A Travel Writer on Travel Writing

Posted by Chika On 9:57 AM


The places your RSS reader will take you. This morning I was going through my RSS feeds at Bloglines and stumbled across a few decent travel sites, including the travel writers website shown below. The author has apparently written several guidebooks to Alaska and the Inside Passage, and picked up a Lowell Thomas and other awards which indicate he actually knows how the write. Plenty of wit, sarcasms, and snarky comments.

Among the various pieces on his website is a short story, previously published, about his experiences as a travel writer -- all the good, bad and ugly about the profession. Well worth a read but do keep a cautionary eye on some of his opinions.

What we think of as a guidebook first appeared when a woman named Marianna Starke published a new edition of her Letters from Italy. She had been writing versions of the book since 1800, but the early editions weren't much more than long letters home.

In the 1820s, John Murray, head of one of London's biggest publishers, talked Starke into making some changes. The new edition of her book was called Travels on the Continent: Written for the Use and Particular Information of Travelers. Instead of just describing her trip, now she wrote a book with all the practicalities: restaurants, hotels, routes between towns. Starke even rated every painting in every major art gallery, giving them one to four exclamation points, just to save you time when you copied her trip. The book was the equivalent of those TV shows that explain how magicians pull off their tricks.

In other words, Marianna Starke made the mental leap from descriptive -- this is what's here -- to proscriptive: go here and do this.. In the process, she took travel out of the hands of the Grand Tourist, that velvet-clad fop, and put it into the hands of the masses.

We can blame her for so very much

Thanks to Marianna Starke's guidebook, by 1839, Italy was ruined; the tourist trail was little more than a treadmill. In response, Murray published a new guide for those who wanted to "quit the more beaten paths . . . and explore the less known, but equally romantic regions."

And guess what happened there?

Now, skip forward a hundred and fifty years or so, and enter Lonely Planet, Moon, Fodor, Frommer, Rough Guides, Let's Go, and dozens of lesser lights. Same song, same verse, just add cheap airfare and a much larger, much more mobile population. Think a great leveling. Think lowest common denominator.

In Kathmandu, in the 1970s, everybody stayed on Freak Street, down in Durbar Square, where there was always a chance the Kumari Devi might lean out her window and look at you with a goddess' eyes. But it wasn't long before guides started to steer you clear of the place, so you wouldn't trip on the overlanders who had collapsed into hash-induced comas. By the 1980s, nobody went there anymore: the restaurants with the good chocolate cake were all up in Thamel. Toss in the pathetic demands of globalization, and now Thamel looks just like the Zona Rosa in Mexico City, which looks just like Banglamphu in Bangkok, which looks just like . . . .

Where you see the changes fastest are in the more remote areas, where travelers go looking for bragging rights. But you can already forget Luang Prabang, and donÂ’t even think about Siktrakh, where the Saha once herded reindeer and now herd tourists onto Lena River cruises, Arctic Circle to Lake Baikal. A trip here is just a chance to watch these spots in the boonies, suddenly sanctified with good mentions in a guide, turn into The Same Place. Internet cafes, bad Chinese food, kids wearing Nike logos.

It took twenty years for Starke's book to utterly change the traveler's experience of Italy. Now the same thing can happen in a blink

Guidebook writing pays a little less than cleaning grease out of the Fryalator at McDonald's. You have to speed up the process as best you can, however you can. Show me any guidebook, and I can show you where the writer cheated. Copied, skipped a town, researched by phone. I've seen pages from my books cut and pasted into others. It's standard operating procedure. The economics require cheating, in some form or another, and nobody gets out without a nagging fear they're guilty of crimes against St. Christopher.

So why do I do this to myself, year after year? Because it's how I get to do everything I've ever dreamed of. There are a very few guidebook publishers that don't allow writers to take freebies, but no publisher gives the writer the kind of budget needed to do everything, so if you don't get it free, you have to rely on second- or third-hand information. Another cheat. My own rule is, I'll take anything anybody offers me, but I never promise a good write up. I never promise a write up at all. I just go along and smile.

