From Ship to Shore‘s Hannah Josi recently sat down with Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming with Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations author and prolific D.C. food writer Nevin Martell to talk crazy travel adventures, D.C. food culture, and writing tips.
HJ: Thanks for meeting with me. I really, really enjoyed the book. It was wonderful how it wasn’t just a travel book—it was a coming of age story…Now, you end your book when you’re in your 30s with your dad, but in the chapter before that, you were seventeen. So, in the space in between, what were you up to? You mentioned a couple of trips—did your travel continue into your twenties or did it kind of fall to the wayside?
NM: When I went to college and then moved to New York City I had, at first, fewer chances to travel but that was just because I was a broke kid out of college with his first job trying to make his way in the world. It kind of picked up steam, though, as I got a little bit older in my mid- to later-twenties. I went to Cuba with my father and my sister, and I got a chance to go to Finland, and I had a chance to go to Costa Rica a couple times, and I had a chance to go to Mexico a couple of times. I tried to travel somewhere new internationally at least once, about twice, a year. That was kind of my goal, and, you know, for the most part I was able to follow that philosophy…
My wife and I, when we first got engaged, we ended up in Honduras, in the Bay Islands, and we tried to travel a lot, up until we had our child a year and a half ago—you know, we’re waiting to take our first big trip with him. He’s been to California a couple times, he’s been all over the East Coast, but we’re just gearing up for the right international opportunity. But, um, no, in the in-between years, I would say my love of travel grew and, you know, I was always just looking for the best way to make that happen and the most feasible way…
Now that I’m in this new stage as a father, it was interesting writing the book because I look at the way my family traveled as a kid, and then think like, “Okay, how do I want to do this with my own child and wife, and where would that take us, and would we go to some of the same places that my dad took my family? And, if so, would we do the same things?” Probably not, but how could we do them in the right way for us? So travel is something that’s been super important, and it’s something that I can’t wait to introduce my son to, because travel was always something amazing for me, and I think he’ll really appreciate it, too. I definitely think it’s important for forming a world view.
HJ: So once your son does grow up a little bit and he is able to travel more, do you think that you’ll kind of go the route of your father and try to go to these really exotic, authentic, crazy places—for those who haven’t read the book, Nevin’s been to Fiji, Venezuela…all over. Do you think you’ll go that route or are you going to play more by the book?
NM: I think it’s going to be somewhere in the middle. I’m certainly not going to be a pre-packaged, Club Med kind of guy, ever. You know, that doesn’t really have any appeal for me…But by the same token, do I necessarily want to take my son fishing for piranhas and things like that? Maybe not. I would love to show him some of the far corners of the world, and I would love to introduce him to some really lesser-known elements of the world, but I want to do it in a way that—no offense to my dad—is a slightly saner way to doing it.
For example, top of the bucket list are like Morocco—I would love to do that. But really top of the bucket list is my wife’s home country Ghana, which I haven’t visited either. So, I would love to take him there, introduce him to his relatives…spend some time in West Africa. But then I would like to do some crazy things, like…since I was a little kid I always wanted to go to Stonehenge, for example. I think that would be something fun. I’ve always wanted to go to Easter Island, which I know is not the most practical of destinations because it’s literally the most remote point on Earth, but I think, again, it’s something he would really enjoy. I think it’s going to be somewhere in the middle, probably closer to my dad than I’m probably thinking, but as I say in the book, more airbags, more seat belts, more helmets.
HJ: When it comes to actually going out there, finding the right spot to vacation, finding that nice balance between authentic but visitor-friendly, do you have any advice?
NM: Yeah, you know, I’m a big believer in what I call pre-search. I read a lot of different kinds of media before I go anywhere. I’m a big fan of your Trip Advisors, your Yelps, your Fodor’s, your Lonely Planets of the world. I’m lucky enough that I have a lot of friends that are professional travelers or travel a lot for work and who do get to really go to places, and so I get to really poll everybody that I know that’s been to a place and kind of ask them…
Then, once we do settle on a place—and this is even if we’re taking a domestic trip—it’s like, “Okay, where’s our base of operations, and how can we maximize our time there without burning ourselves out?” And I think it’s really important for families in a way that it was for me traveling with just myself in my twenties, is to pick something and really go for it. Like, don’t try to fit five things in your day because it’ll really just burn you out. It may be travel, not vacation, but you still don’t want it to be stressful—you want it to be enjoyable, you really want to get to know something. And so, I always pick just a couple of things—maybe one in the morning, one in the afternoon—and if something else pops up along the way that’s doable, that’s great, but it’s no stress.
