I Asked the Internet to Assign Me Headlines, and What Happened Next Will Only Slightly Surprise You

In this, my extended refractory period, I’m casting about a bit for what to do with my days. And so today, in a moment of both boredom and curiosity, I made a special request on Twitter:

And of course, my Twitter followers gave me a bunch of good suggestions for stories I’ll try to write over the next couple of weeks. Here’s a few of them:

German Chocolate Quake
Oshkosh Kibosh
The Slide Monopoly: Explaining the Economy of City Playgrounds
I Really Did Need That Horse
Gym Clash Gyros
Bummer. And Here I Thought I Was Being Original.

Like em? Want me to write others? Just suggest a headline—seriously, any headline—and I’ll do my best to turn it into an actual story. That’s why we have comments, folks!

Time, It Goes So Fast. Except When It Doesn’t. Or Goes Backwards.

As someone with a whole lot of time on his hands lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about just how to spend the days, hours, minutes, and nanoseconds afforded to me. And I think I’ve got an answer: I’m going to think about time. And then my head is going to explode.

Because time has gotten very complicated. As Scientific American reported yesterday, physicists trying to solve the problem of time—i.e., why is it that “all the equations that best describe our universe work perfectly if time flows forward or backward” while we can only experience time in one direction?—have a novel concept: It’s all gravity’s fault. That is, gravity, rather than the entropic force of thermodynamics, is responsible for pushing things together, pulling things apart, and ultimately creating the complex system of the universe that we now experience, at least when we’re paying attention.

And then the neat thing they decide is that this means our universe exists in the past of another universe’s future—and, presumably, that that universe exists in our own past, back on the other side of the Big Bang. Also, Galactus is real. Here’s how SA puts it:

From that low-complexity state [the Big Bang], the system of particles then expands outward in both temporal directions, creating two distinct, symmetric and opposite arrows of time. Along each of the two temporal paths, gravity then pulls the particles into larger, more ordered and complex structures—the model’s equivalent of galaxy clusters, stars and planetary systems. From there, the standard thermodynamic passage of time can manifest and unfold on each of the two divergent paths. In other words, the model has one past but two futures. As hinted by the time-indifferent laws of physics, time’s arrow may in a sense move in two directions, although any observer can only see and experience one.

So, yes, your bong-smoking college roommate was right.

Of course, there’s another hitch in time, too. And that’s that the better we’re able to measure it, the more useless it becomes as a measurement. According to NPR, there’s a clock at the University of Colorado Boulder that “can keep perfect time for 5 billion years” without losing a second, or even an infinitesimal fraction of a second. Except that when you get that precise, the idea of “a second” changes depending where you are. At sea level it’s, well, a second, I guess, but the farther away you get from the Earth’s core—or any large generator of gravity—the faster time moves.

So two versions of this clock, which is apparently a jumble of wires surrounding a chamber where “strontium atoms are suspended in a lattice of crisscrossing laser beams,” would give you different times depending on their altitude, even though they’d both be functioning better than this Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore Automatic, which costs $1,251,360 and which I just added to My Wishlist, in case you’re feeling generous this holiday season.

Where does that leave us? We’re living in the past of another universe that exists in our own past, and how we even measure the pastness and futureness of anything depends on where we’re measuring it from—all because of gravity. Which, as we know from careful study of Interstellar, can be controlled by LOVE. Because LOVE is always the answer to complex physics problems.

As a corollary, we also have an explanation of one of the greatest pop hits of the 1980s, by a band I believe we should rename the Big Bangles. Now that you understand the latest physics, this will all make a lot more sense:

(Note: I spent just over an hour writing this—at sea level.)

The Turk, His Beans, and Me

ImageA little over six years ago, when I was taking a round-the-world trip as the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler,” I happened to spend several days working at an organic apple orchard in the undulating hills of Turkey’s Anatolia region. The experience was both weird and wonderful: There was no one on the farm but the farmer, a 55-year-old former engineer named Kemal Görgün, his cat, Simi, and me, and Kemal spoke no English but the words yes, no, okay, and wow.

Over the course of my stay, Kemal and I grew unexpectedly close—or as close as two people can who have almost no way of communicating. Our days were full of tending to the apple trees, driving through the area’s hills, having sweet tea with his farmer friends, and playing backgammon on his terrace in the evenings. The story I produced out of my time there was one of the most popular I’d ever written. (Go on, read it here.)

