Trials and tribulations of travel writing
Deepika Gurdev

The Lonely Planet Story
by Tony and Maureen Wheeler.
Periplus. Pages 375. $16.95.

The Lonely Planet StoryIt all started with wanderlust. In the early 1970s, a recently married couple took off on a trip to remember in a bid to get travel out of their system before settling into their "real" jobs. Their trip began in Asia and ended in Australia where they landed with just 27 cents to their credit.

Soon they were flooded with questions about their trip and decided to publish a book for like-minded travellers. Written at their kitchen table, hand-collated, trimmed and stapled, the book Across Asia on the Cheap became the first Lonely Planet guidebook and an instant local bestseller.

With that began the phenomenal Lonely Planet story and a whole new industry of guidebooks, which have guided millions of travellers over the years.

The big break for its founders though came in 1981 when Lonely Planet India was published, with a staff of 10. It shot to the bestseller lists and has gone into several reprints since.

The Lonely Planet group has seen its share of ups and downs—just like the rest of the world. Post-9/11, a lot changed, particularly for the travel industry. And Lonely Planet too was hit. As travel budgets across the world got cut, the impact was felt even more by people who were in the business of travel publishing. A lot has changed since then. Things have picked up, people are still packing their bags, getting on to aircrafts, to discover various parts of the world, with their Lonely Planets in tow.

The books have established their reputation for being "independent". None of their writers go on junkets, they hardly ever watch the sun rise or set. There are no languid hours spent nursing a glass of wine. This is all about getting rough and dirty to get the best travel story of the day. So, if you seriously considering a career in travel writing, I’d recommend a serious read of The Lonely Planet Story.

Here’s one part of what’s always called the big picture: "Guidebook writer. Sounds like a romantic occupation, doesn’t it? You fly here and there, explore unusual attractions, look for the perfect hotel, search for the most wonderful meal and write about it. It’s like being on holiday all the time and getting paid for it. Think again. For a start, you’re constantly in a frantic rush.... There’s no time to sit around and soak up the atmosphere.... "Writing that a beach has sand like talcum powder lapped by warm, translucent water probably means the writer sprinted down to the beach and jumped in the water for just long enough to test the temperature before rushing off to the next beach....Furthermore, guidebook writing is generally a solitary pursuit, it’s not good for relationships."

More than the story of guidebook writers and Lonely Planet itself, it is the story of the trials and tribulations of a couple who met by chance and decided to take on the world. They always imagined there would be a time when they would be doing "real" jobs, but life on uncharted paths always has a way of derailing the best-laid plans.

In this book, which is also an account of the way life turned out for them, provides insights into that journey. And it hasn’t always been rosy, as the authors recount in the chapter, Near Disaster:

"On our second return to the capital, Colombo, we rented a car for our third and final island circuit. Lonely Planet was still such a penny-pinching operation that this was the first-time we’d contemplated such an extravagance. Nowadays we (and most of our writers) rent cars without a moment’s hesitation and, to save time or get otherwise unobtainable views, I’ve even charted aircraft and helicopters. But in 1979, I’d never rented a car in Asia, not that there were many places to rent one."

Apart from travel woes, what makes this book endearing is the fact that the writers are quick to admit to all the flaws they have made through the journey of Lonely Planet, as we know them. One significant case happened with a Lonely Planet ‘Western Europe’ cover. The ‘R’ in ‘Western’ was inadvertently left out and the errata was spotted by one of the warehouse guys. When it was brought to the attention of the editorial staff, several meetings were held on ways to resolve the problem. Solutions ranged from creating a sticker to reprinting the cover. But Tony decided against it and came up with a bookmark, which provided details of how you could bugfix ‘Westen Europe’ via a download. I suspect no one ever bothered with that.

At a time, when perfection has become an almost clinical buzzword, it is such honesty that makes The Lonely Planet Story such a fascinating read and makes me want to hang on to my Lonely Planets even more dearly.