Extraordinary Vagabond Stock Broker – Steve Jermanok

Great travel writers of the worldWhen 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.

 

Stock broker turned travel journalistVagobond: You’ve written a huge number of travel articles for a wide variety of publications – which articles stand out the clearest in your memory?

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.

 

Travel Journalist Steve JermanokVagobond: 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.

 

 

Bicycle Vagabond – Dave Stamboulis

This is an excerpt from my book “Vagabonds: Sometimes Getting Lost is the Point” . It’s available as an ebook for kindle or ebook readers. Over the next several months we will be exploring some of these amazing vagabond characters from the past (and present).

Dave Stamboulis was born a traveller. Born in Greece, raised in Berkeley and on the road taking pictures and notes for most of his life since then. He  rode his bicycle around the world and his narrative of that trip Odysseus Last Stand won the Silver Medal from the Society of American Travel Writers. Dave lives in Thailand and is a featured contributor here at Vagobond.com. His books, articles and photos will blow your mind when you check them out at DaveStamboulis.com or at Flickr.com/photos/davestamboulis

Vagobond: What’s your first memory of wanting to travel? What about the first time you realized you wanted to capture the world on your camera?
Dave Stamboulis: I can’t say I really have much of a first memory of wanting to travel, probably because my parents took me traveling from a young age. My mother always had a great story about me that I thought explained it all. When we crossed from Greece to the US a year after I was born, the boat we were on ran into very rough seas. All the passengers were lying inside, all prone and sick as dogs. But I was out on deck crawling around. I guess it was a sign of things to come!
Vagobond: On your website, there is a great quote by Rudyard Kipling “There are basically two types of men in the world. Those who stay at home, and those who don’t.” What’s the hardest part of being one of those who don’t?
Dave Stamboulis: The hardest part of being a constant traveler is missing the time and energy necessary to put into relationships at home. Close to that would be a few other things, such as people, even friends, being jealous of your lifestyle, and subsequently dealing with those feelings, and also the fact that travel, when it becomes a lifestyle and living, is no longer exactly the fantasy and pleasure cruise that it once was.
Vagobond: Riding your bike  around the world is one hell of a way to break into travel writing – what was the most difficult part of that journey?
Dave Stamboulis: The most difficult part of riding a bicycle around the world was actually finishing at the end. I never intended to spend seven years wandering when I set out, it just happened. And in year six, riding across Central Asia as winter set in, with bursitis in my knee and endless days of frigid frozen sleet out on the road, I could find nothing enjoyable about what I was doing. In every way I wanted to stop, but I was pretty dedicated to the finish line at this point, so I put my head down and ground it out.
Vagobond: Did you ever expect that Odysseus Last Stand would get the acclaim and praise that it did? How much of that was part of your vision for it?
Dave Stamboulis: I had absolutely ZERO idea that Odysseus would do as well as it did, and basically launch my career as a travel writer and photographer. I basically wrote the book because when I returned home, I wanted to figure out what had happened to me and to somehow gracefully lay seven years of travel to a peaceful rest. Further on, I just wanted to share my adventures with friends and family. Then, once I had a 130,000 word manuscript that took over two years to write and edit, I figured it wasn’t going to be much of an endeavor if it just sat on a shelf taking in dust. In retrospect, I did put a huge amount of time and energy into it, and I researched and followed all of the proper steps in trying to become a first time publisher, and I guess it paid off. But I never expected it to do as well as it did.
Vagobond: Are you a goal setter? How much planning do you do to get your trips to go the way you want them to?
Dave Stamboulis:  I am a goal setter, but my goals are more like whims or dreams that aren’t necessarily overly concrete. I finished a cross country US bicycle trip that changed me quite significantly, and after that I wondered what could be next. A world trip came to mind, but the only real goals or aims of the trip at the time were to get to Tibet, India, and across the Himalayas, places I’d always wanted to go to. Once I got to Japan and started saving a lot of money working, then the planning got a bit more concrete, but most of that was based around weather patterns, monsoons, hot and cold seasons, and trying to avoid extremes wherever possible.
Vagobond: On a related note, how do you start your day? Do you have morning rituals?
Dave Stamboulis:   I guess I have always had morning rituals. I did yoga for many years, I did Zen meditation for a spell. While traveling, starting the day at a cafe, drinking a good cup of coffee and writing my notes became something to cherish. These days, being based in Bangkok, I usually get up and watch an NBA basketball game online in the early morning while having my coffee! (being a lifelong basketball fan and having the night games come on in the early a.m. here is a great way I find to warm up the day before I start working.
Vagobond: I was in Bangkok back in 2001 – it was obviously on the rise and from what I’ve heard, is now one of the most comfortable cities in southeast Asia in a Western sense…what challenges do you face living there?
