I am a freelance travel journalist and photographer, with work in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Bloomberg News, Gay City News, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle and many other publications. I am the author or editor of 16 books, mostly on travel, including the Frommers’ Buenos Aires Guide Book, Haworth Press’ Gay Travels in the Muslim World, along with a novel The Voyeur, published by Alyson Books. I have taught writing at universities in the USA and China. I am currently an online writing instructor for UCLA’s Extension Writing Program and a PhD student at Purdue University’s School of Hospitality and Tourism Management, researching post-conflict tourism rebuilding, which was also the subject of my 2023 TEDx Purdue talk.
1. What got you into travel writing?
My family never went anywhere you couldn’t throw all five kids in the Bonneville in the morning and then be home by midnight – so we did not travel much – however, we had TONS of books, including on art and archeology, and I dreamed of visiting every place in them eventually. I grew up on the Jersey Shore, in Freehold, in Monmouth County, in the suburbs of New York City, so from a young age, I was highly cognizant of the importance and rhythm of tourism, and how it can be portrayed in media, including in famous songs by our town’s local hero, Bruce Springsteen.
Once I was in college in the late 1980s, at Rutgers University, my money and time were my own. I spent all my money on travel (as well as still on books, clothes and hair care products!). Travel, both internationally and domestically, was cheap back then in many ways since as a young person. The flight was the only real expense, and I often stayed in youth hostels or with friends of friends, and students get discounts everywhere. I had the travel bug as a co-worker told me once, and it is something that never goes away.
It was not until going back to school for a Masters in Urban Planning at Rutgers, where I researched gay tourism, that I began to write academically on the subject, including the first academic article on the gay travel industry in 1996 in the journal Annals of Tourism Research. But I also wanted to write from a travel journalism perspective, as I felt I would see more places, which was always the goal. I also researched in England at this time on HIV and its relationship to gay men’s travels, publishing academic and government reports. After I finished my Master’s in 1998, I worked for Fun Maps, the gay travel map company, which was a wonderful learning experience, in terms of writing, networking and understanding an industry at a time when there were many more viable gay neighborhoods. There, I got to know most editors of LGBT publications in the USA and Canada, and began to freelance for some of them, including writing on travel and HIV. By 1999, 2000, I started writing for Out & About working with Ed Salvato and Billy Kolber as well as for Our World, a wonderful magazine that no longer exists.
One thing led to another, and clips lead to more opportunities, and by 2003, I was writing for the New York Times, and by 2005, Bloomberg News and other mainstream publications, including books for Frommer’s on Buenos Aires and Argentina by 2004. I also began to edit LGBT travel books for Haworth Press, including overseeing my own imprint, Out in the World, where my best known book was Gay Travels in the Muslim World. The company was bought out by 2008, ending that. It was quite a journey all of this. I also taught travel and international writing at New York University beginning in 2007, and before that for Gotham Writers Workshop. After September 11th, 2001, in addition to continuing to write on gay travel, I began to look at tourism and conflict, visiting Iraq, Afghanistan and other such locations, work which led to my being NATJA Grand Prize in Travel Journalism recipient for 2010, and then again in 2014, which was shared with Rebecca Rhoades. I now research this topic for my PhD at Purdue University’s School of Hospitality & Tourism Management and did a TEDx talk on it as well.
2. What’s the most challenging part of being a travel journalist for you?
Financial aspects of it. It’s not an easy living and for me it has been a balance of having a variety of jobs, including temping in offices, which included corporate editing, ghostwriting, living cheaply even in New York – where it is possible to live cheaply, despite what people think, though I think it is easier for someone from the metro region rather than someone moving here from out of the region as we know where to look and how to live here cheaply. My combined work also has included teaching, public speaking, writing for a variety of publications and getting as much out of a trip as possible. I find that living overseas, such as in Buenos Aires for example, for Frommer’s, meant it was possible to get to know a place well, and thus pitch articles and ideas to many publications, rather than simply parachuting in for a week or so. But the finances are really really tough. It’s meant falling back on ‘real’ jobs in addition to the writing and photography.
