No. 27: “The Size of the World” by Jeff Greenwald

Travel Blog  •  Michael Shapiro  •  05.05.06 | 1:22 PM ET

To mark our five-year anniversary, we’re counting down the top 30 travel books of all time, adding a new title each day this month.
Published: 1997
Territory covered: Latin America, Asia, Africa
In 1994, to commemorate his 40th birthday, Jeff Greenwald decides to travel around the world without getting on an airplane. As the date approaches, he wonders if he should cancel the trip and focus on his magazine writing. But then he realizes that freelancing has become a “dead end” where “once-celebrated word wranglers on dark corners moon about their Precambrian cover stories for Esquire while they suck Night Train from brown paper bags.” So he places a personal ad seeking a female companion for the trip. He meets eight candidates, one at a time, at a Chinese restaurant, “a bow to the old Jewish proverb that you can learn everything you need to know about someone by ordering Chinese food with them.” One candidate looks promising till she blows her nose into the last mu-shu pancake. Then an old flame of Greenwald’s agrees to go. The couple moves by bus, boat and train, and after his companion has to leave, Greenwald completes the nine-month journey on his own. He has riveting encounters with the famous, such as Paul Bowles in Tangier, and with ordinary people, including Tibetans struggling for basic rights. Greenwald’s New York upbringing is evident in his savvy maneuvering at border crossings and in his sharp-edged humor. Included in the book are dispatches he filed for Global Network Navigator, an early online magazine that published Greenwald’s essays just hours after he wrote them. In a 1996 interview, Greenwald told me: “I had this sense of being almost on fire, that the excitement and heat of my journey was something I could broadcast in no time at all. It was a very giddy feeling.” Fortunately for readers, the heat of the journey still resonates on the printed page.

Outtake from The Size of the World:

Silvia ran up to us with two large red berries, one in each open palm. It was an awkward moment—we couldn’t possibly accept her little gift without breaking the prime directive of travel in Mexico—but I came up with enough vocabulary to at least be honest with her.

“Imposible comer,” I pronounced. “Para nuestro estomagos, primero necessitamos lavarle.”

Somehow Silvia got the gist of this, nodded ruefully, and hurried off. She showed up again two minutes later. The strawberries were dripping wet, “cleansed” with parasitic tap water. What could we do? Sally and I looked at each other with expressions of surrender and bit into the forbidden fruits.

We swallowed with effort. The conscientious Silvia had been more than thorough; she’d washed the fruit with shampoo.

For more on Jeff Greenwald, check out the extensive interview with him in my book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration. Also see; interviews with Jim Benning and Rolf Potts; the essay about Burma he contributed to World Hum; and Ethical Traveler, the non-profit organization he directs.

Michael Shapiro interviewed top travel writers for his book, A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives and Inspiration. His Web site has details on the book and his other work.