Sunday, October 2, 2011

Life On the Road For a Lonely Planet Author

It sounds like a dream job. Many people seem to imagine that Lonely Planet writers spend days on the beach with giant cocktails in carved out pineapples; nights involve lavish dinners, more cocktails and everywhere they go people are doing everything they can to make their stay in the country perfect. Often I hear hotels and restaurant I've visited complaining that I never even came through. This always makes me snicker because they must think I show up with a name tag, giant camera and a clipboard or something. Or maybe they just assume I'd introduce myself - that would be nice but honestly I don't have time to chat at length with dozens of hotels and restaurants everyday.

The reality of how authors research varies from author to author but, in my case, most places I go to never know I came through. I probably stayed in their cheapest room and I can't eat everywhere so usually I'll just stop in to a restaurant for a juice or maybe just ask to see their menu. They probably saw me and felt bad that I was on my own and wondered what would lead a woman my age to stray so far from home. They may not have noticed me at all. Other travelers never guess who I am either.

I often get asked "what it's like" and what I do on an ordinary day. So here goes. I'm going to write this as an average day in Southeast Asia since that's where I spend the most time. Warning: It's long and a lot less exciting than you think it will be.

7:15 I wake up in a hard bed with a really bad pillow, wash-up in the hostel's shared bathroom, and put on clothes I washed in the sink the day before that have been drying draped over chairs and whatnot. I turn off the fan and get out the door in 15 minutes.

7:30 Breakfast at my favorite local joint. This will often be a place I've put in the book for years. It's busy and I'm hardly able to get a table but I'm the only Westerner there. So much for Lonely Planet ruining places. If it doesn't serve banana pancakes and looks too foreign, people won't go there. I enjoy an amazing meal, check my email on my phone, read a local paper and map out my day on the back of a map I picked up at my hostel. I take a moment to enjoy the exoticness of where I'm sitting and I'm thankful of my situation; I pay then go.

8:15 Nothing is open yet which frustrates me because I'm in a hurry to get stuff done. I walk around town to see which Western style breakfast places are open so I can recommend them for people who like to eat before 10am.

9:00 I start looking at hotels. I have a list of new places I've found on the Internet, by traveler's recommendations, at tourist offices or through local friend's suggestions. I've mapped them all out as I heard of them. As I'm on my way to a place on my list, I pass another place I've never heard of, pop in and ask to see a room. The people don't ask who I am or why I'm there and enthusiastically show me around. I ask them a million questions and they tell me all sorts of fun stories about the place and give me their business card. It ends up being the coolest place I find all day. I sneak into a hidden corner once I'm back outside and jot messy notes in my notebook.

10:30 After an hour and a half of wandering around, looking at hotels and seeing what's new I start to see other travelers eating their Western breakfasts around town. I note which places are the busiest, check the menus and get a table at the one that looks the best. I order a cup of tea, catch up writing notes in my notebook about everything I've seen that morning then text a local friend to see if they can meet for lunch. Meanwhile, I chat with a nice English couple at the table next to me who give me a great detailed, review of a bike tour I won't have time to go on myself. They of course have no idea that they just gave their input to Lonely Planet.

11:00 There are a few places I have to see that are way out of town. I hop on a bus then walk about 10 minutes to find the first place, which has great reviews on Trip Advisor. From the mildewed outside and depressing, hard-to-get-to location I can tell it's a dud. I wake up a TV-hypnotized receptionist and she takes me to a stinky room with a stained carpet and a lint-filled air-con vent. A few confused looking older Americans are dining on white toast, jam and coffee in the cafe downstairs. I thank the receptionist but don't bother to get the price because there's no way I'm putting this place in the book.

12:00 I walk high-speed back to the bus stop. The bus never shows. It's about 90 degrees Fahrenheit and 100 percent humidity, my face is bright red and I feel awful. It starts to rain. I walk about ten minutes in my plastic-bag-like emergency rain poncho while cars whiz past and I'm sure they're all laughing at me in my silly poncho that makes me look like an orange balloon. A big truck sprays muddy water all over me. I finally hail a taxi.

12:40 I meet my friend who I haven't seen in two years at a new hole-in-the-wall she says is really good. She says I look like hell and laughs at my wet, muddy legs and plastic bag poncho. We talk about her love life, my love life then she orders all the stuff that's supposed to be so good. It's fabulous so I take extensive notes about it. We stuff ourselves while chatting about what's new around town. After lunch I decide to throw my ugly poncho away and buy an umbrella.

1:40 It's raining and my friend has the afternoon off so she asks me where I need to go. I've been to most of the museums etc in town before and from asking around I've found nothing has changed, but there's a new shopping mall in a district I don't know well that I'd like to check out. We go but on the way stop at a temple I've never heard of where they do some sort of ritual that people come from all over the country to take part in for good luck. We go in and do the ritual, I talk to the abbot who tells me the fascinating history of the place. I take notes but once in the car I realize I'll never have the space to put this awesome place in the book - plus it's out of the way and a little spooky so, like my breakfast joint, hardly anyone would go there anyway. I consider returning to this place one day for one of the hundreds of non-fiction travel books I've thought about writing.

3:00 We get to the mall and it looks like every other mall in Southeast Asia. I jot down the names of some of the stores, we get an ice cream then head back to town.

3:45 My friend drives me to all the other out of the way hotels I need to go to. They are all really boring. She also helps me find a cheap umbrella. Meanwhile I get a text from another friend who wants to know if I want to go out to dinner with a bunch of couch surfers. I say OK.

6:00 I go back to my hotel, shower and write a few emails. What I'd really like to do is take a nap but I'm afraid I'd sleep through dinner.

7:30 I meet my local friends, three couch surfers and a random expat Kiwi English teacher at a food stall area. My friend has told them all about me so they all ask me about my job. They of course want to know how much money I make and assume I have to save all my receipts that I'll send back to Lonely Planet who will reimburse me for any and all expenses. I tell them that I actually work from a lump sum and if I spend more I earn less. No one seems to really care so I try and change the subject. I excuse myself during dinner and take notes on the new stalls that have opened since the last time I was here.

8:30 I've managed to pick the brains of every person at dinner and have a few good suggestions for the next town I'm going to and another review of the bike tour I can't go on. I suggest we get dessert at a place I want to try.

9:00 We go get dessert then check out a local night market. Then everyone but my local friend and the Kiwi guy goes home. The rest of us decide to go check out a new bar.

9:30 It's sort of dead but we all sit and have a beer. By 10pm more people show up and by 11pm it's rocking.

11:30 We move on to a club down the road that has a surprisingly decent cover band from the Philippines. I go up to dance, get hit on by a 50+ year-old Australian military dude and a Nigerian gigolo then decide this is more depressing than fun and I'd better go home. A drunk Asian girl I was dancing next to hugs me like we're best friends and tells me I can stay at her house next time I'm in town. I thank her but know I'll never see her again. My friends walk me home.

1:30am Back to my board-like bed with the too-tall pillow of rocks. I set my alarm for 8am so I can catch the 9am bus out of town. I toss and turn for about half an hour recapping my day, turn on the light briefly to check for bed bugs then fall asleep.

After each research trip comes the write-up which, in general, equals the time spent on the road. My fellow author Leif Pettersen has captured this type of day on video better than I ever could in words. To see it click here. Enjoy!


  1. excellent job of conveying the reality.

    Warm Aloha from Waikiki;

    Comfort Spiral

    / )

    > < } } ( ° >

  2. "If it doesn't serve banana pancakes and looks too foreign, people won't go there." That's a sad indictment of who reads LP nowadays.

    Personally, I have always used LP for the guide to how to get to out of the way natural wonders; for how to find a hotel at night in a big city you just arrived at: for how to get out of a big city; for the things I would never find nor know about but for the guide; and for the enthusiasm of the author for certain things that just hit the spot.

    Banana pancakes in a place that's just like home, is not on the list.

  3. Hi David. What I love most about traveling are those out of the way places and non-banana pancake eateries that capture the real soul of a place. I know that few people will go there and I can't include them all but I *always* make sure to include a few for the diminishing group who will appreciate it.
    Remember The Beach and all those people trying to get to the ultimate out of the way place? Those types, if they exist, I think skip the places that feel to "done" nowadays and a result the touristy countries have more hidden corners than they ever have. But - you'll have to find them for yourself mostly and I think that only heightens the adventure.

  4. Anonymity is always the best policy.

    Those unexpected turns in the road, random dark corner and ray of light turn out to be the soul of a place.

    And don't you love a bus ride to I don't know where?

    From Pago,


  5. So true John! My best finds are always when I'm just winging it - or maybe lost. Looking forward to doing the same in Samoa!

  6. This was depressing to read. With those kinds of hours in a work day your travels have lost their freedom appeal. It sounds like you're in a rat race like many other American's only yours is on the road, in an uncomfortable bed.

  7. Hi Timothy,

    Well that's the point - it's work, and hard work at that. The thing is though is that travel never looses it's appeal even when you're running around as fast as an author has to. Even though I work more hours than the average person and don't really get compensated for that, it still beats a desk job for me. Every day there are moments of wonder and I learn more than I have doing anything else (including college). And there is a certain freedom to it - I make my own hours and decode where I go when and how. Thanks for reading!

  8. I love the insight! I've always wondered what it was really like...

    Thanks for the post! :)

  9. Great post - thanks for sharing.

  10. Nice piece. I just did my first "on the road" guidebook-updating job (others had been based in Istanbul, where I live) and had a few people I chatted with along the way gush about what a "dream job" I had. Sure, if you dream about blistered feet, endless bus rides, touring so many hotels you can barely keep them straight, and falling into bed exhausted each night! That said, I'd do it again anytime.

  11. Nice read and realistic.

    I travel without a guidebook, which a lot of people don't understand. I also don't look online at reviews or tweet people for advice because everyone's standards are different, and part of the fun is discovering places that aren't on a map or well known. Even if it's a negative experience, it makes for fun story.

    But what's funny is all my friends naturally assume my life is glamorous and I'm well paid. I do it because I like it. I'm in it for the unknown bits, connecting with people and hopefully helping other travelers if they listen.

    Had a look at your photos and other pieces. Great work :)

  12. Hi CaliforniaKat,
    It's funny because writing a guidebook is a lot like traveling without one because you're always trying to figure out the stuff that's not in there. (I think of my last trip to Thailand and all the very random bus routes I took trying to find easier routes that usually left me stranded in the middle of nowhere). I think a book is great sometimes but even LP's mantra is to throw it aside more often than not to get a real adventure. Hope I run into you on the road one day!

  13. I love it... I am 61 and this is so refreshing to read. I am one of those people who suffer from wanderlust .... I love everything about travel, even delays in airports, have met some terrific people that way :). If you need an assistant, just ask me me and I will be there with bells on :)

  14. Good account Celeste, but you may want to proofread your responses to people in the future. You made quite a few typos that I am frankly quite surprised any paid writer would make (e.g. "travel never looses it's appeal"). Twice in one sentence even!

    At least you don't seem to be one of those annoying LP preachy types (fair trade this, indigenous that, etc.) or one who goes on and on about rail gauge sizes. :-D

    LP is OK, not the best though. I think Rough Guides gives you guys a run for your money.

    1. Dear Jesus please forgive me. I am but a humble mortal who makes many typos and even spelling errors. And yet I still get paid. The writing Gods have been good to me and for that I am thankful.

      Rough Guides are awesome - in most cases it all depends on the author. Thanks for reading and please buy whatever guidebook annoys you the least.



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