Once we’re in a place, I kind of do a lot of polling, like I will talk to anybody—I have no problems because I think that talking about food, first of all, is something that anyone anywhere can understand and appreciate. So if you walk up to somebody and ask, “You know, I’m looking for a great lunch, what would you recommend?” It’s not odd if you do that as a strange, as opposed to walking up to somebody and trying to talk about politics or something like that. So, I always talk to a lot of people once I get to place.
Then when it comes to things to do, especially when it comes to food, I kind of just follow my nose, or follow my eyes, like if we’re in a great open-air market, I’ll just try whatever looks the best or smells the best. And a lot of our trips, because I love food and I write about food, so much of our trips are focused on the food. That’s always such a great element, and it’s something the whole family can enjoy…Going out to a good meal is something that’s very communal and universal.
HJ: Yeah, totally. You’re definitely a very prolific food writer—you’ve written for pretty much every D.C. publication with a food section. My question is, out of all the places that you’ve been—and you’re a very well-traveled person—what made you come to D.C. and what do you find special about the D.C. food scene?
NM: Coming to D.C. was kind of a fluke, actually. I went to Syracuse University to get my Master’s in broadcast journalism…My program had a mandatory, 6-week externship element in D.C. to earn your degree…So, I got a job at a little place in Georgetown called Creative Differences that just produced Herzog’s Grizzly Man, and they offered me a job when my externship was done and I was like, “Well, I don’t really have a plan. I thought my plan was gonna be moving to New York or LA and doing entertainment television, so, yeah, this sounds like something cool to explore.”
You know, I really liked it. I was doing research for shows and did development, which is like show conception and finding talent and things like that. So I was getting into it and then I convinced my then-girlfriend, now-wife to come down here and like, “Let’s try to make a go of it. We’ve been long distance for a while.” Then, she got a job and we found a house that we really love, and we just found a group of people here that we are lucky enough to call friends. I dunno, we just fell in love with D.C. Then I kind of kept focusing more and more on food at work and my bosses didn’t really see the virtue of food television, and so I said to my wife, “This sounds crazy, but I’ve been a freelance writer before. I know I can do it. What if I quit my job in the middle of the Great Recession and go write about food?”
I’d loved the food scene since coming here, you know everything from the Eden Center to our Little Ethiopia to the great homegrown D.C. cuisine, all the southern food. I mean, D.C. has so much of so many kinds of food that, even now, I get to discover things and I’ve been here eight years. There’s still holes in the wall that have been here forever that I’ve not been to and that I can’t wait to go to, and there’s obviously so many places opening up. I think what’s great about it, though, is that A. there’s such a breadth of options here. I mean, there’s still some places where D.C. really has a weakness, like New York style pizza…But for the most part, if you want it, it’s here, and it’s here at a great caliber. I think that there’s not only that, but having now been here for a while, it’s just a really great community. Chefs are really supportive of each other, restaurants are really supportive of each other, the food writing community is a very strong group of people, and everyone is very much a cheerleader for everyone else. You know, it’s not perfect and hunky-dory all the time, but it’s such a warm, great, loving community once you’re in it. That makes it easy to love the food scene even more.
HJ: Yeah, I feel like once you’re outside the politics sphere everyone is just so much warmer here.
NM: Totally! And so much more relaxed. People, I think, have this vision of D.C. being so buffed-up and conservative, no matter which administration it is. I mean, everyone is walking around in khakis and loafers and ties in 110 degree weather when we live in the middle of a swamp. But, when you get here, it’s like, “Oh my god, there’s a very colorful arts scene and there’s so many people who are more relaxed than that and so much cooler than that.” And nowhere is that more apparent, I think, than in the restaurant and bar scene.
HJ: Definitely…Well, going back to this exotic travel experience you had when you were younger, is there any specific memory that really sticks out to you as a favorite?
NM: Um, gosh that is like the Sophie’s Choice of questions. And to be fair, there were a number of trips that didn’t make it into the book, because they didn’t fit into the overall narrative, or I didn’t feel like there was enough meat on the bones to merit a chapter…so there were a fair number of places that we did go that weren’t in the book. But, you know, looking back, I kinda feel so overwhelmed by the magnitude of all the great things I got to do.