Dave Stamboulis: Bangkok, in 2011, is probably 100 times more comfortable to live in than 10 years ago. I live 5 minutes from the Skytrain, so I virtually never deal with the infamous traffic, my nearby mega-supermarkets stock products from around the world, and I can find just about any kind of camera or computer gear that I need for work at reasonable prices. On the other hand, the Thailand that I fell in love with, the Thailand where people never honked their horns, smiled all the time, and just took it real easy, has drastically changed. It has become far more like the west or developed world in terms of stress, crime, greed, and focused on money rather than on anything else, and this is a very sad thing in my opinion. Also, given the decline of the dollar along with inflation, Bangkok is no longer the bargain paradise that it once was.
Vagobond: Back to that Kipling quote – what about family life? How does a man who goes build relationships? Or does he?
Dave Stamboulis: It is very difficult to sustain intimate relationships as a road junkie. I have had my share over the years, and have even cut down on my trips and time away during the times I have had steady companions. But I think it is tough to share the lifestyle, and probably the only way I think it really works is if you end up with someone who is in a similar line of work or way of thinking, perhaps another writer or photographer. I saw a documentary recently about Lemmy, the zany singer of Motorhead, and he was basically saying that as a touring rock star, there was just no way a relationship with anyone other than another musician was going to work out, and I think that is somewhat true. Artists tend to be rather committed to their passions, often at the expense of partners and friends in their lives.
Vagobond: Can you offer three travel tips that Vagobond readers may not have heard before?
Dave Stamboulis: I don’t know that I have any new tips, but
1) as I have gotten older and more “comfortable and convenient” I have resolved to take myself out of my comfort element at least once a year, it usually is rather life changing and reaffirming to go get on a rustbucket bus on a potholed road in the middle of nowhere with few amenities. It is humbling and reminds oneself just what real travel is all about.
2) Try going precisely to the places that don’t interest you. Years ago I didn’t have any strong draw to spending time in Africa, as opposed to Asia or S. America, whereas now, for me, Africa is somewhat the last great place to adventure in.
3) I think it is pretty important to combine some sort of project or focus with just a relaxing escape. I actually no longer really enjoy the “motion” part of travel. Too many hours on bad buses in bad hotels eating bad food without any of the comforts of home. But going on trips with the purpose of taking photos and gathering material for articles, it gives me a focus and gets me through those bad moments.
4) And I am sure this has been said, but I can’t stress the importance of it: TRUST PEOPLE. 99% of the people in the world are good, and if you open yourself up to them, you will be rewarded with amazing kindnesses and great memories.
Vagobond: Your forthcoming piece on the Kazakh Eagle Hunters (here on Vagobond coming Monday!)  was the kind of travel piece that I used to eat up when I was a kid. I would dig through 80 years of my grandmother’s National Geographics to find stories like that – what are some of your other awesome adventures?
Dave Stamboulis:  Probably the best adventures to me involve a bit of physical hardship. In Mongolia, it might have been the extremes of temperatures and landscape, a million miles removed from home in a harsh landscape with no amenities. One of my most outstanding adventures was a crossing of the back side of the polar ice cap in Fitzroy National Park in Argentinian Patagonia. I was with a climbing friend and we had finished several months of trekking and climbing throughout S. America and I was really spent and ready to go to Buenos Aires and go sit in cafes and read books. And my friend basically pressured me to do this final trip, which involved slogging huge amounts of gear across highly crevassed ice completely away from civilization. The trip was very hard, but the scenery, solitude, and sense of adventure was enormous.
Vagobond: I’m not going to ask you how many countries you’ve been to or which one is your favorite – instead, if aliens appeared and told you that you had to spend the rest of your life in just one place (let’s assume it has to be on Planet Earth) – where would you pick?
Dave Stamboulis: Put it this way, for most of my life, I always thought of places in the world to be a bit like stations on a train journey. Some stations merited getting off and staying in, some worth more time than others, but eventually, one would have to get back on the train and enjoy the ride. Well, Thailand changed that for me. This was the first place I ever said to myself, “I will die here,” meaning it as a place I felt based in and very at home. The other place in the world I have a very strong connection to is Nepal. I spent several years living there, teaching there, cycling and climbing there. I loved the people, the culture, the landscape. I went back for the first time in 12 years a few years ago, and actually had as much of an enjoyable time as the first time. The mix of friendly people along with the Himalayan landscape and culture is something I love.
Vagobond: What does the future hold for Dave Stamboulis?
Dave Stamboulis: The future? Given continued decent health, I am sure I will do more of the same, getting out and seeing the world, and trying to keep an open and fresh mind. On the one hand, it is horrible to go back to places that were paradises 20 years ago and see them destroyed by tourism and development greed, yet on the other hand, travel exposes one on a daily basis to lots of wonderful human interest stories, far more hopeful than the garbage we tend to read and be spoon fed on a daily basis on the internet, newspaper, and television.

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