One of the first things I do when I arrive in a new city is put away my guidebook, map or whatever electronic device that’s dedicated to helping me find my way home, choose a cardinal point on the horizon and start walking toward it. I walk until I simply can’t walk anymore, not stopping until hunger, exhaustion or dark of night forces me to do so.
This little travel ritual for me accomplishes a couple things: it gives me a good idea of the layout of the city, and, far more importantly, gets me lost.
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So yes, it’s my opinion that the act of getting lost is a vital part of the traveling experience, and you simply cannot travel without succumbing to it, at least in a metaphorical sort of way. Standing in the middle of Addis Ababa or Mumbai or La Paz you look at the sky and see yourself at the center of the great labyrinth of turns that brought you there—lost—out of your element but enjoying the thought that this is what you had in mind when you bought your ticket in the first place, to see these mystic places, to lose yourself in them, and finally, to comprehend them in a way you may not have expected.
Sure, at dinner parties you’ll claim you’re going to Vietnam to take pictures of the Floating Markets and to Cape Town to wonder at the ragged edges of the famed Tablecloth, but inside you know deeply that you just want to get lost in the world, to see your footprints dry up behind you and watch as your breadcrumbs disappear down the throats of the crows alighting on your path. As every piece dissolves, so does your attachment to them and ultimately your need for map-based direction.
In a way, travel gives you a relief from the normalcy of the everyday, the very common way life regularly presents itself to you (and often bores you). It’s a departure from a routine that for whatever reason was discouraging. But what you’re really looking for, maybe without even knowing, is what Ray Bradbury once called “the aesthetic of lostness“, that somewhat awkward dizziness of the rare that strips you naked under the forces of the world so that perhaps sometime later you can become, with great fanfare, unlost.
Being lost is tantamount to being at the mercy of your environment, being helpless and afraid, but that very feeling is what unlocks the path to discovery as well. These things are bedfellows – one begets the other so to speak, the prize for the other’s payment.
Whether you’re an adventure seeker or a timid tourist, every trip is a venture out into the aesthetic of lostness. You may go with friends, groups, loved ones, or stuffed animals, but the underlying goal of every trip is to feel separated, independent, and happily distant from the normal.
Lost presses in from all sides, but it’s that very thing that makes it all so satisfying – that we know, deep down, we will somehow dodge the slings and arrows and make it out alive, and that feeling grows stronger with each step farther into the unknown we take.
As I round another corner of the city, deeper and deeper into its crevices, each new building façade more unusual, each face more foreign, I’m made aware that lost isn’t something entirely unwelcome. As I travel farther into the heart of darkness, embodied simply as a restaurant where no English is spoken, or an invitation to dinner with strange and friendly locals, or a church where the most exotic of ceremonies is taking place, I realize all the more clearly that lost doesn’t necessarily equal panic, suffering, or anguish. It’s then I realize that lost is a condition where I am exposed to the ability to find myself, to become unlost.
This concept is summarized perfectly in a simple yet elegant quote by the great Douglas Adams:
“I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I intended to be.”
I arrive in a new city or town and start walking, taking those ceremonious steps under the eaves of unfamiliar languages, new weather, faces of the locals always squinting at me with creased foreheads as if saying, “This is not your place. What are you doing here?” and I get a feeling of anticipation, a snowballing butterfly stomach made more queasy with each step, but it’s ultimately quelled by the knowledge that when I return, and I always will, there will be relief, gratification, confidence, and a person looking very much like me becoming very much unlost.
Do you travel to get lost, or is it the opposite? Is there something else for you? Speak out in the comments section.