The Horrors of the Beach Planner

My day job involves managing projects across several countries, and this means fiendishly complicated documents. Booking a trip to Goa for later this year seemed like the perfect way to unwind. But, reading the Lonely Planet guide to Goa, I encountered a document more disturbing than the schedules I’ve been reading:

Goa is famous for its attitude of susegad. This is said to be a national mood of laid-back, easy-going hospitality and tolerance, which apparently comes from the Portuguese word sossegado, meaning silence. The idea of susegad might well be linked to colonialist ideas of Goa, it’s still something used to sell the state to tourists, even as deserted beaches become bustling resorts.

Goa promises miles of relaxing beaches. but the idea of a Beach Planner just makes me nervous. For a start, there’s that introduction talking about how that Goa’s “tropical island” feel means “it’s easy to forget that you’re in India“. I’m not sure why this should be something that improves your holiday.

The section then goes on to categorise the beaches.I booked to stay in Mandrem (Relaxing with a Good Book) last year, when I meant to book a place in Arambol (Backpackers and Budget Travellers). It worked out OK, as Mandrem seemed to suit me better than Arambol would (although I was robbed on the price of the hotel room).

The categories for the beaches sound OK: Water Sports; Family Fun; Partying and Drinking; Yoga and Spirituality (including both Mandrem and Arambol); Five Star Treatment; Nature; and Beach Huts (Mandrem, again).

But there’s something aggressively organised about this planner. I imagine it being reduced to a diagram, a series of intersecting circles, which must be navigated to get your holiday right. Apparently “the decision shouldn’t be made on just the aesthetics of sand and sea: it’s about choosing the beach community that suits your style of travel and sense of place.” This is very much the sort of decision I booked a holiday to get away from.

The book is firm on the importance of the right place: “Locating the perfect beach is the secret to making the most of your stay“. Getting the wrong beach will ruin the everything. The choice of beach feels like destiny, as great a challenge as if I was forced to choose my own star sign.

But two things reassure me – the first is that the LP has not bothered to classify every beach, missing out, for example, quiet Querim. I hiked through here on the way to Fort Tiracol, a tiny fort on the very Northern edge of Goa. It was small and peaceful and empty, although much of the beach was too steep for easy swimming.

And, secondly, the Beach Planner itself ends on a reassuring note: “Goa is small enough that you can jump on a scooter or in a taxi and explore.” You don’t have to stay anywhere you don’t want to. So I’m thinking of getting a taxi to the very south of the island, and working my way up. There are other ways to find beaches than a Beach Planner.

The Joys of the Lonely Planet

To reach Pushkar, in Rajastan, you first take the train to Ajmer; while Pushkar does have a station, very few services stop there. From Ajmer, it’s a half hour journey, through a pass between two low mountains. Pushkar is on a small plain surrounded by mountains, and lies around a square holy lake. It is famed as few places where Brahma is worshipped and draws in both pilgrims and travellers. The main street is full of souvenir stalls and even a didgeridoo shop, for those hippies wanting to appropriate two cultures at the same time.

My first time in Pushkar was a day trip – I stayed in Ajmer instead, exploring the sights there. I popped into Pushkar for a few hours; the lake was dry and too many people were hassling me, so I headed back fairly soon. My second trip, I stayed a few days in the Lakeview hotel, which had been recommended by my friend Vicky. The hotel’s more expensive rooms overlooked the lakes, and didn’t have bathrooms, due to their proximity to the religious area. I settled for a room on the street side. I spent many happy hours in the roof restaurant, watching the ceremonies on the lake.

Time had been hard for the hotel’s proprietors on that first trip as they had not been listed in the most recent Lonely Planet Guide. As far as I could tell, there was nothing wrong with the place, it seemed cheap enough too, so it was probably just bad luck. The problem is that travellers will always work their way through the guidebook first. Tripadvisor might be challenging the supremacy of the Lonely Planet’s reviews now, but the Lonely Planet still directs a large number of visitors. It’s reviews are better too – Lonely Planet reviewers give an objective review. Tripadvisor is full of vendettas, angry screeds and people with unrealistic expectations.

For restaurants, bars and hotels around the world, endorsement from the Lonely Planet can be incredibly valuable. If a place gets a particularly good write-up, another might open nearby with a similar name, in the hope of catching some of its trade. The encouragement of the Lonely Planet brings in yet more tourists who like the comfort of good guesthouses and restaurants. I’m one of them.

The Lonely Planet soon begins to look less lonely. One can buy didgeridoos in Pushkar, and every town has restaurants selling banana pancakes or Oreo shakes. On the street a short distance from the Lakeview Hotel is an excellent falafel stand, and the ‘Out of the Blue’ restaurant sells excellent pizzas.

(Out of the Blue also sells a special lassi. My father once tried to order this for dessert, thinking he would treat himself. I’m very grateful to the waiter who, after asking three times if he was sure, explained that the lassi was special as it contained bhang, a very strong form of marijuana. My Dad opted for a fruit lassi instead.)

