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When the first promotional interviews and other pre-release publicity suggested that author Thomas Kohnstamm was not the only one of their writers spewing major amounts of horseshit regarding the locations he visited and the supposed research he conducted, Lonely Planet dutifully responded right on cue with unctuous, high-minded equivocating. What a shocker. You pay first-time writers meagre wages, impose unrealistic deadlines and provide little oversight, and the result is less than ethical behaviour. Instead of visiting every town and scouting out all the relevant hotels, restaurants and bars at every price point, some of the travelling facility inspectors re-write reviews from past editions, crib information online, pick other travellers' brains, and on occasion, make shit up.
Only the very naive cling to the belief travel guide-book writers have dream jobs. Of course, I have no problem believing that many of them have carved out a nice little niche for themselves. They've developed their own system for scoping out a new location and likely have little problem meeting deadlines and staying within their budgets. Perhaps most of them take a few shortcuts on occasion, while others play it as straight as they can. They make connections, write for various publications and one day they move on to another job within the industry. Or they do what they should have done in the first place; write their own travel book. Interestingly, Kohnstamm continued writing for Lonely Planet for years after the initial trip to Brazil, which is the focus of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?. He provides no indication about whether he carried on with his "makin' up shit" approach to guide-book writing in those other locations.
As for the authenticity of many of the tales in the book--who can really say? However, I came to the conclusion that much of what Kohnstamm writes is embellished a great deal. And I am fairly confident that a number of events are undiluted horseshit of the highest grade. Casually deciding to become a drug dealer in a foreign country? Perhaps, but the emotions (and lack of) and the details he discusses in relation to that decision and the subsequent developments ring dead false to me. He probably thought he was quite clever in relating the entire apocryphal tale in such a way that he could later deny having done anything of the sort if anyone were to call him on it.
The passages regarding his escapades with various women in Brazil well may be true. Anyone who has done any amount of independent travelling knows that a certain kind of hedonistic experience can be had by just about anyone on the backpackers' circuit. However, many of the anecdotes about women sound as if they were written after polling members of the pick-up artist community regarding their most cringe-worthy fantasies. Bedding beautiful women and then developing an instant need to flee: check. Same women become enraged and try to cheat him financially only to have him best them in the end regarding money: check. Walking in on sleeping women whose breasts or other body parts are exposed, and then staring open-mouthed for a few creepy minutes: check. At least two examples of each of these categories appear in the book.
Of course, accurately reported incidents will also reflect patterns and tendencies, so perhaps everything regarding his interactions with women are only an insight into Kohnstamm's character. Come to think of it, there really are very few females Kohnstamm encounters about whom readers learn much besides what they look like and whether they are interested in casual sex. Oh, there is a graphic, painfully detailed scene in which a local Brazilian woman is brutally assaulted.
The male characters Kohnstamm chooses to highlight generally fall into male-fantasy territory as well. Drug fiends, drug dealers and the requisite James Bond character: a hard-case Israeli who dislocates the shoulder of a young pickpocket, casually discusses his mercenary past and dispatches with armed police in another incident that also involves Kohnstamm and which has the air of a comic-book fantasy about it.
The timeline of events is just a bit too pat as well; the good-natured first attempt at trying to visit all the destinations on the itinerary provided by Lonely Planet, and then the revelation (that was actually percolating all along) sparked by the jaded hotel owner who's hip to Kohnstamm's position as a guide-book writer.
I imagine that Kohnstamm wrote the book and realized that it just didn't quite have the appeal he had originally hoped. So he did some re-writing and packed it full of characters and narrative devices to spice it up. And what do you know? Here I am discussing many of those incidents he likely fabricated and in the process I'm providing validation for all the non-fiction writing fabulists out there. However, it might not have been such a bad thing as the sections of the book which take place in New York are dull as ditch-water and apparently involve no bullshit whatsoever. In his attempts to show how soul-destroying his existence in New York was before he accepted the job with Lonely Planet, he forgets that to accurately recreate such a reality is to put readers to sleep. Unfortunately, the sections that take place in New York make up at least 25% of the book.
If pressed about the liberal dollops of horseshit that found their way into his book, I have no doubt Kohnstamm would respond with some kind of clever, hipster rationalization that suggested he was angling for a certain effect and only the naive literalist would take everything he wrote seriously. Of course, most readers are willing to accept some exaggerations and the reorganizing of events in time to create a more entertaining book.
Regardless, I did find it to be quite a fast-paced, enjoyable read. On the other hand, I also liked many of the least sensational passages in which he writes about rolling into a new town and getting his bearings. Some of the minutiae related to actually doing his job as a guide-book writer were interesting as well. In this passage, he details some of the things he has to keep in mind when gathering information:
Lonely Planet would like 20 percent of the coverage going to budget, 60 percent to midrange, and 20 percent to top-end. I also need to keep in mind what a solo female traveler would want, what a disabled traveler would want, what a gay/lesbian /bisexual/transgender traveler would want, what a vegetarian or vegan would want, and I need to be sensitive to not write with a particularly American point of view. The company does not think that this will dilute the content or voice of the book.I did a fair amount of backpacking many years ago and many of the emotions he experiences and the litany of different characters and situations really brought back some good memories. He riffs on the hypocrisy and absurdity of the constant search for pristine locations which become the new hot destination for backpackers only to evolve into over-developed cesspools full of angry, scheming locals and rich, sneering tourists.
Kohnstamm writes in a simple, straightforward way and avoids any attempts at literary flourishes. He appreciates the importance of scenes and characters in non-fiction writing and keeps the action moving along quite nicely for the most part. Unfortunately, the book is poorly edited. Not to the point of being rammed full of mistakes. But there are enough mistakes (typos, grammar mistakes, incorrect word usage when the word's homophone should have been used, to name a few) to make it annoying for anyone who expects a book to be well edited. In addition, Kohnstamm has some annoying writing habits, as almost every writer does. For example, one of his writing tics is to use "off of" when "off" alone would suffice (and would read much better).
If you want a relatively entertaining, quick read that chronicles some of the challenges of a travel guide-book writer mixed with tales of debauchery, you could do worse. Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? was published almost 10 years ago. For a first-time author, the book seemed to do quite well. Yet, since then, nothing more from Kohnstamm. Perhaps the intake of illegal drugs and alcohol he describes in the book got the better of him. Or maybe he's turned to his real calling--fiction writing.