Saturday, February 26, 2011

Going By The (Immensely Popular and Profoundly Flawed) Book

We were making unbelievable time; seriously, I thought we had entered some kind of worm hole. The trip from our hostel (way overpriced – and no breakfast) back to Bratislava Station went much faster than the initial walk across town to the Linoleum Sheraton now that we knew which way was hore. We hopped a train to Trenčin, a small city with a quaint old town and phenomenal ice cream, then traveled on to Ružomberok via a silky smooth connection in Žilina. (Switzerland, I thought at this point, had nothing on Slovakia’s rail system – except maybe in the sanitation department…and in overall comfort…and on a baseline decibel level.)

Right outside Ružomberok Station we jumped on a bus (after a stuttering, embarrassing back-and-forth with the driver). The seats and aisle crammed full of students (wonderfully forgiving of our bulky bags), we stood for the ten kilometers down the road to Vlkolinec, an idyllic one-dirt-road village whose residents’ lives have been turned upside down since its appointment to Unesco’s World Cultural Heritage list. After a prying look around we would take another creaky bus back to Ružomberok for our last train ride of the day; if things continued to proceed as they had since our fortuitous encounter with that blessed street vendor in Bratislava we would make it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš in plenty of time to find a place, fire up some dinner and relax as the sky turned dark over Jasná and the peaks of Chopok Sever. We started walking, me pushing a suitcase, a loaded pack on my back, my wife pushing our son in his stroller right behind. According to the map in our guidebook, Vlkolinec was right there along the main road…

I see that Lonely Planet recently printed its 100 millionth book. To this bit of news I imagine reactions would vary. ‘What’s Lonely Planet?’ This from the majority of folks (including somewhere around 80% of Americans) who do not own a passport. ‘Yeah, I love Lonely Planet!’ This from the great majority of backpackers who buy big expensive backpacks for their long hikes from luggage carousel to bus at the curb outside, from another curb straight to reserved hostel room, back to mini-bus at the curb to the next reserved hostel room, to a waiting tuk-tuk driver ('all the way at the end of the street??'), to …

Then there are those who just shake their heads.

This is where I fit in.

I bought my first LP soon after I got to Japan. The sucker is a shade over 900 pages, I would have left it on the bookstore shelf if I were only going to be in country for a few weeks or even a couple of months. But my plan at the time was to spend about five years here, so I figured I’d get plenty of use out of it – which I have. I was initially dismayed, and still am, that there was not in those 900 pages one single mention of my new hometown of Fukushima - and barely five pages on the entire prefecture, all of them devoted to the Aizu-Wakamatsu and Bandai areas (the latter well worth seeing). Also included was a half-page ‘map’ of the Bandai Region (I will expound on LP’s cartographic incompetence in a bit). Not a word on Fukushima City – not Hanamiyama, nor Jo-Raku-En nor the fact that I now lived there.

LP’s tongue-in-cheek slogan – ‘Almost too much information’ – is a credit to their sense of humor as much as it is a jab (likely unintentional) at their average customer’s mindset. I’m glad Mr. Groundwater brought up the example of Vang Vieng, Laos in his article. When I rolled into that same town at 10am on a flawless day, the only life I saw was in the form of a couple reclining in a café watching Friends. Are you kidding me? Blue skies, gentle temps and some of the most amazing karst scenery in all of Indochina and you two slugs are lying around watching morons making stupid sexual innuendos to canned laughter? This is what happens I guess when paradise turns popular: the outsiders pour in, the locals pander to their creature comforts (and who can blame them?) and suddenly, just as Yosemite falls victim to Curry Village, the amazing beauty of Vang Vieng becomes mere backdrop for the gluttony, sloth and stupidity that has become the norm. Groundwater maintains that if LP doesn’t turn paradise into a plundering ground someone else will. This I find wrongly forgiving – if I don’t sell your kids coke someone else will so don’t blame me for Joey’s deviated septum – but maybe I’m pointing the wrong finger. After all, a guidebook is supposed to guide you to the greatest treasures a land has to offer.

Unfortunately, now there are 100 million people out there following blindly along.

My personal stance with LP has nothing to do with their success and the associated decline in the average traveler’s propensity to go anywhere without being told where that 'anywhere' should be (not to mention their ongoing neglect of my continued presence here in Fukushima). What I raise issue with is something I’ve been fed on several occasions: false facts.

There I was in Phnom Penh, my first real travel experience, armed with my LP Cambodia, picked up at Bangkok's Don Muang Airport for a mere 30 bucks. Two friends were on their way, cycling into town from Băttâmbâng and Sisŏphŏn and Thailand and San Francisco. I was hungry; I was sure they’d be ravenous. I flipped through LP's pages and pages on Phnom Penh until I found what I was looking for – a description of a village past the outskirts of the bustling city with a row of intimate local establishments where we could eat and talk and soak up a slice of (as yet) unexploited Cambodia. Two hours later I was apologizing profusely to my two friends plus a third girl, also traveling by bicycle, for leading them along this dark, deserted road to nowhere. There was nothing out here, ‘just over the bridge and down the road’ as my so-called guidebook had assured me.

We did eventually come upon an amazing sight: a massive outdoor banquet hall filled with red carpeting and kitsch, karaoke machine still blaring for the guests who had by all indication long since gone home.

At least the kitchen was still open.

On the way back over the bridge we had to run from the cops. We will never know why.

Among the many disclaimers LP puts forth in their books, one of them states (quite correctly) that ‘Things change…nothing stays the same.’ Apparently this covers the disappearance of entire communities.