One of the things that stayed with me ever since, besides Kemal’s generous nature, was his approach to cooking. Essentially, he’d chop up a lot of vegetables, put them in a pot over very low heat, and leave them slowly stewing while we were working in the fields. By the time we returned for lunch, the dish would be done, and we’d eat it with loads of fresh, crusty bread and thick local yogurt with a mineral tang.

My favorite of these rural “set it and forget it” dishes involved cranberry beans, also known as borlotti, and at summer’s end here in New York, when the runner beans show up at farmers’ markets in their long green, white, and red pods, I make it as often as possible. Even my wife, Jean, who won’t eat beans unless they’re sweet red beans served over crushed ice, loves them. Here’s the recipe (serves 4):

Apple Orchard Cranberry Beans

  • 2 cups freshly shelled cranberry beans
  • 1 large red or white onion, chopped
  • 3 (or more) cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 large tomato, chopped
  • 1/2 cup good extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon roughly ground dried Turkish chili (optional)
  • 1/2 cup parsley leaves, chopped
  • 1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt (American, Turkish, or Greek)

To prepare: Put everything but the parsley and yogurt in a saucepan, along with 1/4 to 1/2 cup water. Set over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer, then reduce heat to low. Cook at least an hour, stirring if you remember to, until beans are soft. Then stir in the chopped parsley.

To serve: Divide the beans evenly among four bowls, along with all of the cooking liquid. Garnish each with a big dollop of yogurt, and serve with fresh, crusty bread to sop up the juices.

Wolf-Boy Seeks Job

So, yesterday I sent out the following e-mail to a ton of people, and today I realized I should probably post it here as well:

This is a weird position for me to be in, but here it is: After nearly eight years of freelancing as a writer—for the New York Times, Saveur, Afar, and many other publications—and just three days after I sent my book manuscript in to my publisher, I’m looking for a job. Yes, a real, regular full-time job with a salary, and maybe even benefits.

Ideally, this would be a writing gig focused on travel and food, with freedom to tackle the other weird subjects I get obsessed with: maps, running, television, skateboarding, the Internet, parenting, the small, confounding aspects of life in this city. But I would also like to have a unicorn and, if it’s not too much trouble, universal health care. Which is to say I’m also quite interested in editing (in relation to any of the above-named subjects), and making use of both my experience and my network of talented writer friends.

I don’t necessarily expect that you have a job to offer. I’m not so presumptuous. But you may very well know someone (who knows someone) who is looking for someone to develop a travel section, or oversee food coverage, or just generally edit a broad variety of features, in print or online (or both). And that’s the kind of thing I’d like to get involved in. 

There’s also the possibility, I guess, of getting a job outside of journalism, though what that might be I can’t exactly imagine. What could the author of stories like this and this do besides write more, similar stories? Whatever it ends up being, I’d even be willing to relocate outside of New York if the prospect is intriguing enough.

Also: I don’t want you to think I’m making this decision because I need a job. No, I want one. I’ve loved writing as a freelancer—freelancing has allowed me to travel the world and, almost as important, write what I want to write about. But lately, I’ve felt the pull of civilization, of routine, of participating in activities and projects with larger groups of talented people, and I want in. After so many years in the wilderness, office life seems almost exotic. Do I belong there? I don’t know. I feel a little like a boy raised by wolves who suddenly wants a seat at the table for Sunday dinner. I may eat with my hands at first, and fight you for a chance to gnaw the leg bones, but pretty soon I will learn your ways.

So, that’s about it. I suppose now I’ll have to put together a résumé and organize links to my stories; you should be able to find those things here: <http://about.me/worldmatt>. 

TL;DR: Matt wants a real job, writing or editing (or “other”), print or online, in NYC or elsewhere.

Getting Lost: International High School Edition

“They say getting lost is easy to do. However, trying to get lost seems even harder.”

Well, yes! Those words—written by Henrietta Steventon, a participant in the Oxbridge Academic Programs, a summer course for international high school students—were exactly the point I’ve been trying to make ever since I began writing the “Getting Lost” series for the New York Times travel section. In the last year, I’ve traveled to Tangier, Ireland, Chongqing, Las Vegas, Java, and, most recently, the Greek Islands with neither map nor guidebook, without hotel reservations or contacts, with no access to the Internet, and with no real idea of what I’m going to do when I arrive, all in the hope that I’ll get lost, either geographically (unlikely) or psychologically (possible, but tricky).

