Q&A: Don George—On Getting Lost (and Staying Lost)

Don George in what he would describe only as "the African bush."

Last January, while I was visiting San Francisco, I had lunch one day with Don George, the travel writer and editor to whom the word “legendary” is attached as a kind of default adjective. From his stints at the helms of the travel sections of the Chronicle and Salon.com to his current gig as a contributing editor and book columnist for National Geographic Traveler (not to mention his side projects Recce and Don’s Place), he’s been just about everywhere and done just about everything.

But as I learned that afternoon, when Don offered me a ride across town to another meeting, there’s one thing he hasn’t learned to do: find his way around. In just that short trip, I had to direct him down one street and across another, in search of a place I only had a vague sense of myself. We made it, but the destination remained mysterious to Don. In fact, he told me, he has a terrible sense of direction and is always getting lost, even when he’s in a place he should know well (e.g., the Bay Area, where he lives).

Which is why, nine months later, I found Don on Skype and quizzed him about how—and why—he continues to get lost.

You’ve been traveling all over the world for decades. How is it that you have no sense of direction?

that’s a great question — one that i frequently ask myself. i think i was born with the gift of being directionally challenged. my instinct is pretty much always to go the way that is opposite of the way i should be going.  and this has served me extremely well professionally. when you get lost — when you, essentially, always go the opposite direction from the way you should — all kinds of marvelous and illuminating adventures ensue.

Such as?

one of my most magical experiences of this kind occurred in cairo. i set out to explore the city by walking, as i do every city i visit. i was headed, i thought, for a particular neighborhood that had a number of touristy attractions, but apparently i kept making the wrong turn, because as i walked, i went ever deeper and deeper into a maze of ever narrower and narrower streets. i saw all kinds of everyday, working-class shops and houses i probably wouldn’t have seen on my planned excursion. eventually i ended up walking down an alley lined with down-and-out people looking covetously at my watch. the alley got so narrow that i was literally stepping over their legs in some places. clearly i was lost and i thought that i was headed for big trouble. but then, just when i was beginning to get desperate, a young boy materialized and wordlessly took my hand. he turned me around and walked me out of the maze and into ever broader and broader streets, until he deposited me in a main square. i looked around and realized that i recognized where i was. then i turned back to thank him. in that instant, he had melted away into the crowd. so i was given two gifts — insights into the everyday lives in a part of the city i would not have planned to visit, and a saving visitation of a kind that still gives me goosebumps….

How do those wrong turns work? Or did it become a kind of thing where it didn’t matter to you anymore that you were definitely going the wrong way? In other words, were you still trying to get where you were going, or did you just say, ‘Well, might as well keep going this way, even though I don’t know where it’ll lead’?

Well, I’ve learned over the years to trust my instinct — or perhaps I should say, lack of instinct. For probably 90% of that journey in Cairo, I was still thinking that I could figure out where I had gone wrong and would be able to get on the right track to get to the original neighborhood. But at the same time, a parallel thought-track inside me was thinking, “Wow, this is really great! These are the kinds of homes real people really live in; these are the kinds of shops where they go everyday. This is helping me understand this place!” So the two thoughts exist concurrently and at some point the i-don’t-think-this-is-getting-me-where-i-planned-to-go morphs into but-it’s-delightful-and-interesting-to-be-here. I definitely do subscribe to the ‘might as well keep going this way, even though I don’t know where it’ll lead’ theory of travel. on a recent visit to kyoto, for example, that theory led me into a haunting cobblestone quarter where a shakuhachi flute concert was being delivered in a tiny temple square to an audience of neighborhood grandmothers. delightful and transporting!

How long did that instinct take to develop? Or is that how you’ve always traveled?

I’ve really always traveled that way. And because the world has always rewarded that way of traveling — even on that desparate day in Cairo — I’ve never been motivated to change. One of my favorite activities in any city is to set aside at least half of a day simply to wander aimlessly. This is a little different from getting lost — since you don’t have any particular goal in mind anyway — but the fundamental principle is the same: trust the gods of serendipity. i always discover some fascinating little historic neighborhood cafe or pocket park or odds-and-ends store, and usually people are extremely receptive to a stranger wandering their streets with a lively, open-hearted, appreciative curiosity about their lives.

