My Perfect Adventure
Sometimes travel writing can sound like a dream job, a chance to visit exotic places on someone else’s dime. But if you think it’s that easy or glamorous, it might be time to talk with Thomas Kohnstamm, a veteran in the profession who will probably urge you to think again.
Kohnstamm was once a frequent contributor to Lonely Planet, working on more than a dozen travel guides after earning a master’s degree from Stanford University and leaving his steady job on Wall Street. Then in 2008 he raised eyebrows by writing a surprising account of his experience in a book, Do Travel Writers Go to Hell? A Swashbuckling Tale of High Adventures, Questionable Ethics, and Professional Hedonism. In it, Kohnstamm admits to some partying on the road, but he also sheds light on a rougher side of travel writing: the struggle to meet deadlines on a shoestring budget, which he says is common among underpaid guidebook writers. Without enough time or money to eat everywhere he’s supposed to review, he resorts to writing about some restaurants by reading menus posted outside and observing what other diners have chosen. He even toys with the idea of selling drugs to fund his work expenses, and eventually tries making ends meet by accepting freebies from hotels and restaurants so he can review them, though he never promises positive coverage.
Kohnstamm’s book received praise from some reviewers for its humor and honesty, while Lonely Planet responded with defensive condemnation, but Kohnstamm says he never intended to bash the guidebook industry or deter travelers from using guidebooks. Instead, he says he wanted to offer a more honest account of his profession and some of its problems, and to help people think about guidebooks in a new way—not as “travel gospel,” but as rough tools for basic information.
Since 2008, Kohnstamm’s work has appeared in Forbes, World Hum, and MSNBC, and today the 36-year-old is focusing on book projects and screenwriting, with clients including Skype and Xbox. A new father now, he’s trying to tone down his travels and spend more time at home in Seattle. “My wife and I bought the house I grew up in off of my folks,” he said in an email to Outside. “For someone who couldn’t wait to get on the road as a kid, my life has come shockingly full circle.” Here, Kohnstamm tells us why he loves Rio de Janeiro, what he learned from getting pistol whipped in Caracas while doing solo bar research, and why he’d like to meet Hunter S. Thompson.
Describe your perfect day, from dawn 'til dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
I’m married now and have a one-and-a-half-year-old son, so my travels are much more structured. I spend at least one month every year in Rio de Janeiro, my wife’s hometown. I’ve had a lot of perfect days in Ipanema, just meandering from the apartment to Posto 9 and back, surrounded by friends and family and ice-cold beers. I also wouldn’t mind road tripping up British Columbia’s Powder Highway with my brother and skiing a few different mountains. And I guess I’d feel better about myself if I made some solid progress on my writing for at least a few hours that day too.
If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
I want to explore Mozambique. The coastline (and diving) look spectacular, but I’m most interested in their culture and the Portuguese influence. I also like many of the progressive elements in contemporary German culture, and while I’ve spent a bunch of time in Munich, I haven’t been to Berlin. I’ve heard a lot of good things about the city from Berliner friends and am attracted to its cosmopolitan nature, and I want to understand more about the integration of East and West Berlin.
Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
I’ve liked every place I’ve ever gone in at least one way or another—even if it was just because it was unusually ugly or boring. That said, the two places I most frequently return to are Rio de Janeiro and Whistler/Blackcomb. Rio is the most bad-ass beautiful and fun city on the planet. It is the perfect complement to a more tranquil and ordered life in Seattle. Blackcomb offers legitimate big mountain skiing that is lift accessible, and the side and backcountry is mindblowing. I am also a fan of Lençóis Maranhenses in northeastern Brazil, a massive area of dunes punctuated by pools of crystalline rainwater. It’s a lost corner of the planet and lets me feel as if I’ve gone a bit off the map.
If you could have lunch with any adventurer, explorer, or athlete, who would it be and why?
I’d be most interested to get to know people who have written about their travels (Bruce Chatwin, Hunter Thompson) or have written about cultures and places on a deeper level (David Simon, any number of anthropologists). I’d like to try to understand what drives them and try to see how their individual personalities influence their take on a place.