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Earlier this month the New Yorker published a profile piece on George Clooney, the affable actor turned neo-activist and United Nations ambassador that most everyone between the ages of 15 and 65 adores - the men all want to be him and the women all, well, want to do him. In his debut book, Thomas Kohnstamm, a former writer for the Lonely Planet empire of travel guides, paints himself in much the same light as the New Yorker paints Clooney - aloof, undeniable to women, and the embodiment of adolescence in a grown-up's body. Or, more to the context, in shades of Christopher McCandless, but Kohnstamm didn't starve to death or leave a substantial amount of money to an international aid organization, so its not all that Into the Wild.
Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is an odd piece of literature to say the least, and is best approached as two stories woven into one book. On the one hand there is Kohnstamm's twenty-something confessional centered on being broke, chugging booze, and bedding women. On the other is an insider's view of the multi-million-dollar industry of travel literature - atop which Lonely Planet has sat nearly unrivaled for the past two decades - and the logistical absurdities that travel writers face when handed assignments for vast swaths of undeveloped countries and a deadline by which to cover them that is measured in weeks rather than months. While the former aspect of Kohnstamm's book is at times unbearably juvenile and quite likely half hot air, the latter offers a good deal of insight into a rapidly expanding and often misconceived industry of "dream jobs."
Although Kohnstamm would love to find his book named alongside the works of Gonzo Journalism's icons, there's no substantial sub-text of shady characters, black markets, or political agendas to trace, so its not all that gonzo. The twenty-something confessionals, which dominate the book, at their worst come across a contrived entry into the 'whip it out and measure it' tales of high-fiving and bragging fraternity bros, and at their best as part of that hectic-and-directionless slacker comedy for the college-educated that Dave Eggers and Zach Braff pay their rent with. Kohnstamm echoes the milder anecdotes of anyone who's been on the road for an extended period of time with no place to call home (fortunately the B-list model I hooked up with while backpacking in my early 20s turned out to just be a B-list model and not, as in Kohnstamm's case, a prostitute) but, thanks to the nature of his quest, its a relatively comfortable experience - there's no sleeping in the bushes or holing up in a train tunnel to escape hundred-year storms, just a parade of cheap (in every sense of the word) hostels and hotel rooms. Although he makes it sound desperate, if push came to shove mom, dad, and a money transfer were always just a phone call away.
After graduating high school in 1994, Kohnstamm made his way from his native Seattle to tiny Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, before winding up in California where he earned a Master's Degree in Latin American Studies from Stanford in 2001 on the US government's dollar. After that there was the standard Young American move to New York, where he nipped at a pocket bottle of rum and hoovered bumps of cocaine to dull the daily grind in a law office cubicle, but his time in Gotham was limited. Eventually the open road beckoned and Kohnstamm decided to abandon Manhattan and try his hand as a travel writer, and it was this hit-and-miss, hand-to-mouth job covering South America that offered "the good, the bad and the really surreal" experiences that would go into his book.
Kohnstamm, who was raised by parents with a lust for travel, snuck his foot in the door at Lonely Planet when, after spending time as a youth group guide in Costa Rica and working as a volunteer at the Folklore Festival of the Pyrenees, he sold the company an expanded revision for their phrase book of Latin American Spanish in the late 1990s. Kohnstamm points out that the now monolithic travel guide publisher was at the time still "a raw, growing, and evolving company" very much rooted in founder Tony Wheeler's original counter-cultural template, which not only made getting their attention much easier than would be today, but also required that translations for things that would be useless for the modern Lonely Planet-toting traveler -- "Do you sell syringes? I take (cocaine) occasionally. You can't sleep here tonight. -- be included.
Over the course of the decade between his first dealings with the company and the publication of his book, what Lonely Planet has evolved into, as Kohnstamm iterates time and time again, is a "Bible" for the kind of people you can find on any given summer night at a place like Baumer's hostel in Interlaken, Switzerland - affluent, white, and overwhelmingly Western yuppies who are more likely to travel with suitcases full of high heels and mini-skirts than they are with a backpack full of climbing hardware and water purifiers. The irony is that those are precisely the people who will consider Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? as it is billed - a "swashbuckling tale of high adventures, questionable ethics and professional hedonism." In truth the book isn't really any of those things, unless you're the kind of person who heads to South America without a tent, sleeps exclusively indoors, and eats entirely at restaurants. There is some mild drug use, a convoluted drug deal involving MDMA from Amsterdam and a BMW motorcycle from Bavaria, and an antisocial Israeli commando, but for the most part Kohnstamm's personal tales are a rather tame, and at times unbearably nauseating, yuppie fantasy of edginess - in his "I'm so out there in left field" delusions, he even quotes Fight Club's fictional counter-culture bad boy, Tyler Durden.
The real meat of Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?'s controversy lies in the latter third of the book, when a frustrated Kohnstamm, broke and coming to terms with the physical impossibility of covering an area the size of Washington, Oregon, and California combined, in detail, over the course of just a few weeks while traveling by bus, realizes that he's going to have to break the Lonely Planet rules of travel writing just to make it back home. Luckily for him, in the course of that revelation he also sees that by cutting corners he isn't exactly breaking the rules so much as he is bending them and jumping through their loopholes, and once he's chucked his notions of writerly integrity out the window the real system of how guidebooks are written jumps up and grabs him by the neck. "I will use just enough of a framework of occupational exertion to get the job done," he writes. "That'll have to be enough -- even if I don't get all of the mundane opening hours and hotel prices right. When it comes to those details, what I can't plagiarize, I can always make up." Until that point, which is a good 2/3 of the way into the book, the writing is a Lite version of the VICE Guide to Travel, skipping from hostel to hotel to tourist trap bars.
