Lonely Planet Memories

After Lonely Planet announced some major internal restructuring last week, my friend Celeste Brash created a the #lpmemories hash-tag on Twitter that ended up going viral. It led to a lot of international press, including my first time being “tweeted” in the New Yorker and a lot of blog posts about the good old days back at Lonely Planet.

In the spirit of the moment, I thought I’d share an advice piece I wrote for new authors, back when Lonely Planet was still owned by Tony & Maureen Wheeler – it was published internally between 2005 and 2009, but is no longer applicable today. So read it with this in mind, for today it is only relevant if you’re looking for a taste of nostalgia about the way the guidebook publishing world used to operate. A way no longer possible in our up-to-the-minute updated online world, which I am now a part of myself.

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-Elephant Crossing, South Africa

***Advice to Lonely Planet New Authors – Published Internally on the Lonely Planet FTP site between 2005 and 2009***

The backpack was heavy and I was jetlagged, hungover and exhausted. I’d been driving around the neighborhood for 20 minutes trying to find the hostel. More than anything I just wanted to sleep. I’d been up for more days than I could count. I’d flown from Denver to Pittsburgh to London where the staff at Lonely Planet had poured more alcohol than I usually consume in a month down my throat in two nights at a new authors conference. Then I’d hopped on a plane to Jo’burg where I’d picked up a rental car. I was on the road for LP for the first time, updating the South Africa, Botswana and Namibia chapters for Africa on a shoestring. I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to do, but now my biggest problem was negotiating Jo’burg traffic. The book was full of warnings about the city, what neighborhoods I was supposed to stay out of, car jacking numbers, and all sorts of other horrors. By itself this was daunting, but throw in driving on the wrong side of the road (when you’re jetlagged, hungover and exhausted) and it’s enough to turn a sane person crazy. I managed to get myself on the wrong highway, said fuck it “I’ll do Pretoria first” (a city about 30 minutes drive away), and now was searching for a hostel. The hostel wasn’t in the book, but the brief (whatever that was, still hadn’t quite grasped it) said something about adding new places (it also said something about good value brothels and lots of drinking), so I’d seen a brochure for this place and thought why not. I finally managed to find it and park and get the backpack and my equally exhausted best friend, who agreed to travel to Africa with me, out of the car and through the gate. We knocked on the door and were met by a rather menacing man.

“How much for a dorm bed?” I asked politely.

He took one look at me, glaring. And to this day I have no idea how he knew this about me because I’d been in the country for less than an hour, and only checked out one other place that I’d passed trying to find his hostel, but he said:

“Are you with Lonely Planet?”

“Actually, I am. I said smiling. I’m updating –,” I never made it any further. The man started screaming at me. He grabbed me by the backpack with one hand, grabbed my friend with the other and practically pulled us down the steps across the yard and out the front gate.

 “Get out, get out,” he shouted. “You are not welcome here.”

 Flabbergasted my friend and I got into the little Fiat.

 “What the hell was that about?” she asked.

“Beats me,” I said. “I thought everyone loved Lonely Planet. I mean people said it was better to stay undercover because you wouldn’t get harassed as much by hostel and hotel managers, but I thought they meant harassed because these folks wanted to be in the book.”

“Not this guy,” she replied.

An hour later we were at another hostel, packs stored in our room, drinking Castle Lagers on the front porch with the owners. I hadn’t mentioned anything about Lonely Planet, but after enough Castles I decided to try again, the owners seemed so nice, and I already knew I liked their place a lot. Plus, I was feeling really lost. I had no clue how I was supposed to update a guidebook. The entire thing seemed daunting and exhausting. I’d been thrown out of a place already, was this really what I signed up for? I was sure I was going to fail, that somehow I’d have to come up with thousands of dollars to pay LP back after I produced a sub par book. The sheer distances I had to travel and the number of places I had to check out seemed impossible. So tentatively I told the owners about my new employer.

They were overjoyed.

“Lonely Planet authors always stay here,” John said. “We show them around the city. We’ll help you with your map if you want. I can drive so you don’t have to try to figure that out and then we can stop at all the places if you need to.”

What an angel. Maybe this would be okay. So I told him about the nasty hostel owner. He laughed.

“Your editors didn’t tell you?” he said.

“Tell me what?”

“About the lawsuit. That man is in a lawsuit with Lonely Planet over the company’s name. It’s quite nasty and he’s spent a fortune so I can see why he didn’t want you at his door.”

No one had told me. No one had told me much of anything before I left. Welcome to the world of freelance writing. If you’re anything like me you probably came to work at LP from a “real job,” one of those nine-to-five gigs where someone is always telling you what to do. At the time you hate it. I mean you’re not an idiot right, so why should some editor always be trying to tell you exactly how to write your article? But when you get on the road for the first time suddenly all those instructions seem like a very cozy security blanket and you start to long for them.

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Ko Phagnan, Thailand

The mourning period doesn’t last for long. A few days into your trip things start to fall into place. You get a rhythm going and you just sort of float along. Ten hotels, 15 restaurants, five sights, check, check, check. The thrill of the freedom travel writing gives you gets into your bloodstream and intoxicates you in a way you never expected. Which is why we trudge on. Why we leave our boyfriends and girlfriends, husbands, wives, families and friends for months at a time, why we travel to godforsaken corners of the earth, why we wake up at 5am to catch a chicken bus overflowing with ripe smelling people to travel 10 hours on a rutted road to end up at the end of the planet. Why we work for so little money. To me, travel writing is addictive. It’s better than any drug. There’s a certain thrill, that more than a year and seven books after I started, I still get when a CE sends me an email and says:

 “Are you interested in going to Thailand in July?”

