Death of the guidebook

I’ve been intensely planning our upcoming holiday to Malaysia. This will be only the second time we have travelled abroad together and the first time in 3 and half years i.e since we got Abroozi. Being such devout foodies, the excitement is palpable. 

I have my mother in law to thank for agreeing to take care of Abroozi when we sashay off to the “Far East”. We’ve never ever considered going on holiday without Abroozi but this time we are on an important mission.

In my previous avatar I used to be a travel agent. After I abandoned my Indian Sociology Masters degree at Delhi School of Economics and before I decided to go to London to do a proper Sociology Masters degree that I was really excited about, I had about a year to decide what I wanted to do with my life. My sister and I were living together in Delhi and she got me a job at a place called Meander Holidays. It was a 2 roomed office with a kitchen in one of Lajpat Nagar’s side streets. I got paid Rs.5000 a month which sadly was my share of the rent.

The business was a comedy of errors – Carry on Camping. It was constantly running out of cash and ideas. Apart from the valuable experience I’m sure I gained from there on how not to run a business, it was the people who worked there that were genuinely bizarre.

There were 7 of us including me. The dusky receptionist with long glitter painted finger nails who chain smoked (those were the days one could smoke at ones desk) and exuded sexual energy directed at anything that moved. She had studied at a prestigious boarding school in Nainital and knew a friend of mine so instantly I was accepted and let in on all the gossip. The accountant was a well fed short man who was petrified of the boss, dodged all calls from businesses looking to collect their money and had got the company a credit facility with everyone from the chai walla downstairs to the transport company, none of whom the company was able to pay off on time. To all customers who called, he was never in. He was a man that lived in fear of every ring of the telephone. I think his coiffe suffered the most.

The boss was a man who was bad at business, bad with money, bad with relationships and had given up his soul to a rich Delhi socialite of a wife that kicked him around like a sad dog. Despite this he was bursting with personality, ideas and a love for life. He always kept a bottle of something in his desk drawer and it was a good day for the business if he didn’t have a drink or offer any one a drink before 4pm. I felt sorry for the man because he was a fascinating guy but also very trod on. He didn’t tell his wife how badly the business was doing. I assumed that she had tossed him some money to start this up so that he would be out of the house and rescued from being a complete loser. She was a rich beautiful Delhi socialite who we never saw but was always spoken about in hushed tones.

The cook was a thin wiry old man who always got shouted at. But he produced the best aloo paranthas, dals and subzis in true Dili Punjabi style every afternoon for our lunch. The other worker bee was a soft spoken tall guy who looked like Supandi from the Tinkle comics. He was a high school graduate and was doing a Diploma course while working at Meander Holidays. He got shouted at the most, did most of the leg work and never got taken on any of the retreats. The saddest day was when he was the first of us to be laid off as the company ship sunk deeper in to debt. Sadly he was falsely blamed for doing something he didn’t do and sacked even when everyone knew that the company was winding down and that soon all of us would go.

The last in this motley crew was the sales and marketing guy. True to form he was a schmuck. Arrogant, smarmy, thought he was good looking, wore a crappy suit even in the Delhi heat, that looked like it was made of Teflon. He generally thought he was the dog’s bollocks. He’s the kind of guy who can’t carry off a casual outfit and feels more comfortable in cheesy suits. That’s exactly what he was too – a cheesy suit.

My role in this illustrious bankrupt business was initially to make holiday bookings for customers, design brochures and get low deals on hotels. Later the business moved away from holidays and towards facilitating team building workshops and retreats for employees of companies like Coca-Cola and CARE which was the really interesting part. That was perhaps my first exposure to group discussions and workshops that later became the bread and butter of my social research work in the UK for 6 years. But in the initial few months when the travel agency was the key business, I was given the title of Executive Adventure Traveller – and a business card. The best freaking job title I have ever had.

What does an Executive Adventure Traveller do, I hear you ask. Well, the job of an Executive Adventure Traveller was to well…. plan other people’s holidays. The tools of an adventure traveller was the only dial up internet connection which only I had access to. Those days one couldn’t do transactions and bookings over the internet and I had to make calls to hotels in Thailand etc to try to negotiate deals and packages and make hotel bookings on behalf of Indian travellers. Business was slow – there were hundreds of other travel agents with vast experience who could do things much cheaper. I later figured out that our “customers” were all related to the boss and who he had coerced in to letting us book their holidays for them.

I could write a book on my experiences at that place – the fake receipts we printed out so that we’d get a higher mark up on a crate of Frootis, how to dodge businesses coming to collect, how to BS a client, how to spin a down market beach resort and airbrush its flaws to customers. I learned a lot about the holiday/tourism business from my stint in Meander Holidays – all the various commissions that go in to your hotel fare and package deals.

Perhaps it was 9 months at this and my profession as a researcher that has led me to always do a lot of research before going on holiday. From Budapest to Moscow to Guatemala to Dindigul  I’ve always been the person who books the hotels and plans the holiday. Where to eat, what to see and what the locals do, are top of my list of research topics. Whether it’s patience or an actual love of going through hundreds of reviews and websites and reading between the lines to find the perfect place for us to stay (location, price, comfort) I’m not sure. My thinking is that if I’m going to spend all that money getting there, I don’t want to miss anything but I don’t want to be running around either. Don’t worry, I’m not Hitler on Holiday or anything – a relaxed yet involved and not entirely slothful holiday is what we like. The DH leaves all holiday logistics to me and so far I’ve not let the side down. Even when he lived in Russia, I still planned the whole operation from India. And Russia is not an easy country to travel in.

