Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism

Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism

by Thomas Kohnstamm

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Overview

For those who think that travel guidebooks are the gospel truth.

WANTED: Travel Writer for Brazil
QUALIFICATIONS REQUIRED
Decisiveness: the ability to desert your entire previous life–including well-salaried office job, attractive girlfriend, and basic sanity for less than minimum wage
Attention to detail: the skill to research northeastern Brazil, including transportation, restaurants, hotels, culture, customs, and language, while juggling sleep deprivation, nonstop nightlife, and excessive alcohol consumption
Creativity: the imagination to write about places you never actually visit
Resourcefulness: utilizing persuasion, seduction, and threats, when necessary, to secure a place to stay for the evening once your pitiable advance has been (mis)spent
Resilience: determination to overcome setbacks such as bankruptcy, disillusionment, and an ill-fated one-night stand with an Austrian flight attendant

As Kohnstamm comes to personal terms with each of these job requirements, he unveils the underside of the travel industry and its often-harrowing effect on writers, travelers, and the destinations themselves. Moreover, he invites us into his world of compromising and scandalous situations in one of the most exciting countries as he races against an impossible deadline.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307394651
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/22/2008
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 823,506
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.63(d)

About the Author

THOMAS KOHNSTAMM was born in 1975 and graduated from Stanford University with an M.A. in Latin American studies. He lives in Seattle.

Read an Excerpt

1
One in the Hand, Two in the Bush


Roebling.
Roe-bleeeng.
Rrrrroe-bling.
Alone in the fifty-seventh-floor conference room, I repeat the mantra under my breath. I sit in a rigid half-lotus position atop the glass table and watch the suspension cables of the Brooklyn Bridge flicker against the night sky. The office air is sharp with disinfectant. I take a slug of rum and return to my mantra.
John Roebling had a calling. Unfortunately for him, after the buildup, design, preparation, and politicking for the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, the hapless bastard promptly dropped dead. His son, Washington, brought the bridge to completion, but not without picking up a case of the bends and almost dying in the process. Neither man ever wavered from a life of dedication, direction, and diligence.
A lot of good it did either of them.
I remove my battered leather shoes, the toes stained gray with salt from the slushy city sidewalks, and knead my left foot through my sweaty dress sock. Hundreds of pairs of headlights move in a stream back and forth across the bridge.
Yesterday during a meeting in this same conference room, a neckless, pockmarked banker pointed out that the name the bends was, in fact, coined during the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge. Hundreds of laborers toiled on the footing of the bridge, eighty feet below the surface of the river. They worked in nine-foot-high wooden boxes known as caissons, which were pumped full of compressed air and lowered to the depths with the men inside. After resurfacing, scores of workers were inflicted with a mysterious illness. Crippling joint pain. Mental deterioration. Paralysis. And for a few, agonizing death. The name the bends was taken from the debilitated posture of the sufferers.
It wasn't until eight years after the bridge construction had started that a French physiologist determined the cause of the illness. Contrary to popular assumption, oxygen is a lesser ingredient in the air that we breathe. Seventy-eight percent of air is comprised of nitrogen, which, under normal circumstances, has no effect on the human body. When breathing air at depth, the water pressure converts the nitrogen in the bloodstream from a gas to a liquid, washing it through the veins and arteries. So long as you resurface at a slow pace, the liquid gradually transforms back into a gas and is disposed of by your body.
If the change of pressure is too sudden, the liquid bursts out of solution, fizzing back into gas. Similar to the millions of microscopic nitrogen bubbles that are released when you crack a can of Guinness, the bubbles surge through the bloodstream. If they don't lodge themselves in your joints, the bubbles charge on the fatal path to your brain. You come up too quickly, you die.
I remove a folded piece of printer paper from my pocket and smooth it open:
Thomas,
I want to know if you'd like do some writing for our new Brazil guidebook?
If you're interested in jumping ship within the next few weeks for Brazil, let me know right away and I could put together an offer for you.
                                           
