By Matt Gross – Glowing reviews of this 2013 book by the former “Frugal Traveler” and “Getting Lost” columnist for the New York Times, made me want to read it. As a young man, Gross picked up and moved to Ho Chi Minh City and from there explored more of Southeast Asia, worked for a local Vietnamese newspaper, and eventually got himself various travel writing gigs. In 2006, the Times gave him a budget for a three-month, around-the-world trip, which was to establish his “frugal traveler” identity. This, he says, was the job “everybody called ‘the best job in the world’—and an opportunity ripe for fucking up.” Which he did, at first.
The book is a mix of his travel experiences, which I enjoyed tremendously, and ruminations on the larger meaning of travel, which weren’t as interesting. The requirements for travel have changed for him over the years—from carrying a single bag to traveling with a wife and infant, from the ability to set his own schedule to being part of a family with all its competing needs. Truthfully, staying home has come to have its own satisfactions.
Across his whole travel-writing career, Gross visited “fifty or sixty countries,” ate their food (whole chapter on the resultant digestive laments), learned to cook much of it, and wrote hundreds of articles for the Times and others. He sums up everything he learned about traveling frugally in two pages in the middle of the book, which can be boiled down further to: use the Web to find deals and recommendations on airfare, lodging, and food. Airfare: use local and in-country airlines. Lodging: stay with others where you can, Airbnb, works when you can’t. Food: be adventurous. Social life: find local connections through Facebook friends-of-friends-of-friends.
The book’s full title is The Turk who Loved Apples and Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World, which refers to his early days, as he was learning how to travel, yes, relatively frugally. Through an organization called World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms—a network of farmers who will provide volunteers free food and lodging in exchange for some farmwork—he stayed a few days on a rural apple farm in Turkey. Gross bonded with this farmer, an engineer who’d left his profession to do what he loved, and learned from that encounter that frugality “was not an end unto itself but one of the many traveler’s tools, a means of getting closer to exotic lands and foreign peoples.” And getting closer to people—from fellow expats in Ho Chi Minh City to refugees in Calais to members of his wife’s and even his own family—is what Gross is all about.