Still, people keep asking why I’d want to get lost, as if it’s not simply a bad idea but a nonsensical one, a surrealist response to a perfectly normal question. Which it kind of is. Travel on its most basic level involves orienting oneself in unfamiliar places—to do the opposite of that is almost not to travel at all.

But for me, after decades of fairly intensive travel, orientation has become easy, too easy. In June of 2010, for example, I showed up in San Jose, Costa Rica, to film a video segment with a friend who’d been living there for years. Within 24 hours of arriving, I’d crisscrossed the city multiple times in a rental car, ID’d the “cool” neighborhoods, found the seedy zones, and basically understood the city’s psychogeography better than my friend. It was a feeling of accomplishment, but also of disappointment. My window of discovery lasted a single day—darn.

Now, to extend that window, I want to get lost, because it’s hard to get lost. And, in getting lost, I am opening myself up to finding new things, places and people and experiences I could never have predicted I’d find. Also, it’s pretty fun.

And so, a little over a month ago, I had the chance to explain all of this to these Oxbridge students, one of whose classes was being taught by my old friend, Wah-Ming Chang, who invited me to join in one day. For about 30 minutes, the kids—who hailed from Istanbul, Rome, Mexico City and beyond—asked me good questions, and then the fun began. Wah-Ming, her colleague Colin McDonald, and I led them all down from Barnard, where classes are held, to Central Park, and told them to get lost, or try to, with the idea that they’d be writing about their experiences afterward.

Today I have the joy of presenting you with my favorite pieces of writing to emerge from that class. First up, a little more of Ms. Steventon’s prose:

Then all of a sudden, we find ourselves surrounded by foliage. We push through. Our hearts pound with the anticipation of exploration. A single bead of sweat trickles down from my hairline. We struggle through the plant life like Moses parting the Red Sea, the wood chips crunching under our feet. We can almost feel what we have been attempting to feel for approximately 18 minutes now: that lost feeling is just reachable. We push past a trunk of a tree stretching to the sky, and are now lost in the jungles of… the fantasy has been lost. The dream destroyed. We are now standing on the side of the main road, on the border of the central park. We might as well be tourists hailing a cab. Our idea of ‘Jurassic Park’ has become the reality of Central Park.

Man, how well I know that feeling of being right on the cusp of discovery, only to watch the unfamiliar terrain coalesce into something you know all too well. But it’s instructive nonetheless, and you keep hoping that next time the discovery will be true.

As the generation of futuristic technology we often find ourselves lost in our own virtual perceptions. Lost in our own Facebook profiles while singing “Rolling in the Deep” and answering a text message. In most cases, “getting lost” in Central Park means “I’m looking at Google maps while figuring out the way.” I have a blackberry, an Itouch, and a computer; you know what I don’t have? A compass, a survival kit, and a Victorinox pocket knife. Despite the obvious details- yes, I’m a city girl. I believe that technology for all its grandeur will never surpass nature; the sun’s first bundle of light, the sound of the first leaf to descend in fall, the immensity of the ocean, and the smell of wet grass. Thus, setting off to this slightly unconventional task (has a teacher ever asked you to get lost? Exactly.) I was not surprised as to what I realized.

—Alejandrina Alvarez

While I’m pretty sure every generation since mine (or before) has defined itself as that of “futuristic technology,” Alvarez nails how our tools not only make getting lost more difficult but also get in the way of really seeing and experiencing where we are. I say this as a deep lover of Google Maps (and all maps), one who’s often walked digital paths while ignoring the gravel ones beneath my feet. Sometimes it’s necessary, but if we can survive when left to our own devices (and not the electronic kind), we’re in trouble.

One student, Hannah Silsby, took this “get lost to observe better” approach extremely far, and produced a wonderful, multiple-point-of-view narrative:

The heat sunk in past our skin as we wandered. In a state of longing for lostness, we reared left up the hill. Like a line of ants returning home, each person followed the one in front of them. The only difference was that we were not going home; we were attempting to lose our individual distinction and explore as faceless, colorless, genderless beings. We were attempting to meld with the background and observe ourselves.

The group lingered through the forest, once uninvaded by humankind, now harnessed. Searching for an unfamiliar place, barren of recognition, we funneled past peaks and curves. We stumbled upon an affectionate couple, lost in their own way.