Commissioning Editor—South America & Antarctica
Lonely Planet


Once—maybe when I was first out of school—this opportunity would have been a dream job. It is still seductive, but more along the lines of a cheap one-night-stand. My life is fulfilling in other ways now. I have a steady job, a decent income, a beautiful girlfriend, and an apartment in Manhattan. I finally have everything that I am supposed to have. Besides, between 9/11, SARS, Iraq, Bali, and Madrid, it can't possibly be a good time to dive headfirst into travel writing. But I won't I lie: I have always been a sucker for a cheap one-night-stand.
God knows, I can already feel myself coming up too fast.


For most people, November 24 is not a special day. Sure, it hosts Thanksgiving every few years, but I could care less about that. In Seattle, where few things out-of-the-ordinary ever happen and where people strive, often pathologically, to maintain a facade of tranquility, the day has a different significance.
On November 24, 1971, a balding, middle-aged man boarded a flight from Portland to Seattle. He used the name Dan Cooper. He dressed in a black suit, a black overcoat, black sunglasses, and a narrow black tie with a pearl stick pin. Cooper hijacked the Boeing 727 with a briefcase full of wires and bright red cylinders. The hostages were exchanged for four parachutes and two hundred thousand dollars at Sea-Tac Airport (to put that in perspective, the average cost of a new home in the U.S. in 1971 was $28,000).
DB Cooper, as the press mistakenly dubbed him, demanded to be flown to Mexico. He parachuted out of the plane somewhere over southern Washington State and disappeared. Maybe DB died in the jump. Maybe he got away with the money. Nobody knows. But legend has it that DB was a man so disenchanted with his life that he gambled it all on a way out. The point isn't whether he made it or not. The point is that this little bald man didn't spend one more day pumping gas in Tallahassee or adjusting claims in Denver. He didn't waste one more day wondering, "What if?"
I nominate Cooper as the patron saint of disillusioned men, particularly those who, like me, were born in Seattle on November 24.


The phone rings in the conference room. It is the blipping staccato ring of all office phones. I am jolted back to the reality that I have hours of work ahead of me. The digital clock on the phone reads 9:42 p.m.
Tucking the pint bottle of rum into the waist of my pants, I answer with a cautious "Hello."
"Thomas? WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THE CONFERENCE ROOM, DAMMIT. I knew I could find you there. You and I need to have a talk," my boss snarls. "I am coming by your cube in fifteen minutes. You'd better be there, with the WorldCom spreadsheet ready for me to look at."
I tiptoe back into my cubicle, successfully avoiding anyone in the hallways. I hold my head in my hands, shirt sleeves rolled up, with cold sweat dripping down my sides. My tacky palms are crisscrossed with hairs from my suddenly receding hairline. After the final sip of a metallic-sweet Red Bull, I chew a handful of gum and look across the tops of the cubicles, scanning for other workers. The office appears empty, except for the faint tapping of keyboards somewhere down the hall.


Welcome to life on Wall Street. With such a character-defining foothold in the career world, I no longer have to make excuses for the life I lead. No longer do I have to explain my directionless postcollegiate life to incredulous eyes and repetitive questions, like: "What are you doing next year?" "Don't you want to do something with your life?" and my favorite, "When are you going to get a real job?" I am no longer just Thomas, the supposed slacker, backpacker bum, or permanent student. I am Thomas, the employee of           ,           ,            &            LLP, and I am going places.
I make more money than I reasonably should, putting papers into chronological order (chroning, in office-speak). My skill set also includes entering numbers into Excel spreadsheets and working the copier and fax machine. Between those projects, I search for old high school friends' names on Google; play online Jeopardy against my office trivia nemesis, Jerry; and generally while away the hours of my life. Jerry thinks that he is better at Jeopardy than me, but really he's just faster with the mouse.
Yes, I know, I really have it pretty good. There are people starving in Africa. And there are plenty of people here in New York who would love the chance to be in a cubicle all day and not have to operate deep-fat fryers, drive garbage trucks, suck dicks, or whatever it is they do. The problem is that I am an ungrateful by-product of a prosperous society—the offal of opportunity. I am just another liberal arts graduate who bought the idea that life and career would be a fulfilling intellectual journey. Unfortunately, I am performing a glorified version of punching the time clock, and the financial rewards don't come anywhere near filling the emotional void of such diminished expectations.


