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Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?

A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics & Professional Hedonism

by Thomas Kohnstamm

Raise your hand if you both (a) have done much traveling that didn't involve package tours (b) were the least bit surprised by the shocking! revelations of this book.

Yeah.

In fact, Kohnstamm comes off pretty well in this book from my perspective - it's not much of a shock that a 'glamour' job like writing for Lonely Planet pays absolute shit, nor is it surprising that savvy business-owners in tourist destinations know how to game the nominally-journalistic professional standards of the guidebook game, nor did I have any trouble believing that a marginally-employed guy who'd drop his job, girlfriend and Manhattan apartment for a free plane ticket to Brazil and a pretty insulting advance/research budget is also a guy who uses drugs recreationally and likes to get laid. Quelle horreur! If anything, Kohnstamm seems to have been a more conscientious researcher than whoever updated the Panama guide that correlated with my 2005 trip there. I was told half a dozen times in one town about the writer/researcher who did the update entirely by phone, relying on the owners of established businesses to share news about new hotels and restaurants (yeah, right). This was good for me in that I got a really nice hotel room for way cheaper than it would have been if the place had been included in LP, and found unexpected fun more than once while trying to find a long-gone business, but I happened to have done absolutely no research for that trip (bought a plane ticket Tuesday afternoon, left Thursday morning) and could've, in theory, gotten into some trouble if I relied too much on advice that was out of date - especially on matters of safety. And the region of Brazil assigned to Kohnstamm is a hell of a lot bigger than the entire country of Panama. At least the guy tried.

But it's more than apparent that he's less a writer than a charismatic bon vivant with enough of a travel resume and academic familiarity with Latin America and its languages to be a moderately successful hack. Parlaying his arguable lack of professional ethics into a big-boy book deal is the sort of thing you'd expect from the guy after reading his book, and it's hard to work up much of a snit over his failure to accomplish what I always figured was a pretty impossible task. (I tend to prefer guidebooks written by permanent residents of a city or country largely for this reason. Yeah, the hotel reviews suck, but I stay at crappy ones anyway.)

I read this book last week when I got called for jury duty. The remote suburban courthouse I was summoned to was a 2-hour public transit trip from my neighborhood, and most of the day consisted of sitting around waiting for my name to be called, so I was able to start and finish it in a single day. In a way, the circumstances gave me an extra bit of sympathy for Kohnstamm, since I imagine some of the Brazilian towns he was expected to research and hype were just as worth visiting as Woburn fucking Massachusetts, and just as much of a pain in the ass to get to. If I ended up in the same third world expat-targeted bar as Kohnstamm, I would totally tag along with him. Dude seems like he'd be fun to hang out with. No shared hostel rooms though - I bet his STDs have STDs.

This book followed on the heels of Chuck Thompson's Smile When You're Lying, a different sort of backstage look at travel writing (Thompson was more of a magazine features guy than a guidebook guy - there's a big difference) and I'm totally gonna read that one, too. I might even read it before my next round of jury duty. I've got three years before I have to look out for the summons...

Notes:
For my generation, the first that has always had a computer at home and that considered video games a normal childhood pastime, life on the road is one of the few things that actually overwhelm our tolerance for stimuli and shock us into the here and now. (p. 57)
Though skipped over in the movie version of The Beach, much of Alex Garland's famed travel novel is about a young man's search for authenticity outside of his own culture. The narrator, Richard, admits that he wants to observe harsh poverty abroad. He wants to see something raw and primal, something that you can't experience in a culture of insurance, HMOs, and welfare. The Beach is also a critique of modern "guidebook" travel, and the narrator seeks in vain to find a utopia, a place culturally uncontaminated by other tourists. However, Garland's narrator has almost no contact with Thai people beyond being offered "banan' pancakes" during breakfast in hostels. He meets up with two French backpackers and heads off to a national park to immerse himself in a commune of like-minded Westerners whose idea of roughing it includes a Nintendo Game Boy, an endless supply of weed, and a motorboat.
But I understand what happens to Richard and many other backpackers: it's an easy trap to fall into. You go to another country and rather than trying to understand the nuances and textures of that culture, you end up spending your time with a roving band of people like yourself. Fuck the whole backpacker scene. Even the people who consider themselves master travelers, who have been to hostels all over the world, are often just neocolonial naifs. (p. 86-7)
(I moved recently, to a smaller place than my last apartment, and did a major purge of books. I got a copy of The Beach ages ago, before I ever started traveling outside North America, and hesitated over chucking it. Rereading it last month after actually visiting some of the places that Garland writes about, or more precisely the types of places he writes about, made it a much more interesting read. I ended up hanging onto the book, and agree with Kohnstamm's take on it.)
On witnessing some pretty unmistakable 'domestic' violence in a bar: Half of these people are probably related and would stand up for the guy, no matter what. I learned that lesson the hard way in a beach town in Montenegro. where as a teenager I wound up getting my ass kicked in front of my own mother by some poor man's Dolph Lundgren who probably went on to work in a Bosnian ethnic-cleansing camp. Maybe this sort of spousal-abuse shit happens every night in Atins. (p. 239-40)

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