But I remember there was a really slight one that didn’t make the book—we were in Grenada, and my father booked us on this overnight experience—no, he didn’t book us, that would be giving too much structure to it. He found a guy, like a parks ranger, and he convinced him to take us out one night when the leatherback turtles walked up on shore and gave birth. And so we went out one night and we waited until, like, midnight. We were, you know, I’d say at that point I was 14 or 15, and staying up ‘til midnight was already pretty crazy. But around midnight the turtles started coming up on shore and it took them so long to get just to where they’re gonna dig. And then the digging process, they just have their flippers—it’s a really laborious process just to dig their egg hole. We’re just watching it, my sister who, in the book, I describe as a budding zoologist or a young Jane Goodall, she and I were just transfixed…We stayed there the whole night and by the time the sun starts coming up, the turtles cover their hole and make their way back to the sea, and again it takes them like an hour and a half just to get across this relatively tiny span of sand to the water. I remember thinking that that was just the most amazing thing that I’d ever seen. I mean, I’d never really seen an animal give birth before, and even though we weren’t seeing the baby, we were just seeing an egg, it was still pretty incredible.
Then, years and years later, I went to Costa Rica when I was living in New York City, so I was probably in my late twenties. I was working as a volunteer with a group of biology students from the California university system. So we went out to this place called the Isla de los Murciélagos, which translates to the Bat Islands, and it was one of those places that you really felt like it was the lost world—like, pods of dolphins greeting your boat when you come into the bay, and fireflies with tails that were this [places his index fingers about two inches apart] big, and manta rays that the wing span was wider than this backyard when you go snorkeling. Really incredible, part of the national parks system out there. We were on the beach one day and suddenly one of the kids in the program was like, “Tortugas!” We go out on the beach and a nest had just hatched, and all these little turtles were finning their way into the sand to the water for the first time. We got to snorkel with them out to sea on their maiden voyage. That was definitely—you really felt like you dove into some alternate universe, it was just so cool, and it was amazing to watch. That was kinda cool to see the other end of the cycle—it was two decades, no, a decade and a half later.
HJ: Everything kind of came full circle there!
NM: It did, it did. I showed pictures to my sister and my mother and my father and they were just like, “Wow! Do you remember that one time?” And I was like, “Of course I still remember the one time, it was amazing!” So those two kind of bookended over a long period of time experiences that really stand out.
HJ: Speaking of your sister, she plays a huge role in your book. Did she catch the travel bug too?
NM: She did, but not as much, especially since she’s had a family. She traveled a lot to see, like, our family and friends in the New England, East Coast area. So she’s not as much as a traveler, but she did grow up to work for an animal rights organization, and she’s up at Cornell getting a Ph.D. in natural resources…
HJ: She sounds busy!
NM: Yeah, I don’t know how she does what she does now, plus throw a trip to Fiji into the equation! Plus, the cost of Fiji for a family of five must be ridiculously expensive these days.
HJ: Oh, definitely. Things have changed, they’ve gotten so expensive! My mom has these stories of going to Athens and Mexico all by herself when she was, like, 20, but hardly anyone could afford something like that now.
NM: Yeah, even the classic European, post-college backpacking trip—it was always the thing for college kids, children of privilege, you know you always had to have some kind of means. Just the ticket, your Eurorail pass, your meals, your hostels—that’s not an inconsiderate amount of money. These days it must be tougher. Does anyone still write those books that are like, “England on Ten Dollars a Day?”
HJ: I’m sure they’re out there! There’s always budget blogs with stuff like “Ten Ways to Save Money in London!” Click bait stuff like that.
NM: Yeah, click bait, don’t remind me!
HJ: Well, I guess my last question is, when it comes to things like click bait, do you have any advice to young writers or novice writers about avoiding that simplistic kind of writing and finding that original, interesting content? Like, you’ve written a book at LEGO minifigures and Calvin and Hobbes and they’re these really specific but interesting subjects.
NM: You know, I’ve been guilty of writing click bait before. But what I would say is—the book on Calvin and Hobbes and Bill Watterson came about because I was thinking, “What did I really love as a kid?” Calvin and Hobbes. And then I was like, “Well whatever happened to that guy?”…I think for writers it’s like, I know it sounds so simplistic but I’ve consistently found it to be true, is that the greatest writers aren’t just writers. They’re travelers, they’re fathers, they’re gardeners—whatever. They have all these other pursuits and they bring their writing skill sets to bear on that, so I find that if I write about what I’m passionate about…there will inevitably be someone else that’s interested in it. Sometimes it takes a long time to, you know, find the right place for it…all in all, it’s a long winded way of saying that find what you love, and apply your writing to it. You know, write you life, that’s what I’m a fan of. If I want to do something, I’ll try to write a story about it…it’s a win-win.
Responses were edited for clarity and length.