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Traveling Without a Map: Q&A with Matt Gross

While researching recent columns on getting oriented, as well as getting lost, I interviewed Matt Gross, who until recently wrote the “Getting Lost” series for the New York Times. (You may also remember him as the Times’ “Frugal Traveler” columnist.) Matt is a new parent, so he’s traded getting lost on purpose for spending more time closer to home with his young daughter. He still takes 8 or 10 fairly serious trips per year, and now writes for and helps run, a blog for dads that includes a heap of travel talk and advice along the way.

My conversation with Matt includes tips and ideas for meeting people, finding hidden gems, having a good story of your own, and even knowing when to cheat a little to get out of a jam. Thanks to Matt for talking with us.

IT: From your experience writing the “Getting Lost” column, is there a single best tactic that has emerged that you would recommend for folks looking to escape the tyranny of recommendations, guidebooks, apps and the like?

I think the most important thing is simply to know what you want out of your travel experience. People need recommendations and guidebooks and apps because they don’t necessarily know what they want to do, what they want to accomplish with their travel. But once you have been to a lot of places, and have some experience under your belt, you know, okay, this is what I want to do; I want to go there and eat, or I want to go there and hike, or I want to meet people. Once you know that one thing that you really want to do, that you want to get out of a place, everything else sort of flows from there.

IT: Your column was specifically titled “Getting Lost”; do you put all that stuff away, pocket it and specifically try to get lost? Do you think this is a critical piece of traveling, still?

It’s a little more metaphysical than practical, but I don’t use any of that stuff — I don’t use guidebooks, Web sites, or contacts, or any of the things I would use if I were doing a different kind of story. It’s more of a “see what happens when you put all this stuff away” — when you don’t have checklists of things to see, or guidebooks and friends telling you what to do, how can you figure this stuff out on your own?

IT: So if somebody got off a train in Florence, or landed at Boston Logan, and they saw you and knew who you are, and asked you, okay, what do I do, how do I go get lost right now? What would you tell them?

I would look at what kind of bags they were carrying, and would say, okay, if you’re carrying a big bag, go to a locker, put a few euro coins in the locker, put your big bag away so you can wander around and not worry about this heavy load that you’re schlepping, and then just wander. Walk slowly and see what you see, and when it starts getting dark, hopefully you can find somewhere to stay. But you want to have that freedom to wander without anything on your mind. And one of the heaviest things on your mind is the big bag that you are carrying.

IT: From your travels in this “getting lost” mode, is there any one episode that was most serendipitous, where things really seemed to come your way?

Jerusalem really worked out that way. I arrived at the Tel Aviv airport and I knew that I was going to get from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by way of the shared taxis called sherut. I don’t know how I knew that they existed; I just knew that they existed. And that was my chance to meet people and make contact and get advice from people on the ground. So I just started asking people — the little minibus held maybe 10 people in all — for advice on where to stay and where to go and what to do. I wound up becoming friends with a German doctor who had a great recommendation for a hotel to stay at, and then everything just snowballed from there. It worked out magically. But, you know, if I had met someone different, or had not met anyone at all on the shared taxi, I don’t know what it would have been like!

IT: Is there any place that you ended up that you never would have landed had you not thrown it to the wind?

I think almost everywhere. [In Jerusalem] I wound up going from that first, very nice boutique hotel, the Harmony Hotel, to the Austrian Hospice, which is this beautiful, mid-19th-century, airy guesthouse hidden away behind a door in the old city. I didn’t know that the place existed, so I don’t know how I would have found out otherwise. It’s not a secret, but it’s not necessarily the kind of thing that you just stumble upon. If you look at its door from street level, you would have no idea that there is anything there. It’s just a door! (laughs)

So there was that, there were some restaurants — it’s hard to say, this is the big what if. Maybe if I had taken a different shared taxi I would have met someone even better (laughs), and actually everything I saw was only second- or third-class Jerusalem, and if I had met really the right person on the other shared taxi, I would have gotten the real inside scoop on the place. But you can’t second-guess yourself like that.

IT: Did you ever have something where you ended up on George Harrison’s couch, or something like this — something completely unexpected?

I keep hoping for that, I keep hoping for that. Meeting people and talking to people is always the hardest part, because it takes such a weird kind of act of courage to talk to strangers. The good thing, at least if you’re doing what I’m doing, is that you have a good story to tell. Hey, I just showed up in this town, I have no map or guidebook, no contacts, I haven’t done any research, and I’m trying to get lost (laughs). What can you tell me? Where can I go get a good bite to eat? That will ideally make locals interested in you. Who is this unusual traveler?

IT: So do you recommend that to other folks, to have a story?

Yeah, but you have to be prepared for the possibility that it’s not going to work out, or that it’s not going to work out right away. The opposite of Jerusalem was when I went to Chongqing in south central China, a huge mega-city of 30 million people, with lots of hills and two rivers; it’s a total mess. When I showed up I started feeling my way around, and then I found myself in a bad hotel and unable to find a route into a quieter, calmer side of the city where I could actually meet people. After a day or so, I had no idea what I was going to do; how was I going to find anything in a city as big as this? Especially a city in China that doesn’t have the differentiation of neighborhoods that a European city or a city almost anywhere else in the world might have.

And then in a moment of desperation I decided to cheat — I went on my iPhone and looked for another place to stay. I Googled up a hostel, figuring that a hostel [would have] people I connected to better. I make the rules — I guess I can break them when I want. That was the key. I went to the hostel, and it was full of really interesting backpackers and people who worked there, who were all actually Chinese — there weren’t that many foreigners; it was Chinese backpackers traveling through, many of whom spoke English. So that was a great way to connect with people who were also interested in exploring the city in the same way that I was. Just getting on a bus and riding it until we felt like getting off.

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