It certainly wasn't written in the stars that I'd be a travel writer. When I was a child, growing up in Freehold, New Jersey, my parents never went anywhere they couldn't drive to and be home from by the end of the day, all of us five kids in an oversized Bonneville. Still, I had an insatiable curiosity as a child, reading art, history, and photography books about distant lands. I swore from that early age to visit every place I'd read about, an internal mental checklist I'm still working on after visiting 80 countries and all seven continents.
My life of travel started when I began at Rutgers College in 1986. I was nicknamed "The Wanderer" one year, and flying off for a few days was nothing unusual. By senior year, I had 30 of the 50 states and all of Western Europe under my belt. The strong 1980s dollar was a huge help, something impossible to imagine in today's Euro-driven world. The way I traveled in college seems impossible now also: a good night's sleep might be on a blanket under someone's kitchen table, or in a crammed cabin on a slow overnight train from one European capital to another.
Everything accelerated by the time I got to graduate school at Rutgers' Bloustein School. My urban planning degree's concentration was tourism, and that meant I could justify hopping onto planes for my research projects. I am still paying off student loans put to use for plane tickets. I pushed myself into ever more difficult places back then, conquering Eastern Europe only a few years after the wall came down. I also broke ground in the Middle East, visiting Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and Egypt. I had certain fears before heading to these places, but being there proved those fears baseless. It's funny to think those hesitant steps have grown up to visiting war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq since September 11.
Once you start traveling like this, it's a matter of time before you find ways to make it your life's goal to never stop. Academic publishing on tourism led to writing on a more commercial basis, and while it's a precarious living, a normal 9-to-5 job can't compare with the mind-boggling adventures. I've ridden on Juan Peron's coffin during a parade through Buenos Aires attended by hundreds of thousands of people who still love his and Evita's memory 60 years later. I've visited Bin Laden's caves, escorted by the soldiers of an Afghan warlord and a funny Imam, or Muslim priest, who talked of his love for gyrating women in Bollywood movies the whole way through the mountain passes. I've met heads of state, royalty, and other celebrities, and simply had fun along the way. These experiences are part of some of my books, whether the Frommer's Buenos Aires guidebook, or my controversial Haworth Press book Gay Travels in the Muslim World.
At the same time, deep inside, I'm just a boy who grew up by the Jersey Shore and still has that in his blood. Sure, I've been to Tahiti, Rio, Ibiza, and more than enough of what people say are the world's most glamorous beaches, but you know what? If a beach doesn't have a boardwalk and a bunch of pizzerias, I just don't see the point.
Michael Luongo is a freelance travel writer and photographer who lives in New York and has published several travel books and numerous travel articles. He is an adjunct professor at New York University teaching travel writing. Visit him at michaelluongo.com.