Lessons from the road: mistakes travel writers make (so you don't have to) - part I

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Pay close attention to the shortest phrases in a Lonely Planet guidebook. Advice like: don’t swim in the river. No photos. Watch your wallet. Those nuggets of travel wisdom are usually earned the hard way by a Lonely Planet author.

We’re going to tell you the back stories behind some sage guidebook advice. One warning though: don’t try this at home. These are mistakes professional Lonely Planet writers have made, so that you don’t have to.

Snow and ice on the Trans Siberian Railway. Image by James Morgan / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images.Snow and ice on the Trans Siberian Railway. Image by James Morgan / Robert Harding World Imagery / Getty Images.

Don’t swim in the river

This advice comes from Lonely Planet author Celeste Brash in South America.

My father and I arrived at Guyana’s Iwokrama base camp, hot, exhausted and encrusted with dust. The river looked opaque and brown, but incredibly inviting. We asked our guide if it was safe to swim, and he said it was but that he’d need to watch us from shore. This sounded strange but we didn’t question him. We swam and stretching our bus-stiffened muscles in the murky water while our guide watched vigilantly from the dock.

Later on at dinner, our lovely server said, ‘I hear you went swimming,’ with a sweet smile. ‘Did you meet Sankar?’

‘Sankar?’

‘Yes Sankar, he’s our eight-foot caiman.’ My dad nearly choked on his cassava.

‘Um, no we didn’t,’ I said nervously. ‘Uh, is he friendly?’

‘Well I’m not sure really,’ our server replied, in her sing-song voice. ‘I like to feed him scraps of meat.’ And with that she sashayed back to the kitchen.

A toothy grin from a possibly friendly caiman. Image by Thomas Vinke / Getty Images.A toothy grin from a possibly friendly caiman. Image by Thomas Vinke / Getty Images.

No photos

When Lonely Planet author Simon Richmond says no photos, he means it.

While researching Lonely Planet’s Trans-Siberian Railway travel guide I left the train to stretch my legs at Illanskaya station, an early-20th-century red-brick complex with flower gardens so picturesque that I took a couple of shots with my camera. Within seconds I was strong-armed by three men into a building in the corner of the compound where, after thinking that I was being robbed, I was presented to security officers as a spy.

With seconds ticking down to my train’s departure I begged the guards to allow me to return to the train to retrieve my bags, including my computer, research notes and practically all my cash. But the train was already pulling out of the station and into Siberia.

After convincing the authorities that I was a travel writer rather than a spy, I eventually made it to Irkutsk with the help of several kind and sympathetic people. To my joy I discovered my belongings in the safekeeping of the police, having been passed on by the honest train conductor. As I ran down a checklist of my luggage, listing every item down to ‘seven pairs of dirty underwear,’ I found not one thing was missing.

‘This is the Russian way,’ said my Irkutsk guide. I was eternally grateful and humbled.

Be sure to heed that 'no photo' sign. Image by Cory Doctorow. CC BY-SA 2.0.Be sure to heed that 'no photo' sign. Image by Cory Doctorow. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Watch your wallet

This seems obvious, but Lonely Planet author Alison Bing speaks from personal experience.

My wallet was stolen while I was interviewing a Prosecco maker after a long day of wine-tasting at VinItaly, Italy’s biggest wine fair. A gallant wine blogger from Rome offered me a lift to my accommodation on the other side of Verona. A ride from a stranger: what could go wrong?

On the way we picked up a gorgeous, impeccably dressed woman. She had flown in from Paris for a romantic weekend with this guy, and he was now more than two hours late. I was his excuse.

She gave me a limp handshake and one of those icy looks perfected by elegant Parisian women that will freeze your internal organs.

As a travel pro, I know that in Italy there is one sure way to turn awkward situations into lifelong friendships: I offered to buy them both a drink. I used my last emergency euros on their drinks and tactfully slipped off to the bathroom. When I came out they were arguing; she pointed at me, tossed her shiny hair and stormed out of the bar.

We searched Verona for the Parisienne, finding her at another bar surrounded by new admirers. The couple started yelling; I made my exit and walked home. So the longer version of that warning for VinItaly is: watch your wallet, and do not accidentally stumble into an international love triangle.

Taxis by Rome's Colosseum. Image by Robert Lowe. CC BY 2.0.Taxis by Rome's Colosseum. Image by Robert Lowe. CC BY 2.0.

Count your (own) blessings

Amazing travel moments aren’t so easily shared, as Jeff Greenwald learned in Tibet.

While hiking in the Tibetan mountains, my photographer friend wandered off on his own. An hour later he caught up with me.

‘I’ve just had the most fantastic experience,’ he said. ‘I found a little house – a shack, really – and the couple living there invited me in. They served me po cha [Tibetan butter tea] with flakes of real gold floating on the surface! It was the most auspicious blessing I’ve ever received.’

‘Really?’ I was stunned. What luck! I wanted this blessing, too. Wasting no time, I retraced my steps along the narrow trail, looking everywhere for the little dwelling. As evening fell, I had to admit defeat. I’d found no welcoming hosts, no Tibetan tea, no gold flakes anywhere in sight.

For an hour or two I was consumed with envy, bemoaning my bad fortune. But I learned a valuable lesson: It’s foolish to believe you can replicate anyone else’s travel experience. Focus on having your own.

Time for tea in Tibet. Image by Melanie Ko. CC BY 2.0.Time for tea in Tibet. Image by Melanie Ko. CC BY 2.0.

Take the road more travelled

Travel writer Robert Reid has evidence that getting off the beaten path doesn’t always offer exciting adventure.

My biggest mistake is called Novy Urgal. It’s a Siberian town that I thought might be a nice addition to the Russia or Trans-Siberian Railway travel guides.

The city is cracked to pieces. Cracked sidewalks. Cracked concrete housing-block buildings. Cracked city hall buildings, with leaking empty hallways and mezzanines looking over a desolate library.

There was no hotel. And the train station had no rest house. So I knew I was stuck seven hours until the next train came. I found a sad restaurant with no windows or customers, ordered a large Russian meal and watched music videos of Russian pop bands with bad hair. Then I found an internet place in a nearly empty administrative building. I went three times over the next three hours, checked scores on ESPN, then double-checked them later.

I did find a cute railroad museum that probably sees four visitors a year. An older woman cheerfully led me around, pointing out each exhibit and explaining in rapid-fire Russian I had no hope of catching.

Afterwards I took a few photos of the Lenin statues, then sat on a park bench until the drunk sleeping on the next one started waking. I got to the train station about two hours early for my train out. I wasn’t going to miss it.

Want to read more lessons learned on the road? Check out the second instalment of mistakes made by travel writers.