I’m not advocating that, if you’re heading to Chiang Mai, Thailand and end up lost in a forest along the Burmese border, it’s a good thing, nor am I suggesting that you make it easy to get pickpocketed by gypsies outside the Milan train station. But I am suggesting that too sterile of a trip may not give you the flavor of a country that some unexpected, minor “detours” will.
I’m not an adventure traveler by any stretch, nor a naïve one either. Still, having read travel warnings in Lonely Planet’s Thailand guide didn’t stop me from getting lost or getting taken for hefty fares by Bangkok tuk tuk and taxi drivers.
So let me explain why I advocate something that may seem counterintuitive or downright wrong. Getting a little lost allows me to explore a new place with all my senses. I remember discovering this in Florence during my backpacking days. Staying at hostels required leaving in the morning when the hostel closed and returning in the late afternoon when they reopened. Wandering towns with little money in my pocket, for hours at a time, meant that I had to find ways to entertain myself without the cash for lots of admission fees or meals. At first, I relied heavily on maps, determining where to turn down an alley, cross a bridge or find a statue. But it was actually when I got a little lost that I discovered some of the great joys of traveling—all for free.
I think most of us travel to get the flavor of another culture—the architecture, the shops, the fashions, the people, the language, the sounds, smells, and tastes—the ambiance. When I’m concentrating on carefully moving from point A to point B, I can miss that, because in my head I’m looking for street signs, landmarks and imagining the destination. (Of course, now all you need is a GPS on your
That summer in Italy, I remember wandering down the cobblestone streets, ending up in an alley and feeling that sense of disorientation and fear. Just as my fear was beginning to build, I looked up to see a piazza explode into view. People crisscrossing the expanse bathed in the light of the midday sun, pigeons flying in and out—an Italian tableau. At that moment, I realized how wonderful it was to experience the element of surprise. I savored the sight and the feeling of delight—like I’d discovered a hidden gem, even though it was loaded with tourists, like myself.
Well, you may say, getting lost might make a bit of sense, but getting taken is going too far. Maybe, but it certainly happens. In fact, I pretty much knew I was done for as soon as the Bangkok tuk tuk driver asked me if I wanted a ride. I wasn’t hard to miss—a disoriented tourist walking part of the way up, then down the stairs of the metro. I typically avoid looking befuddled in an unfamiliar city, even if it requires acting. I knew I appeared lost—giving off a sort of “come hither” signal to those looking for tourist business. In fact, it felt a little like falling in slow motion—I knew it was likely he would try to take me for a ride, so to speak. So when the driver approached me, I was reluctant, but my impatience to get back to my hotel won out. I did try to negotiate the fare, but still paid too much for a short ride to my destination. Instead of beating myself up, I sat back and enjoyed the sights and sounds of Bangkok—including a large dose of exhaust fumes.
At the end of my trip, I was taken again—this time by a Bangkok cab driver. After entering the cab at my hotel—my suitcase and other gear in tow—I asked about the fare. Two hundred baht, the driver told me. Having taken a cab to several destinations, this seemed quite high. By then, however, he’d already driven blocks from my hotel and he wasn’t backing down. I decided to acquiesce, partly because a few days before I’d been told by a longtime Bangkok resident that cab drivers often come to the capital from rural towns far away. Many, he said, live crowded into small apartments in order to make a living while saving some of their income to send some home to their families. Knowing that made paying the extra bahts feel right. In fact, I viewed the entire bargaining scenario in a different light. He certainly could use the bahts much more than me.
While I don’t make a practice of getting taken, when it happens—provided it’s not an overwhelming breech—I take it in stride, knowing I’ve been humbled, yet again.
Travel can and, in many ways, is humbling. The world is such a magnificent, beautiful, troubling and confounding place. Travel is one way of providing us the opportunity to see it with fresh eyes, to challenge and examine our assumptions, to witness the beauty, the imbalances and inequities of both our own and other cultures. It can stretch and stress us. Navigating new cities, languages, and customs can test our mettle and our patience.
Getting lost and getting taken happens—in travel and in life. It can open our eyes or we can keep them glued to the map in hopes there will be no detours, no travails and we will arrive at our destination unruffled and unchanged.