But let's face it: rebellion is passe. My parents' generation already proved that—over time—rebellion boils down to little more than Saab ownership and an annual contribution to public radio. The old icons have been co-opted. José Mart’ is a brand of mojito mix. Che Guevara is a T-shirt. Cherokees are SUVs, and Apaches are helicopter gunships.
The American Dream is for immigrants. The rest of us are better acquainted with entitlement or boredom than we are with our own survival mechanisms. And when confronted with a fight-or-flight scenario, the latter usually takes precedence. Escape is our action of choice: escape through pharmaceuticals, escape through technology, and plain old running away in search of something else, anything else. I rummage through the back of my desk drawer looking for a loose Vicodin or a Klonopin. The best thing I come up with is Wite-Out, but I'm not that desperate. Yet.
I continually revisit the words of some sociologist who I read in college. I think that it was Weber or Durkheim. Either is usually a fair guess. He believed that the modern mind is determined to expand its repertoire of experiences, and is bent on avoiding any specialization that threatens to interrupt the search for alternatives and novelty. Many people would call that approach to life a crisis, immaturity, or being out of touch with reality. It could also be called the New American Dream. Fuck the simple pursuit of financial stability. Here's to finding fulfillment in novelty, excitement, adventure, and autonomy.
Following the cue of one of our office team-building exercises, I come up with the following life goals and painstakingly write them out on Day-Glo yellow Post-it notes:
Ski the Andes Wake up naked and from a rum surf Sumatra. blackout in rural Cuba.
Ride the roof Win or lose of a bus through a bar fight the Himalayan in a dusty
Foothills. border town.
Kick my mind Sleep with at into the stratosphere least one woman with ayahuasca (preferably more)
in the Amazon. from each continent.
One by one, I stick the notes around the edge of my computer monitor. All evenly spaced. They're not the clear career objectives of a John Roebling, but for me, they'll have to do.


My desk phone rings.
"Yes?"
"She found you, huh? I heard you sneaking back to your desk," says Anna. Though she is only two years out of Dartmouth, Anna has a mature professional edge. She is invariably the last person to leave the office at night and goes about her tasks with pleasure, frequently asking for more work. Her try-hard humor and enthusiastic friendliness have inspired suspicion in our more acerbic and cynical co-workers. Anna and I couldn't be more different as employees, but have the camaraderie of workplace outcasts.
"Yuck. I'm happy that it's you and not me who's working for Marilyn. I can't stand that cuckoo," Anna offers.
"Marilyn's just having another personal crisis. Unfortunately, as her assistant, I'm a reservoir tip for her self-loathing." I would like to give Marilyn the benefit of the doubt. She once worked for the National Organization for Women, but soon tired of surviving on a pittance and now occupies her waking hours as legal defense for well-known misogynists and womanizers—misogynists and womanizers with their hands in very lucrative business.
"At least you're not working with Allen," she says.
I tell her I wish that were true. If he hadn't dumped a bunch of work on me, I'd be done and home by now. Allen is like the evil asshole twin of Skippy from Family Ties, brandishing his papier-mache bravado, trying to assert his superiority over me in every interaction. Although he's an attorney (and one of my bosses), we are about the same age. If we had been in high school together, I would have beat his ass. The problem is, he knows that and takes pleasure in harassing me. This afternoon, he mocked me for not knowing a keyboard shortcut in Word and then dropped a stack of file folders right onto my lap. I am sure that he ran back to his office, reminisced for a moment, and treated himself to some rough masturbation.
Sometimes after work I go to my overpriced gym on Lafayette Street and kick and punch the heavy bag, pretending that it's Allen. It's not only a great workout, but a dependable way to unwind.
"Allen and Marilyn," Anna says. "Dang. Listen, Thomas, I can stay and give you a hand."
Sometimes, I get the feeling Anna sees me as an endangered species, a manatee who will swim headfirst into a propeller if not protected by outside intervention. Sometimes, I can't believe people like her actually exist on Wall Street. But she doesn't understand that, for me, the pin is already out of the grenade. She has better things to do with her time. She has a career to think about. I kindly decline her offer.


