Saturday, October 20, 2007

Guiding Light

Today was a suspiciously lazy day that included a lot of sitting, a lot of eating, and not much else. We started to search out the Peace Pagoda here near Pokhara, but aborted the mission halfway to the destination after BG found another leech on his shoe. What IS it with these things?

Anyway. We've met lots of lovely people during our travels, and almost everyone has a Lonely Planet guidebook tucked under his or her arm. We see them everywhere -- restaurant tables, tea houses, buses, cafes, internet cafes, airports, bathrooms -- everywhere. We are big fans of the Lonely Planet, having used them extensively in many other countries, and were surprised to hear that others disliked them very strongly. At first we were concerned that we were missing something huge, that maybe we were not the intrepid travellers we thought ourselves to be. On further discussion, we realized the problem: People don't think of these as guide books. They're thinking of them as Bibles!

Complaints most often heard: They said a t-shirt would cost X, and it was more/less. They said flights were easy to find, and they're not. They said a meal should cost about this, and it didn't. This hotel is not as nice as LP led me to believe. And so on.

LP is a guide that gears itself to shaggy budget travellers. It does make mention of the upscale hotels and restaurants, but for the most part, the audience it appeals to is looking for the cheapest way to stay dry and fed. Also, even if one has the latest edition of the LP guide to any country, prices can fluctuate wildly between printing and reading -- and they state that right there in the book. Restaurants open and close, as do hotels. Airlines change their flight schedules, bus operators go out of business. A tiny tweak in the environment can have a butterfly effect that changes things drastically in the span of months if not weeks, and the guide books are not to blame for that. Also, keep in mind that the books are carefully researched, but all of the leg work is done by a handful of writers -- hardly a statistical sample. The price they're quoted as "average" for a souvenir sculpture of a sacred goat may not really be average -- or maybe you're really bad at bargaining.

In our experience, the Lonely Planet books are great. They give a decent overview of what to expect from a country in terms of the people, the culture, and the environment. We've found some great hole-in-the-wall (emphasis on "hole") restaurants and hotels along the way, and we've always found the city maps and walking tour descriptions to be quite accurate. The only caveat is that you really should try to get the most recent edition of the guide book you're looking for for obvious reasons which have already been stated above. Also, because so many people rely on the Lonely Planet for hotel and restaurant recommendations, it can be good to try the fourth or fifth place recommended instead of the first or second, because that's where all of the other travellers will be! Or find another place near someplace featured in the LP guide -- chances are it will be just as good as the other if it's in the same price range. You just have to trust your instincts and use the guide book as a guide book and not as a set of instructions.

The other thing that Lonely Planet has a tendency to do is scare the utter bejeesus out of anyone who takes the time to read the section including medical advice. As a precaution, they will mention every single worst-case scenario that could possibly happen in the country you happen to be in, no matter how remote. This is where that grain of salt you've been carrying around with you comes in handy. For example, if you pick up the LP guide to Canada, I'm pretty sure it makes mention of West Nile Virus, SARS, hypothermia, snow blindness, grizzly bear attacks, mad cow disease, and rabies -- all of which are possibilities, but remote ones. My advice in this case is to read it on the airplane when you're on your way to the destination, before you have a chance to change your mind.

Other guide books, such as those printed by Fodor's, Let's Go, Rough Guides, and Footprint, are all good for their own reasons, but we remain devoted to our Lonely Planet; it's like having a familiar friend showing you around town, no matter what part of the world you're in.

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