A guide for getting lost
For former Frugal Traveler Matt Gross, the best laid plans are the ones that don't work out. Getting lost, getting sick, running out of money, feeling alone in a strange place—that's all part of the adventure.
Avowed foodie Matt Gross doesn't remember what the scrambled duck fetus tasted like. Raw octopus tentacles still writhing on his plate in Seoul, South Korea; curried goat brains in Yangon, Myanmar; chili-drowned rabbit's head in China—those were delicious. But the taste of hôt vit lôn, the half-hatched duck egg he was served in Vietnam, escapes him. Its "suicide-by-skyscraper" appearance simply made a bigger impression than its flavor.
Unusual meals are going to happen when working as a professional travel writer, and eating adventures are merely one kind of tale that Gross, A&S '96, '98 (MA), has amassed in his career. The scrambled duck fetus? He ate it. Walk across Europe? Sure. He's had the flu during a New Year's Eve holiday in Cambodia; required IV fluids following dehydration and sunstroke at a beach at Nha Trang, Vietnam; and was stricken with the intestinal parasite giardia in the Himalayas—and in a railroad toilet in New Delhi, and in Kenya's Rift Valley, and somewhere along the roughly 300-mile drive from Mexico City to Oaxaca. He's hopped around Europe for a week on low-cost airlines. Travel stories? He's got them. He just wasn't sure how they might fit into a book.
"I've been to roughly 60 countries, but I haven't spent more than a couple of weeks in any of them. And that's a very difficult travel experience."
"I have a very difficult kind of travel experience for making a book," Gross says, sitting in a side room of a sedately seasoned bar in Brooklyn's Boerum Hill near his home. An avid runner, he has a lean face that makes his striking blue eyes appear alert and inquisitive. "Most travel books are the account of one journey [or] one place or set of places that are thematically connected. Eat Pray Love—there's your theme right there.
"Me? I've been to roughly 60 countries, but I haven't spent more than a couple of weeks in any of them," he continues. "And that's a very difficult travel experience."
From 2006 to 2010 he wrote the Frugal Traveler column and blog for The New York Times. For three to six months out of each of those years he bounced around the globe on the cheap, his only editorial diktats to provide a sense of place and frugal tips. He spent the summer of 2006 going around the world in 90 days, a trek that took him to Portugal, Turkey, Georgia, and Kyrgyzstan before a 48-hour train ride from Ürümqi in northwestern China to Beijing for his flight home. In 2010 he chronicled his 180-mile walk from Budapest, Hungary, to Vienna, partly retracing the route Patrick Leigh Fermor took in 1933 when the English travel writer started his roughly one-year stroll from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul. In between, Gross slurped noodles in Tokyo and traced his family's roots in Vilnius, Lithuania. He won Webby Awards in 2008 and 2009 and started the Times' Getting Lost series, traveling with no preplanned agenda. During his Times stint his byline became synonymous with the Frugal Traveler column, as he supplemented his reporting with video and photos and interacted with his readers online.
But he wasn't sure what held his travels together when he started to think about writing a book. A series of anecdotes about unusual items consumed and tales of intestinal woe do not a book make. Nothing united his travels save himself, the guy who passed through place after place after place not spending much time in any one of them.
How to deal with the velocity of travel is exactly what he explores in his first book, The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which Da Capo Press issued in April. He realized that his travel experience was less about the places he's been and more about the unpredictability that comes with traveling itself. All those mundane difficulties he experienced—being alone, scared, naive, underfunded, unmoored—had an enriching flip side. Yes, he often felt lonely when in a new place for the first time, but he ended up making new friends along the way. Yes, sometimes he got sick, but he ate authentic versions of everything he ever dreamed of. Yes, things aren't going to go as planned, but perhaps the plan wasn't well laid to begin with.
"Once I hit on the idea that I'm good at dealing with bad things—or mostly good at dealing with bad things—it was just a matter of ordering them" into a somewhat instructional framework, Gross says of writing Turk. Turns out he did have something to offer readers: a philosophy. "I wanted to get at something deeper than how to do it and what happened and what lesson I learned. I wanted to represent some kind of philosophy of travel—maybe an abstract, totally obscure, opaque, confused philosophy of travel, but after having read a lot of other traveling writing and done a lot of it myself, the part that I felt was left out was what does it all mean? To me or to anyone?"