Even though the timing is bad, even though my boyfriend is threatening to leave me if I take off for another two months, I know I can’t turn the job down. I mean who would give up a trip to Thailand for some mundane job in a cubicle? Once you start, it’s very hard to quit.

Writing for LP is a balancing act. It’s an emotional roller coaster. There will be good days and there will be very bad ones. There will be times when everything seems so overwhelming you are ready to just lie down in the snow in some tiny little town in Switzerland and contemplate not turning your book in and becoming a goat herder. But then you’ll remember the time you jumped out of an airplane in Namibia. When you fell through the air and soared like a bird. You’ll remember the time you got to spend a night pub-crawling or a day sitting on a picture perfect beach with palm trees and trade winds and you’ll remember that you get paid to do that, other people pay thousands of dollars to see the places you are seeing and you are getting paid to see them. And that’s when you realize how great it all is and how you don’t ever want to go back to the “real world.”

I guess that’s the most important advice I can give new authors. Don’t take yourself to seriously. Sure, people will tell you it’s a job, jaded authors may even yell at you and say you’re agreeing to work for pennies and don’t you realize this is serious? Of course you do, and of course it is. LP is a job. You do it for money, but it’s also a fabulous life experience. So work hard during the day, research thoroughly, but take some time for yourself too, to appreciate where you are and what you’re doing. I find when I do this I get a lot less frustrated and produce a lot better product. If you’re happy about where you’re traveling, if you’re enjoying yourself, this will show through in your writing, provide you with that color and flair LP is so obsessed with.

I have no recollection of applying to be a Lonely Planet author. I must have, because in Sept. 2002 someone at LP emailed me to say “Congratulations you’ve been short listed from more than 1,000 applicants as having potential to write for Lonely Planet.”

It almost never happened. The email header looked like junk mail and I was about to delete it. I clicked read at the last second, thinking it might be some kind of promotional thing for my favorite travel guides. I guess I must have applied the previous June. That’s when, desperate, I applied for every single journalism job opening I was remotely qualified for. The only reply I received was from LP. When I got the email I had about $3 left in my bank account and was pretty much at the end of my financial rope. I’d quit my job as a reporter covering homicides and rock stars at a mid-sized Colorado daily shortly after Sept. 11, 2001. At the time everyone thought I was nuts to give up a decent paying full-time gig at a time when companies were laying people off left and right. But I’d been saving for two years and I wanted to see the world. So my best friend and I took off for Asia, Africa and Europe. Four months later I returned with a book full of photos, a head full of memories and an empty bank account. Sure enough the job market had dried up and things looked dismal.

To land the job of your dreams, out-of-the-blue, is one of those things you never expect to happen, but when it does you find yourself extremely happy and grateful and ready to take whatever shit is thrown at you. Lonely Planet was going through some major transitions that year. A lot of people had been laid off, the company was changing the look of its books, and the author list-serve was full of disgruntled mumblings and finger pointing. Moments after I mailed off my Africa contract I got a call from an editor at the Denver Post, where I’d been freelancing, offering me a full-time job. I turned it down, but questioned my decision. Did I really want to try to make it at LP, where there are never any guarantees? Was I absolutely nuts to turn down a very good job at a very good newspaper?

Not for a second. I can’t say that Lonely Planet is all wine and roses. There will be days when you question what you are doing. Days when you want to throw the guidebook down and say forget it, but overall, for me at least, the good has outweighed the bad. I’ve written seven books in the last year and a half. I head to Thailand next.

ImageWith a kangaroo in Australia.

So you’re heading out for the first time. Scared yet? I was. If possible try to get your first assignment on an area you actually know. If you already know what restaurants and bars are good in a certain city, it’s going to make researching that city a pleasant experience. As this is not always possible, if you do find yourself researching a place you’ve never been before, try to start with a smallish town – one without a map and without too many places to check out. This will help you get the hang of things. I never identify myself in restaurants, bars or at sights. In some countries I find it is easier to identify yourself in hotels, as many places look at you strangely and give you a hard time about checking out rooms. Same goes for activities, it’s sometimes faster to get the information if you don’t have to listen to the whole selling spiel. Really this varies place to place, and it may be best to not identify yourself at first and see how it goes. Other travelers often prove to be invaluable sources of information. They may have stayed at a new place you don’t know about, or eaten at one of the restaurants in your book. The downside of identifying yourself is you will likely be bombarded with hundreds of questions (and feel a bit like a celebrity). But it’s usually worth answering the customary “how can I work for LP. What a great job,” questions in exchange for the information. They’re the ones buying the books, so they’re input is generally worth the extra time it costs to extract.

After the first assignment you’ll get a better feel for how long it takes you to research. For my first book I split my research/writing time equally, and was happy I did. The going is slow at first, but you’ll soon get the hang of quickly glancing at menus for price ranges and food types, of adding new key items to maps and figuring out what’s new in town. Tourist offices are great sources of information, and it helps to identify yourself at these. Ask if there are any new restaurants, bars and hotels you should know about, this will save you a lot of time just wandering around town. I usually try to find the city’s main drag first, and wander down it to get a feel of the area for my introduction before heading off to actually check out places. When you’re taking notes it helps to write your descriptions down as you’re checking the place out. I read the reviews before I head into a hotel, but after checking out the hotel I write a 30 word review right into my notebook, so when I get home if I want to change the previous text it’s right there.

Well, I’m sure you’re real tired of reading this now, so I’ll sign off. Good luck. Have fun out there, try not to get to jaded to fast, and remember at the end of the day Lonely Planet doesn’t owe you anything, you don’t actually work for them, you work for yourself. So like any business person you want to make your product the best it can be, if you do this, I have no doubt you will have a long and happy relationship with Lonely Planet.

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