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Do travel writers go to Hell

Robert Downes - June 30th, 2008
Indiana Jones, look out: when it comes to gutsy adventurers and studly chick magnets, you’re no match for Lonely Planet travel guide writer Thomas Kohnstamm, who has penned a gonzo memoir of six smokin’ hot weeks in Brazil.
Er, make that “ex”-Lonely Planet writer because Kohnstamm is currently persona non grata at the travel guide publishing house, owing to the damning details of his new memoir, “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” in which he admits that he made up much of the information he collected in a Lonely Planet guide to northeast Brazil.
And not only that, but in subsequent news reports, Kohnstamm outed himself as a fraud, claiming that he made up details in 12 Lonely Planet guidebooks and didn’t even bother visiting Columbia for his research. He wrote the book from his apartment in San Francisco.
“They didn’t pay me enough to go (to) Columbia,” he is widely reported as stating in what has become a Jayson Blair-style scandal in the travel writing industry. “I wrote the book in San Francisco. I got the information from a chick I was dating - an intern in the Colombian Consulate.”
The controversy over Kohnstamm’s confession has raged in the travel writing press and blogosphere for weeks since the publication of “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” Since that time, he’s redeemed himself somewhat by noting that his work on Lonely Planet’s Columbia guidebook was strictly intended as a company-approved “desk rewrite” via information skimmed from the Internet.
As for inventing the information in other guidebooks, Kohnstamm goes into lengthy detail in his new book on the hellish process of travel writing, explaining that Lonely Planet doesn’t give its poverty-stricken writers nearly enough time or money to complete the encyclopedic task of revising its guidebooks.
Whatever, Kohnstamm’s reputation has been blown to a million little pieces, so to speak, but that doesn’t keep “Do Travel Writers Go to Hell?” from being a wildly entertaining read that will have travel junkies glued to their chairs, flipping pages and laughing out loud.
The only problem with the book is, how do you believe this guy? He swears in the introduction that the six weeks he spent in Brazil were all true, barring a few blended characters, name changes, and shifts in time.
But you can’t help wondering if the book, subtitled “A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics and Professional Hedonism” is a tall tale of the sort that would make Pecos Bill and Paul Bunyan blush at the audacity of its fibs.
For starters, Kohnstamm beds so many beautiful women at the drop of a hat that the reader can only imagine he’s got Tom Cruise beat in the looks department, and the charm of Johnny Depp. Perhaps his photos don’t do him justice.
But that’s getting ahead of the story: As Kohnstamm tells it, he was raised by parents who loved to travel, taking him from his home in Seattle each summer to trips across the country, Europe and North Africa. He lived for a time in India, and then after college, bummed around Spain in an old hearse; studied Portugese and international affairs in Buenos Aires; and spent three years in Costa Rica.
But as the book opens, Kohnstamm finds himself working in an office cubicle in New York City, doing low-profile tasks such as filing and creating spreadsheets for a law firm that’s trying to get some dot.com crooks off the hook. In an epiphany that his life is soulless and going nowhere, Kohnstamm tells his boss to shove it and accepts a travel writing assignment from Lonely Planet to cover northeast Brazil. This is by dint of his having already written a book for the company on how to speak Central American Spanish.
Arriving in Rio, Kohnstamm quickly beds a beautiful six-foot-tall, blond Lufthansa airline hostess and falls in with a colorful cast of international backpackers (an aging drug dealer, an Israeli ex-commando, hookers, etc.) at a hostel just off the Copacabana beach. Endless lines of coke are snorted and oceans of beers are consumed as the sun rises over the Sugarloaf.
Kohnstamm pushes on to northeast Brazil and beach towns such as Recife, rapidly spending his book advance. He finds it impossible to complete the research Lonely Planet demands, noting that he has some 60 towns to cover over more than 1,000 miles, including all the details of the hotels, restaurants, travel information, nightlife and many other items for each one.
Running low on cash with his deadline looming, the crux of the book is how Kohnstamm manages to get the job done by tempting hotel owners to “comp” him on the basis of his prestigious Lonely Travel credentials (which could result in favorable reviews in the guide). He shares an apartment with a “model” who turns out to be something else; dabbles at selling Ecstasy to backpackers; has more casual sex with ever-willing women (including “friendly table service” with a waitress after hours); and spends much of his time drunk or stoned.
It’s a fascinating page-turner of a book, but should be read in the same spirit as “Tropic of Cancer” by Henry Miller, which was a scandalous memoir of what goes on in the erotic corners of a man’s imagination, rather than a true story.
For instance, Kohnstamm may claim his tale is all true, but he also told the New York Times that he was beaten and pistol-whipped by a gang of thugs in Columbia, prior to admitting that he had never been to the country before. And then later claiming that the incident happened on another trip to Columbia... Sure Thomas, we don’t want to doubt ya.
But whether Kohnstamm is really the drunken Casanova he claims to be, there’s no disputing that he’s a gifted writer who tells a hell of a story. If nothing else, you’ll have a good time trying to decipher whether Kohnstamm is a genuine adventurer, or a world class BS’er.
 
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