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How to Lose Your Way and Not Panic

For Matt Gross, travel is not reserved for relaxing breaks and special occasions. It is his livelihood and his way of experiencing the world. As author of the New York Times’s Frugal Traveler column, Gross spent four years writing about his experiences of traveling inexpensively around the world. As a contributing writer for AFAR, Gross explored Burma through its flavors, ran with elite runners in Kenya, bumbled through Tunis, and rekindled his relationship with his brother over gut-busting cuisine in icy Montreal. Retired (for now) from a life on the road, Gross is currently the editor of Bonappetit.com. In his upcoming book, The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World (available April 23), he has condensed a life of travel into interlocking narratives about the pains and pleasures getting lost.

There are many different forms of travel narratives. Why did you decide to structure your book around things going wrong?
Travel books are often about long trips with one theme, or deep dives on one country, and my trips were usually more like two weeks at most. So I had to figure out a way to take all of my travel experience and combine them into one narrative. And so I structured it around the idea of crappy travel: the things that go wrong when you travel or the problems that you face: being sick, being alone, being lost, being scared, being naive, being poor, and keeping it together.

You lived in Vietnam right after college and it was a struggle, in many ways. This experience comes up frequently in the book. Why?
When I was 22 and just out of college I decided to move to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, because I liked the food. I spent about a year there working and living and trying to figure out what the hell I was supposed to be doing and not always having a great time of it. I was alone, I didn’t know anyone, I didn’t speak the language, and I didn’t have any sense of what the point of it all was. The problems I encountered there—not knowing the language, not having much money, etc.—are things that I dealt with and overcame on subsequent travels. Whenever I found myself alone on a little Greek Island or not having enough money to do what I wanted in swinging Shanghai I could always think back to how I did things or made it through when I was just 22.

Unlike most travelers, after you go somewhere you’re expected to write a story about it for millions of readers. How does that process change the experience of travel?
The writing helps me process what I’ve actually been through. I’ll spend 10 days bumming around tea plantations drinking these cups of tea and then I have to come back and figure out what it all means. Being required to write about it means I might slowly develop perspective and I have to figure out what I thought how things fit together. One of the nice things about doing this book is being able to look at experiences that I went through two or three decades ago and try to figure out what they meant now that all this time has gone by.

After you went over all your travel experiences for the book, which ones stood out in your mind?
It would have to be the centerpiece of the book, the Turk who loved apples. I did that trip in my first summer as the Frugal Traveler. I spent a series of days on an organic apple farm in the Turkish countryside with a Turkish apple farmer who spoke four words of English: yes, no, OK, and wow. We were the only two people there besides his cat and we had to figure out how to communicate, aside from just gestures and talking over each other in our own languages. It turned out to be a wonderful experience and we grew fairly close over just a few days. Since that experience came near the beginning of my travel writing career it really opened me up to the possibility that I could go anywhere. On the surface I did not seem up to the task—I spoke no Turkish and had no farming experience. But the connections were there, and the experiences were there to be had if I was going to be brave enough to confront them.

The age-old question: why do you travel?
Always a good question. You could trace it back to the fact that my parents traveled and that I was used to it. But travel is not something that is separate from the rest of my life. My life means I travel. I’m married to a woman from Taiwan so we’re always going back and visiting her family. The idea of moving from place to place is not something that takes me out from the rest of my life. It’s just so worked in there. It’s like saying why do I have blue eyes? I just have blue eyes. I don’t know how it could be any other way.

What inspires you to travel?
Foreign moves and foreign novels have me fantasizing about travel and wanting to go to places to see how the reality inspires the fantasy.

What’s in your suitcase?
I usually bring more pairs of pants than I will ever actually wear. I tend to bring four pairs of pants and wear three, or bring three pairs of pants and wear two. There’s always the one extra. And I’m searching for the perfect pair of travel shoes so that I can look cool and go running. It’s hard to reduce the amount of shoes from two pairs to one.

If you had to stay somewhere you’ve visited for a while, where would you go?
I’d go back to Vietnam or Argentina. Both have good food, energetic, outgoing people, and stuff going on all over the place. You don’t need to expend any energy to be entertained, you just show up.

Distill your travel advice in one sentence:
Everything will probably go wrong but don’t panic.

The Turk Who Loved Apples: And Other Tales of Losing My Way Around the World (Da Capo Press) is available on Amazon.