NEW YORK – If there were a contest for the person with the best job in the world Seth Kugel would be a strong candidate to win it.
As The New York Times’ Frugal Traveler he wanders around the world about half the year writing about the people and places he comes across.
Since he took the position in 2010 he has sailed up the muddy waters of the mighty Amazon River on a rickety boat; noshed on thin-crust pizzas on the streets of Napoli and bathed in the turquoise waters of secluded Albanian beaches.
While he has considerable freedom picking where he wants to go and what he wants to write about there’s one inflexible rule he must strictly adhere to: He cannot spend more than $100 a day.
“The thing about the Frugal Traveler, it’s important to understand, I’m not a backpacker,” Kugel told The Jerusalem Post
in an interview at a café in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood last week.
“Nothing could be more Jewish than my name,” he joked.
Counterintuitively, he said his surname may have nothing to do with the noodle casserole of the same name. Rather, he said he read on the Internet that it derived from gugel, an old German word for the hood of a cloak traditionally worn by nuns.
The son of Jewish academics, Kugel grew up in a suburb of Boston. On his mother’s side he is of Russian Jewish origin while on his father’s side he descends from German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.
“The family got out on time but my dad actually attended the 1936 Olympics in Berlin as a child,” he said.
Kugel describes himself as being agnostic, although he said he strongly identifies as being culturally Jewish.
“When I was a kid I had a globe and I used to study the map,” he
recalled. “The first thing I wanted to be was an archaeologist and then
an anthropologist, and what does it all have in common? Just studying
people of completely different backgrounds. I was just intrigued by the
world of people, how they are different, be it how they eat or act or
After graduating from college his love of languages (he speaks Spanish,
Portuguese and some French) led him into public service. For several
years he taught children of Spanish speaking immigrants in the Bronx,
immersing himself in the local culture.
“People thought I was nuts,” he said. “I listened to Spanish music, I
went to Spanish nightclubs. Half my friends were Spanish, 80 percent of
my girlfriends were Spanish.
People were like ‘this guy is off his rocker.’” It was this deep
familiarity with the rapidly growing Hispanic community of New York that
helped launch his career in journalism.
“When I decided I wanted to start writing, I had all these story ideas
from inner city immigrant communities that most reporters didn’t know
about,” he recalled. “This was also during the Latino boom, mid-’90s
early 2000s when Latinos were really fashionable.”
Kugel got off to an envious journalistic start in 1998. After taking a
writing class with Sue Shapiro at the New School he had his first
article – a humor piece about the unusual products one could purchase
for Christmas on the burgeoning Internet – published in the Times. He
followed up over the next couple of years with quaint stories about
immigrant life in the Bronx and upper Manhattan.
“I mostly wrote about Dominicans basically because that was – still is I
think – the biggest immigrant group in New York, even though they are
from a tiny little country, and I knew them really well,” he said.
Once established as a writer, he quit his job teaching and freelanced
for various publications such as Time Out
and New York Magazine
moving to Sao Paulo in 2008 where he worked for Global Post
, a news
wire. Last year, the Times
made him an offer to take over for Matt
Gross, the previous Frugal Traveler.
“We were always aware that Matt Gross would eventually leave,” he said.
“Although it’s a fantastic job, it’s not incredibly lucrative and it’s
very exhausting. Now I’m still going strong, but I can see in like three
years of traveling all the time and not having a permanent home [that
it can be tiring]. So we knew he was going to stop. I knew in the back
of my mind that I was a candidate if I wanted to do it.”
Taking the job meant he had to leave his beloved Brazil but it was too
good an opportunity to miss out on. He still spends a large part of his
free time in Sao Paulo.
“I do I think have a bit of life there and try to go down three times a
year for a month while always doing Frugal Travel stuff at the same
time,” he said.
Kugel’s most recent journey took him through the Eastern Mediterranean
where he stopped in Italy, Croatia and Turkey as well as less visited
destinations such as northern Cyprus, Albania and Lebanon, a place which
is off limits to Israeli tourists.
The Jewish author recalled spending a pleasant time in the country’s capital, enjoying its famed food and nightlife.
“The Beirut party scene is basically Christian but it is kind of
interesting, you get many people visiting from all over the region,” he
said. “The thing about Beirut is that it’s still full of destroyed
buildings. Almost everywhere you can see bullet holes.”
Not a political person, in Tripoli he found himself dragged into a political conversation with a Sunni Lebanese man.
Despite his recent sortie to the Mediterranean, Kugel admits a
disproportionate part of his time as the Frugal Traveler has been about
Latin America, something he would like to correct in the future. He said
he would to spend time in countries he has never been to before like
Senegal and Ghana.
It might be hard to believe, but the Frugal Traveler has also never
stepped foot in East or South Asia, although circumstances beyond his
control are partially to blame for that.
“I was on my way to Japan in March when the earthquake happened, but had to turn back,” he said.
And there’s at least one other country that Kugel hasn’t been to since
he was 13 that he would love to visit as the Frugal Traveler.
“I’d really like to go to Israel,” said Kugel. “But there are a few other places I have to go to first.”