Our embrace became like being one single solitary creature, daunted by an extra body. Still my legs blanketed his, my smile lingered over his. For minutes only the sun intruded on us, blazing jealously [zealously?]. A group of adventure teens wander near, seeking something besides intrusiveness. They take a perch nearby, they see us, don’t seem to mind. But we mind.

They soak themselves in the sun like black cats, wordless. A girl stands and circles the ruin of a building behind her.


I twist my way around the mangled birch building, peering into the windows and shaking the cracking rusted locks. Finding nothing, I circle back to the sunning stone where my classmates tan and pant. I pass a black man wearing an aging red shirt, he smiles. I wave.


Harry bent down towards the empty soda can hidden in the long grass and placed it in his shopping cart. The half-full cart made noises like church bells as he navigated it through the rough terrain of Central Park. His red shirt collected films of perspiration beneath the arms. He smiled at a passerby, a young blond girl.


Henrietta lay sprawled out on the hot stone among the other students. The dress she had recently been sent by her mother resonated in the wind, skating puffs of breath. Her eyes wandered to the couple only a few feet away: once so affectionate, now cautious. She thought it sad, that the gay couple had changed their positions so drastically from affectionate to friendship. Would they have kept their holds of each other if they had been a straight couple? She prayed that they were only shy expressing affection, and not with their identities.

Henrietta followed the school of students exiting the scene, her vibrant pink dress still respirating in competition with the wind.


Once we returned to the meeting place, we planted our supple, sweating bodies on the benches. Just beyond the boundaries of the railing sat an open valley of heaving hills. A pair of sparrows chased each other, tail to beak, about the pathway before taking leisure on the railings behind a bench. I observed them. They flirted and bobbed together, stealing my attention. I removed my notebook from my bag and attempted to sketch the moving companions. They flittered lovingly between excited rotations and gentle smooches. They were bothered not by the wind nor by my peering eye or flickering pen, and were distracted only by each other’s actions.

The slow exhale of the wind leapt about my forearms and giving life to a newspaper sheet rolling by. The birds took no notice of the sighing earth, and simply continued flirting.

Of all the students, the fedora-wearing flâneur Felipe de la Hoz—who I came to think of as Mr. Hat—perhaps got the “getting lost” point the best:

I believe getting lost is a beautiful thing. There are really very few experiences as freeing as finding yourself in unknown territory. We are so used to knowing exactly where we are and where we are going at every moment of the day that once we actually look around and are struck suddenly by the cold splash of reality, by the realization that we are, surprisingly, not in control and indeed completely helpless, it immediately turns off all of that static in your mind, all the white noise, the chores, the petty problems are wiped, the hard drive rebooted and you are left floored. Everything else is gone, and now there is only you and this place, this alien place, wonderful and terrifying, removed from everything and everyone; and you are left in nirvana. Time stretches out, it becomes irrelevant and distant; seconds blend into minutes and hours. There is no purpose. There is no destination. Walking goes from being a method of transportation to an almost meditative state; it is a trance, as deeply introspective as any religious service. It is the experience of exploration that we all had yet have forgotten about with the passing of years; it is the same exploration as that of a child, a child bewildered by the fresh and new world around him, experiencing all the sights and sensations individually, each tree on each leaf fascinating, hungrily studied and absorbed and loved and appreciated. There is no why; why is not necessary in this place. Getting lost is like spending day after day after day living in generic stock photographs, and then, one day, tripping into an impressionist painting. All the things you didn’t notice could be there if you simply look at the world a different way. Every element of the landscape is now a finely crafted work of art. Who knew the branches were such a sight? Who knew buildings were not just places you went to pay your bills, but each has a life and a personality to be observed? The warped lens has been removed, and you can see things as they are. Don’t ignore the world; the world is here for you to see and experience and appreciate. The next time you look around and what you see is not what you expected, consider yourself lucky; each sight and person and experience is a gift, and it is up to you to find it.

Finally, I’d be remiss in not quoting Julia Fonteles, who didn’t quite get lost but who did get right to the heart of the weirdness of travel writing:

It was an interesting idea, and it’s hard to imagine someone making money out of this job which is really an adventure. I guess people make money doing all kinds of things today.

Well, yes!

Where I Been

Business cards advertising escort services litter the Strip.