In November 2001, facing crashed sales, Lonely Planet tries giving half its staff six months off at 15% pay; time to go travel while the travel economy bounces back, but the idea fails. Six months later, they all get the axe. Just last year, publishers were pushing guides to Cambodia, Mongolia, Cuba. In the paranoid new world, suddenly writers are only sent to cover places you can go without having to pass through customs. It's as if the rest of the world has disappeared, like one of those old maps where you find the legend "here there be dragons." Guidebook sales drop 50% overall, but at least one publisher increases its press run of Disney World guides by the same margin.

We all know where you'll be next year.

We could sum up with meaningless numbers: there are X travel books published each year, creating a Y dollar market, moving Z people around. Or we could talk about the ever increasing specialization of the market: guides for everything from bird freaks to tree huggers to old people with no budget to hotels that cater to dogs. It's the guidebook dichotomy: the books only work because, really, everybody travels the same way. If they didn't, you'd never sell more than one copy. But everybody wants to think they do it differently, that their trip is special.

Or we could talk about change, and the effect of guidebooks on the ground. Between editions, I expect half the restaurants in any town to go out of business. Three-quarters of the lodgings will do the same. Probably two-thirds of trip operators will up and disappear. Some of that's my fault. I've had towns ask that I never come back, because they didn't like what I wrote. But there are also people out there who are friends for life because of business I steered their way.

Or we could talk about the world's mood swings. While nobody's traveling this year, how many hawkers are out of business? How many souvenir stands, restaurants? Should we just call it a matter of raised expectations and the betrayal of hope? Think of the locals in the New Hot Spot. Some guy sees the first trickle of travelers and uses it as a chance to build a guest house, a new restaurant. In come the masses, and the world is a very happy place, until the masses leave, looking for the next great thing, and the guest house suddenly has ten empty rooms that are making interesting habitats for spiders. There's no other way to put it: when the books steer you clear of a place that was once popular, they're ruining lives, just so you can have a better trip.

Or we could talk about the job. At most, there are a couple dozen guidebook writers who have lasted as long as I have. And here's the plain, simple truth: my first book sucked. To anyone who used it, I'm sorry. Guidebooks writing is a very difficult job to do well. The learning curve is hopelessly steep, and not many make it. Odds are, the book you buy, the book you're basing your entire trip on, was written by somebody who was writing a guide for the very first time, and who didn't have a bloody clue what he was doing. The other, more frightening possibility, is that the book was written by a committee, so you got a whole group of people who didn't know how to research, how to compare, what they were looking at, didn't know the place well enough to know what was important and what was trivial, and so your book isnÂ’t much more than an e-ticket ride to hell.

So should you take a book at all, make that leap of faith into the hands of someone you'll never meet, trust them with your vacation? Of course you should. How else are you going to find the amulet market in Thailand, the footprints of Adam in Sri Lanka, a lock of Muhammad's hair in Pakistan? How else are you going to know where to be when?

We all want the planet neatly condensed between covers, and when they are done well, the guidebook truly is the magic key, offering some hope of order in the face of the unknown, a snapshot of the world at a particular moment in time.

I first traveled to Nepal in 1986 with a guidebook under 150 pages long, including trekking routes. The newest edition of the same book is 432 pages, and you have to buy a different book if you're going into the mountains. The country didn't get any bigger, it just got better at selling itself. Each one of those new pages represents some local's hopes, dreams, life. And each page sends someone else casting for what's in the margin, getting ready to move the whole show to yet another place.

The beaten track gets wider and wider, as we move a little further into the world each year, travelers holding their guidebooks out like flashlights.

Just remember to look up from time to time. Because the world holds an ever-expanding list of possibilities. Okay, so this year nobody is renewing their passports. In the long run, the world keeps spinning around, and sooner or later, it will shake us all loose again

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