Monthly Archives: November 2010

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.

Corollaries

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.