Photograph courtesy Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden
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In 1902, Fairchild caught typhoid fever in Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka). He survived, and before he left the island, he overlooked the beach in Mount Lavinia, near Colombo.
Photograph courtesy Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden

You Can Travel Like a 1900s Adventurer—Here’s How

A new book shows what a turn-of-the century food explorer can teach us about modern travel.

In 1900 people rarely left their hometown, let alone traveled around their country. But David Fairchild was different.

Fairchild was a food spy for the American government at the turn of the 20th century. He was a botanist, a plant adventurer assigned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to circle the world in search of exotic plants that could become new foods back home. Along the way he picked up avocados, mangoes, nectarines, dates, kale, and hundreds of other crops.

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In 1889, David Fairchild was a junior scientist for the USDA before he started traveling in search of exotic plants.

Fairchild visited the island of Java to see the teeming palms and strange fruits of the tropics. He sailed to Fiji, the so-called Cannibal Islands, and drank mouth-numbing kava with men who had eaten human flesh. In Chile, he picked up a peculiar fruit known as an alligator pear, a.k.a. the avocado, its insides green and smooth.

His path was full of unimaginable adventure—and often danger too. He bargained for plants with Egyptian royalty, and charmed Bavarian hops growers to bring to America the best hops in the world. He witnessed death, outran diseases, and got arrested for espionage. In all, he traveled to more than 50 countries—all by boat.

What can we learn from his travels? More than you’d think. As I scoured Fairchild’s 120-year-old journals to write The Food Explorer, the True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, I picked up Fairchild’s best advice that still applies to your next voyage.

Ask lots of questions

Fairchild didn’t just arrive in a country hoping to stumble upon something magical. He asked anyone he could any question he could think of. What’s the greatest fruit in this country? How do you grow it? Who should I talk to next? If you’re looking for that charming off-the-beaten path restaurant or the non-touristy view that no one knows about, don’t just rely on your guidebook. Ask a local. He often tried to speak the native language wherever he was, and always thanked people for their advice.

Reciprocate kindness

Sometimes, Fairchild was a spy. But more often, he was a diplomat. He sought ways to reciprocate for a pleasant stay or a delicious meal. He wrote thank you notes and left lavish gifts, like the time he bought a plaque to hang in the doorway of the best hops-grower in Bavaria. Not long after Fairchild visited Japan and arranged the gift of cherry blossom trees to Washington D.C., he arranged a return shipment of flowering dogwood trees—native to America—to thank his Japanese friends.

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Fairchild tried to acquire the world's best hops in Bavaria in 1901. He flattered his innkeeper, a man he called Herr Wirth, by taking his portrait.

Write things down

Fairchild documented every detail. Who he talked to, what new foods he tried. He always had a notebook in his pocket and filled it with fits and starts to remind himself of the lessons he had learned and the recommendations people gave him. You can extend your travels by reminding yourself of what you were thinking, and what you were feeling during a special trip. Future you—and perhaps your descendants—will delight in rediscovering relics from a great voyage.

Send letters

Not emails or texts, but letters. Fairchild would occasionally spend afternoons writing to friends and family back home about his travels. It helped him think better, he said, and to reflect on a novel experience by relaying it to someone who wasn’t there. One time, on a boat in the India Ocean, Fairchild wrote to his mother (in Kansas) that he was having a marvelous time and had yet to experience any violence at all. A moment after he finished writing, two men broke into his cabin screaming, fighting, and bleeding all over the floor. After the men were dragged away, Fairchild unsealed the letter and, at the bottom, added a postscript.

Push on

Think your delayed flight is bad? On one of Fairchild’s first trips, he took a train from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco to catch a boat. He missed it. Then he took another train to New Orleans and missed a boat there, too. Finally, he returned to New York, not far from where he had started, and caught a steamship across the ocean. Another time, Fairchild spend a week eating only onions as he was quarantined on a boat in the Persian Gulf that suspected of having a case of typhoid fever on board. Travel came with its indignities—and it still does. Find a way to look beyond the inconveniences and, as Fairchild would often say, “push on.”

Learn more about David Fairchild’s adventures in the new book, The Food Explorer, The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats, available now.