I never planned to end up here. After college, I traveled, stumbled my way through graduate school, and tried to discover what my life was about. While I was busy figuring out nothing, or at least nothing that advanced my career or future, my friends moved to the Bay Area, got entry-level jobs with no real work responsibilities for $75K per year, acquired hundreds of thousands' worth of stock options, and attended ridiculous site launch parties on the tab of venture capitalists. If you weren't involved with a pre-Initial Public Offering startup or the financing behind a pre-IPO startup, you were wasting the greatest economic opportunity since buying stock on margin or selling junk bonds.
It was the dawn of a new era. Technology was guaranteed to unchain us from traditional work roles, from the stuffy expectations heaped upon us by past generations. We would be able to create the careers and lifestyles of our choosing. Business was organized around foosball tables and paintball outings. Deep house music went practically mainstream in SF, LA, and NYC. Ecstasy and hydroponics powered the irrational exuberance and infectious hedonism. Imagination was the only limiting factor. The good times were poised to endure so long as the optimism and energy of our generation endured—faith in the potential and inherent goodness of technology would fill in the gaps. We were to change the course of history. It was the '60s love generation redux, but with vague political goals, lucrative day jobs, and expensive sneakers.
I bided my time on the periphery of this wanton excess, while I did an esoteric advanced degree in Latin American Studies, followed by the world's shortest PhD in the department of Social Policy, whatever that is. I lasted through orientation and two classes in the PhD program before deciding to flee. At that point, being an escape artist was not only low risk, it was encouraged. The other side held the offer of consulting gigs, website positions, and stock options as far as the eye could see.

