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Circling the world without wings still has its ups and downs

March 7, 2010

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Seth Stevenson has a book coming out this spring about his six-month journey around the world - all by land and sea. In “Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World’’ (Riverhead Trade), Stevenson, 35, a Brookline native and regular contributor to Slate magazine, describes the joys and frustrations of staying close to the ground, whether by rickshaw, cargo freighter, or on foot. In a recent e-mail interview with Globe reporter David Abel, he discussed the highs and lows of his trip.

Q. What are some of your insights from traveling the globe on the ground, as opposed to flying?

A. The earth is both bigger and smaller than we think. Bigger in terms of its sheer geography. (Crossing the Pacific on a ship brings new meaning to the word “vast.’’) Smaller in terms of the intimate connectedness of civilization. (By train and ferry, you can morph from the cobblestones of Europe to the bleak villages of Russia to the glass skyscrapers of Tokyo in . . . little more than a week.)

Q. What was the worst experience?

A. Aboard a ship off the coast of Vladivostok, a pack of vodka-sodden Russian dudes took an extremely keen interest in my girlfriend. I had visions of them dangling me by my ankles over a ferry railing.

Q. What was the best experience?

A. We were driving across the Australian outback and stopped for the night at a tiny roadhouse, about 500 miles from nowhere. A couple of “jackeroos’’ (we’d call them cowboys) invited us to drink with them into the wee hours. They regaled us with stories of rounding up cattle on motorcycles, wrestling bulls to the ground, and shooting kangaroos for meat. It was a warm interlude of humanity in the most desolate of places.

Q. Why did you choose the path you did?

A. It’s a darn big world. In the absence of unlimited time and funds, some places will get left out. We considered following the route of Phileas Fogg from ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ (the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, India . . . ), but in the end something lured us to Russia and the endless tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway.

Q. Any regrets from the experience?

A. Because our cargo freighter from Australia got delayed, we ended up having only two hours to spend in Auckland before we boarded another ship bound for Tahiti. I would have liked about 500 more hours in New Zealand, given my druthers.

Q. If you could go back, what would you do differently?

A. I would have begged, bought, or somehow stealthily snuck my way onto a sailboat. It would have been wonderful to cover some ground using wind power. Alas, though we spent a lot of time loitering around at fancy yacht clubs in Malaysia, we couldn’t make it work.

Q. What are some uncommon things you brought along that proved vital?

A. A little shortwave radio was a delightful companion on lonely nights in the middle of oceans. We tuned in news from everywhere on the globe - and felt incredibly far away from it all.

Q. What did you forget that you would have wanted, or what did you miss from such a long trip?

A. I packed as little as I could bear. Yet that was still too much. And once I’d been away for a few months from the possessions I’d put in a storage locker back home, I didn’t miss them one bit. Things are overrated. Experiences are forever.

Q. What advice would you have for someone following your path?

A. Book part of your passage on a cargo freighter. It’s unlike any other transport you’ll ever take. The crew members live a fascinating lifestyle, and chatting with them is great fun.

Q. Can you say how you distinguish between compelling and mediocre travel writing?

A. I can’t get absorbed by travel writing that just describes scenery or conveys factoids about a place. I want the writer to have a point of view and, with luck, to experience a transformation through travel. (It doesn’t hurt to be funny, either.)

Q. What has it been like to stop after moving for so long?

A. At first, it was awful. The reentry into a static, workaday life did not go smoothly. I wanted to shout, ‘I circled the earth, dammit!’ every time I was forced to do some routine task. But you adjust. Until the next time you run away.