Gross isn't going to answer that question any more than a philosopher is going to pin down the meaning of life. Instead, Turk offers his thoughts on travel thus far, roaming through his misadventures to suggest a perspective that fellow travelers can remember while on their own excursions. Doesn't matter where you're traveling, things will go wrong. Maps will be inaccurate. Food will cause illness. Communication will be difficult. These things are all going to happen, and viewed through Gross' auspicious pragmatism, crashing into the unexpected doesn't ruin the adventure. Just because the world is unpredictable doesn't mean it can't be sublime at the same time.
That's not an attitude he divined from thin air; he had to travel, make mistakes, and write his way there. Born in Concord, Massachusetts, and raised in Williamsburg, Virginia, Gross came to Johns Hopkins as a math major, switched to Writing Seminars, and returned after spending a year in Vietnam to earn a master's in writing. He moved to New York in 1998 and eventually worked as a news editor at foxnews.com and an assistant editor at New York magazine before heading to Cambodia in 2004 to do research for a historical novel.
Travel writing wasn't something he thought much about at the time. "I'm glad that wasn't my ambition back then because I wouldn't have known what I was doing," he says. "I was more interested in reading novels and getting inspired by that than going through Paul Theroux, Bruce Chatwin, or Bill Bryson—or travel magazines. I just didn't read them."
Through a friend he emailed The New York Times when he returned to Southeast Asia, and when he came back to New York he forged a relationship with the newspaper's travel editors, writing a few freelance pieces that led to the invitation to take over the revamped Frugal Traveler column, which was started by Susan Spano in the 1990s and continued by Daisann McLane in the late 1990s. He learned how to write about travel on the job—in Turk Gross amusingly recounts receiving a "get your shit together" email from his editor early in the around-the-world trip after filing an underwhelming column. Toward the end of the assignment he experienced the pride of finding his writing stride when his editor sent an internal email to the Times staff suggesting they read his latest piece.
For Gross traveling is as much a mental experience as a physical one, as potential travelers/readers aren't going to know what they want from travel until they start doing it. It's learned through experience, not by rote.
That's not the only time Gross casually introduces his life into Turk. Part of his travel philosophy is that the personal shapes what you want to get out of traveling. His wife, Jean Liu, A&S '96, comes up often, as simple disclosure (he writes that her steady fashion design career is what permitted him to have a travel writer's dream job) and as occasional travel partner. She accompanied him on a few Frugal trips, and they went to Taiwan together to visit her family.
An adventurous eater and cook—Gross is currently an editor at BonAppetit.com—in Turk he recounts flying to Taipei, Taiwan, solo in October 2008, a few months before his daughter's birth, to learn from the family cook, A-Mui, how to prepare the meals his wife grew up eating. They'd wake at 6 a.m. to hit the market, a "damp concrete underworld where blowtorch-wielding men singed the hairs off pigs' feet," return home by 7:30 a.m., and around 11 a.m. the lesson began in a compact kitchen. Gross writes: "As she assembled dish after dish—deep-fried pork chops marinated in fermented rice paste, sesame oil chicken, braised pigs' feet with peanuts—I'd take notes, amazed at her practiced efficiency. Five dishes at lunchtime came out in around 20 minutes."
This snippet captures what makes Gross' writing entertainingly informative. He's got a sharp eye for details, a refreshing appreciation for anecdotal brevity, and he candidly introduces the personal. He just happened to be writing about travel during a fortuitous time of the personality traveler. In 2005 Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations debuted on the Travel Channel, and 2006 saw the release of Vice magazine's The Vice Guide to Travel DVD, which included stops in a Pakistani gun market and Chernobyl, and Daniel Kalder's book Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist, in which the Scottish writer visits practically unknown ethnic Russian republics, such as Kalmykia on the Caspian Sea and Udmurtia, located some 600 miles east of Moscow. All three are obnoxiously entertaining because they take a louche approach, treating being in a far-flung place and/or eating something odd and exotic as existential bungee jumping.