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Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 9 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I must admit I was a bit put off in the beginning of this book by the drinking, doping and partying. However, Thomas seems to have captured the spirit of travel today: craziness and all. This book is witty in a way few are today. Reminds me of Tom Wolf. 'Do Travel...' is the perfect summer read.
Guest More than 1 year ago
As a resident cubicle dweller, I enjoyed this book immensely. It's not just a travel book, or an expose on the world of travel writing it gets at the heart of that temptation to flee the cubicle (where I¿m sitting and typing this) and pursue a life less ordinary ¿ but unlike most of the books that deal with this subject it¿s not all hearts and rainbows once the author makes his move. The book follows the trade-offs, disappointments and cold realities he experiences on the other side ¿ experiences he lampoons hilariously the whole time. If you like humor ¿ wonderfully dark humor ¿ you won¿t find a better read than this. I could not recommend this book any more highly.
shawnd on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This book was profiled on National Public Radio and positioned there as an expose on the travel industry: how travel writers would review locales without ever going there, would use expense account money for living the high-life, and potentially show other borderline tricks of the trade. Once read, the book is really more of a memoir of a young, raunchy, travel-addled seeker escaping from the cubicle world of post-college career to a job 'on the wild side'. Unfortunately, the author brings himself on the trip. Before the author ever makes it to Northern Brazil, his first travel-writing assignment, he is involved in what apparently a regular occurrence of drunken fighting, seduction, drugs and general bad manners. The author tries to glamorize breaking up with his girlfriend, while actually misses the chance and adds no flourish to his rarely done and everyone-must-fantasize-about quitting his difficult boss and onerous job. Cue the necessary step back into his childhood, growing up, traveling experience and skill, and current emotions about work, marriage, lifestyle, etc. When we finally make it overseas, the author is persuasive in making the reader feel overwhelmed at the sheer number of towns, cities, and beaches he has to cover to even come close to not spending thousands of his own money (which he does not have) to accurately write his travel guide for this remote area. Later forays into multiple potential female 'partners', renting apartments vs. hotels, hoteliers, and throw in the odd Israeli ex-Mossad itinerant, and you have yourself a rockin' living-on-the-edge good time. Unfortunately, the book is only moderately well written and is much more an Augusten Burroughs saga of a troubled heterosexual trying to suck up as much alcohol and women as his thin budget permits.
gonzobrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In his book Do Travel Writers go to Hell?, intrepid traveler Thomas Kohnstamm does a fascinating job of weighing his own addiction of travel with the highly unreasonable expectations that are associated with being a guidebook travel writer. Also, Kohnstamm admirably demolishes the popular conception that travel writing is some sort of dream job; his consistently neurotic analysis of the futile planning, budgeting and writing for Lonely Planet, or any guidebook publisher for that matter is not only sobering, but warranted for those blinded by their travel-induced naivete.Kohnstamm begins by disclaiming his addiction to travel and the atypical circumstances in which he decides to pursue it as a career. He subsequently embarks on his adventure to cover northeastern Brasil's most likely and unlikely tourist destinations (on behalf of Lonely Planet) and the people he meets along the way. It is here that one arrives at a recurring theme throughout the book: it is not necessarily the places one visits but the people met that makes the story worthwhile.Insufficient stipends and unreasonable deadlines are just two of the variables obstructing Kohnstamm's progress. Throw in a constant stream of Brasilian cachaca, drugs, late nights/early mornings, the gamut of intestinal illnesses, opportunistic thugs as well as the usual bribery schemes (among all the players), and it is no wonder that the journey itself is truly the thing.The book, however, is not simply a retelling of Kohnstamm's escapades. It does raise a lot of questions even for the novice traveler. He ponders the implications of cultural relativism, the apparent lawlessness and corruption, as well as the increasing commercialization and urbanization of Brasil at the expense of its history and identity. Not to mention the fringe benefits of writing positive reviews, especially if those reviews are generated by the favors exhibited on behalf the restaurant or hotel one is writing about.If there was one thing I regretted about the book, apart from my envy, it is Kohnstamm's overindulgence at the expense of his craft. Granted, his wild nights performing "research" forces harried and slightly unethical writing; however, the descriptions of his supporting characters would subsequently suffer. Therein lies the dilemma: is this a travel writing book or a book about travel writing? The lines aren't always clear.Kohnstamm does well to capture the sweltering zeitgeist of Northeastern Brasil and the plight of the travel writer, thereby leaving the reader with a nuanced yet realistic depiction of the industry, and tells a captivating story while doing so. His advice: if you really love to travel, think twice about making it your occupation.
Cynara on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Kohnstamm has read too much Bukowski, Hemingway, and Hunter S. Thompson, and maybe he's thought about them too little. Whatever the narrator may think (I'm doing Kohnstamm the favour of assuming that he's different from his book), constant substance abuse and promiscuity do not make him enviably manly - they make him a frat boy. As the above authors prove, you can write about being drunk & stoned out of your brain, but none of them had that as their sole theme. He thoroughly alienated me during the first several chapters, mostly complaining about how he cheated himself out of a ride on the 90s gravy train by going to grad school. To be fair, he does show himself getting a reality check later in the book. If only he'd done the same for his life goal of sleeping with one or more women from each continent. His squalid adventures in Brazil, reeling from one manipulating woman to the next, are interspersed with some decent writing about the experience of writing the Lonely Planet on no dollars a day. Then, just as you start getting interested, he starts talking about how drunk he is again. As designated drivers know, there is nothing so dull as listening to people wail "I'm so waaaaasted", believing that this is interesting conversation. This is callow piffle that makes Chuck Thompson's similar but better "Smile When You're Lying" look like Pulitzer material. Better yet, read Hunter S. Thompson covering the Kentucky Derby with Ralph Steadman.
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