On being a travel writer

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First published 3rd October, 2007

Being a travel writer is a dream job right? Our man on the ground in Vietnam took time out to put together this piece about what travel writing is to him.


It starts off with the typical travellers' conversation.

"Where have you been?"

I rattle off a long list of places.

"Wow. How long have you been travelling?" they ask. So I tell them. Their eyebrows go up. "You must really love travelling."

"I do," I reply. "But I'm here working. I'm a travel writer."

What invariably follows can only be described as envy. "Now, that's a good job," they usually say, with confidence.

I smile and let them think what they like.

It is a great job. Most of the time. But when people imagine being a travel writer, they tend to envision one endless journey of adventure and exploration. They imagine swimming in turquoise water on a hundred white-sand beaches, rafting down raging rivers, scuba diving, snorkelling, and sipping pina coladas while soaking up myriad smouldering sunsets.

That's what it must be like, being paid to travel, right?

It beats the hell out of being stuck in a cubicle back home, to be sure. But the truth is, you're not being paid to travel. You're being paid to work. It's a job. A job with some amazing perks for the right type of person, but a job, nonetheless.

This starts to become clear when you spend two weeks looking at a hundred hotels, guesthouses and places to eat, slogging from one to another in the hot sun -- if you're lucky -- or pissing rain -- if you're not.

Along the way you're attempting to gather detailed and accurate information, constantly switching among several different languages, being sent on wild goose chases by misinformed informants, and then heading back to your room to sit and write it all up, trying to come up with crisp readable prose to convey all that useful information.

A visit to the bus station isn't a matter of "when does the next bus leave". Rather, it's, "When do all the buses to everywhere leave? And I need times, rates and trip durations, please."

And just to make it a bit more difficult, while you're working, all the travel-friends you make along the road are larking about on a care-free holiday. Meanwhile, your head is anything but care-free: it's filled with a thousand decisions to be made, details to be nailed down, leads to be followed -- you find it changes the nature of what it means to travel.

Some who sign up for the job can't make the transition. They feel like the job is sucking all the fun out of it.

It's true. It's not the same. But for all that's lost, there is much that is gained -- if you have the patience to stick with it.

I can only speak for myself, but I've come to relish the fact that I'm not only getting to visit a place, I'm getting to know it backwards and forwards. Once I get done with an assignment, I'm the proud possessor of the most accurate and up-to-date travel information available on the planet, and I get to share that knowledge with thousands of Travelfish users who, it's my fond hope, are having a much more rewarding trip because of it.

I'm constantly amazed at how much out-of-date and downright inaccurate information is available on the internet and in printed form, and I take a good deal of pleasure in digging up the real dirt. Also, I'm sent to places I wouldn't think to travel to on my own, and as many times as I come away thinking, "What a dump," I find a hidden gem, have great experiences with the locals, and look forward to the next time I get to visit for an update.

I'm constantly learning new languages, familiarising myself with foreign cultures, expanding my knowledge of world history, and every day presents new challenges that really test my capabilities in a way no other job can.

And it helps that I enjoy writing -- distilling the essence of a place so that readers can easily grasp it and make an informed decision about where they want to travel.

What's more, Travelfish, while they certainly don't pay top dollar, happen to be one of the most researcher-friendly travel companies in existence. It's run by people who are seasoned researchers themselves, they understand the job, and they trust their researchers. They never tell me what to say, never edit my opinions: if I find something boring and over-rated, I get to tell the world. If I find something that's an amazing value and a great experience, I can lead others straight to it.

For the seasoned researcher, the joys of aimless travel are slowly replaced by a sense of doing something unique and useful, something that few people are capable of, or qualified to do.

So, the turquoise waters and white sand beaches of Ko Phi Phi, Thailand -- I've been there. Taking in the stunning vistas on a motorcycle trek up the rim of the Boulevan Plateau in Laos, I've done that. Kayaking through tunnel caves among limestone cliffs and floating fishing villages in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam -- check! Inadvertently dumping motorcycle in river, body attacked by strange Asian microbes, stranded for the night in a rice-hut in the middle of nowhere, suffering heat stroke, getting pinned downed in hotel room for days on end by constant rain -- roger that, too. And, yeah, getting paid to do it.

Let's put it this way: when I'm old and grey, do you think I'm going to look back with regret on the years I spent as a travel writer? Not on your life.



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