My Perfect Adventure: Thomas Kohnstamm

A veteran travel writer 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

Thomas Kohnstamm.     Photo: Carolyn Fong

Thomas Kohnstamm.

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.

What’s something you can’t travel without? And why do you need it?
I don’t need much—I like to travel as light as possible because I view everything that I have with me (especially electronics) as additional responsibilities. Pathetically, I might have to say: fingernail clippers. If I don’t cut my fingernails almost daily, I get completely obsessed and start to chew them.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s usually first on your agenda?
Get my gear into a secure place (again, I hate carrying stuff), put a little bit of cash in my pocket and start walking around.

What motivates you to keep traveling?
It sounds cliché, but the world is an amazing place, we all have a finite amount of time and I want to experience as much as possible while I’m here. That said, in recent years, I’ve been focused on digging deeper in a few places rather than seeing a lot of places superficially.

Whether it’s traveling or reading or writing or practicing a new sport or skill, I beat myself up unless I am always learning something new or using my time to its fullest.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change, and do you have any regrets?
I grew up in Seattle in the '80s and early '90s when it was still a blue-collar quasi-utopian backwater. I don’t know that I really thought much about jobs. I was fascinated with travel, adventures, politics, cultures, music, and languages. While I was a very intense student, I didn’t really understand a career track or think that I could actually become a professional writer.

When and how did you first venture into your field of work?
During my last two years of college (1997, 1998), I worked as a guide in Costa Rica. I had studied Spanish since I was 12 and compiled a glossary of Costa Rican slang. A few months after graduating from college, I pitched Lonely Planet a Costa Rican phrasebook idea through their customer service email. They bought it and I was off and running at 23.

I broke into travel writing at a very young age and recognized that it was a very unstable path, so I decided to try a couple of other careers too. I did an MA, worked for an NGO, started a Ph.D., and slaved at a Wall Street law firm while I applied to law school. I was close to becoming a respectable young professional, but travel writing pulled me back in.

What's one piece of advice you would give to an aspiring travel writer?
Learn to become a writer, not just a travel writer. Being able to work across different genres will give you a much better chance of establishing a viable and sustainable career over time. So write, a lot. Looking the part, saying you’re a writer, and traveling frequently do not make you a travel writer. Focus on the craft of storytelling, not just on delivering information in a well-written manner. I have seen massive technological change during my career. Travel information is already a commodity and God knows how people will experience media in five, 10, or 15 years. However, storytelling will always survive in one form or another and will have value.

Have you ever had any role models or mentors? Describe the most influential and what he or she taught you.
I wish I’d had a role model or mentor. I kind of just figured this out on my own and misspent a few years in the process. I recently collaborated on some writing with Duff McKagan, bassist and founding member of Guns N’ Roses who grew up near me in Seattle and is also an accomplished writer, mountain climber, martial artist, and dedicated father. I was impressed with his approach to creativity, his openness to try new things and to not just ride on past successes.

Do you have a life philosophy?
Not really. I just try to remind myself of how little I actually know.

Have you ever run into a problem or experienced a near accident that made you think twice about your travel style?
I’ve had a few. I got pistol whipped in Caracas while doing “solo bar research” (a.k.a. walking around drunk at night by myself). I also thought I had a kid with the drummer of a female punk band in remote Chilean Patagonia. Both experiences (and a few others) made me reconsider how long and how far I could push the envelope.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
I would like to work with wildlife conservation. Maybe sea turtles. I find it really fulfilling to be around animals.

Name three things you still want to cross off your life bucket list.
Heli-ski in Haines, Alaska.

I have my eye on a few long hikes in South America and Asia.

And I want to be a showrunner of a digital television series—something new and different that would never be on network.

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