For my research, I’ve always bought a guide book as well as using the internet. My guidebooks are dog eared and heavily underlined with notes in the margins. We have a decent collection and this is excluding my London and Europe guidebooks that I left behind in the UK.

Travel Books

Although I’m not a huge Lonely Planet fan, my favourite of our travel books is a reproduction of the very first Lonely Planet guidebook, a 973 edition called Asia on the cheap. It was given to me by a friend who work(ed) at the company’s Sydney HQ.  She edited the India guidebook and thanks to her, if you look in the 2005 edition you’ll see a quote from me on how travelling by the Konkan railway from Goa to Cochin was my favourite India travel experience.

Reproduction of the first ever Lonely Planet

As we’ve been travelling only in India since we got married and since Abroozi travels with us, it’s been a long time since I bought a guidebook. This time round for Malaysia, I did much of the planning relying instead on Trip Advisor and the hundreds of blogs and travel logs that are out there written by locals and foreigners. [A warning for Indians using Trip Advisor  when looking for budget to mid-range hotels. This is a site populated with a lot of hotel/restaurant reviews by Westerners whose standards are very different from ours. I find that people from the western world are extremely fussy about what to expect from a hotel. We Indians tend to have much lower standards when it comes to room size, cleanliness and how frequently ones towels are changed. Nowadays I tend to go with the reviews of people from India or South East Asia more than those by “foreigners”]

While I was very happy exploring on the internet, I wondered whether we should buy a guidebook anyway. Although the options on FlipKart were pathetically limited ( to just two publications) and ridiculously expensive, old habits die hard and I caved and bought the damn thing. I usually hate the Lonely Planet format and prefer Rough Guide or Time Out but I was left with no choice on FlipKart as Rough Guide was out of stock. Here’s some advice for you – don’t do it. Don’t pay Rs.1100 for a real disappointment.

Who needs a guide book anymore when there are hundreds of blogs and apps out there with up to date information and frankly more information than could ever be printed in a guide book. Lonely planet just doesn’t seem to have kept up and I don’t think they can ever contain all the places to eat and stay that a country has to offer. Moreover, their books are still written by foreigners, who as experienced as they might be, still offer burger eating options in a place like Malaysia. There’s two pages on where to find Italian, French, Spanish and American fast food in Malaysia. Why would you travel all the way to a place like Malaysia to eat a burger? The people who want burgers should not be catered for by guidebooks anyway.

I love reading the blogs of local people. I’ve come across Malaysian food Blogs that even have GPS co-ordinates giving you the exact location of a particular hawker stall that you shouldn’t miss. There’s plenty to be discovered on our own of course, that’s one of the joys of travelling. But when you’ve got limited time in each place you can do with all the help that’s out there.

With 3G and GPS, I’m afraid the guide book is a lost cause. According to a Guardian article, by the end of 2012 sales of printed travel guides will have fallen by around 40% in the UK and US since the 2005 peak. In 2005 the average unit sale of the top 100 international travel guides was 9,372; in 2011 it was 6,199. The best selling international guide from a major publisher sold 21,028 in 2005; 10,201 in 2011.  Some people say there is a nostalgia for carrying around a guide book. But frankly, I’d rather be watching and experiencing the local life around me than have my head stuck in a guidebook reading about what’s already around me.

Like with so many things, the internet has sounded the death knell of yet another old school way of doing something, like planning ones holiday. So when travelling abroad, I would leave the guidebook behind and take your 3G phone with you or find an internet cafe instead.

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About nonsense girl

Galley slave, qualitative researcher working in development, married my best friend, writing about my life, my family, my dog, TV, Indian culture, astronomy and my garden. www.nonsensegirl.wordpress.com
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6 Responses to Death of the guidebook

  1. gkorula says:

    I hope you still have a copy of the Rough Guide with your name in print! Agreed, they can be good reads and there is a nostalgia attached to it. I just wish that more local people were contributing authors, especially now that more Indians are travelling domestically (and abroad). Outlook Traveller does a good job. I subscribe to Lonely PLanet Magazine, India edition which is also a good read with a lot of good India locations and holiday ideas. But this might be the first time we travel abroad and leave the guidebook behind….

  2. mh says:

    Having read and used a second hand lonely planet guide to travel across the country in the nineties, it gave a very refreshing perspective besides being extremely helpful . Then,one of my teachers, a Britisher and a keen alpinist, shared the ‘rough guide’ with me.That was their first Indian Edition.I too wrote a very long letter correcting/giving them on factoids of the mofussil and found myself in my hall of fame- ‘in fine print’ in the list of contributors with my complete rank and all seventeen years back! They were generous in sending me a couple of copies with a letter from the editor too.i rely on guide books and they even serve as great reads to an arm chair traveler like me. internet may affect these great guides as you have indicated, but im sure they will re-incarnate in an e avatar due to the brand and trust. btw congratulations to both of you on winning third prize in interiors.

  3. ashreyamom says:

    i have never traveled much, so have no idea about guide books.. when ever i traveled, somebody or other planned for me, so i just went there and enjoyed.. now thats quite an information for me.. may be next time, if at all i travel to Malaysia, will take tips from u.. 🙂

    • gkorula says:

      Now that Silk Air has started direct flights from Vizag to Singapore you should get your husband to take you. Then you can buy a guide book too! Travelling is a great way to learn more about yourself in new situations and learn more about the world around you. If you get the change, you should make it happen

  4. Ganesh Gopalakrishnan says:

    I planned the Kerala Holiday for my friends with no guidebook. Just by word of mouth of well travelled friends

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