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Travel Columnist Leaves NY Times, Lands in Costa Rica

July 23, 2010

Matt Gross walked out of the pouring rain and into the hotel looking very much like the frugal traveler he once was. In one hand he carried a plastic bottle of green-tinged palm wine, in his other was a sack of avocados. The traditional Costa Rican fare he bought from street vendors – between surviving an attempted mugging and filming his new television series.

For four years, Gross wrote the New York Times’ “Frugal Traveler” column, gathering a cult following as he spanned the globe on the cheapest budget he could manage. He left his job at the Times in May to create the travel television series “Strangers in a StrangeLand,” choosing Costa Rica as his first peculiar destination.

The show’s theme centers on Gross meeting people who are living their dreams in unusual places.

“Even if their dream’s a little odd sometimes,” Gross said.

In June, Gross came to Costa Rica and shot a 10-minute “sizzle reel” – a shortened version of the television show, which will then be sent around to networks. The episode focused on two characters: a man who spends his life as a professional gambler in San José and a woman who runs a celebrity gossip news agency in the beach town of Playasdel Coco, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

A crew consisting of Gross, a producer and a cameraman spent a week shooting the footage. Gross decided on Costa Rica over northern Thailand because of its short distance from the United States, and since he already knew people here he wanted to include in the show. Still, the preplanning and all his past travel experience couldn’t prepare the trio for one misadventure.

While trying to fix a flat tire on the highway between the capital and Playas del Coco, Gross heard frantic honking from the cars passing by. He watched a man sprint toward the driver’s side window with his eye on an expensive camera.

“You don’t necessarily think someone’s going to be running across the other two or three lanes of the highway and across the median to reach into the car and grab the camera,” Gross said. “That’s sort of surprising.”

His producer, Mariah Wilson, reacted fast enough to take the camera first and scare off the thief. Gross said after the incident drivers stopped to help out. One man loaned a tire jack, another assisted in changing the tire. Police officers also came to their aid. It’s because of these affable, albeit sometimes quirky, characters that “Strangers in a StrangeLand” will focus on people. Gross said he hopes an emphasis on people rather than sites, eats or survival (including traveling frugally), will set his show apart from the Anthony Bourdains and Andrew Zimmers of the travel TV world.

“It’s me and one or two other people,” Gross said. “You really get to know the people, see them as characters not just walk-ons and walk-offs.”

For a Q&A with Matt Gross on the best places in the world to visit (and how to visit them cheaply) visit The Tico Times blog at: theticotimes.wordpress.com.

–Matt Levin

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