Once Kohnstamm has realized how the guidebook racket works, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? shifts gears and becomes far more interesting. The change comes not only because he largely dispenses with the suspect tales of beautiful women around every corner just waiting to walk up and fuck him without pretext like he was, well, George Clooney, but also because it speaks on the Lonely Planet-helmed industry with an insider's frankness. Essentially, travel books are a scam - Kohnstamm finds that one of the earliest Lonely Planet guides for South America is full of sections that read verbatim from other, older texts - that create and then accelerate the touristic degradation of only a few select areas in developing countries, places which are then covered over and over again in a sort of travel media ouroboros:
|"While the guidebooks come first, hand in hand with the backpacker front line, the newspapers and magazines are not too far behind in the feeding frenzy... The next step will be paved roads and direct bus tours, an official website in English, ATMs, spring breakers, Girls Gone Wild videos, timeshare condos, and Teva-wearing retirees."|
Once those Teva-wearing retirees make it, there's a need for another guidebook and the process repeats itself, with revisions tending more and more towards upscale hotels and resorts and less and less towards the true culture discovered by the backpackers who were first on the scene. Sorority sisters and hedge-fund managers on a two-week vacation need to know where to find four-star chefs and places to rent a Lexus for a drive along the coast, not where to pitch a tent, find authentic neighborhood restaurants, or get in on a game of football with the locals.
Recognizing the perverse development of the "Lonely Planet Trail" connecting a handful of hotspots - almost exclusively owned by foreign investors rather than locals - while scads of businesses and vast swaths of countryside nearby go ignored and undeveloped, Kohnstamm is aware but resigned. "I am conflicted about my role in all of this, but the process was under way long before I got to town," he writes, comfortably settling into the network of hotel and bar owners who oblige him with free rooms and bar tabs, show him around their version of town, and then chauffeur him to the next stop on the trail where another gaggle of proprietors await - all under the unspoken assumption that they'll be prominently, and favorably covered in the next Lonely Planet Brazil. The result is that guidebooks today are simply an updated version of the ones printed a decade ago, only finding room for something new when the well-tread bases are thoroughly covered yet again.
There is a sort of James Frey aspect to Kohnstamm's story, in that parts of it read like purely fantastical bad-boy bragging, but the juiciest bits come when he outs himself for guessing, interpolating, and outright fabricating large parts of his Lonely Planet books. Coming hot on the heels of a recent spate of fabricated memoirs, the book's assertions have gotten a bit of timely media play and have even given rise to lists of reasons to be outraged by Kohnstamm's Lonely Planet writing, for which the term "fraud" is, by his own admissions, appropriate.
|"I write from my experience. I write from my research. I write from my imagination... I write about hotels and restaurants and towns that I never visited... I write about things that I learn about as I am putting them down on the page. I write about things that I still don't understand, even after I've written about them."|
After bullshitting his way through his update for Lonely Planet Brazil, Kohnstamm is slathered with praise from Lonely Planet and taken on as a regular writer in South America, to do it again and again.
The thing about Kohnstamm's assertions is that the only ones open for debunking - his personal tales - are the most inconsequential, and the ones with the most consequence - his professional tales - are themselves debunkings of his own earlier work. Sure, he might be telling a tall tale when asserting that a guidebook entry listing a restaurant's "table service" as "friendly" was a veiled memorializing of intercourse with a waitress "in a chair and then on one of the tables in the back corner," but who really cares? The real damage is done by Kohnstamm's claims of what he didn't do - actually visit places he was writing guides for - and there is little chance that TheSmokingGun.com will dig up a paper trail proving the contrary.
While the personal background and dramatization is at times a bit hard to stomach for anyone familiar with the wilds beyond souvenir stands and indoor plumbing, for a first-time memoirist Kohnstamm does a passable job with Do Travel Writers Go To Hell?. Some of the anecdotes are no doubt necessary to give context to the groundwork behind Lonely Planet Brazil's content, and once he settles in to the writing and gets some of the chest-thumping machismo out of the way Kohnstamm does deliver some humility with his bragging. And although not enough, there are a few moments of hilarity tucked within the book's 250+ pages - the author's comical naturalist renderings of aging American and European men and their much younger female playthings as a convoluted primate mating ritual being chief among them - that are spaced evenly enough to keep the pages turning.
Had the book been more about what it is billed as - an expose on the makings of guidebooks - and less about his own exploits, Kohnstamm could have delivered a much stronger indictment of not only the travel industry but also the Lonely Planet-wielding tourists and the exploitative infrastructure they require abroad. As it stands, Do Travel Writers Go To Hell? is a mildly entertaining but almost equally annoying tale from behind the scenes of an exploding and invasive industry that takes profits by the bucket-load but fails to own up to the responsibility that comes along with steering tens of thousands of tourists through small towns and remote villages in developing countries. SEE ALSO: www.thomaskohnstamm.com
SEE ALSO: www.lonelyplanet.com
SEE ALSO: www.randomhouse.com
Eric J Herboth
Eric J. Herboth is the founder, publisher and Managing Editor of LAS magazine. He is a magazine editor, freelance writer, bike mechanic, commercial pilot, graphic designer, International Scout enthusiast and giver of the benefit of the doubt. He currently lives in rural central Germany with his two best friends, dog Awahni and cat Scout.
See other articles by Eric J Herboth.
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