Twitter is a funny thing. It seems so inconsequential on many levels—all those 140-character blurbs about breakfast, hahaha!—but then it spurs random events. A friend of mine, for instance, just got a four-article assignment because a friend of his tweeted something. Weird.

And then my friend Newley Purnell goes and mentions me as “always an inspiration.” Sheesh. But then he reminded me of something else—I have a blog! Long neglected though it is, I do like to write here, and since it’s been a while, I figured I’d give you an update on my comings, goings, and writings.

First, there was that article in last week’s Sunday Styles section, about the Ace Hotel and its (co-)founder, Alex Calderwood. What can I tell you about that? Well, it was enjoyable to report, but it also made me nervous. What if the subjects of the story hated it? Would I be able to go back to the Ace for drinks now and then? But of course, I couldn’t write it solely to please Alex et al. Anyway, I was there last night, to meet up with a visiting editor, and no one kicked me out. In fact, I ran into Alex and he told me he liked the piece. “I didn’t write it to make you happy,” I told him.

Oh, also, the Village Voice and Gawker had some wonderfully snarky comments about the story. I enjoyed them immensely.

At the same time, my “Voyager” column on GetCurrency.com has been getting more and better attention. If you haven’t read it yet, check out my recent columns on which countries I hate (and why) and which countries I love (and how I came, mathematically, to those conclusions).

Next up is this weekend! If you’re a radio person, you should check out the Splendid Table, where I’ll be talking about my recent schnaps story in Saveur magazine. A fun, short interview. Click this link for local listings.

Also this weekend is the next installment of the “Getting Lost” series: Las Vegas! Woo-hoo! I won’t spoil what happens in the piece, except to say two things: 1) the photo in this post is one the Times wasn’t able, for various reasons, to use; and 2) I met Lady Luck—in the flesh. Check it out online starting tomorrow.


Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote a Frugal Traveler column about my New Year’s resolutions for 2010. Now, resolutions are not really my thing. Mostly it’s because I’m a self-satisfied jerk who doesn’t see any need to change or adapt as the years go by. In this case, though, I had an assignment and a deadline, so I had to come up with something: I resolved to travel lighter, put down my iPhone, learn to like buses and hostels, and learn Spanish and Chinese.

Of all of these, only the last held out any real appeal for me, and yet somehow I actually managed to fulfill my other resolutions, thanks to this new “Getting Lost” series, which has required me to put aside my iPhone entirely and to lighten my load in general. And, in a weird twist of fate, my recent “Lost in China” trip to Chongqing led me to embrace both buses and hostels (though I wasn’t consciously trying to). Here are the relevant lines on buses:

So one day, just before lunch, I rode the light rail 45 minutes to the end of the line and walked to a bus stop, where, after studying the route map (another breach of my rules, but it was in Chinese, hence unreadable), I boarded a bus that passers-by assured me would not go anywhere I’d been before.

Never have I been so relaxed on a bus. With no destination in mind and no timetable to keep, I simply rode and looked out the window at the gray sky and the towers topped with Italianate domes or mansard roofs (and sometimes, I think, with both).

And on hostels:

I found Tina’s Hostel, a warren of rooms an easy cab ride away, at the edge of the 18 Steps, an old, central neighborhood whose every building (I believe) bore the character “chai,” which means destined for demolition. My private room was acceptable, if small; there was a roof deck with a pool table, and an enclosed cafe space. Most important, there was the spunky crew of young Chinese men and women who operated the hostel, showed a genuine interest in its guests and invited me to join them that evening for what I’d been wanting to eat ever since I arrived: hot pot.

Funny how things work out, eh? Now, however, I must face 2011 and consider crafting New Year’s resolutions once again. If I follow the same strategy—that is, fulfill the resolutions by not even trying to fulfill them—then I should make them more ambitious. So, this year I resolve to sell a book for $1 million, launch a travel TV empire, and, I don’t know, sail around the world? Sure, why not?

How to Get Around New York City: Some Very Simple Instructions

Hello, tourists! Also: Hello, residents! Please allow me to be the first, and possible the last, person to welcome you to New York City. It is, you have probably noticed, a very big city. The buildings are tall. There are lots of people. The transit systems seem to have been designed by sadistic mental patients formerly consigned to Roosevelt Island. (Fun fact: They were!) Simply getting from place to place can be terrifying. Why, you might bump into someone! Or offend a native! Or be run down like a fixed-gear bicyclist by a garbage truck!

