Published: August 6th 2009March 23rd 2009
I'm an optimist who's continually forced to come to terms with reality. When I was still in Thailand my plan was to travel overland to Italy. No planes. And so I -in great solemnity- ripped my return ticket to Rome off, a burgeous symbol, and set in motion, well, with imagination more than in reality. I was (still only in my imagination) in Tibet when I realized that those high mountains are simply too cold in February (if you get physically there, I mean). And so here comes Plan B: a one-way ticket to Sri Lanka, OK, a small concession to capitalism and bourgeois comforts, but all overland after that. And once (physically) landed in Sri Lanka I was already (mentally) crossing that narrow Strait that separates it from India. But even here there was a "but", or rather two...
For years now, a civil war has being fought in Sri Lanka and getting to the north by train or bus is not too recommended for anyone, and is forbidden to foreigners. I had even boarded a train heading to the "front", but I was stopped and sent back at the first check point. And I would have liked to
tell the kind officier that he should really let me go, that my imagination was already in the north, on that diminute sea channel, and that it would be cruel to keep us apart like that. But there was no way, moreover, the ferry that used to connect the two countries had been blown up by terrorists (or partisans, depending on who put the label) years ago. Or maybe it hadn't even been blown up, but the government had simply decided to suppress it so that no one could destroy it. Like when the only child in a group that owns a football is the stingy one and so nobody can play for fear of spoiling it.
So I got to India by plane: which makes two. And, in order not to give the false impression of being someone who -even occasionally- manages to complete his projects, I will add that after India I took one more flight to Kuwait and a final one with destination Istanbul. In summary: to avoid flying once, I flew four times!
But back to India. It's a country that in some ways reminded me of Africa: chaotic, crowded, dirty, considerable amount of
rats freely journeying across its cities, etc... However, there is a basic difference that leaves room for optimism: in India there is a system, an order of things very much respected by those who get obvious advantage from it, but also by those who understand that the system that in a way is what oppresses them, it's also their only hope for a better future.
Trains are one example of Indian functionality. They are organized in a hyper-astro-over red tape way, and I can say with little margin for error that if this system of sheets, rubber stamps, records, inspectors, supervisors and supervisors' inspectors was ever gonna be tried elsewhere, the railways of that given country would be in bedlam in no time. But here it really do work: a mammoth machine that every day moves tens of millions of passengers and all sorts of merchandise from one side of the continent to the other. In Europe you hear about Indian railways only when serious fatal accidents occur, but they are in fact a miracle of functionality (and punctuality).
I was travelling by train (as I always do). This time I had left Mangalore and I was going
up the west coast towards Goa. The train was one of those with transverse metal windows bars which are truly scary when the wagon is overflowing with people. But this one -strange for India- was half empty. Up to Gokarna. There it filled up with Westerners. All of them travelling alone or in pairs, (almost) all of them kept a copy of Lonely Planet at hand. And then again they all got off at the same station, each of them independently, of course. And in that moment, back into the luxury of a semi-desert wagon, I thought about the damage that Lonely Planet causes.
Born in the early 70s as an aid for the not hippy enough hippies who still wanted to see Kathmandu, has been growing like a tumor, cell after cell. Initially it was diagnosed as "benign", thirty years later I'm not so sure how it would appears in that same theorethical catalogue, but more as "cancer", I suspect. I don't know how many copies they sold every year, but it must be in the order of 7 digits, if is true that nowadays you can't really travel somewhere without seeing them in abnormal amounts. And everyone
carries one in his backpack, and will observe all its precepts and warnings, and some (too many) follow it to the letter and if something or someone is in the Lonely Planet (LP for the initiated) is good and right, while if it is not is to be avoided as you would avoid a farter in an elevator.
I've personally witnessed scenes like this: tout at the station tries to convince you to go and stay in the Guesthouse X; girl pulls her LP off, seeks for that guesthouse, doesn't found it and decide not to stay there. Only because the place is not listed in LP. Not because the guy seems a rapist or because his breath smells of garlic, but just because that name is missing in her omnipowerful guide.
There is also another problem, something that offends the sensibilities of cynics like myself: given that they cover pretty much every single country in the world, each author selects the region he (or she) prefers, so what comes out is a 500 pages long serenade, with violins and arpeggios that alternate in the praise of anything a human mind could possibly praise (and some presumably unpraisable
Colorful Flea Market
things as well). For example, two years ago I was travelling across West Africa, an area not too beaten by foreigners, and therefore I also had my good LP with me. Senegal's chapter was a series of exciting stories of where and how to find the best live African music. Now, if there is one thing, one only thing that any lunatic escaped from asylum could find with no help in Africa, this thing is live music! I'll say more: it is impossible to avoid it, even if you want to. Instead, it would be very helpful some sort of guidance on how to find decent low cost accomodation, who you must bribe to get a specific document, and things like that. Then I took a look at her biographical notes: she is a scholar of music, absolutely and hopelessly conquered by African rhythms. See what I mean? It's like asking a mother to write an objective comment about her own son, maybe she will try her best, but... you can't rule your heart!
The solution, cynical and almost sadistic, would be to give the authors an aptitude test and then send them in those areas least related to
them. So, who loves Senegal go and live in Greenland, the one who loves Caribbean beaches will move to the Himalalya, the Swiss skier will travel to Bangladesh during the monsoon season, and so forth. I'm afraid that also in that case reviews would be biased by emotions, but at least it would be fun material to read: pepper for honey!
But what saddens me the most about LP is the ageing process through what they turned towards middle-class over the years. A couple of examples: in Monrovia, Liberia, LP authors hadn't even travelled to. It was considered unsafe. They were content with calling some western diplomat there and get a couple of hotel names. One was the Hilton. The Hilton! The Hilton! What the hell, who needs a guidebook to know that he can stay at the Hilton for 300€ per night? But, most surreal, they even went as far as giving full explanation on how to get there on foot. As to say: "Now that -thanks to us- you've saved those 3€ taxi ride, you may well pay 300 for accomodation". What these gentlemen should do, instead, is exactly going there and risk their big fat hairy asses in places like Liberia or Somalia, and, OK, every so often some of them will be taken from us, and buried with all the honors in the cemetery of the indomitable hippies in Paris, and maybe people will make spontaneous pilgrimages there, as they do with Jim Morrison's grave.
Another example is the politically correct positions they have been taking with respect to hitchhiking. They warn that: "Hitchhiking is never entirely safe". Them, the children of those who used to leave Europe with 100$ in their pockets to travel to the other end of the world. And what is "totally safe"? Now that an Air France airplane crashed over the ocean, will they write: "Flying with Air France is never entirely safe"? Lonely Planet and Us: an abriged chronology
1968: Hords of unrepentant hippies set sails towards Asia.
1973: A young Australian couple decide that is time to lend a hand to those who can not fend for themselves. W Hitchhiking!
1983: No hippies anymore. 1$ rooms replaced by 5$ rooms. Hitchhiking maybe!
1993: Also the post-hippies are now gone. 5$ rooms replaced by 10$ rooms. Hitchhiking... but seldom!
2003: By now, only rich kids disguised as pseudo-hippies travel. 10$ rooms replaced by the Monrovia Hilton. People began to highlight the LP guides in fluorescent yellow and keep them as relics. Hitchhiking is never entirely safe!
2013: People are by now more than satisfied with buying and highlighting LP guides. Nothing is entirely safe! It is strictly forbidden to pronounce the word Hithhiking!
La versione Italiana di questo articolo è su Vagabondo.net
Link: Generazione Lonely Planet