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40 of 48 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Quite a trip, alternately tedious and interesting, May 25, 2008
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This review is from: Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?: A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism (Paperback)
Kohnstamm sets out to expose the soft underbelly of travel writing, but often tells more about himself than about travel, and that's often more than many readers may want to know. Compared to some other reviewers, I didn't find the book that "carnal", although I could have done without knowing the details of Kohnstamm's many hangovers. The book begins with the author departing a tedious job, shredding a relationship with a woman he allegedly cares about and flying to Rio. He basically tells us that he likes traveling on someone else's dime and his life sounds like something more typical of the aimless and affluent 70s than the present day. Later in the book, Kohnstamm tells us that his flight into travel writing is based on ideals. Which is it--chucking responsibility, traveling on someone else's money or "ideals". I tend to doubt the latter.

Kohnstamm actually is at his best describing people and places, which is the bread and butter of travel writing. Despite being an experienced traveler, he seems to get himself into obviously problematic situations. A "model" who's on her way to work in a minor, touristy provincial capital is likely to be in the sex industry. A fellow American with an all cash business is likely to be selling drugs. These aren't difficult to expect and, in addition, Kohnstamm shares various misadventures from past travels which suggest that he's one of those people who "doesn't benefit from experience". Either that or he's embellishing. It's not unreasonable to assume that someone who can't keep his motives straight may not be credible in other ways.

I was drawn to the book partly because I used the Lonely Planet guide which Kohnstamm had helped revise. It was a mess. It failed to mention that a "quiet seaside town" was an international surf mecca and contained messed-up maps that easily led one into a favela while looking for a hotel. Kohnstamm intimates that his predecessor led the same life he did, but all he offers is a tiny, offhand-sounding quote. He talks about a Yahoo site with hundred of Lonely Planet writers, all complaining about the same things; however, I suspect that if it's like most Yahoo forums, the conversation probably is driven by, at most, four or five people, at any given time. OTOH, his description of Lonely Planet's evolution into a guidebook series for midrange travelers rings true. Kohnstamm claims to sympathize with Tony Wheeler's business sense, even though it means that the books have less to offer than they did in the past. So much for those vaunted ideals. The new edition of the Thailand guide (their best seller) has sharply cutback on locales, places to stay, etc., and seems more insipid than many mid-range guides. Kohnstamm seems to be saying he's happy to do that if someone is willing to tolerate his sophomoric behavior.

So, by the end, I was ready for the book to end. It's an entertaining read and occasionally you get some ideas how travel books get written. It's not awful, but it's not the 5-star trophy that others have made it out to be. If Amazon had a 2 1/2 star rating, that's what I'd give it. Will it stop me from using guidebooks? No--the people who say they never use them are usually happy to browse through everyone else's. Would I stay away from Lonely Planet? As it happens they have the only guide for my next trip, but their own business practices got me to look seriously at their competition quite awhile ago. And Kohnstamm--would I read another book--Sure, but only from the library.
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Location: Washington, DC USA

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