The streets formed a maze, a web of confusion in Varanasi. My friend Julie and I had flown in from Delhi earlier that day and, after consulting my trusty Lonely Planet guidebook, were trying to find Ganga Fuji, a restaurant reputed for good food and live music. The map in my book made it seem easy enough: Just head to the main road, turn off to the right and, a few streets later, we would arrive.
Of course, the book failed to mention that its maps had been forced to simplify a city of complex, tangled streets. We headed down the main thoroughfare, turned right and followed what we thought was the correct route. Wrong. After nearly an hour of searching we were lost, hungry and getting hopeless, so we decided to turn back. Fortunately, on our way back a young boy approached us and asked where we were going. We told him we had tried to find the Ganga Fuji but were lost. He offered to take us there and proceeded to lead us up and down the narrow, winding streets. Twenty minutes later, still walking, we again began to lose hope.
The boy was true to his word, though. Soon after, he led us directly under a sign for the restaurant, its entrance on the left. We never would have found this gem of a restaurant if we had stuck to the guidebook’s inadequate maps. Grateful, I offered the boy a 50-rupee tip. He looked offended, handed the money back and replied, ‘No money, just friends’, and left.
While books aiding travellers have been around since the time of the ancient Greeks, guidebooks as we know them today did not appear in bookstores until the mid-1800s with guides from two publishers, Baedeker and Murray. The Murray Hand-Guides assisted middle-class Britons with limited time and money on how to make the most of their trips. The Baedeker, on the other hand, set the standard for modern-day guides, offering impersonal, relatively objective resources on travel – a stark change from prior travel books, which often included sentimental reflection as well.
Even so, there was little in the way of variety until after World War II, with the publishing of Fodor’s guides, out of the US. Still hugely popular today (by one count, Fodor’s is the largest publisher in the world on such topics), these guides went beyond the usual recommendations and list of attractions to include everyday logistical information such as tipping and dining customs, as well as cultural information. Thereafter, guidebooks began flooding Western markets during the 1960s, corresponding to a relative increase in middle-class leisure time and travel emerged. Let’s Go, Lonely Planet and Insight Guides, among many others, soon became significant names.
Today, there are more than 35 English-language guidebook series available in mainstream markets, making it hard to find a country that today’s series do not cover. Lonely Planet alone has more than 500 titles, followed by Rough Guides (200) and Footprint (150). While travellers still start their journey with a thick guidebook in hand, others have adopted new technology, with the advent of e-readers, smart phones and ever-shrinking laptops. From the sounds of it, we must know so much about our destinations today that the actual journey is incidental.
This is a mistake
Guidebooks can simultaneously be a traveller’s greatest resource and a recipe for disaster. Sure, chockful of maps, restaurant recommendations, advice and more, guidebooks seem like a no-brainer for a foreign journey. But is keeping one’s head in these books the most useful, accurate and authentic way of discovering new places? Thirty-year-old Jeremy Veverka, a filmmaker and seasoned traveller, says there is no easier way to get oriented in a new city than with a guidebook. But his was little help when he arrived in Kabul in 2006. He hailed a taxi outside the airport and asked to be taken to the Mustafa Hotel, as per a recommendation by his guidebook.
‘This is a mistake. I said take me to Mustafa Hotel,’ Veverka told the driver after he pulled up near a building with the sign announcing this to be the UM Hotel. The driver insisted this was the Mustafa Hotel and an argument began to build. Finally, the driver dragged Veverka into the hotel, where guards armed with AK-47s and sawed-off shotguns insisted to the weary traveller that this was, indeed, the Mustafa Hotel. ‘Great,’ Veverka thought, ‘now the gunmen are in on the scam.’
Eventually the hotel’s manager came out and cleared up the confusion, explaining that the hotel’s name had been changed for security reasons. Embarrassed, Ververka swiftly paid the driver, adding a large tip for his troubles, and apologised to the hotel staff for making a scene. While Veverka had the latest edition of the guidebook, it failed to mention what the locals knew. Now when he travels he still brings along a guidebook but is also more trusting of the locals.
Timothy Buckley, an Australian living in Canada, shares Veverka’s views on the use of guidebooks. ‘The people you meet from the guidebooks are used to meeting tourists and are often less friendly,’ Buckley says. ‘When you meet people outside of that, it might be the first time they’ve met a foreigner, so they’re often a bit more approachable and friendly.’ Buckley arrived in Diu in the spring of 2010, during a larger tour of Southasia. He and two friends, Luke and Amy, settled and went off to find an Internet cafe mentioned in his guidebook. On their way back, the group lost their way and met a man who only spoke Hindi and Portuguese. Amy, fluent in the language, befriended the man and translated his invitation to the group for a meal in his courtyard.
Getting lost isn’t so bad, Buckley thought when he saw overflowing trays at the meal. Buckley soon discovered that this was not just a typical meal, but rather a celebration for Kali that was about to become even more extravagant at the temple next door. Buckley and his companions were the only foreigners at the temple’s festivities. Buckley recalls that his guidebook was his ‘Bible in India’, but also reflects that if he had only pursued places the book mentioned, he would never have experienced the Kali puja celebration, which he now sees as one of the highlights of his time in India.
Kindness of strangers
Of course, some travellers have learned firsthand the usefulness of travelling with a guidebook and a dose of reserve. Joan Richardson lived in India in 2010 during a university study-abroad programme, after which she spent a few months travelling on her own in the region. Within eight hours of leaving the programme, Richardson had already gotten herself into a bit of trouble.
‘I need to go to Tourist Guest House,’ she told a cycle-rickshaw driver in Hindi after disembarking from a long bus ride. It was four in the morning and the silent bus station she had just arrived at hinted that something was not right. The driver pedalled her instead to another guesthouse and seemed confused when she told him this was not where she needed to be. Observing the scene, with Richardson pointing to her guidebook and the driver’s confusion, a passerby came over to help.
‘I’m looking for Tourist Guest House,’ Richardson told the man. As someone who knew the city well, he was also confused as to why she would be looking for a hotel by that name. He looked over her guidebook and discovered the problem. ‘Madam, this is Chandigarh, you’re looking at a map of Amritsar,’ he said.
For Richardson, everything clicked instantly. On the bus ride, the man sitting next to her had talked incessantly, until she finally put on her headphones and tried to get some sleep. ‘He seemed pretty mad, but I was exhausted and eventually fell asleep,’ she recalls. When the bus rolled into the first actual bus station she had seen in most of the trip, the man convinced her that it was Amritsar, so she exited. Richardson was effectively lost in a sleepy city.
‘I’m definitely a person who plans,’ Richardson says. ‘If I know where I’m going, I will read as much as I can and will follow a guidebook. Guidebooks are a huge resource, after all – from people who’ve travelled there before.’ Indeed, foreign travel is inherently unpredictable. Putting too much trust in a guidebook can lead anyone astray, but so can following the guidance of strangers. Individuals who make the most of it are those who are flexible and can adapt with a smile.
~ Joni Sweet is a food-and-travel writer based in San Francisco.