Embracing the World
AFAR’s co-founders reflect on the magazine’s beginnings—and where we’re going from here
When AFAR founders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz tell the story of how AFAR was born, it always starts in India in 2007. The friends had been traveling there for weeks, exploring the country without set plans, meeting gurus, entrepreneurs, artists and other interesting people. One day toward the end of their trip, Sullivan and Diaz were kicking back on a beach in Goa, drinking Kingfisher beer, thinking about all the folks they’d met, when the idea came to them. What if they started a travel media company for travelers who embraced local culture and the realities of travel? “We wanted to avoid the conspicuous consumption that travel magazines at the time were doing,” Diaz says. “I always say it’s the supermodel on the elephant on the deserted beach. That’s the fantasy of travel. We love elephants and pretty people and deserted beaches, but we don’t see that on our trips. We wanted to do something that spoke to seeing the world as it really was and celebrating that.”
Upon their return to the States, without any experience in publishing, they bought four books about how to start a magazine: three by editors, one by an accountant. At the time, the United States was on the brink of the Great Recession. They called the accountant first. As they look back, it wasn’t the economic climate that scared them the most, though. “It was whether we’d do something we could be proud of,” Sullivan recalls. They set to work creating a magazine dedicated to openness and curiosity, with stories that respected and appreciated our differences while honoring our commonalities. Sixty-four issues later, AFAR is celebrating 10 years of award-winning storytelling. The magazine’s circulation has grown to 250,000, and more than a million people visit AFAR’s website every month. The “AFARmily” has grown from that starting crew of two to a bicoastal team of more than 60. The AFAR Foundation has sent more than 1,300 students on international trips.
Diaz and Sullivan are looking forward to the next decade with the same optimism they had back in 2009. “That’s what travel is all about,” says Diaz. “It’s an evolution. Where you wake up in the morning and where you put your head down in the evening, that journey can be a really interesting one, provided that you infuse it with the values that are most important to you.”
Since the beginning, we’ve aimed to bring the best writers and photographers onto our pages. We’re honored that our stories have resonated with our readers and earned acclaim from our peers. Here are some of the many stories that have won awards.
Chef Gabrielle Hamilton went to Sicily to meet the independent winemakers who bottle the flavors of the land. Her story, with photography by Francesco Lastrucci (pictured above), won a James Beard Foundation Journalism Award in 2015. The May 2014 issue in which her story appeared also won an Eddie award from Folio magazine for best full issue in the travel consumer category.
In “Full of Grace,” an essay by the late Edward Readicker-Henderson with photos by Peter Bohler, a religious cynic takes a pilgrimage to the holy waters of Lourdes. The story earned an Eddie Award for editorial excellence from Folio magazine and a silver medal from the Society of Publication Designers.
“Born to Travel”
On her last trip before giving birth to her first child, Freda Moon heads to Panama to reconnect with the people who inspired her wanderlust—her parents. Her story was included in the Best American Travel Writing anthology in 2016.
“The Big Leap”
On a trip to Belize, new mother Leslie Jamison learned how surprising the transition from solo travel to family travel can be. Her story, which ran with images by Thomas Prior, was selected for the Best American Travel Writing anthology in 2017.
“Where There’s Smoke”
Contributing writer Chris Colin ventured to Mexico to better understand how mezcal’s rising global popularity was changing the villages in the southern state of Oaxaca. Brian Finke’s photography snagged a 2016 Ozzie honorable mention from Folio magazine and a winning spot in American Photography 33, the leading annual competition for contemporary photography.
“Two for the Road”
An unlikely friendship blossoms during a road trip through the American South in contributing writer Emma John’s story. McNair Evans’s accompanying photography was selected for American Photography 34.
Anya von Bremzen returns to her hometown of Moscow to see how local chefs are transforming the city’s food landscape. The story won Gold in the culinary-related travel category for the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition run by the Society of American Travel Writers in 2018.
Over the years, we’ve loved hearing from readers when they’ve been inspired by AFAR to #traveldeeper. Here’s one of our favorite notes.
I receive your AFAR Daily Wander publication and I want to let you know how an article you ran by David Farley on March 2, 2017 impacted my life. I have become a “roving retiree.” I sold my home, car and most of my possessions and live around the world, with two suitcases, for several months at a time in each city.
Over the last few years, I have lived in Seville, Spain; Porto, Portugal; Puerto Vallarta and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico; Athens, Greece; and Kilrush, Ireland. I am writing you from Ireland! Yes! Quite a life I get to live!
In March 2017, I read Mr. Farley’s article, saved it and vowed to research volunteering. I had a busy, demanding career and frankly had never committed to extensive volunteering during my working years, but the article spoke to me and I knew I had to explore further.
So this year, I spent the month of February volunteering at a refugee camp in Athens. I ended up working for the same NGO that Mr. Farley worked for, A Drop in the Ocean, at their Skaramangas camp.
Refugees now have a face to me. I have friends from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan that touched my life. I was invited for lunch by one of the families; I sat on the floor of their caravan to a “table” of homemade soup and bread and carried on a conversation with the parents as their young daughter translated for us. Beautiful and sad at the same time.
It was the most humbling experience of my life, and I would not have been aware of the possibility had I not read the article.
One of your avid readers,
A condensed version of this letter from Diana Davis was printed in the September/October 2019 issue. For more about how travel makes AFAR readers happy, check out the results of our Travel Happiness Survey, presented by the Aruba Tourism Authority.
Learning AFAR, with partner No Barriers USA, sponsors travel for students who would not otherwise be able to afford it. Here, alumni reflect on the trips’ impact.
