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The International Writers Magazine: Lonely Planet

A Guide to the Lonely Planet
• Jonathon Engels
It takes little more than a couple of conversations about a place, the possible next destination, and in a fit of excitement, my wife or I will buy the Lonely Planet.  For nearly a decade now, the travel “bible” has been our beacon upon all places we go (or don’t—we actually have several books that got put in the closet when the itinerary changed). 
Lonely P

While many a backpacker fills the air with derogatory disgust for such drivel, I have also worked in a guesthouse for over a year and a half and rarely seen anyone— from feminine armpit hair to full-on North Face hiking kit—pass through without thumbing the Lonely Planet Guatemala or Central America on a Shoestring. 

Maybe we all scoff a little, refer to the “gringo trail”, boast with a certain bravado about those times we’ve spent “off the beaten track”, beyond the confines of the Lonely Planet umbrella, but ultimately, we all succumb. 

I always think of Joanne, a very independent-minded backpacker I met in Malaysia, who spent days badmouthing the trail and the multitude of other travelers she was running into.  She wasted hours copying (by hand) then photographing the Borneo section of my Southeast Asia on a Shoestring.

In the end (better yet, the beginning), it helps to have some reference by which to start.  I’d love to go to Borneo, and I know where it is, that it’s one of the last habitats for orangutans, and how it’s largely Muslim.  I can’t name one city there, a national park, or a beach.  Most likely, an experienced traveler could show up and snoop it out, but why not have some idea to go on?

I recently stumbled upon a book that called out to me: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, & Professional Hedonism.  What a title, I thought and immediately began to ponder the question, which had never occurred to me.  Even if it took wading through a little swashbuckling (such a great word) and poor decision-making to get the answer, the sacrifice seemed warranted.

Turns out that Thomas Kohnstamm, the morally askew author, is one of those Lonely Planet guys profiled at the back of each respective volume, Brazil—Kohnstamm’s first guidebook assignment—being the setting for this adventure.  However, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? provides a much more honest “Behind the Scenes” glimpse than the back of the Lonely Planet.

For many, especially those of us early in our travel writing careers or those of us who have yet to begin writing careers, working for the Lonely Planet smacks instantly of dream job: getting paid to travel the world.  Kohnstamm, more devious than most could muster, puts some of that dream to rest, revealing the bones and warts of what goes into writing the travel bible.

By its own account, the Lonely Planet story appears humble enough: “Tony and Maureen Wheeler’s 1972 journey across Europe and Asia to Australia” and finding “no useful information about the overland trail”.  In grassroots fashion, at the kitchen table, they sat and penned the first book of what has “become the largest independent travel publisher in the world”. 

It’s from this later perspective—working for the biggest independent travel publisher in the world—that Kohnstamm presents the ultimate job.  Essentially, the humble little guidebook has grown to be the Disney of backpacking, dominating the scene and stifling the independent spirit into specific heading fonts, 250-word write-ups, and fill-in-the-blank answers to questions far more complex, like an accurate bus schedule in Latin America.

While Kohnstamm, when lucid enough, devotes much of his time to lampooning his assignment, he paints a vivid picture of the impractical schedule, guidelines, and budget.  Even we squares of the world who would probably avoid drugs, prostitutes, and fist-fights can acknowledge that there is a lot more to that “paid to travel” notion than previously assumed.

By the end, writing for the Lonely Planet no longer seems dream-like, and the book itself seems less the travel standard and more a sloppily compiled list of demographic—20% backpacker, 60% mid-range, 20% luxury—filler.  That said, the publication isn’t so defamed as to deny its usefulness and Kohnstamm not so put off as to not take the next assignment covering Patagonia.  

In the keen explorer, a hatred of the Lonely Planet inevitably surfaces, be it on a once secluded beach off the coast or in the formerly deep-dark jungles of Mexico.  Beyond any other travel guides, if the Planet prints it, they will come and come in droves.  The Lonely Planet is to tourism what the Oprah Book Club once was to bestsellers: A mere mention and unforeseen fame envelopes the “unblemished paradise” until its powers of wow are almost nullified.

 Though a loss of culture, nature, and sense of identity does often occur at the hands (usually clinching our guidebooks) of tourists, there are also many positive effects like money.  I’m not surprised the savvy entrepreneurs of Brazil (and everywhere else) pander for the attention of the Lonely Planet.  Alas, it’s usually hotels and business owned by ex-pats that are more likely to benefit because they are run by people who understand the game a bit more.

Still, the conscientious traveler in me doesn’t want to deny them their hard-earned success as much as I don’t want to ruin a destination.  In my experience, many hostels and foreign-owned businesses do a great deal for the communities they are in, and often through their need (and understanding of how) to make things more “foreign-friendly”, the surrounding, too, becomes more pleasant for everyone, i.e. the people who live there.  With this in mind, I hate to deny others, residents of these places, the same luxuries so that I can witness authentic life.

I think one great misconception in the world of backpacking is that the natives, indigenous, locals are perfectly content carrying baskets of washing on their heads after hours of scrubbing shirts and underwear by hand.  Why would they want to ditch tradition for a washing machine? 

Folk Art Antigua As adventurers seeking the “real” experience of a place, avoiding everything along the trail, perhaps our own selfishness stands in the way of progress, in cultures and people becoming what they want rather than a novelty to observe.  At home, we appreciate the new bagel shop around the corner, the newly paved road that cuts fifteen minutes off of our commute, and the convenient accessibility of whatever we want.  Why assume others wouldn’t?

As disappointing as it sometimes is watching those “hidden gems” of a country be sold off plot by plot or seeing the ghost town of what is left after the tourist bubble bursts, it may be foolish not to acknowledge the Lonely Planet opens the world from both sides of reception counter.  That is to say, everyone is using it to get where they want. 

Still, it’s belittling to experience a country based solely on those under the wing of a tourist industry giant, just as it’s also foolish to skip out on the attractions simply because other people want to see them.  This is why the Lonely Planet should remain a guide, a source of useful information, and certainly not “the bible”.

J Engles Flickr Photo Album:

KhirbetTana by J Engels

Author Profile
Jonathon Engels has been an EFL expat since 2005, just after he earned an MFA in creative writing and promptly rejected life as an instructor of freshman comp.  He has lived, worked and/or volunteered in seven different countries, traveling his way between them.  Currently, he is in Antigua Guatemala, where most mornings he can be found tucked behind a computer in the corner of a coffee shop. For more from Jonathon, check out his website and blog.

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