Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Do Travel Writers Go to Heck?

I'm in the middle of reading Thomas Kohnstamm's controversial book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?.

Kohnstamm, you may remember, was the former Lonely Planet author who 'fessed up a few months ago to accepting freebies on assignment against LP rules, and partaking of a lot of sex and drugs while updating a chapter on northeastern Brazil.

As I'm currently spending most of my workdays updating the Poland chapters of LP's Eastern Europe and Europe on a Shoestring, I was keen to read Kohnstamm's account. Halfway through, my main impression is of a somewhat wooden writing style.

The stories of sex and drugs lack credibility, as well: they seem at least tacky, at most wildly exaggerated. And the sense of veritas also isn't helped by the use of present tense - the story is unbelievable enough without making it seem even more like fiction.

The most interesting part for me is Kohnstamm's descriptions of his Lonely Planet work, and the mental and physical exhaustion that sets in after a few weeks on the road.

Maybe it's the difference between Brazil and Poland, but I don't seem to stumble across plentiful offers of sex and drugs while in Central Europe. Complimentary lard dips before a meal, yes; quickies in the back of a restauracja, no. But I do agree that being on a research assignment for a guidebook publisher is exhausting work; and that no-one, not even the LP staff back in the office, realises how exhausting.

So I thought it might be interesting to outline my average Lonely Planet research day in Poland:
  • 6am: Alarm on PDA wakes me up. Get ready for the day, organise notes, clipboard, map and camera while torturing myself with the only English-language cable news channel ("No more CNN! Nooooo!").
  • 7am: Hotel breakfast. If lucky, a nice buffet spread. If unlucky, a set menu involving cold meat and cheese, and a boiled egg.
  • 8am: Out of the door, following the map from the previous edition to check out the previously reviewed hotels, restaurants, museums etc. It's too early for most eateries to be open, but hotels usually have 24 hour reception. I'll check almost everything in the book anonymously, but sometimes the production of an LP business card is necessary at a hotel ("Just why do you want to see three rooms of different sizes?")
  • 1pm: After hours of trudging around town, and up and down the staircases of hotels (budget lodgings rarely have lifts), I'll grab lunch, either at one of the restaurants in the book or a possible new contender. I also make notes from the menu. Unfortunately it's not possible to eat at every eatery in the book (there aren't enough mealtimes), but I can at least check out the decor, menus, clientele and other people's meals by walking through a place.
  • 5pm: If I'm lucky, I've covered enough places for the day. If not, and I've been delayed by dodgy directions, roadworks, bad weather, numerous closures from the previous edition, or an insufficient spread of restaurants or hotels, there might be a few more hours of trudging.
  • 7pm: Dinner at another place either in the book, or aspiring to be. More notes.
  • 8.30pm: Either a session of typing the day's data into my laptop at the hotel, or research on the city's nightlife. Bars are fine, but nothing is more tragic than sitting alone in a nightclub at 9pm with a cheap drink, taking more notes.
  • 11pm: Snatch a tiny bit of downtime, reading a book before bed. Having no TV entertainment is a blessing, as I get a lot of reading done. My literature this trip included Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods, Bill Elton's Chart Throb, and Marina Lewycka's rather entertaining novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
As I've been writing this, I've realised that there actually is no typical day. Sometimes I'm later than this, sometimes up earlier, sometimes a day is blown on travelling to a new city. On another day in Warsaw I might have a meeting at the Australian Embassy, to ask them about dangers and annoyances reported to them by travellers.

The conclusion, in any case, is that guidebook research is not fun. People often respond to me mentioning my Lonely Planet gig by saying "That must be fun."

To which I say "That's the wrong adjective." Stimulating, yes, fascinating, yes, memorable, yes, but not fun. Fun involves travelling less intensely.

But I always add: every so often on an LP job, I walk around a corner and something unexpected just happens - something amazing or uplifting, that reminds me why I love to travel. And then the hard work seems all worthwhile.