Saturday, October 16, 2004

This Planet Ain't Lonely

Ryan van Berkmoes, latest Lonely Planet plant in Bali, presented to a packed room at the Indus the venerable trendsetting guidebook writers Tony Wheeler and Bill Dalton.

Tony is a quiet fellow from Australia, but he's on the ball and quick-witted, making it easy to see that he could start an empire of travel guiding. Tony has a Clark Kent - ish everyman quality, undoubtedly an asset to the one who must spy for a living. I could indeed envision him traipsing through Asia in the closest thing to anonymity any bulé / farang / gweilo / gaijin could hope for.

Bill Dalton is a wiry raconteur with down-east Yankee resourcefulness and energy. If Tony embodies the Australian's penchant for the walkabout, Bill embodies the American pioneer spirit of independence and exploration.

The two men related with vivid memories how they first crossed paths in the backpacker neighborhood of Kings Cross, Sydney, 1972.

On wits, willingness to connect with others, and pennies in the pocket, each figured out how to print up their tips on travel in Southeast Asia. Bill's area of concentration was Indonesia and may I add that his Moon Pubs Indonesia Handbook was what guided Jay and me through our 4 week honeymoon in 1979 ...second edition, that is. Although Bill's book beat Tony's Southeast Asia on the Cheap to the press by three weeks, Lonely Planet has become a mega business.

In Singapore in 1975, they bumped into each other again, at a time when Bill wanted to sit down and do some writing. Tony was able to tip off Bill which room in which hotel was conducive to productive writing; he'd just been there himself!! Room number two, but I missed the hotel name. Watch this space. Below that room, those many years ago, was a motorbike repair shop. (Bill went down to sit with the boys there to watch a Mohammed Ali match... who would that have been... Foreman rematch?) It was lovely to see these two guys reminisce on the old days... travelers' tales are a rich source of entertainment and even literature. Think of Somerset Maugham and Joseph Conrad...

Tony and Bill asserted that guidebooks have perhaps outlived their usefulness, and remark that we are close to a change in travel guiding, but neither man is sure he can see it exactly. Bill concedes that someone will and will start a new trend, just the way the Lonely Planet took over from old type Froemer's, Fodor's, and Fielding's guides from earlier decades. He pointed out that the traveling world is going to be changing its very STYLE of travel.

Look no further, fellas, because Paul Otteson has written that new guide book. The World Awaits (ISBN 1566912431) rides the wave of the future in travel writing. His advice for travel is like a platen for application to a multitude of destinations. And, interestingly enough, his take on the real pleasures of travel is that the destination is not what travel's all about. Otteson's book outlines suggestions for getting the most out of any journey, using the most refreshing concept in travel today: a pace and itinerary called threading. Otteson points out that paying attention to the actual roads and places between destinations is as rewarding as the arrival at a known landmark. Stop sleeping on trains from Point A to Point B. Stop using airports. Walk. Talk to locals. Camp out, perhaps. All suggestions; Otteson is no preacher. But he supports his style of travel with great appeal.

Let's thread on back to Ubud.

At one point, Tony talked about someone he knew who recently used an old edition of Europe on $5 a Day simply to see what's still feasible, what's survived of the beaten tourist and backpacker path. How fun, and I wholeheartedly agree with this revival of old guidebooks! Certainly, on my Spain trip in 2001 I had with me old guidebooks, and the one from the late 50's on the Prado Museum in Madrid was priceless. Even Washington Irving's Tales of the Alhambra was the most useful guide book in my posession, when we walked through that fascinating architectural treasure.
Bill likes to bring literature with him on trips... Somerset Maugham (also a favorite of mine), for example. And Tony spoke of "parachuting" writers into any number of destinations for Lonely Planet updates... no language, no clues, no help... the tips garnered by these intrepid travelers would prove better than those from a researcher armed with every sort of brochure and book and lesson. And I tell you, in a time when the world is virtually all "discovered" and there's even a map of Baghdad in a Sarasota 7-11 (seen with my own eyes), a person is well advised to encounter a foreign country on wits alone, just to invoke that unbeatable traveler's high of being a stranger in a strange land.

Bill stressed that the Lonely Planet and his books offered a certain style of travel. And this is indeed the style to which a place like Ubud caters. For better or for worse, the town (just like a hundred other backpacker ghettos in this world) has a plethora of desks for booking a last minute, cheap tour or air ticket. An Ubud banana pancake can also be had in Sri Lanka, Cairo, Puerto Princessa, and Cairns. The same sarong you bargain for in the Ubud market is also available in Boracay, Wellington, Bora-Bora, and Cairo. The backpacker profile shops the world, and don't think the crafty tour guides and taxi drivers don't know it. I'm guilty of having done the ten-dollar-spa-scrub tour of Asia, as blindly as a hippie in Rajahstan making a pilgrimmage to every cheap hostel in the backpacker grapevine. I see a pattern here.

I took the microphone to ask the writers if they had ever printed anything which was a regrettable mistake. Bill mentioned a shortcut to Lake Toba that had been supplied by a flakey woman (and the readers trying this route became lost in the deep Sumatran rainforest for 6 weeks, not the published day and a half).

Time and again, during this festival, various people reminded me of the second remark I made to Bill, Tony, and Ryan about how to find a certain East Bali beach. Ryan had mentioned that he put Pasir Putih in the latest LP Bali because it was too beautiful to leave out. From the audience, during the Q&A session, I said that I supported him in this because it's a nice place and people who like to snorkel should enjoy it. Apparently, there is a backpacker undercurrent of secrecy, but I certainly feel that Bali has been well and truly discovered and there's no real reason to hide a good beach from visitors. The worst threat to that beach, I feel, are the local guys who bring cyanide to stun fish for the aquarium trade. Always better in the long run to have a working dive shop around, which becomes a force in curbing such destruction.

Amounts of money to be reaped from tourism are usually higher than money from poaching.

There was an earthquake at 11:09 that morning, and I must have been off in my room getting changed for the lunch. I totally did not feel it, and it was epicentered just south of Denpasar!

Why pay RP250,000 for lunch at the Maya Ubud? First of all, the food, next, the atmosphere. But really, truly, it was to hear Nury Vittachi, an old friend from Hong Kong, speak about whatever came into his head. No, it's not a lonely planet anymore. I have dear friends all over it.

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