Travel writing: The act of leisurely journeying around a city, region or country mingling with the locals, finding hidden dining and sleeping establishments, and fully experiencing the intricacies of a culture unrestricted by time or money, then translating those experiences into eloquent prose so that others can find equally rewarding and memorable experiences when they, too, travel to that city, region or country.
Or not so much, according to Thomas Kohnstamm, author of Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism.
With two months and a limited monetary advance, Kohnstamm doesn’t mask the near impossibility of covering and writing about six Brazilian states for an updated Lonely Planet guidebook. But he’s stuck in a dead-end job with a newly robbed apartment and a relationship that dances dangerously close to non-existent. What else is a guy to do but accept the few dollars dangled in front of him and hop a plane to South America?
From his first night in Brazil—when he wakes up to a flight attendant in his hostel bed—Kohnstamm takes readers on an eye opening journey into the life of a travel writer. At first he tries to complete his assignment with as much integrity and completeness as possible … but that lasts about 24 hours. As drunken nights slip into hungover mornings, Kohnstamm stumbles from one part of the country to the next, running his budget down on meals and rent. In an attempt to remain unbiased, he chooses not to mention that he works for Lonely Planet, but all good things must come to an end and before long he cashes in his title for comped meals and lodging—and is asked for advice like the know-it-all writer people assume him to be.
His tale ebbs and flows as he travels. He bunks with a prostitute, attempts to sell drugs to stay in the black, nearly gets arrested and finds himself involved debauchery of all shapes and sizes. In the meantime, he shines a light on the travel writing industry—an industry that ideally relies on unbiased, comprehensive coverage but actually forces writers to take shortcuts and bribes to get a job done. Kohnstamm also notes that once those “hidden gems” are uncovered by travel writers and published in mainstream guides, they become exposed and commercialized, thereby losing the charm that made them special in the first place.
It’s a fine dance Kohnstamm does. But his insider’s look at the creation of a travel book is eye opening for those who rely on guides for travel—and for aspiring travel writers who hope to follow in his footsteps.