Unless, of course, you follow these two principles for Getting Around New York City™. I will tell you now: One of these principles is self-centered and rude, while the other is broad-minded and conscientious. I will leave it to you to decide which is which.

Principle no. 1: Get the hell outta my way!

The first thing you should remember when it comes to Principle no. 1 is that you should get the hell outta my way! I don’t care who you are—tourist or native or ex-resident returning to the once-forlorn neighborhood of Brooklyn where you lived 30 years ago—but you just need to get the hell outta my way. I might be walking, or biking, or driving; it doesn’t matter which. I might be moving fast or slowly, toward you or away from you. There might be other people around into whose way you must move in order to get the hell outta my way. That doesn’t matter! What I need for you is to anticipate MY NEEDS, where I’M GOING, and get the hell outta my way. I could be going up or down subway stairs; you should move aside. I could be trying to browse B&H for camera gear I can’t afford; you should let me through. All that matters, in the end, is that you get the hell outta my way.

What happens if you don’t get the hell outta my way? I may bump into you, perhaps roughly, perhaps not. I may give you a dirty look, and you’ll be both cowed and angry. I may suck it up and walk around you. I may call you a jerk, or whisper “Jerk!” under my breath, or think about what a jerk you are later, when I’m home and enjoying a nice glass or whiskey. Good luck recovering from that, jerk!

Principle no. 2: No sudden movements, please

This one is simple. Whatever you’re doing, just keep doing it. If you’re walking, keep walking. Don’t suddenly stop. Don’t suddenly turn to the right. Or to the left. Don’t break into a sprint. Or drastically reduce your walking speed. Just maintain a steady pace … and ignore what everyone else is doing around you. Yes, I know that requires you to violate Principle no. 1 (a.k.a. “Get the hell outta my way!”), but it will work. In fact, it will work so well that you can even walk slowly—we New Yorkers won’t mind, just so long as you don’t suddenly halt to sip your Starbucks or pause in a crosswalk to read a map.

Look, we just don’t want surprises. Surprises surprise us, and then we have to jump, swerve and stumble to avoid them, whether it’s a tourist flipping open a map on the subway steps or a cyclist running some red lights but not others, or a suburban sedan that can’t decide whether it wants to keep looking for on-street parking or should just go back around to that overpriced parking garage. If that’s how you behave, we’re liable to maybe bump into you, call/mouth/think you a jerk, and fume for hours afterward. And you really don’t want that! So, be consistent. Keep calm and carry on, as the Brits used to say.

Okay, you say, but what then should an ambulatory person do when said person needs to stop, to answer the phone or put on a pair of Marc Jacobs fingerless gloves or whatever? Think of the sidewalk (and the subway and streets and everywhere else) like a highway. If you need to stop, you don’t just stop. You find a place on the side where you can pause, and you decelerate as you pull over. Then you take care of your business—iPhone Google maps, nose-picking, wet-wipe-showering, whatever—and gradually accelerate back into human traffic. It’s very simple, jerk.


I’m not going to get into the corollaries here. Suffice to say that, in combination, these two principles lead to a host of other sub-principles that guide ideal maneuvering around New York City. But I’ll leave it to other writers to deal with those issues. I’m late already to bike into the city and pick up my daughter from preschool, and there’s bound to be all kinds of jerks in my way.

Why I Love Vietnam

During the Tet holiday, Ho Chi Minh City, 2005.

The last time I was in Vietnam, a strange thing happened. I was walking down a typical alleyway between two buildings near the center of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon. There was a small vegetable market spread on one side, and a few fold-up tables that constituted another side. Some teenagers sat on parked mopeds, and off to the side a guy squatted on the ground, welding a piece of metal, sparks flying at his unprotected face.

Then, out of nowhere, a girl—maybe 18 years old—ran up to me, grabbed my right nipple through my shirt, and twisted it. Then she grinned and jogged off, looking back at me as she did so. It didn’t hurt, but man, that was weird. Except that it wasn’t weird at all. And it wasn’t sexual—she wasn’t a hooker. She just… thought it was funny. And it was. From a certain point of view.

When I tell people this story, a lot of them don’t get it. If they’ve been to Vietnam, they see it as further evidence of how difficult it is to do something that should be simple, like walking down the sidewalk, crossing the street, buying fruit, or taking a taxi. Those people will freely admit they don’t much like Vietnam. Who would, with such constant hassles?

