Ben Box - Life on the Road
Footprint’s South American Handbook is verging on legendary in travel circles. First published in 1924 and currently in its 86th edition, it’s been praised by many, from Grahame Greene to Michael Palin, and remains the definitive guide for travellers to this amazing continent.
Ben Box has edited this guide for 20 years. We asked him to give us a glimpse of life as a travel writer, and his views on South America.
Travel writing always seems to be viewed as a very glamorous lifestyle, and yet I get the sense that the perception is somewhat sexier than the reality?
I suppose everyone dreams of being paid for writing about journeys that they have enjoyed, but when it comes down to it, most people travel for fun, for a holiday. A lot of people also write for fun, as a hobby. Travel writing is work (in that you aim to earn money from it) and some fortunate souls are able to combine the two activities (travelling and writing) and earn a living from it. I count myself in that lucky camp because, even though I may not have the opportunity to produce creative pieces week after week, I am able to travel and I am able to write.
When you are collecting information you have to check hotels, restaurants, bus timetables, etc, all the nitty-gritty of day-to-day travelling and keep an eye on the wider picture, looking at and experiencing the attractions, the culture and the landscapes of the place you are writing about. So it’s very varied and demanding while on the road, and then you have to write it all up, more-than-likely to a tight deadline.
How does guidebook writing differ from travel writing?
Guidebook writing is very much based on factual research. Unless you are starting a book from scratch, with a completely blank canvas, you are updating something that already exists. Either your own work, or a previous author’s. That type of work requires a certain dedication to detail and an understanding of what travellers need when they are on the road and what they want from a book.
The other type of travel writing comes in various guises, ranging from the works of those famous travellers like Jan Morris, Colin Thubron, Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Sarah Wheeler, to the articles in the weekend supplements, to, increasingly, the web-based pieces.
Does it take the edge of the travel you do purely for pleasure, or are you always checking out bathrooms and bus timetables wherever you go?!
When I go on holiday, I put the notebook away. I suppose sometimes I think how I might write up a place, but travelling for pleasure means exactly that – I don’t have to check bus timetables. Hoorah! So the answer is no, writing guidebooks doesn’t take the edge off travelling. And even when on assignment, I still enjoy the travelling, the moving around and seeing different places. It is important to be able to inject a sense of the place and an enjoyment of it into a guidebook.
South America is such a huge continent, so how do you ensure you cover all angles – how many people work alongside you on keeping the guide updated?
Footprint has a range of individual books covering South American countries and these titles run in parallel with the South American Handbook. So I can draw upon them and their authors’ expertise. Besides the authors of those books, we also have correspondents dotted about the region, either ex-pats or locals, who provide information each year. For the 2011 edition, I have some 18 people working with me, to a greater or lesser degree.
Do you receive a lot of reader feedback, and how do you use it?
We do receive a lot of correspondence from users of the book, although it’s different in character these days. In the past, before the digital age, people tended to write travelogues of their journeys, sometimes quite factual, sometimes long narratives (even on toilet paper). These days we get mostly emailed notes about one or two places, concentrating on what has changed, what’s new, where the book is out-of-date. People can now drop us an email as they go along, or they’ll write up notes after the trip. This is a very valuable resource, not only for the practical details but also for seeing what type of places people are visiting, how they are travelling and what they are expecting of the book. We receive these reports in good faith, just as we hope that the readers take the information in good faith (“We try our best…” as it says in the book). But it is also sensible to try to double-check as much as possible and this applies very much where merely a website is given as a source of information. Websites are very fickle things!
How do you feel travel has changed in the 20 years you’ve been writing for Footprint?
There are so many practical changes, like the standard of buses and roads, the growth of independent, often ex-pat owned hostels, the greater availability of vegetarian food, how to handle money when on the road (eg the use of ATMs as opposed to dodgy exchange merchants on the black market). Also the type of trips that people take, which are much more mix-and-match, with a bit of luxury, an expensive jungle trip or some volunteering thrown into the backpacking experience. Many more older people are travelling, either professionals on career breaks, or people travelling after retirement. Also people backpacking, but not on the cheap. Then there is the Gringo Trail that can still be followed, but it now includes the internet café, as well as the cheap hostels. And there again, you find all the different types of hostel: party hostels, chill-out places, boutique hostels, gay and lesbian-oriented hotels… the list goes on.
Do you ever tire of visiting South America, or does it still give you that buzz?
That’s easy: No, I am still thrilled to go there.
The South American Handbook has always been about providing sufficient insight and depth and breadth of content to allow travellers to tread their own path and avoid the classic “gringo trail” – do you think independent travel is becoming more of the norm nowadays with people craving unique experiences, and if so, why?
No, I don’t think independent travel is becoming the norm. It has always been popular, or certainly among Footprint Travel Guide users. There is a place for the gringo trail, as well as for the escorted tour. And you can build these into your overall experience. I’d say that there is much more flexibility now. Unique (a word I try never to use in the book!) experiences can always be found, as long as you are open to what is around you and as long as you are prepared to give back something of yourself.
Over the last few years, there has been huge focus on eco tourism – do you get a sense when travelling that this issue is being taken far more seriously now and has moved beyond pure lip service?
There is definitely a change of perception, especially with the efforts of people like Planeta, Responsible Tourism and many others. This is encouraging all of us who travel to think about the how and the why of making journeys. It’s a many-sided process: the tourist has to have a “green” mentality and so has the company providing the services and the country with the “product” to promote. In the last case, governments may not have the money to back up the slogans, so it is often down to the private sector initiatives to start, or to keep the momentum of green-awareness going. Another side of the issue is the terminology that is used: labels such as “eco/responsible/sustainable/community” suggest an uncertainty about the field. I don’t think that the lack of a universally-accepted definition of this type of tourism should be a hindrance. In some ways it might be a good thing not to have a clear-cut term, because that allows flexibility and spontaneity in what is offered and it allows the space for things to grow, rather than be tied down to set principles. If there is an element of lip-service, at least it means that people are thinking about the matter and as tourist awareness grows, those who are not wholly committed will adapt to the new expectations.
What have been the highlights from all your travels around South America?
There are too many to single out just a few, from the first day I set foot in Mexico and visited a Maya temple in 1980, right up to being encouraged to dance at a “concurso” in a tiny village in Peru last December. Some spectacular things have been: a Cruceros Australis’ cruise from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas via Cape Horn; travelling with friends across the Altiplano of southern Bolivia; visiting the Huaorani in Ecuador; birdwatching with experts in Peru; a weekend in Lajinha, Minas Gerais, Brazil; travelling around Guyana; island-hopping in the Galápagos; and above all, the friends I have made.
Where do you envisage the hot spots in the region being over the next 12 months and why do you think this is?
The problems with and the high cost of air travel, especially from Europe, means that South America is never going to be the same high-density destination as say Thailand, Egypt, or Australia (in the long-haul bracket), so I think there is still scope for almost all the main areas to be a hot spot, with minor variations here and there. The flooding at Cuzco and Machu Picchu this year has highlighted the fact that in Peru alone there are many other parts of that country which have resided in the shadow of the Sacred Valley but which are deserving of attention. Colombia is enjoying a boom at present, after years of neglect. Uruguay is also up-and-coming as a destination for non-South Americans (its neighbours have been summer visitors in droves for many years). Guyana and Suriname are prime nature destinations which are beginning to gain wider recognition.
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