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I’ve taken to calling myself a travel writer these days, but in all honesty, I still feel a bit fraudulent. When some new, unsuspecting soul hears the words “travel writer”, they immediately associate it with the cliché of “getting paid to travel”. Of course, as a freelancer, and far from monetarily proficient in that regard, I know that this view is a fantasized version of what really amounts to hours of hunching over a laptop, ignoring the view, and literally submitting one’s self to a lot of rejection. Still, a piece of me believes if I can only get that one big break…
Then, Thomas Kohnstamm, an author with much more clout than I, put it all into much finer perspective for me. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, & Professional Hedonism follows Thomas on his first big assignment, writing a section of the Brazil guide for Lonely Planet. Most of us, hacks like me, complete novices, and non-writers alike, regard such work—writing for the largest independent publisher of travel guides—as the dream, the pinnacle of travel writerhood. In some ways, Thomas shows us we are sorely mistaken.
It takes Thomas nearly 50 pages of stumbling, bloodied debauchery—telling off his boss, shunning his girlfriend, and street fighting in his goodbye salute to New York—before we actually get to the actual assignment, at which time it’s clear that prudence will not be on the itinerary. Distracted by Rio, a romance with Inga the Lufthansa flight attendant, and unidentified recreational drug use, he is already horribly behind schedule on day one. What’s more is he is expected to cover all aspects of six Brazilian states in the northern nether-reaches of the country in a matter of four weeks. The assignment was impossible before he started late.
Thomas gives himself seven weeks, breaks his budget, and stretches money in ways he’d not imagined: living with a model/prostitute, taking a foray into dealing drugs to tourists, an unexpected twist into used motorcycle sales, and finally, using his Lonely Planet status to get freebies. It’s exciting to follow him through it all, at times enviable and other times just downright head-shaking. Overall, his exploits are a little out-of-realm of possibility or desire for me, not to insinuate I haven’t met folks with stories dissimilar. Which is to say, I think for many travelers (and writers for that matter), Thomas’s Hunter-esque lunacy is living the dream.
That’s where the Lonely Planet comes back into it. Beyond the insanity, there is the underlying current of the darker side of writing guidebooks. The incessant research it requires. The horrible plane/bus/truck/boat/motorcycle rides. Time and money restraints. Formatting. Marketing percentages. Word counts and dejected creativity. Clichéd, inaccurate descriptions. The effects that being written up in the Lonely Planet has on the once-hidden oases it promotes, the sudden onslaught of spring-break vagabonds that crush the soul of a place—the horrible need for it all. Then, the soul-stealing reality of being a starving writer. Ultimately, as Lonely Planet users (at some point we all are), we begin to lose our faith in “the Bible”, perhaps even judge ourselves.
I must admit to buying a Lonely Planet for nearly every country I go to, and I’ll even admit that Emma (the beautiful backpacking wife) and I have prematurely purchased several such guides to places that got pushed back and delayed indefinitely. Australia, New Zealand, India, and South America are all now jammed into boxes of books in corners of closets and attics, and they are all just about as crisp as the day they were bought. Other guides—Korea, England, Turkey, and Central America on a Shoestring—have been thumbed to death and milked for just about all they’re worth. Lonely Planet has been with us, earned its keep time and again.
Thomas, who expresses similar sentiments in his preface—“I almost always take a guidebook with me when I travel, and it invariably helps me in some way that makes it worth its price and worth its weight in my pack.”—pushes one’s respect for the Lonely Planet on its ass. His descriptions of policies, implausible and required inclusions, and dysfunctional information gathering leave little doubt as to why, on nearly every trip, I’ve chased down some restaurant, hostel, or departing bus that no longer exists. Furthermore, the minutiae of subheading text sizes and laundry services in every dirt-road town hardly make it appealing as a career. The Lonely Planet is far from gospel truth or any dream I’ve had.
By the end of the book, Thomas has written himself out of being referred to reverently by last name. He presents a main character (himself) more like that one wild friend in college, far outside the bounds of my compulsive, married, and timid nature. As a traveler and writer, who may just be headed to hell at the end of it all, the book is as unrealistic as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for me. However, I can’t help but admire the persona a bit, the gumption, and the how-to of living this tale and still getting hired by Lonely Planet again. The questions beyond Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? that I’ve gotten from the book have opened my eyes, honestly changed the way I look at some things. For that, you can’t fault a few swashbuckling yarns for being a bit too gonzo.
Get more info @ http://www.thomaskohnstamm.com/index.html
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.