By the numbers, Lonely Planet is the king of guidebooks - much as McDonald’s is the king of hamburgers. Personally I would rather go hungry than fork over any amount of any world currency to the Gilded Arches. Similarly, I would now, before even glancing at a LP map, resort to any means of finding my way – asking the locals (with their wildly varying ideas of how far ‘not far’ is); translating road signs (often necessary outside of the main cities and off the main roads); muddling through a Japanese guidebook (easier said than done) or just going with my internal gyroscope and getting lost – which is pretty much the same as following a LP map anyway.

In the Thai border town of Mae Sai (the northernmost point in the country, separated from Tachilek, Myanmar by a modest river and a ten dollar donation to the oppressive Burmese regime) I had a choice to make. My destination was Mae Salong, a village of Chinese refugees and tea, high in the hills to the southwest. Right from the door of my hostel was a road that, according to Julian, the hostel owner (who got rip-roaring drunk the night I was there and spent hours falling on the floor and screaming not-so-nice four letter words at his ex-wife over the phone) led directly to Mae Salong. In this case, however, directly meant winding around, through and, most worryingly, up and down and up and down the many miles of mountains that stood between here and there. (Did I mention I was traveling solo on a tandem bicycle?) ‘It’s bloody suicide,’ Julian warned me as he cracked open the evening’s first bottle of 100 Pipers scotch.

I had a guidebook with me – a 240-page work of genius (check out the price) written on the premise that some people out there still prefer adventure and intellect over hand-held surety along the cattle trail. This book was only four years old, but in that time a lot had changed (including the paving of a once-impassable road out of Takeo, Cambodia which, had I known, would have caused me to miss out on miles of back roads, a spectacular bout of haggling for a boat ride with people who I don’t think had ever heard another human being speak in such a language, and a sweaty two hours being held and interrogated and (fortunately) not subsequently jailed by one then a group of Vietnamese officials). Plus all the maps were hand-drawn and not to scale and not exactly intended for cyclists bent on dying in the hills of far north Thailand so only a few main roads between the more significant towns were included. And virtually none of them had numbers or names.

Getting to Mae Salong would be a climb, I already knew that. What I wanted was a non-lethal route to the base of that climb. I scoured Julian’s library of tattered books and found, to a mix of delight and dismay, a recent LP Thailand. The map showed a straight line leading directly south out of town; this would be the same smooth, flat road I rode for the last three kilometers into town after coming in from a side road out of Chang Saen. Cool. It looked like an easy 20 kilometers to Huay Khrai, where I would bang a right onto another straight shot west to Ban Pakha, then roll straight south to Pa Miang which would from there bring me around to the day’s ascent.

To make a simple story long and convoluted, that straight-as-a-ruler road west to Ban Pakha started winding and rising and snaking north until I swore I was almost back in Mae Sai. Lucky for me it is near impossible (and certainly not advisable) to eat an entire kilogram bag of lychee in the course of a single evening and I had something left over from the night before to lubricate my system as I looked at the road still rising and twisting out of sight ahead of me. That road did eventually lead to Ban Pakha, a place I was by now positive no LP writer had ever been to or passed through. Then for the next four hours I pedaled my bike up and down the most ridiculous stretches of road I have ever almost puked on. This, I decided, was the mountain road that led away from the door of my hostel; the road Julian told me to avoid before he started in with his histrionics; a road that passed not a single shred of human evidence beyond its own curbs and the bridges that crossed the streams that ran between these golden-grassed monsters.

Mae Salong itself was fantastic – and not a single LP in sight.

I say without exaggeration or sarcasm that I’m sure no one involved in any LP Thailand has ever seen Ban Pakha or even bothered to scout out the area. What other excuse could there be for having a straight line represent that serpentine road leading up into the hills? What defense for claiming the existence of a Cambodian village that doesn’t exist? Maybe I was being naïve or unrealistic, but I had a hard time believing anyone would include in a guidebook – from the most popular guidebook company in human history – made-up information on places they have never visited.

Until I realized that at least one person has written for a guidebook about a country he never visited.

On the map in the Czech Republic & Slovakia LP – which I’m guessing is pretty much a copy of the old Czechoslovakia LP with a revised intro and a new cover – Vlkolinec is denoted by a circle situated directly on the road we and forty kind, patient students had just rumbled down. Perhaps what threw this particular LP writer off (assuming he or she even bothered with the bus ride down from Ružomberok Station – or the train out of Bratislava) is the bright and very visible arrow-shaped sign right there along the road pointing toward a side road and, ostensibly, Vlkolinec. A full hour of pushing our luggage and our kid up this desolate (and in a few places blessedly shaded) road and we came upon another sign for Vlkolinec – pointing up a steep road that, indicated by the cartoonish tourist map next to the gravel lot for the tour buses that can’t make it any further, led another two kilometers up to the village of Vlkolinec where, at least in the drawing, everyone is happy.

After trying and failing for that first hour, within minutes of turning up this new and maddeningly steep road we managed to hitch a ride. Then afterward we really hit the jackpot when we bummed a lift from a guy who had been selling jars of honey out of his car and was just pulling away to head home when I threw myself in front of his grill and asked him if he was going toward Ružomberok Station by any chance.

We made it to Liptovsky-Mikulaš just in time to find the tourist office (open until 5 according to LP) closed at 4:30. I ripped through a couple of pages searching for accommodations listings before I shoved that so-called Backpacker’s Bible in my pack and we walked on up a residential road. Within minutes we came upon a man who, by good fortune and historical border shifts, spoke German (as do I, more or less). Next moment he’s on his phone calling a friend to come pick us up to whisk us to their home with a very comfortable guest loft apartment from where we could watch the sky grow dark over the peaks of Chopok Sever.

I can’t say for sure because I didn’t check, but I would have bet this place – this neighborhood and this woman’s house – wasn’t listed in our LP. God-willing, it will stay that way.