“Throughout middle and high school, I didn’t accept myself for being Deaf. I’m also gay, and had just come out during my junior year. My self-identity as a whole was kind of a mess. On my trip with No Barriers, right before I started college, we went to Peru. There, we visited a couple schools for the Deaf. Seeing the disparity between the U.S. and Peru was astonishing, but also encouraging on a personal level. These kids didn’t have cochlear implants or special education and they were still happy and thriving. I realized that the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community is worldwide, and there’s so much room for development. Afterwards, I became a much more active advocate for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community—I served in student government as the senator who represented Deaf and Hard of Hearing students on campus, and was able to make a lot of changes in that position. I also served as vice president and president of the student government. I attribute my mindset and motivation to what I’d learned on my travels.” —Bobby Moakley, Learning AFAR alumnus, Boston, Massachusetts
“The Learning AFAR trip I went on to Costa Rica as a high school junior made a huge impact on my life. After I got home, I researched the hospitality industry and decided to major in travel and tourism. I went to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, and ended up getting a bachelor’s degree in travel tourism and hospitality management, and an MBA with a concentration in hospitality management. Being on that trip made me want to be in this industry—which I still am in today.”
—Sarah Girma, Learning AFAR alumna, New York City
“Seeing students come back from these trips, I see how their perspective has broadened. Now sometimes when things pop up in the news, they know what it’s talking about. A while after we returned from China, the artist Ai Weiwei got his passport back. The students saw that in the news and knew what it meant. That filters out to having a curiosity in what the rest of the world is doing and having a personal tie to a different place. They become more aware that there’s a world outside of East Oakland.”
—Amy Boyle, assistant principal at Coliseum College Prep Academy, in Oakland, California. Since 2009, 70 Coliseum Prep students have gone on Learning AFAR trips.
Donate to Learning AFAR.
Spinning the Globe
AFAR editors wondered what would happen if they chose a place in the world at random and sent a writer there—on 24 hours’ notice. Writers recall highlights from their spontaneous trips.
For some writers, a trip with only 24 hours’ notice is stressful enough. Now imagine if you were a writer who’s blind. Then imagine if the destination we picked was, well, a little unstable…
“My editor called my wife and said, ‘Look, I don’t want to assume he can’t go, it’s just that the place has some issues right now, so maybe you should have a conversation.’ He told her where I was going, and she fell on the floor laughing. She picked me up from my office that day and asked me, ‘What are your deal breakers?’ I was like, ‘If we’re having this conversation, I’m not going where they’re sending me. I can’t find a water bottle in New York. It’s not like they would send me to the Arab Spring!’
When she started laughing, I knew where I was headed.”
Read Knighton’s story about traveling to Egypt.
When we sent food writer Helen Rosner to Tokyo, she ate well—but also discovered just how small the world can be.
“One day, I posted to Instagram from the Tsukiji fish market and got a message from someone I hadn’t seen in 15 years that she was a block away. It was magical that halfway around the globe, I could hang out with someone I knew.”
Read Helen Rosner’s story about her time in Tokyo.
Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anthony Doerr was surprised to be sent to Oman with his 14-year-old twins. But it turned out to be a memorable trip for all of them.
“With my teenage sons, everything was so interesting in Oman. Suddenly a Subway sandwich shop was fascinating, because the menu was in Arabic. Elsewhere, I might have walked past a hundred times, but there I said, ‘Yeah, let’s see what a Subway in Oman is like!’” Our trip also taught me about flexibility. I learned you don’t always need to plan a year in advance. Landing somewhere and asking a taxi driver where to go can lead to beautiful experiences. Maybe, I realized, I can get by without a guidebook.’”
Read Anthony Doerr’s story about spinning to Oman.
Experiencing local life
From Cairo to New Orleans, AFAR Experiences has connected travelers with locals around the globe in meaningful ways.
As AFAR cofounders Greg Sullivan and Joe Diaz walked around Tahrir Square in the aftermath of Hosni Mubarak’s deposal during the Arab Spring in 2011, they saw thousands of Egyptians celebrating, waving flags, and getting their photos taken with the military. “It was a total lovefest,” recalls Sullivan, “and such a moment in history. We wanted to figure out, as a travel media company, how we could help them.” They thought Cairo would be the best destination to kickstart a new series of immersive travel experiences that would allow visitors to see beyond the headlines and get to know a place through its locals.
During that first AFAR Experience, a group of 35 curious AFAR readers and staffers spent three days in Cairo meeting with the Cairenes at the forefront of a revolutionizing Egypt. They heard from people such as Dr. Riham Bahi, a scholar of Islamic and secular feminism, and cardiothoracic surgeon-turned-political satirist Bassem Youssef. Many more locals welcomed the AFAR Experiences travelers into their homes for intimate dinners and conversations with their friends. The trip closed with a farewell party, replete with camel rides, live music, and an Egyptian feast; the pyramids were a fitting backdrop. Since then, Egypt has experienced its share of turbulence. But the country has bounced back enough to earn a spot on AFAR’s Where to Go in 2019 list.
Since then, too, AFAR Experiences has crafted 14 more unique trips to nine different countries.
Though each itinerary is different, all have at their heart a deep connection to the city’s residents and experts, whether it’s dinner with Napa Valley winemakers in their home or a lecture about Japanese art by a contemporary design specialist. “The goal of Experiences is to unite our travelers with the genuine people of a destination,” says AFAR Experiences director Jill Greenwood. Visitors aren’t the only ones who enjoy the bond. “Guests have been able to step into a neighborhood and get a familial feeling about what makes New Orleans special,” says Mark Romig, president and CEO of New Orleans Tourism Marketing, where Experiences has been held three times. “To see New Orleans reflected in visitors’ eyes and hear them fall in love with the city is a gift for us.”
Sara Button Sara Button is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience.