Lonely Planet travellers transform the landscape they enter far more than did the doughty loners of decades past
In 1917, Harry A. Franck, an American who had learned Spanish while working as a police officer in the Panama Canal Zone, published Vagabonding Down the Andes, an engrossing account of his four-year journey through South America. Franck had a no-nonsense attitude to travel: “Though the means be more laborious, the mind is far sharper for facts and impressions while on foot than when lolling half asleep on a horse or in a train.” Franck’s preference for walking through South America fills his book with detailed insights into local cultures, which, making allowance for certain assumptions typical of a white American traveller of that time, still seem perceptive and relevant.
Unlike today’s travellers, Franck did not carry a guidebook. Even the idea of a human guide filled him with scorn. On arriving in Cuzco, Peru, he was distressed to find that the ancient Inca capital was spawning a tourist industry: “Visitors have become almost familiar sights, and there was already developing that pest of European show-places, unwashed and officious urchins offering their services as ‘guides,’ an occupation undreamed of elsewhere on the continent.” It was not that guides or guidebooks did not exist in Franck’s day; but the guidebooks that were available, principally the meticulously detailed German Baedeker series (published in English from 1878), focussed on Europe. Travellers in Latin America, Asia or Africa had to depend on advice from locals. Franck parodies Baedeker when, in his description of a visit to La Paz, Bolivia, he assigns certain sights, such as Aymara women’s costumes, two or three stars—“Baedeker-style,” as he says.
In Franck’s day, hotels were scarce in many places. Even the later American traveller A.F. Tschiffely—whose book The Tale of Two Horses (1935) describes his two-and-a-half-year odyssey from Patagonia to Washington, D.C., in the company of two horses—often slept in a jail. His book, charmingly narrated in the voice of his equine companions, reports: “When we spent the night in villages where there were no hotels or even dirty inns, Master [i.e., Tschiffely] always had to sleep in the police-station, the jail being the only available bed-room. If prisoners happened to be in these filthy dungeons, they were put into stocks for the night.”
Later travellers maintained a greater distance from local realities. The Old Patagonian Express (1979), Paul Theroux’s dyspeptic account of a journey by train from Boston to Patagonia, reveals a far more superficial grasp of Latin American society than the books of either Franck or Tschiffely. Theroux looks down on both Latin Americans and other travellers, particularly backpackers, whom he derides as “cheapskates.”
I took this insult personally when I read Theroux’s book because at the time I was one of those cheapskate backpackers in South America. For three months in late 1981 and early 1982, financed by eight U.S. $100 bills concealed in different parts of my body, I wandered by bus and pickup truck through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Unlike Harry Franck, I carried a guidebook. Yet it was a book of which Franck might have approved: the South American Handbook. A sturdy, small-format hardcover of 1,304 pages, this volume covered all of Latin America and the Caribbean from Bermuda and Mexico to Tierra del Fuego. The South American Handbook assumed a traveller who was enterprising, literate, upper middle class, white, comfortable in the local languages, and male. The title page set the tone with an epigraph from Rudyard Kipling: “And I’d like to roll to Rio / Some day before I’m old.” The introduction announced with peerless self-confidence that: “This book tells the visitor, whether sightseer or businessman, what he most needs to know.” Modelled on Baedeker, the South American Handbook included painstakingly complete accounts of national history, betraying a particular fascination with constitutional arrangements. Few readers were perturbed by declarations such as, “In 1609 the Society of Jesus sent a number of missionaries to Paraguay to civilize the Indians.” Nor did travellers who were not white males find advice that suited their specific needs. The only lines devoted to women travellers were: “All women visiting South America should know how to cry. It is very useful at times!”
In January 1982 in the lobby of the Hotel Europa, the preferred hangout for backpackers in Lima, Peru, I met a bearded Australian who, almost unthinkably, was not using the South American Handbook. A group of us gathered around to look at his glossy softcover guidebook, with its perfunctory historical passages, large, simple maps, neo-hippie sensitivity to travellers of different tastes, and pared-down selection of hotel and transportation information. The book was called South America on a Shoestring. We dismissed it, shaking our heads at the vital information the Australian was missing. Little did we know that we had seen the future.
South America on a Shoestring was one of the first guidebooks published by Lonely Planet, which now produces the most successful such series in the world. There are few corners of the planet that have not been mapped by Lonely Planet. Even the South American Handbook has been revised in ways that reflect Lonely Planet’s dominance. The company’s formula, laying its easy-to-consult categories over each destination like a grid, has not only charted the world: it has changed it. By assuring almost everyone that they can travel to faraway places and find familiar comforts and attitudes, Lonely Planet, along with its competitors, has acted as a catalyst in installing cheap hotels, transportation links and English-speaking personnel in locations where otherwise they might not exist. Concerned with demonstrating a basic cultural (and, more recently, ecological) sensitivity rather than acquiring a profound historical awareness, Lonely Planet travellers, by virtue of their attitudes and their sheer numbers, transform the landscape they enter far more than did the doughty loners of decades past. By appealing to a mass sensibility while at the same time acknowledging specific categories of travellers—female, gay, coloured, disabled, older—Lonely Planet has collaborated in the democratization of travel, the spread of the values of English-speaking popular culture and the homogenization of the globe. The series incarnates a transnational culture that is both highly specialized and increasingly monotone. Small hotels from Istanbul to Abidjan plaster the Lonely Planet logo on their doors; restaurants and businesses scramble to offer services that will attract the Lonely Planet traveller.
To a striking degree, Lonely Planet readers no longer travel in Bolivia or Thailand, but within the elastic, infinitely portable boundaries of the Lonely Planet nation. In the twenty-first century, all but the very wealthy are Lonely Planet travellers. I, too, now belong to this nation, yet I rarely enter its territory without lamenting the rougher-edged, more multifarious world that existed before Lonely Planet.