To me, however, the nipple-twister is exactly why I love the place. The people there are outgoing and exuberant, not only fascinated by foreigners but unafraid to confront them. And they are original—where else can you get your nipples playfully twisted by a stranger as merely the prelude to a increasingly strange day?

Yes, there is hassle, but key to managing it is understanding that it is a game. Now, the game may be called “How Badly Can We Rip Off the Foreigner?” But it is still a game that you can play. You might not win—actually, you can’t win, but that doesn’t mean you can’t mitigate your losses. It helps, of course, to be able to speak some Vietnamese, so that when your taxi driver or the dragonfruit vendor quotes an outrageous figure you can squeal with derision, “Oh my God!” And from there you begin the bargaining/arguing procedure.

Now, look. If you want your travel experiences to be seamlessly pleasant, then Vietnam may not be for you, unless you are very rich. But me, I like travel to be challenging. Not difficult, exactly, but the kind of thing that tests me, tests my language abilities, my wits, my patience—all the assorted skills I’ve accumulated over the years. And Vietnam does this every second of every day, from the moment I step out the door in search of coffee or pho. And it rewards persistence and creative thinking.

Once, I remember, I stepped into a taxi and asked the driver to bring me to the best pho in the city. There began a long conversation about where and when and how to find such a thing. It was early afternoon—not prime pho-finding time—and the best places, in the cabbie’s opinion, lay on the wrong side of town. But the enthusiasm with which he matched my own was wonderful, and prompted me to declare, in shaky Vietnamese, “Ai co thich an pho, day la ban toi.” (Roughly, “he who likes pho is a friend of mine.”)

But it wasn’t just the fact of his enthusiasm—it was the purity of his spirit. There was, at least as far as I could tell, nothing but enthusiasm there, no irony or condescension or even game-playing. For 15 minutes in cross-town traffic, it was just two guys talking (through a minor language barrier) about their love of noodles. And implied by that, I think, was a love of the country that made them.

Q&A: Jeff Wise on the Psychology of Getting Lost

Jeff Wise

One of the things I love about doing the “Getting Lost” series for the Times is finding other writers who have the same interest in disorientation. One of those is my friend Jeff Wise, a contributing editor at Travel+Leisure, who wrote about the pitfalls of GPS dependency in the October issue. So, since I was curious and felt like procrastinating, I initiated the following Q&A with Jeff over e-mail. (Look for his Q&A with me over on his site, jeffwise.wordpress.com.)

In your T+L piece, you write about a Swedish couple who, due to a typo, followed their GPS system to Carpi, Italy, instead of Capri, Italy. But you didn’t say what happened when they arrived in Carpi. Did they turn around and go to the “right” place? And would you say they were lost?

I don’t actually know what they did, the story was from the AP and it didn’t give the details. It was really more of an anecdote than a full news story—which was adequate for my purposes. As to whether they were really lost—that’s a good question. I mean, they got to where they were going; it’s just that where they wanted to go wasn’t where they really wanted to go! I suppose you could say that they were misplaced.

Okay, so what’s the difference between being “misplaced” and being lost? What does it mean to get lost today?

Something has happened to us over the last generation or two. The need to produce and perform and to compete has become so deeply infused into our sense of being that we feel guilty if we aren’t busily hurrying off to our next achievement. And this is true not just in the United State, but across the developed world. If anything, the more connected we become to the rest of the time, the harder we feel we have to strive in order to stay on top. So as a culture we’ve become misplaced. By that I mean, we think that we know where we’re going, but we haven’t really given too much thought to the destination—like the Swedish couple who used satellite navigation to get them to Carpi. We’re good at getting what we want, but poor at figuring out what that ought to be. It’s better, in my opinion, to be truly lost—that is, to recognize that you don’t know where you are, and you don’t know how to get to where you want to be. When you’re lost, you have to think.

So being lost is an intellectual state? Interesting. I’d always imagined it was more emotional—that I’d feel the displacement in my gut (or elsewhere). Is there no psychological component to either getting lost or trying not to get lost?

There’s definitely an emotional component to getting lost. As I write in my book, “Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger,” the two strongest defenses against fear are information and a sense of control. When we become lost, we lose both those things—we suddenly have no information about where we are or how to improve our situation, and that means we’re temporarily out of control of our immediate destiny. That can be very upsetting. It’s such an unpleasant mental state, in fact, that people are very good at convincing themselves that they’re not lost when they really are. They might get turned around on a hike and come upon a lake that they take to be a certain landmark, and convince themselves that it really is, even though it’s much smaller and has an island in the middle of it. This kind of denial is a powerful example of how emotion and intellect can intersect, usually to the detriment of the latter.

Hm, that definitely makes me wonder: Have I been lost and not realized it? Of course, you can’t answer that one, but how about: When was the last time you were truly lost?

I find that I usually am lost before I realize it—there’s always that moment when the reality sinks in: I anticipated finding myself in a particular place, and here I am somewhere else.

My hobby is flying small planes, and when I go from point A to point B I’m mostly relying on what’s called pilotage—which means finding your way based on the things you see on the ground. It’s fairly simple in the Hudson River Valley, where you’ve got a nice big river and mountains here and there; there’s almost always a landmark to steer by. But this summer I flew to Indianapolis, and somewhere over Ohio I realized that I was overdue for the next waypoint I was hoping to spot—an airport—and that, what’s more, all the little towns and fields and ponds looked more or less alike. That’s when it sank in: I was lost. It’s a bit more unnerving than being lost in a car, because obviously you can’t just pull over, and you’ve got a limited amount of fuel and therefore a limited amount of time to figure it all out it. So I went to plan B, and tuned into the navigational radio system.

What would you have done if you hadn’t had the navigational radio system? Or, more generally, what should people do when they realize they’re lost?

The most important thing is not to panic. Once fear runs away with you, it shuts down the cognitive centers of your brain, and then you’re really screwed. So first thing is, take a deep breath. Resist the urge to take impulsive action. Ideally, if getting lost is actually dangerous and not just inconvenient (as for, say, a pilot, or a boater in treacherous waters) you will have thought about a plan B beforehand. There’s often one fairly simple thing we can do to sort ourselves out quickly: ask for help. Unfortunately many people, and men in particular, hate to admit defeat, and would rather drive around in circles than ask for directions.

Are there psychological strategies for *trying* to get lost? Me, I have a hard time losing my way, but I keep trying to. Are there ways of shutting off my sense of direction?

Hmm, you’ve got me stumped there… You’re definitely swimming against the tide of human instinct.

How about going to a new city, not looking any maps, getting on the subway, and getting off at some random stop?

Or, drive to New Jersey…

That’s what I’ve been doing! (Minus the drive to New Jersey.) But people are always asking me why I want to do this. You get at this a bit in your T+L article, too, when you suggest people turn off GPS while on vacation. Why should they?

Serendipity. Allowing yourself to be surprised. Opening yourself up to risk, and to the particularly vibrant and memorable reward of discovering things on your own. At the risk of sounding metaphysical, I think we all need to put ourselves at the mercy of the Universe once in a while. If you find yourself wandering down some foreign street, and you spot a cute little bistro tucked away down an alley, and you wander in, and there’s a strange purple soda behind the counter, and you try it without even knowing what it’s called or what’s in it, you will have a completely different sensory experience than if you tried it because you read about it on Chowhound.

Though I do love Chowhound. There’s times when even I am not in the mood for a spin of the roulette wheel…

“Completely different sensory experience” how? Can you quantify how finding something yourself changes the experience? And what happens if, later, you find out the place is well known online?

Psychologists have found that our experience of the world—the tastes, smells, colors, and so on—result from a combination of sensory data from the outside world and of our own expectations regarding those sensations. Red wine tastes different to the average person than white wine, even if it’s really just wine wine with flavorless dye added, because we have a lifetime of expectations about what red wine is “like.” So when we move through a new world without expectations, we literally experience it in a different way. Richard Bangs, the co-founder of Mountain Travel Sobek who pioneered the first descents of many rivers, told me that one of the thrills for him of going to a place that no one else had ever been was that it was “unmediated,” as he put it, by previous visitors’ accounts in books and magazine articles.

Of course, he could just as easily achieve the same effect by avoiding those earlier visitors’ writing, which is I think what your latest series of articles is about.

As to your last question, it doesn’t bother me at all if I find that something I discovered on my own turns out to be famous. On the contrary, I get a little thrill out of seeing my judgment validated. I mean, when we’re traveling we’re never really “discovering” anything. Even Columbus was finding a place that plenty of people already new about.