Ever since I started writing about travel, there are a couple of things that seemed holy grailish. National Geographic. Conde Nast. Guidebooks. I was 0 for 3 for a long time there, working on what I normally work on, regular contracts that pay well enough, that I enjoy doing, but some of which have a low wow factor. I wanted more wow factor. (I also have some stuff that feels wowy to me, but it comes slowly at times). So when I heard through various channels that a guidebook was looking for someone for Chile, I threw my hat in the ring.
My hat (and resume, and experience) were caught, and a contract winged my way. In it, it said I couldn’t work for another guidebook publisher at the same time. I thought to myself, how could I, I am keeping up with my regular work and adding literally 400 things to my to-do list. Please reread that: 400 things. And then then reread the part where I said, “how could I” and please insert a whole lot of exclamation between the how and the could.
What you don’t know about guidebook writing, of at least guidebook writing in my case, is that the book you are working on may last have been updated many years ago, and the city you live in/are writing about (for me those are one in the same) may have changed substantially in that time. What you also don’t know is that, at least in this publisher’s case, there is a world of information that underlies the actual guidebook, long troves of text and a content management system in which you update each individual file on a website that may or may not be cooperative at all times. In that content management system, you may be asked to plot points on a map, when said map always thinks you are in (for example) Pennsylvania, despite the fact that you are many thousands of miles away, which means you have to zoom out on google maps and then zoom back in, such that your pinching and unpinching zooming fingers might turn into a permanent claw.
But hey, you’re writing a guidebook. And that is exotic.
That’s me working one cold morning on Easter Island, before everyone else woke up, because the only way I was going to get everything done that I wanted to get done, was to economize, by which I mean not sleep enough. And also take the extension that my editor offered me because believe me, there was no way to get all of this work done in the allotted time. And then not go to Argentina (but you read about that already)
And I got to go to Easter Island. Which was fabulous, and kind of crazy. I got the gig because I’ve spent time there before, which in a way seems unfair. I mean, shouldn’t someone who has never been there get to go? But it was a pretty unmissable opportunity. I took an awesome hiking tour of the north coast, and I had to drive all around to the fancy hotels, in addition to seeing everything else, and there are four of them, and three of them are far-flung, and so I rented an ATV because I am not a comfortable driver, and it seemed somehow like that would make it better.
Which, do not get me wrong, it did, because it turns out zipping around on nearly unpopulated roads at an unspecified speed and without a gas gauge but with a helmet, because I am not careless, is crazy good fun. I loved having a task to do on Easter Island, a reason to ask a million questions. It was gratifying. It was interesting, and it was stark and wave-crashy and moai-filled and I ate a lot of fish, but not as much as I should have, because I missed a couple of meals, but at the Hare Noi, they gave me this to eat because they’d just been posing it, and I was not going to turn town a free lunch, though there may have been bacon in the yucca purée, and whatever, I’m trying to be more open-minded.
I also gave a ride home one night to a woman I recognized from my hotel breakfast, which was nice, because I am endlessly getting rides from other humans and not the other way around.She was Uruguayan, a solo traveler, and about my mother’s age.”Do I just get on and put my arms around you, she said?” “Pretty much,” I said, careful to deposit us both carefully back where we were staying. Plus the ATV made me look pretty cool , which I am not, particularly, which makes looking that way extra special.
But it wasn’t just Easter Island. I love, love, loved wandering around Santiago. I have a fairly extensive, or some might say obsessive knowledge of certain things in Santiago, and this was totally the right job for me, or I the right human for it. I spent about eight days (plus ten years of living here) combing the streets of my Santiago, your Santiago and many Santiagos in between, in hotels and restaurants and cafés and museums and on streets and talking to construction workers and hotel managers, sometimes even wearing a hardhat, which made me feel strangely powerful, because maybe I’m just into hats.
The wandering and the info-collection was, as recently-returned Australian friend would say, ace. It was fantastic. It was everything I want out of work, with wandering and exercise and lots of coffee, and good food, and meeting people, and talking to everyone and views I’d never seen before and so much information, which I adore.
And then came the data entry.
At which point being a guidebook writer was alot like working for a very grumpy boss on a task that requires many phone calls, much corroboration, and much dealing with a set of files that are not organized how you would organize them. To be clear, my editor was mainly absent, save a few back-and-forths, and he was lovely the whole time. I was the grumpy boss. Remember the 400 things? Well, in travel writinglandia, we talk about POIs. Points of Interest. And that is what there were so many of. Some of them were super easy. Statues that haven’t moved in hundreds of years, except to fall down and get put back up again, that have no opening and closing hours. Other were restaurants or buildings that had burned down, moved, disappeared, closed, or were otherwise no longer recommendable, or had errors in their records. And there were dozens, if not a hundred new things that I wanted to include in the book. But you can’t include everything. Your job (or my job) was to winnow out what you think is important, what you think people will like, what you think will make someone’s experience of your guidebook as good as it can be (except that it’s not your guidebook, there’s just a little photo and a weird third person bio you wrote yourself).
I was so careful. I am nothing if not conscientious and thorough. To the right of my desk looked like this while I was organizing all the papers.
behind me looked like this:
See those pretty books? Butterfly is for Santiago, sailboat for Easter Island. See how tidy (the books are)?