The Lonely Planet has created new bottlenecks in India, just as the overland hippie trail led to traveller hangouts like Delhi’s Indian Coffee House being popular. And hanging out with other visitors can be fun. It was another traveller who told me I had to visit Orchha, which was much more interesting than its short write-up in the Lonely Planet suggested.

But, at the same time, you don’t want to spend all of your time with people you would avoid back home. William Sutcliffe discussed this in his novel about India, Are You Experienced. While the book suffers a little from being a product of the laddish 1990s, it contains some astute observations about India. In Manali, the narrator meets a load of public schoolboys, who are thrilled at bumping into each other by chance. He points out that there are only a few places in India where they are likely to go. India might be massive, but tourist India is a much smaller place. I’ve chatted with people in Agra, then bumped into them a few days later in Jaipur.

There are things you need to know about a country before you get there, such as how to get around, what legal rights and cultural expectations surround travellers, and which places are best avoided. It’s also good to know the local scams – while getting involved in a jewellery investment in a foreign country is foolhardy, there are elegant cons that easily capture the jet-lagged and unwary. For these, a guidebook is invaluable.

But escaping the trail can be fun. I would never have gone to India without the reassurance of reading a guidebook beforehand. But my favourite moments have been places that were a little off that trail: cities like Gwalior or Lucknow that are almost completely ignored by travellers; chai shacks at the sides of busy roads. I stayed three nights in an empty luxury hotel near Dausa that had regular power-cuts. And I’d have sometimes done better with hotels by turning up in a new city and seeing what is available, rather than go with places made complacent or more expensive by guidebook listings. Nowadays, I could probably discard the guidebook and have a more interesting time without it. And, just like the first Lonely Planet guide, Across Asia on the Cheap suggested, the best advice comes from other travellers.

For my next trip, I’m wondering if I should just leave all guidebooks behind.

Lonely Planet

In 1972, Tony and Maureen Wheeler travelled overland through Asia, all the way from England to Australia, arriving with just 27 cents in their pockets. On returning to England, people kept asking for the details of their journey, so much so that the Wheelers decided to make a guidebook. In 1973 they worked at their kitchen table to write, type and staple ‘Across Asia on the Cheap’. (A free editions is available on Kindle) They needed a company name, so took Lonely Planet from a song called ‘Space Captain’ by Matthew Moore – although later learned that the actual lyric was ‘Lovely Planet’.

The guide book was evangelical about the idea of making the overland journey, explaining that for the price of an airline ticket between England and Australia, one could travel overland for two or three months. Only a few guides were being written at the time and 1500 copies of their guidebook sold in the first week, launching an empire. Another, more complete guide followed, establishing the reputation of the company.

The first Lonely Planet guide took 94 pages to explain the months of travelling through Asia – still finding time to discuss each country’s history and offer a quirky guide to the religions that would be encountered. It explained how to navigate embassies, how to receive post on the way, and some of the organised tours that were available – although you could make the journey alone if you were brave. It even listed countries where you could sell blood if you ran out of money (“Price for Blood in Kuwait is probably the highest in the world, sell a pint or two if you are broke”). The guidebook has a ramshackle charm, with just enough information to work with: “The most useful source of extra info will be your fellow travellers. People coming from the opposite direction will have all the latest on the hassles coming for you.

This first guidebook describes a very different experience for travellers. It suggests signing ‘passing-through’ books at embassies, to leave a trail in case one disappears. It advises carrying a good set of clothes for embassies and borders, even going as far as to recommend haircuts or ‘short-hair wigs’ for getting into Singapore without hassle. That book also has a troubling sense of ethics; talking about the Iranian carpet industry it says that “Strict child labour laws are gradually weakening the industry, so buy now while children are still exploited!”

At this point there were too few travellers to have much effect on Indian food, and Wheeler is disparaging about it. “Can be miserable. India is where you lose weight on this trip.” The Wheelers claim that street stalls and cafés might be unsanitary; the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place is described as ‘Delhi’s freak bottleneck’; The best food is said to be found on the railway stations. While the book is dismissive of Indian food, it does better than Pakistan’s, which is dismissed in three curt words – “As for India”.

Over the years, the Lonely Planet went from a scrappy publication, giving you just enough information to survive, to something comprehensive and authoritative. The latest editions of the guide to India are around 1200 pages, compared to the 94 which covered the whole route from England to Australia. The Lonely Planet is in the strange position of being by far the most successful tourist guide company in the world, worth $77 million in 2014, while also being denigrated for its effects on the world. Even the first guide was aware of the effect of travellers, complaining that “the charm of Bali shows every indication of being rapidlty eroded by tourists”.

For someone like myself, who is not a natural traveller, the Lonely Planet guides have proved invaluable. They gave me the confidence to explore places I would not have gone to otherwise. At times, they’ve mislead me in entertaining ways – some of the city maps have little value beyond showing you that there are locations within a city and they are in different places. But, while there is much debate over the problems caused by guidebooks, in my life own they have been a power of good.