Lonely Planet Writer

(A Bit) On Travel Writing's Power & Responsibility

Three American 'hikers' were detained in Iran after, apparently, straying across the Iraq-Iran border into a country that's surely paying attention to their writing records (one has reported from rebel-held territories in Sudan) as well as the pains the US went to to free journos in North Korea. And the subject came up Thursday on NPR's On the Point, and I was feeling a fancy boots to be part of a huddle that included a State Department official and a former CIA guy. The latter, Robert Baer, guessed that the 'Berkeley bloggers' had to know what they're doing, saying he'd been 'in the area' and you have to 'cross on purpose.'

Not so, according to Joe of Joe's Trippin' blog, whom I found a couple hours earlier on Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree. He had been recently to the same hills outside Halabja, Iraq, and posted that 'it's impossible to know where Iraq ends and Iran begins.' I wrote him off-line to ask about it, and he told me: 'There used to be an open border just outside the city, but it has been closed for some time and there are no plans to open it. I was invited to celebrate with some locals in the hills, at which point they indicated (by pointing) there's Iran.'

There's something not yet shown in any articles on the subject. And it's the place where travel journalists and travelers can fit in to the news -- helping complete a picture that can all too often be skewed toward easily formed or dated outside perceptions. Like the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan ( 'the Other Iraq') is not what most expect: it's a generally safe, booming place with bowling alleys, whiskey bars and many locals who love Americans. Travel writing cannot replace traditional media, but when it's not limited to crafting Top 10 lists can add to it.

Writers often strive to 'go further' than each other. Something that's been happening since way before 1890 when Anton Chekhov became the first 'Gulag tourist' by living in a penal colony on Sakhalin Island AND Joseph Conrad drifted up the heart-darkening Congo River. Often that leads travel writers to riskier, tougher places too, like Iraq. It can be a useful chest-beat, if the writer shows the broad, fair reality for those energized by the dreams dangled before them.

In a May article in the Guardian, for example, Kevin Rushby follows a fellow traveler who didn't 'give a flying f*ck' about the Foreign Office warnings against travel to Yemen. It's a fine article ultimately, and one that dwells on the security issue of visiting. But I'm guessing that traveler, at least, felt differently a month later when nine tourists were slain there.

Sometimes a lot less is at stake in travel writing and experience. I've traveled across Bulgaria several times to write Lonely Planet's Eastern Europe guide. When a funny South African stoner I met at a Sofia hostel told me he was looking to buy property ('in the hills, with a garden and not many people around'), I knew where to point him: the eastern stretch of the Rodopi mountains, something not even in guidebooks yet. I forgot about it until last year, when I returned to Kardzhali in those same hills, and a local mentioned a nearby 'crazy South African guy.' We went to find him, driving one one-lane roads past Turkish goat herders. And there he was, the same guy, now with a big home converted from an abandoned school in the hills, with a garden -- and his bong.

Real estate brokers in Bulgaria normally only eye the beach or ski slopes. That tip came from travel.