself into.

So how did it go, the first time you tried this new approach? Any surprises in how it unfolded?

That's not an easy question to answer, actually. To say it went well or didn't go well is sort of beside the point. What happened was I went to Tangier and just took it from there! On some level, of course, it was a failure. I didn't get lost. I couldn't get lost--Tangier was maybe too small, its medina corners too unique, for me to not notice them and build a map in my mind. But this is where, in the writing of the story, I get to go beyond the basic, geographic idea of "lost." In the first story (and subsequent ones), I can talk about other ways of getting lost--in the moment, in exciting experiences, in a meal, in connections with new people. That pretty much happened in Tangier.

On a more basic level, though, I really did miss the Internet. I love using Couchsurfing to meet new people, and without it I was a bit adrift. How could I connect with strangers? It's funny: All these years of making friends through travel, and I'm still shy about approaching people I don't know! As I wrote in the latest installment of "Getting Lost," when I went to Ireland I tried always to hold myself in an open way, hoping that people would come and talk to me. Often, that works pretty well, and the kinds of people who go up and talk to an obvious foreigner are the kinds of people I like to meet--interesting, interested, and outgoing. Still, I miss the instant friendships of Couchsurfing.

What advice would you have for someone who'd like to follow in your footsteps, and experience the sensation of getting lost while traveling?

Here's three things aspiring losties should do: First, on a practical level, when you show up in a new place, head for a big train or bus station and stow your bags in a locker, so you'll be free to roam without worrying about schlepping all your crap around.

Second, don't expect it to happen quickly. You'd think you could just hop on a random city bus and within 20 minutes be thoroughly disoriented, but if you've got any kind of sense of direction, that won't happen. Instead, think of it as progressive layers of getting lost--moving step by step ever further from what you're familiar and comfortable with, and toward the unknown.

Finally, expand your definition of "getting lost." If I were just writing about the process of getting lost geographically, it would get boring and repetitive. I don't just want to get lost, I want to lose myself in new experiences, to drop my self-conscious façade, to annihilate my preconceptions about other countries, to test my ability to handle the world. Travel gives us a chance to challenge ourselves in ways that would never occur back home, and it's up to us to make the most of that opportunity. Getting lost is just one approach.

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