Are there places you feel more at home, directionally, than others?

Not intuitively, no. But there are places where i have lived — Athens, Paris, Tokyo — or visited so often — New York, Washington, DC — that I have a better sense of direction than I normally have in a new place. But I find that I am able to get lost just about anywhere, even the area in Connecticut where I spent the first two decades of my life.

Explain to me how someone with a poor sense of direction tries to navigate—to read the landscape, so to speak. Is it that everything is a blur? Or that you lose an overall sense of which direction you’re facing? Or is it something else?

In my case, it’s kind of uncanny that if I’m trying to retrace my steps on a journey that has involved multiple turns, for example, when I come to an intersection, I almost always instinctively think I should go the wrong way. I do lose a sense of overall direction, and that can be fueled by a combination of impetuousness and trust. “I’m not sure if this is the right way, but well, let’s try it!” Of course, this has to be tempered by circumstance. If I really need to get somewhere by a certain time, i plot my path out quite carefully.

What does it feel like to be lost? Do you ever have a sense of panic, or can you maintain that Zenned-out sense of discovery all the time?

I rarely have a sense of panic when i get lost, because i know from experience that getting lost is just a prelude to getting found. I’ve always found my way (so far) — and of course, in the vast majority of my everyday life, I’m doing rote things that don’t involve the danger or romance of getting lost. but when i’m on the road (or very occasionally in my life at home) and get lost, i tend to look on it as an adventure to be savored.

There’s never been a time when your lostness was troubling—a real problem?

Well, on my most recent trip, i was driving around rural Japan on really twisty mountain roads. One day i got turned around and was trying to find the road back to my hotel as dusk was starting to descend. I began to get worried because I didn’t want to be driving those incredibly narrow and twisting roads in the dark. So that was troubling, but i know that panicking isn’t going to help the situation, so i just took some deep breaths and looked at the map and figured out what i had to do and did it — and i got back in the last light of day… I can’t recall any instance when getting lost turned into a really troubling problem.

You were saying before that in Cairo, a kid helped you find your way back to a main area. How does being dependent on other people for direction change the travel experience? Does it shake your sense of self-sufficiency? Or does it remind you that all travelers are always dependent on other people? Or something else?

It definitely does not shake my sense of self-sufficiency. In my book, self-sufficiency is an illusion that travelers maintain to their detriment and peril. One of the great lessons of travel for me has been and is the interconnectedness of us all — i love meeting people on the road and getting glimpses into their everyday lives. Getting lost and seeking help has turned out to be one way of doing this. I think this has deeply enriched my travel experiences. The anthology I edited, The Kindness of Strangers, which was originally inspired by my own experiences on the road, is full of travelers’ tales that illustrate this lesson.

Have you ever met anyone who’s more lost than you?

I have definitely met people who seem to have the same directional proclivity. And of course, it depends on the context: One of my delights has become helping people who are staring quizzically at maps — they are legion in San Francisco — find their way.

Ha! I seem to remember having to give you directions in San Francisco. Are you an expert on the place now?

That’s right! I figured we should have an adventure in my hometown…. I’m generally pretty good at helping visitors get to the main tourist attractions/neighborhoods they want to visit. When are you coming back? ;)

Don George’s new anthology, “A Moveable Feast: Life-Changing Food Adventures Around the World” (Lonely Planet), is coming out in mid-October.

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2 responses to “Q&A: Don George—On Getting Lost (and Staying Lost)

  1. My utter lack of interior compass feels like less of a liability now that I know it’s something I share with Don. Which is not to say I won’t be on pins and needles until my 13 year old daughter, who has inherited the trait, has logged a few hundred more solo off the beaten path subway expeditions. Your future, Mr. Gross.

  2. Pingback: this country is so weird « eyes open

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