Gross comes across, in person and in print, as too generous of mind to explore a city or country from a predisposed position. He responds to a place rather than expecting it to accommodate him. Throughout Turk he recounts bits and pieces of his travels like somebody remembering birthday gifts he's received, good and bad: writing a column on his PDA while sitting in the back of a Turkish bus; lunching in Calais, France, with refugees waiting to cross the channel to enter England illegally; a tense trip with his brother to eat their way around Montreal; a man coming up to him in Tunisia mistaking him for somebody else. They form a collage of people, places, and scenes through which Gross suggests how to meet people when traveling or how to handle gastrointestinal distress using himself as the example, creating a thoughtful, episodic memoir as practical guidebook.
"When I was writing the book I kept looking through my library and racking my memory and trying to figure out other writers [and] other books that had tackled some of the same problems that I had," Gross says. "I couldn't think of anything, which is not to say that I'm doing something totally unique and new. But it made me think of something: This is a weird travel book. And weird can be good."
Weird only in the sense that Turk is an old-fashioned approach to a very new thing: a primer on navigating global travel in the information-overloaded 21st century. It isn't a ruminative, George Santayanaesque effort to experience someplace else in order to see home through new eyes, nor is it a simple handbook on how best to evolve from the consumer tourist (read: bad) into the curious traveler (read: good). For Gross traveling is as much a mental experience as a physical one, as potential travelers/readers aren't going to know what they want from travel until they start doing it. It's learned through experience, not by rote.
"Part of the general philosophy of traveling is expect everything to go wrong, so when it doesn't that's just gravy," he adds. "If I go off expecting to get sick and talking about how unprepared I am, when things go OK or even great it feels amazing. I don't know if you'd call it optimistic pessimism or pessimistic optimism. But there's a way that those two things can coexist in expecting and being prepared to deal with calamity and at the same time being open to ecstasy."
That's an outlook that grants anyplace the potential to be fascinating, a function of the who as much as it is the where. As Gross points out, most travel books are accounts of one journey, one place, or a thematically connected set of places: Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, V.S. Naipaul's An Area of Darkness, Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari, Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia. By focusing on breadth instead of depth, Gross calibrates the brain for how many of us already travel. Few of us have the time or money to spend a month, much less a year, somewhere, but we might be able to get there for about a week. And while lonelyplanet.com might offer hints on where to sleep, eat, drink, and the cultural sites to see, Turk advocates unfettering yourself from the pressure of cramming everything into one trip and being disappointed.
"One of the points that I try to make about travel in the book is that you have to think long term," Gross says. "It might be your first trip to Paris or Moscow but it doesn't have to be your only one. It's the first trip abroad of many trips abroad, and with each one you will learn more and more about what you like and how to use your time."
It's a long-view approach that Gross' writing career reinforced. Early in Turk, Gross recalls getting lost on his first ever overseas trip, noting how the vertigo of feeling untethered often recurred during his column-writing adventures. In fact, in 2007 he used the anecdote to open the piece about bouncing around Europe on low-cost airlines.
"The idea was every day for a week I'd fly a different low-cost carrier," Gross says. "The route was Geneva, Prague, Copenhagen, London, Fez, Paris, Budapest, Geneva. I started the story in Denmark with the tale of having been lost in Copenhagen when I was almost 8 years old, where I got separated from my father and there was a fireworks scene and it was my first trip overseas."
He filed to his editor Stuart Emmrich, who liked the piece but told Gross to change the beginning. "And I thought, 'This is an important thing that happened to me,'" Gross says. "'It feels relevant, it feels connected to being sort of lost in Europe on these cheap airlines.'"
Gross laughs when remembering Emmrich's wise words. "My editor said, 'Save it for the book.' So I did."
More from Johns Hopkins Magazine Summer 2013Previous Set
Artifact: Picturing the apocalypse
Despite its title, the room-filling mural in Levering Hall doesn't depict Biblical end times
It's the little things
Hope for hay fever sufferers: A once-a-day pill shows a significant reduction in overall symptoms
What is he thinking?
Researchers in the Johns Hopkins Laboratory for Child Development explore the minds of infants and children
Right fish, wrong pond
If Rachel Carson had been a better scientist at Johns Hopkins, she might never have sparked the environmental movement