Meanwhile, my living room looked like this. Please notice sunscreen, lip balm, water bottle (from a hotel I have never stayed at, was left to me by another travel writer who was working on another guidebook at the time) and phone. Yay, traveling office.
But my main problem was not the state of affairs and papers on various horizontal surfaces, it was the fact that I was not aware of how much behind-the-scenes work there was for a guidebook, and how long even basic things would take to find out, and enter in the system. I also thought that I had a major jump on anyone else that would be writing a guidebook about Santiago because I know it so thoroughly. That may or may not be true. On the one hand, ask me where to do, get, buy, photograph or look at something in Santiago, and I probably know. But do I know the cross streets? The name of the manager? The fact that the salsa lessons are only free on Tuesdays (given that I don’t dance salsa, no, I did not know that). On the other hand, I am also so curious and so interested in knowing nearly everything there is to know about my city, that I got distracted by every single shiny thing. And there were many shiny things.
Like the hotel that I got to review last week because I met the general manager because I walked by the hotel and saw it was under construction, and took a tour then, and then reached out again, after talking to a glossy magazine about whether or not they’d like me to review it. And I got to eat dessert with chañar (a local fruit) in it, and that’s going to be the topic of yet another story.
What about the money? Every publisher is different. Some give you a budget for the travel you’re going to do, and some don’t. I have helped travel writers make a budget for Chile for the former. I was in the latter group. I was paid a lump sum for Santiago, and another for Easter Island. How expensive or cheap it was for me to investigate those places was on me. Easter Island paid disproportionately well because of the costs associated with flying and staying there. Buuuuut, I do other work for a company that I know that is trying to promote EI, and so some arrangements were made on that front, which made Easter Island more lucrative for me, though it did take me out of the land of reliable internet and away from my home, and it takes seven hours to get there, all told between the getting to the airport and waiting, making the hourly rate perhaps not actually that great. Also, some hotels and guides on Easter Island were interested in possible coverage in a guidebook, and I was able to work some magic on that front, which I didn’t even try in Santiago, because I like my house, papers and all. This, by the way is perfectly legal and considered in the text and annexes of and to my contract, and does not require me to write nice things about the places that put me up or fed me or gave me juice. Everyone wanted to give me juice. Perhaps I looked parched. Perhaps I was. Maybe it was the sun.
Or the wind. Or the fact that at this nameless hotel, they made me wait a really long time before taking me around. But the juice was tasty, and they returned my phone to me when I left it behind, which would be unlikely at best on “the continent” (mainland Chile).
I was also offered to write the guidebook on another piece of Chile which I was not able to take, because I was out of town working on a different project for part of the timeframe. It was also for a part of Chile I don’t know as well as some others do, it seemed it would not be a great fit for me (out on the coast, far from home, POIs quite spread out, no ATV rental available). It also turned out that what I really wanted was the feather in one of my many hats that says, “Eileen Smith, travel and guidebook writer,” not “Eileen Smith, master of all the knowledge of everything within five hours of Santiago and also suffering from work-related collapse.”
Before I took the part of the gig that I did take, I asked three different people who I know and trust about guidebook writing. All three of them write or have written for different publishers. One I asked for very specific advice, and she gave me some that had to do with having a purse-sized notebook with a waterproof pen. One said point blank, “Not worth it,” and another said, “you have to love it to do it.”
Here’s what I would say to you about whether or not to work on a travel guide. Consider the answers to the following questions.
-Are you are interested in having the information that you will cram into your brain in the time that you are working on the guide?
-Do you want to go to or explore the places where your assignment will take you?
-Will this assignment somehow circle back to be to your benefit?
-Can you cross purpose/multitask (within the purview of your noncompete clause) your research or photos?
-Do you mind asking for free things and running around like a madhuman?
-Do you have to give up other work to take this work, and if not, can you turn in other stuff either early or late to clear your calendar?
-Do you mind losing somewhere between a month and two of your regular life? (really? your friends and family might miss you, mine claimed to).
-Do you mind becoming simultaneously pale and sun kissed, ill-fed and doughy?
-Do you want to be briefly, flash-in-the-pan famous, or possibly raise the ire of people who will disagree with your recommendations?
-Do you hold the (possibly ill-informed) belief that guidebook writing is fancy and or goal-worthy?
-Will guidebook writing advance your career in a way in which you’d like it to be advanced?
It’s also important to note that your work is not done when you turn in the files. Your work is done when your fact checker releases you, but not before dinging you for having conflicting information, arguing with you about vocabulary (seriously, I’m still baffled re: crow’s nest) and suchlike. Also, if you live a paperless life, you may have to jump through some hoops to get the deposit made to your account.
If I had known everything I know now about this assignment, I still would have taken it. Because of the answers to the above, and because I wanted to know more about the industry I mostly work in, and because I’m working on savant status for Santiago info (hoping to get my propellor beanie any day now). I would have interspersed the data entry better between exploration days, or done half exploration, half data days, and by doing so, I would have circumvented a few snafus I caused myself re: missing information, which I had to recheck. Overall, it was a good experience, and tested my “dislike of telephone in any language” like nobody’s business.
Another very important consideration is whether or not you have a tendency to get lost, as I do, once outside of Santiago. This is not always bad, but it can be time-consuming, if gorgeous.
Photo taken upon glimpsing the beach, which I was not supposed to be seeing, as the people at the Explora hotel were awaiting my arrival significantly further inland. Whoops. Also, vroom.