Justin, you started your career as Managing Editor for Student Traveler Magazine, had you always wanted to be a travel writer?
I can’t say that I always wanted to be a travel writer, but I definitely always wanted to be a writer. I remember scrawling out a convoluted choose-your-own-adventure novella when I was only about 12 years old. It was full of giant, man-eating squids and Indian Jones type adventures. I also read the Chronicles of Narnia as a kid, and that was a big deal for me – I think I always loved the escapism of reading, and of story writing.
When I was a bit older and I started traveling, I found a new, more tangible escape from regular life. I felt like I could BE the adventurer in the novels that I’d loved as a kid. I backpacked across Europe, studied in London, and road tripped across the states in my college years. I studied literature and wrote a column for the Daily Bruin at UCLA, all while traveling whenever I could. After college, when the opportunity to work for Student Traveler Magazine came up, it seemed like the perfect mix of my two greatest passions: Travel and Writing.
You relocated and spent a year in New Zealand, what made you decide to do that?
I was in a weird place when I applied for my New Zealand Working Holiday Visa. I’d been working for Student Traveler for a few years, but the travel industry (and the print magazine industry) had been faltering in the post 911 economy – at least that’s how I see it, but whatever the reasons were, the whole industry seemed to be standing on unstable ground.
I felt like it was time for me to make a move – a big move. So instead of looking for a new job, or a new career, I applied for a visa to New Zealand, sold everything I owned, and booked a one-way ticket. I really didn’t know what I’d be doing, or where I’d be doing it, but I knew that along the road, I’d be blogging and sharing my adventures with family and friends.
JustinWasHere.com has its roots in a weekly email newsletter that I’d send to my friends and family during my early years of solo backpacking. Eventually, the emails became a blog that I called King Among Runaways (a reference to an old Decemberists lyric), but as it grew in popularity, I eventually rebranded it as JustinWasHere.com.
I like a lot of things about blogging. I like that it has shifted the art of writing from a journalist’s trade, to a more democratized passion. People blog about things, because they care about them — whether it’s favorite recopies, or office politics, or travel. When the art and the passion is what drives something, I think everyone benefits. Blogging gives everyone the chance to share their story – and we’ve all got stories to tell.
So, I’m passionate about travel, I start a blog, and I share my story. And people started to listen. It’s an amazing thing, the internet.
Tough question. I really don’t know what I’d be doing if I wasn’t a traveler. I’d probably be a successful, productive member of society with a 9-to-5 job, a wife, kids, a mortgage… but that’s not really an option for me. I get bored easily. It’s a personality flaw, really. Most people have the ability to be content with routine and stability. I need to shake things up from time to time. So I travel. What do I get out of it? An ever-changing horizon. A road that takes me wherever I need to go. An endless story, with consistently fresh characters and ever-evolving storyline. I get to feel like I’m really in control of my life.
That being said, I can tell that as I get older, my travel style has really shifted. These days, I’m more interested in finding temporary homes and staying for a few months, instead of zipping though the backpacker trail at lightning speed. I like to connect with the locals, and really understand a place, its people, its culture. I think that comes from the fact that I’m running a business on the road now (My new Travel Magazine website, www.WorldTravelBuzz.com), and I need more time to work, and to research and write stories while traveling – So I take it slow.
Tell us about an interesting encounter or a cool person you’ve met on your travels.
I’ve met a lot of amazing people on the road. I met a volunteer-addict who was so selfless and giving that she gave practically every minute of every day to charity. I met a 42 year old man whose son just turned 18 and went off to college, so he finally had the time to fulfill his dream of traveling around the world. I’ve met business men and lawyers and homeless drunks and Mayan shaman and everyone in between – All with their own interesting and wonderful and difficult and heartbreaking stories.
You have to come! A couple years ago I founded The Bureau of Misinformation, a Burning Man Theme Camp that acts as a sort of backwards Tourist Information Booth at Burning Man. We build a huge bar and lounge area in the middle of the desert and offer free drinks and misinformation to passersby. When people have a question, we point them in the wrong direction. It’s an art project, in a very broad sense – by misinforming people, we open them up to new and interesting experiences. And we get them drunk. Sound Ridiculous? It is. But that’s exactly what I love about Burning Man: This whole thing started as a ridiculous idea, and now it’s a reality.
The passion of the community is what makes Burning Man so fantastic. We support each other. If someone comes up with an idea, and rallies a few like-minded lunatics together, we can make anything happen. You should see some of the epically scaled art projects that become a reality out there in the desert. And it’s all possible because of community, passion, and positivity.
Burning Man changed my life in a really positive way, and it’s hard for most people to understand how. It’s made me a more successful person, because it taught me that if you’re passionate about something, you can make it happen.
Your current project is World Travel Buzz- tell us about the website and what you hope to achieve with it.
I’ve been running JustinWasHere.com since 2006, and over the years it evolved from a blog to more of a magazine-style website, with guest posters, advertisers, etc. But it was always limited by the name. I needed a site that would allow me to get back to my roots of working as an editor, and allow me to reach out to all the friends and connections that I have in the travel industry so that we could all work together on something big. I wanted to bring my community of travelers, travel bloggers, and writers together. So, WorldTravelBuzz.com was born.
The goal is to create a successful travel website with an edge. There is a lot of boring travel writing out there. We want to cut through all that and give you gritty and awesome travel writing that people really want to read. We are young, wild, free, and unabashedly in-your-face, while still providing useful and engaging travel content.
Like I just mentioned, most travel writing is boring, so my best advice is: Don’t be boring. A good travel writer has an interesting story to tell, about a place and a time and an experience in that place and time. There are interesting stories to tell everywhere you look, but you have to look for them. Going to a city and writing about the tourism options and different hotels is going to be a lame article. But finding the 60 year old local man who has worked as a taxi driver for 40 years and can share some of his stories and insights into the history of tourism in that city – that’s an article.
Engage the locals. Be thoughtful. Be radical. Be kind. And don’t expect to get rich.