Columnists > Voices

Going without a compass

It's not about where you go but Who you know

Issue: "Unify and conquer," June 14, 2008

In 1970 Tony and Maureen Wheeler, newlywed and footloose, set out from London and traveled eastward-begging, borrowing, and earning their way across Europe and Asia on the "hippie trail," all the way to Sydney. Upon their return they wrote an account of their adventure, printed copies and stapled them together under the title Across Asia on the Cheap. Thus were the humble beginnings of the Lonely Planet empire, now with over 600 travel guides in print.

The Wheelers did not spawn the first series of budget guides; Frommer's Europe on $5 a Day had been around for decades. But Lonely Planet was aimed at the counter-cultural, Jack Kerouac persona of the developing backpacker culture. It dawned with a golden age in budget travel: cheap fuel, falling airfares, strong dollars, and lots of leisure time.

Scorning group tours of the capitals of Europe, adventurous young people swarm Vietnam and Estonia, alone or in pairs, with a Rough Guide, Let's Go, or Lonely Planet tucked into a side pocket. Few pause to wonder, as they track down likely pickup bars, how all that information came to be. Better not ask: To judge by one account, travel writing is as pretty as sausage making.

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Thomas Kohnstamm was in his late 20s when he decided to bail out of his cubicle in a Manhattan law firm. An experienced traveler and gifted writer, he applied to Lonely Planet on a whim and was surprised to receive an offer months later. His mission: to visit the places listed in the existing LP guide to northeast Brazil, update the information, find additional points of interest, adapt all text to a new format, and submit the material within two months. The catch: LP would pay no expenses, his advance was barely adequate, and his deadline was impossible. Naturally Kohnstamm signed on.

Now the inside story of that first assignment has appeared in bookstores, after stirring up internet travel sites and blogs for months. Its provocative title: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? If all their journeys are as alcohol-soaked, drug-peppered, and sex-saturated as Kohnstamm's, they may.

To say he had to find his feet as a budget-guide writer is an understatement. From getting rolled in Rio by an Austrian flight attendant to trying to make ends meet in Olinda by dealing drugs, his junket was a snarl of snafus not suitable for family reading. But what caused controversy was his confession to (a) using second-hand information to fill out his assignment, and (b) accepting freebies from restaurant and hotel owners. Lonely Planet insists their writers don't take comps in return for a good review; Kohnstamm fudged by claiming the free rum cocktail did not necessarily earn a good review.

Kohnstamm's peers complain that he gives their profession a bad name (especially with statements like "What I can't plagiarize, I can always make up"). He claims that was not his purpose (and he was kidding about the plagiarism). His beef is that budget-travel writing has lost its edge: "Whereas Lonely Planet used to offer up rather polemical political opinions and frank advice on drugs, sex, and how to cut corners, the books now aim to be as inoffensive as possible, to talk up how fun and exciting each place is." Profit, not honesty, is their goal.

Kohnstamm is honest to a fault about his vices, but he fails to communicate the virtues of northeast Brazil. While scorning backpackers who roam the globe seeking "authenticity," he reveals himself as one of them, mourning quaint coastal villages spoiled by tourists who were lured by positive LP coverage. "Paul Theroux once remarked that travel writing is really about the person who's traveling"-all too true, in this case.

Rising costs and the falling dollar indicate that one golden age is waning. But would-be backpackers who crave authentic experience can find it anywhere in their Father's world, or even at home. Authenticity is not where you go, but Who you know.

If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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