Sunday, April 13, 2008

The question on everyone's lips: do travel writers go to hell?

This is the question posed by Thomas Kohnstamm in his soon-to-be-released book Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism published by Random House. The book hasn't even hit the shelves and it is already causing a furore; most notably in the hallways of his ex-employer Lonely Planet.

A Stanford graduate with an MA in Latin American Studies, Thomas was offered an assignment updating Lonely Planet's guidebook to Brazil. With little forethought, he quickly traded in the drudgery of his corporate Wall Street job and set off on a sex, drug and alcohol fuelled journey around the country. The resulting book, which Thomas himself describes as a "chronicle [of] events that took [him] from bourgeoisie working stiff with a repressed travel habit to a full-time mercenary travel hack, with all the good, bad, and surreal shit that it entails", is a virtual kiss-and-tell expose that has rocked the guidebook industry.

Thomas' story has only just broken in the news here in Australia today with the headlines of Adelaide's Sunday Mail claiming Lonely Planet hit by author fraud. You can read an excerpt of Thomas' book here and for other editorials see Sydney's The Daily Telegraph and The New York Observer. While I am yet to read the book so can't comment on it, I learned a very similar lesson myself on my first assignment for Lonely Planet. No, there was no sex and drugs involved and I certainly did all my research on the ground myself, but I too discovered the hard way that being a guidebook author is not as easy, fun or as glamorous as it sounds; especially when you are a green author thrown in the deep end.

In early 2000 I was contracted by Lonely Planet to update the second edition of their Romania & Moldova guide. Straight out of university and eager to prove my worth as a writer I accepted the assignment despite the fact that I had never been to either country and didn't speak the language (mind you, I quickly learned enough of the language to get the information I needed). Looking back now it was probably a very foolish decision, but this was my big break, and, after all, this was Lonely Planet. Who wouldn't have accepted the job?! So with little more than a quick wave good-bye, I set off on what I was told should have been a seven week research trip that would take every corner of both countries (the only part I didn't cover was Bucharest which the original author updated herself). But in actual fact, it took me nine weeks and what little research money I was given quickly ran out.

Being green and wanting to make sure that I did a good job, including following Lonely Planet's strict policy of no freebies to the 'T', I made numerous mistakes that cost me both time and money. For example, I caught a ski lift all the way up to the top of the Carpathian Mountains to check out a chalet that was listed in the guide, only to discover that the lift didn't even stop at the chalet so I had to trudge halfway back down the mountain in knee deep snow to reach it, twisting my ankle in the process, and that the chalet was in fact empty and I should have gotten the information from the central reservations office in the town at the base of the mountain. I also foolishly thought that being a guidebook author meant that I should only take public transport (Lonely Planet had a rep to protect after all), so I wasted huge amounts of time bussing and training my way around a country where you often felt it would've been quicker to have gotten out and walked! On one particular occasion a bus trip I did took six hours to cover a distance of less than 200 kilometres, a distance which at home would have taken around two hours, and thus ate up almost an entire day of my research.

By the time I stumbled into the town of Cluj Napoca on the eastern edge of Transylvania, I was both physically and emotionally spent. I was already into the seventh week of research and still had a significant chunk of the country to cover. Making matters worse I'd completely run out of money. In desperation I called my family back home in Australia to beg for a loan, but it was the Easter weekend and everyone was away. I then tried my bank to see if I could raise my credit limit, but they turned me down flat despite having offered to raise the limit a couple of months earlier! Not knowing what to do, I did the only thing I could and blindly continued on with my research wandering around the city in a complete daze collecting information in my well-worn notebook.

Unlike Thomas who claims he dealt Ecstasy to keep afloat after he ran out of money, I fortunately happened upon a local English-speaking travel agent who took pity on me. Mind you, I looked completely disheveled and my clothes stunk from weeks of hand washing in hotel bathrooms, so I'm surprised he even took me seriously. Yet after I broke down and told him about my situation, he offered to help me out and hired me a car on the understanding that (fingers-crossed) I would pay him back once the money had come through from my family. So instead of spending the weekend begging for food and money as I had presumed I would be doing, in what became the highlight of my research trip I ended up having a wonderful time driving up through the Maramures region of Romania. Thankfully, by the time I returned three days later, my family had indeed come through for me, transferring money into my account after receiving my frantic phone and email messages and I immediately paid back the travel agent. To this day I remain indebted to him. If it wasn't for his kindness and understanding perhaps I might have resorted to some of the more dubious methods of research Thomas employed.

To be honest, after I returned home I never thought I'd ever work on another guidebook. In fact, I swore off them. That was, until Lonely Planet came knocking again. Though, this time I was offered the chance to co-author the first edition of their city guide to Athens with long time LP author David Willett. Four weeks researching the shops, hotels, restaurants and nightlife in the soon-to-be Olympic city with the opportunity to do a little island hopping proved way too tempting and so within a matter of months I was off again. From Greece, I then moved on to several sub-Saharan African guides (my area of speciality) before being offered the opportunity to return to Romania. Oddly enough, this time Lonely Planet budgeted the same amount of time and money for me to cover one small chapter out of the Eastern Europe guide as they had for me to research the entire country guide! So there was definitely no running out of money and time. In fact, I was able to slow down and enjoy the country and the experience. What's more, I was able to return to Cluj and personally thank the travel agent.

I've certainly learnt much since my first foray as a guidebook author such as don't accept impossible jobs, always allow for more time and money than you anticipate, and, most importantly, it pays to become a country or regional specialist.

For anyone who is interested you can meet Thomas and hear more about his [mis]adventures at the Auckland Writers' & Readers' Festival in New Zealand from 15-18 May, and at the Sydney Writers' Festival in Australia which runs from 19-25 May.


Anonymous said...

I tried using Kohnstamm’s LP Colombia book last year when I was in that country for 2 months. The book was sloppy compared to the 1996 LP edition for Colombia. I ended up using the older book more than the new one.

Sure, travel writing is underpaid. But I know for a fact that traveling around Colombia is a lot cheaper than living in San Francisco where Kohnstamm wrote his Colombia guidebook. Seems like Kohnstamm would be embarrassed to admit that he did such a thing rather than using it as an opportunistic springboard to further his writing career.

And will his next book simply reveal that this current book, "A Swashbuckling Tale" is pure fiction?

Maybe the point simply is that everything is fiction...guidebooks, travel writing, and even our travels abroad.

Kim Wildman said...

Hi Jeff. Thanks for stopping by.

As it turns out, Kohnstamm wasn't contracted to go to Colombia; just to update intro chapters such as history, culture and politics (there were other writers on the ground that checked out the hotels, restaurants etc). As an ex-LP author I must admit I never thought that part of the story was reported accurately. For anyone who is interested Kohnstamm has tried to set the record staright with a recent interview he did with World Hum, you can read it here:

By the way, I find your comment that everything including our travels abroad is fiction very intriguing especially from an academic perspective. If you read my Tourists of Reality it certainly rings true… Perhaps this is a line of thought I need to investigate in later post?