From Wall St. to the South Pacific: How Stephen Jermanok Embarked on a Life of Travel
Posted Monday, May 07, 2012 6:07 PM
To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries. – Aldous Huxley
Aldous Huxley was right. Perhaps the most common experience most travelers share is the surprise they express when visiting distant shores, and their frequent claim that “It was nothing like I expected” provides further evidence that the world is not what it seems. Unless you pack a bag, book a flight, and spend time amongst the locals, you will never fully understand the ‘soul’ of a country or its people.
Perhaps it is this particular soul-searching and the desire to find the many commonalities and differences between cities, nations, continents, and their inhabitants that has produced a wealth of explorers and travel writers throughout history. (No doubt Christopher Columbus and Magellan would have made fine travel writers.)
Not long ago, the art of exploration and travel writing seemed to be the exclusive right of the British. However, not to be outdone by their brethren across the Atlantic, a number of prominent American travel writers – from the late, great Mark Twain and Richard Halliburton to Paul Theroux – began to populate the field and have continuously made an impressive mark for themselves on the literary travel map.
Amongst the prolific American set is Stephen Jermanok, who came to the world of travel writing after quitting his job as a broker in Manhattan – an unusual route, no doubt. While working as a broker, Jermanok decided to abandon the fast pace of the City, book a ticket to the South Pacific, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Jermanok has traveled the world and written for numerous prestigious publications, including The Boston Globe Magazine, Travel & Leisure, Outside, Forbes FYI, Men’s Journal, Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel magazine and National Geographic Adventure. He is also the author of several books, including New England Seacoast Adventures and Outside Magazine’s Guide to Family Vacations. Jermanok, who also writes film scripts, wrote “Passionada” with his brother Jim. The film was released in 2003. He resides in Boston with his family.
Jermanok spoke with Highbrow Magazine about his travels and writing.
What made you forsake life as a broker in Manhattan to embark on travel writing?
It was a time of excess…it was the Reagan years, and the three-martini lunch would frequently last from 12:00 [in the afternoon] until 12 midnight. It got a bit absurd; I was only in my early 20s. It was just too fast a lifestyle for me.
There was also a tragedy that occurred at your workplace which influenced your decision, correct?
We [the office] were on the 4th floor…. We heard a loud thud outside the window, and unfortunately someone had committed suicide from the top of the roof and landed next to the boilers where our offices were….And that was enough…I needed a break. So I gave notice and booked a ticket on Air New Zealand, and it was one of those tickets that you could stop along 12 different stops along the way.… It was all the way to Sydney, Australia. You could stop at all the South Pacific isles, the north and south islands of New Zealand, and then Sydney…
The day before I was leaving was the Fifth Avenue Book Fair, and I was strolling the aisles and found a book by a guy called Perry Garfinkel who wrote about how to be a travel writer. I did exactly what he said…and when I came back to New York, I sold my first article to the Miami Herald. …So I waited tables in New York on the Upper West Side; I tutored chemistry [which Jermanok had studied in college] to students to make money; but every morning I would write – at least 1,000 words a day.
How many countries have you visited in the past 20 years?
Are there certain countries/continents that you find more fascinating than others?
I tend to be more fascinated with places like Africa and India, and there is a bit of chaos involved in each. People always think travel writing is about the scenery, but I have always had an interest in mankind . The chaotic places like Nairobi or Kolkata (Calcutta) are always exciting. You never know what’s going to happen next. And the people in these places make the story that much more fascinating.
…With travel writing, unlike other forms of journalism, you really want to talk about character, dialogue…It’s much more like fiction.
Who are some of your favorite travel writers?
I love Norman Lewis…he’s more of a reporter, but he’s a great travel writer as well. He wrote a lot about Vietnam and Italy in the ‘40s and ‘50s….I also [read] Richard Halliburton growing up….I actually had a chance to talk to George Plimpton about him. Plimpton wrote about Halliburton.…He was an inspiration for Plimpton as well.
What are the most difficult aspects of being a full-time travel writer?
Being on the road…you’re gone lot. You really can’t have a structured life when you’re on the road. I have my structured life when I return and write…it’s very calm. But it’s chaotic when you’re out there immersed in a culture that’s unfamiliar.
Is the world of travel writing today more cutthroat or competitive compared to other areas of writing and publishing?
Given everything that’s happened in the publishing world in the past decade, there are a lot less travel writers working. There are a lot less publications for that matter, too. Like National Geographic Adventure, they’re gone. When I started out in the ‘90s, there were a lot more magazines and a lot more opportunity….
What’s happening now is the feature article (of the 2,000 – 3,000 word category) has been reduced dramatically, and it is harder to get more assignments these days. You used to be able to call up an editor and say, “I’m going to Nairobi for a week and want to write a story on, say, the arts scene.” And they would pretty much say, “Sure, go ahead.”
How have your extensive travels affected your outlook on life?
Well, people are all the same, doesn’t matter which stripe or color. They all have the same interests, the same quirks, and the same zest for life. What it has taught me is that you really can’t believe what you read in the newspaper at times; you really have to go to a place to see first-hand what it’s like. They have the same truths across the world.
For more information, visit Stephen Jermanok’s website.
Tara Taghizadeh is the founding editor & publisher of Highbrow Magazine. She has worked for the National Geographic Society, Post-Newsweek Tech Media, Gannett News Service and AOL. Her writing has been published in various publications and websites, including the Chicago Tribune, the Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Francisco Weekly and Gannett Newspapers.