When you visit Steve Jermanok’s website, on the front page, you find this description:
An insatiable curiosity coupled with a passion for people, places, culture, and history has compelled me to visit the far-flung corners of the globe in search of answers. Or kept me planted in my desk chair for weeks delving into the far from obvious insecurities a protagonist must overcome to reach his or her dreams. Seeking clarity in a calamitous world is the job of the writer. Thanks for checking in.
The words are fitting for the man. Understated, interesting and filled with the promise of adventure. Steve was a stock broker until the mid-1990’s when he realized it was a dead end job (literally as he saw a man fall past his high rise window to his death) and then embarked upon a new career as a travel journalist. Since then he has written hundreds of articles, visited more than 60 countries, authored guidebooks, key noted tourism conventions and lectured at universities. My interview with Steve Jermanok made me feel both humbled and refueled with a lust for new adventures. I hope you enjoy it too.
Vagobond: I love the story of how you became a travel writer. As another guy who was once a stock broker and gave it up to be a penniless writer in Hawaii – your story of sudden realization about the life sucking nature of the corporate world and then your decision to leave it strike me as nothing short of awesome. Can you tell Vagobond readers about it? Was it the best decision of your life?
Steve Jermanok: The late 80s was a time of excess in New York. I’d often go down to Wall Street for business lunches and we wouldn’t leave the restaurant until 8 or 9 pm in the evening. When my boss started getting into coke, coming back from the bathroom with a white line on his lip, I knew that I had to get out of there or I’d probably be dead before I was 30. I booked a flight on Air New Zealand, stopping at 12 different stops on the way to Sydney and never looked back. I was fortunate to get my midlife crisis over at 25. I think they actually call it a quarter-life crisis these days.
Steve Jermanok: Ask me to remember the pearly white sands of a Hawaiian beach, a sunset in Santorini, or a hot-air balloon ride over the Masai Mara and I would have a hard time. It’s the mishaps that you remember vividly. In the late 90s, I was asked by Men’s Journal magazine to hike a portion of the Desert Trail, a trail that snakes from Mexico in the south to Oregon in the north, with one of its founders. I chose a five-day trek through the Mojave Desert on the California/Nevada border. I had to backpack in with over 40 pounds of water, food, tent, and sleeping bag. It didn’t help that I borrowed a former WWII army pack from my buddy’s father that was digging into my shoulders. I had blisters on my feet by the end of day two. Day three was sweltering, well over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I took out my trusty microcassette recorder to dictate some notes and the tape had melted. That was the last time I used a cassette recorder on a trip. By the end of the trip, I was cramping and couldn’t wait to get back to Vegas, soak in a hot tub, and get on my flight back home. Unfortunately, there was a blizzard back in Boston. I was forced to watch Siegfried and Roy types of shows in Vegas the next four nights.
Vagobond: Are there any articles that you wish you would have written, but haven’t yet? Any that you wish you hadn’t of written?
Steve Jermanok: The articles I love most have a central character, like cocktail writer Wayne Curtis leading me around the bars of New Orleans in search of pre-Prohibition era drinks. When I speak to students studying writing at the universities in Boston, I always note that travel writing has far more in common with fiction than other forms of journalism. You need great characters, sharp dialogue, colorful description of the scenery, and hopefully some humor. That said, there are a lot of great characters around the world I’d like to meet.
The one article I wish I didn’t write was a travel story for The Boston Globe on my favorite swimming holes on Cape Cod. These are coveted ponds that locals didn’t appreciate me divulging. Sure, there are over 300 kettle ponds on the Cape and I was only discussing ten of those beauties, but it was disrespectful of the locals on the Cape who call it home.
Vagobond: How has the world of the travel writer changed since you began? Can you suggest a couple of positive and a couple of negative?
Steve Jermanok: When I started in travel writing, I would type up a pitch letter and send it with a self-addressed stamp envelope to a publisher. Then I would head to the mailbox and pick up my stack of rejection letters each day. For some masochistic reason, I still have a thick file of rejection letters and pass them around to journalism students who think they want to give freelance writing a shot. You need to develop a tough hide and not be so sensitive about rejection.
These days, I pitch my editors via email and wait for a response. What I love about travel writing currently is the ability to write about anything I want via a blog or tweet. I find it incredibly liberating, not having to wait for an editor to say yea or nay to write about a subject that interests me. I also just jumped into travel consulting with my wife, an accredited travel agent. That way, if people in this new world of A.D.D. don’t have the time to read my stories, I can still point them in the right direction. This stems from a trip to the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia. I had just returned from a freighter cruise trip on the Aranui, spending two glorious weeks looking in awe at these verdant and jagged islands that rise precipitously from the ocean waters. So incredibly picturesque are these islands that Herman Melville jumped ship here and wrote his first novel and Paul Gauguin would live out his final days in Eden. Just before I left French Polynesia, I met this honeymoon couple in the citified island of Tahiti who had just spent their past week at an overpriced hotel. I felt like smacking them. Instead, I’m now helping people avoid that mistake.
Vagobond: More than 60 countries since you left that Manhattan office – do you have any favorites? What about least favorite destinations?
Steve Jermanok: Just like my favorite stories revolve around intriguing characters, my favorite places in the world contain locals that are incredibly welcoming (so why, you ask, do I live in Boston where people refer to the local drivers as Massholes). In Fiji, where in the days of yore they dined on my ancestors, I’ve had a Fijian chief cook me a feast at his hut and serve the numbing kava drink. I’ve returned to Kenya often, first wanting to see the animals on safari, now wanting to visit friends I’ve made in Nairobi. New Zealanders not only picked me up when I was hitchhiking, but then took me to their homes for dinner and a night’s sleep. In Israel, I loved having hummus and fool with taxi drivers in the old Jaffa section of Tel Aviv. In Bali, I was fortunate to be invited to a funeral and really understand the powerful spirituality that resonates on this island. In Mae Hong San, I smoked opium with a leper, who mentioned that he wasn’t contagious. Those are the memories I cherish.
Vagobond: Tourists and travellers – are they the same thing with different packaging?
Steve Jermanok: I tell travelers that even with a limited amount of time, you can still have an authentic experience. Just leave the shyness and the cool machismo vibe back home. Jump into each culture with a vengeance, tasting the foods, learning their indigenous culture, and yes, meeting the people. Don’t be afraid to travel alone. You’ll meet people from around the world that will be your friends throughout life. After entering a mud hut to meet the many wives of a Maasai warrior on the Tanzania/Kenya border, he asked if I’m on Facebook. Yeah, I said I’m on Facebook. Now he’s a Facebook friend making comments about my mundane life, and I love it. The world’s a far smaller place than you think.