3. What is one thing [equipment or personal item] you can’t go without on the road?
Ah, so I go nowhere without my immersion coil for boiling water. I do not like to waste time at breakfast in hotels etc. An immersion coil is a heating unit you insert into a cup of water to heat it, and then I can have hot water for tea anytime, along with granola bars. They take up virtually no space and are light, and I have a plastic cup which is heat resistant to use it with. Of course, I have to have adaptors depending on where I am. So, this for me, to always have a way to make breakfast at any time, and not on a hotel or other schedule, and also cheaply, is important. And it’s always tea, morning or night, as I am not really a coffee drinker.
4. What’s your most unusual and/or memorable travel experience?
Well, some I can’t mention here. However, I think all of us who are travel journalists have experiences that a non-travel journalist would think are surreal or simply unbelievable, but you have them specifically because you are a travel journalist. I can say a few things looking back include being in Jordan at Jesus’ baptism site on the Jordan River, getting a tour and suddenly, Malika Rania, Queen Rania, is helicoptered into the area for an archeology tour, certainly it was engineered for a few of us there as journalists for this desert car race that was going on at the time, called the Jewel of Jordan if I remember correctly, but it was simply surreal. I did get to meet her too, though I have no photo evidence! I was supposedly the first journalist for gay press to be introduced to her, according to her press person. At the time, in 2003, I was writing for gay and mainstream publications for that trip, including New York’s Gay City News.
Another time might be being in Buenos Aires when Cardinal Bergoglio was selected as Pope, becoming Pope Francis, in Rome, in 2013. I couldn’t understand why people were sending me all these Facebook messages asking me what it was like to be in Buenos Aires during what was happening, and I was like, what is happening, as none of the messages said what I was supposed to be seeing. I was at a friend’s apartment, leaving that day actually back to New York, and her father was over, so I asked him, and he said, let’s turn on the TV. And well, there it was – Bergoglio was selected and I suddenly realized I am zero degrees of separation from the Pope. I had of course known him as someone I would meet in the course of my work for Frommer’s. I went to what had been his cathedral, Catedral Metropolitana in the city center, before heading to the airport, to talk to people gathering, but there was not yet a large crowd as there would be that night. As I headed into my plane, I emailed with one of my New York Times editors and did a piece on the Pope’s Buenos Aires for them.
I would say though, there are just so many things to say on this subject, and I will add that perhaps the most different place of all the places I have been to is Afghanistan, which despite all the problems is a place that stays under your skin and is one of the most beautiful places in all of the world, including even the gorgeous mountains where Bin Laden’s caves are, which I visited in 2005. At times, I would describe remote places to people as like ‘driving into the Bible,’ because you might be in a city like Kabul, and then you drive out half an hour, and everything looks like a Bible movie, but with cars and cell phones.
5. How did you learn about NATJA and why did you join?
Many friends had been posting on social media, early forms of social media, for a few years about their membership and I was also struck during awards season by the categories and broad, interesting range of articles that would be selected as winners during the awards season. My work examining tourism rebuilding within conflict zones and other topics had not been recognized by another travel organization, and I decided, well, let me see what happens with NATJA. I had entered a selection of material on visiting northern Iraq, the Kurdish region as well as Baghdad and Babylon, mostly work from Bloomberg News, covered in 2009. Well, as it turns out, not even having been a member, I was selected as the Grand Prize in Travel Journalism Winner in 2010, so of course, I joined! I remember being in Uruguay switching busses between Montevideo and Punta del Este when I got the call on my USA cell phone about it, and not understanding the call, as it was not a clear connection, and then later I saw the email and was like, wow! I will say that I believe NATJA got me in a way that others did not, and I have especially enjoyed the various conferences though it has been a while since I have been to one. I would say that being the Grand Prize in Travel Journalism Winner opened other doors, including being an integral part of my resume when I applied to and received the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowship, which Helen Hernandez and Ben Root gave me advice and a recommendation.
6. What is the best piece of advice you could give to a rookie travel journalist?
Be curious, above all. Figure out ways to make this work financially, even if there has to be another job, or a balance of jobs. Always see things – what would a local want you to see – I am not talking what the press office or tourism office would take you to see – even if you are not sure you are writing about it yet. This is how you find new things to pitch. Talk to everyone – at a location, or when home. Research a location and talk to people who have been there. Take lots of notes. Take photos videos etc to get a sense of place to refamiliarize yourself with a location when you go back to writing on it. I also think if you really want to explore a place in-depth, figure out a way to live there for a period of time, and really get to know it. That’s how you can develop a niche and really get to know a place well, and be the one editors think of for that place. And of course, join groups, like NATJA and others.