Seth Kugel’s New Book Aims to Shake Up How People Travel
By Brian E. Clark
When Seth Kugel’s parents sent him off to Kenya at age 16 for a six-week YMCA exchange program, the way he viewed travel was forever changed.
Kugel, author of the newly released Rediscovering Travel, A Guide for the Globally Curious (Liveright, $26.95), had made other, more mundane trips with his family.
“But that time in Africa back in 1985 ruined me for life on what might be considered ‘normal’ travel,” said Kugel, who penned the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler” column from 2010 to 2016. “I could have gone to England, but that seemed boring in comparison to Kenya, which was instantly daring.”
He was surprised his parents let him go, but the trip turned out well and was an eye-opener for the young Kugel. He did, however, contract hepatitis, though the symptoms didn’t hit him until he’d returned to his home in suburban Boston.
“Kenya seemed pretty National Geographic-like to me at the time, though living with a family there dispelled some stereotypes,” he said. “The village was Christian and not all of the dwellings were mud huts. Though there was no running water, you could get Coca Cola and you could tell modernization was coming. Still, going there basically screwed me for ever really enjoying run-of-the-mill travel.”
After his time in Africa, he was turned off by the idea of staying at an all-inclusive resort, taking a bus tour or sailing on 3,000-passenger cruise ships that overwhelm the ports where they dock.
Rather, as “Rediscovering Travel” details, he regularly seeks out the odd and unusual, purposefully turning down side roads or hopping off trains when he sees something that interests him – even if it’s in rural Hungary, where the only signs are in Slovak, Hungarian and German. The results almost always prove worthwhile, he said.
During college, he spent a semester in Paris and lived with a family. He found himself annoyed with American kids who only hung out with each other and didn’t try very hard to connect with the locals.
But what cemented his idea of how he wanted to travel came after his first year in the “Teach for America” program in the Bronx. He was invited by a third-grade student’s family to spend part of the summer with them in the Dominican Republic.
“We hung out and listened to lots of music,” recalled Kugel, who is now 48. “I cooked with them and learned how to dance the merengue. But I only went to the beach twice, which is why most Americans go there.”
He returned to the Dominican Republic several summers, each time living with a family, immersing himself in the culture and avoiding well-traveled tourist locations. The next defining trips for him occurred when he went to El Salvador as part of an elementary school education development project.
Later, after studying Portuguese in New York City, he returned to Latin America yet again to improve his language skills in Brazil. But instead of flying into a major city like Rio or Sao Paulo, he started his trip with a four-day boat ride on the Amazon River from the Columbian border to Manaus, the capitol of Amazonas. His “bunk” was a hammock and he was completely surrounded by Portuguese speakers, several of whom were more than happy to teach him cuss words and the names for various body parts. The language lessons quickly improved and he even read bible passages with an evangelical Christian whose hammock was hung next to his. That trip produced his first travel story for the New York Times. Its headline: “Impromptu Classroom.”
Kugel, who also penned “Nueva York, The Complete Guide to Latino Life in the Five Boroughs,” said he’s well aware that not many travelers might be willing to be as adventurous or take the risks that he does.
“I’m just trying to get people to think about travel and be exposed to ways of doing it differently,” he said. “Tripadvisor.com can be a good tool, but you don’t always have to stay in the hotels it recommends and go to top five attractions that the website touts because that’s all set up to make money. This book is an antidote to that.”
He uses visiting South Africa’s wildlife parks as an example of how travel websites direct people to high-end outfitters, when less-expensive options are available.
“I was the New York Times’ ‘Frugal Traveler’ and even I didn’t know that was possible,” he said. “But you can go to South Africa and do a really cool and cheap safari by bringing a tent, renting a car and visiting the national parks on your own for one-tenth of the price that guide services’ charge.”
Kugel said he would be happy if readers of his book come away with a plan to spend at least one afternoon on a trip to wander around on their own. And he’d like them to be at least a little bit skeptical of what the modern mass-travel industry has to offer.
“People have different tolerances for adventure and risk, of course,” he said. “But travel companies want us to risk less and spend more. I wrote this book to push back against that.”
Brian E. Clark is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer and photographer who contributes to the Chicago Tribune and LA Times on a regular basis. He also writes a weekly travel column for the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. A native of Iowa, Clark is a University of Colorado, Boulder, graduate who focuses on adventure travel. He’s a veteran whitewater kayaker and skier who has lived in Norway, Sweden, Brazil and Bolivia. He worked for newspapers in Washington State and California for 25 years, including the San Diego Union-Tribune, before returning to the Midwest. He manages to head back West several times a year when he’s not off in other corners of the globe. Or poking around Wisconsin.