Wanted: Travel Writer - Needs Strong Liver & Good Ability to Bull Shit

By Murissa Shalapata

I was going to write about Eat, Pray, Love the film, however upon doing research for this post I was overwhelmed with the amount of blogs who's focus was that film. So I thought I'd take a different approach this month.

Not every one has it, but most of us are infected with the travel bug, including myself. As my previous post in June explained, I had just returned from an amazing month long educational trip from Italy. However, I noticed a problem within the first week of my return. I was restless. I wanted to plan the next trip, some place I had never been far away from Canada with an element of culture shock. I could only talk my boyfriend, as well as afford, a budgeted trip to Hawaii this coming December. Now that the Hawaii trip is all planned and pretty much paid for, what do I do now? I start plan the next European bound trip due in Summer 2012. What is this burning inside me to go, to see the world, rather than put that money towards a house? I was relieved to find that I am not the only one with this desire that at times wakes me up at night or makes me feel like I may be on the verge of heart palpitations.

During a last minute trip to Seattle that I insisted on last month (and annoyed my near broke boyfriend) I had found a huge book store with a truly impressive travel essay section. This, unfortunately is missing at our local Chapters book store who insist on restricting their travel section to the size of a cubicle plainly titling it TRAVEL. But at the Seattle Borders book store their travel section took up half the first floor! They had rows of travel guides and the entire back wall presented Travel Essays. What an epiphany! Novels, Non-fiction books but just simple reduced to TRAVEL but TRAVEL ESSAYS. For a University student studying Creative Writing this was illuminating to finally have found a label for the writing that I want to produce and develop for the rest of my life.

We had ten minutes to buy our books and get back to the hotel as we were on time constraints and had to make it to Maryhill winery for a Jackson Browne concert with my parents. So there I was forced to find a book that would peak my interest and teach me about the travel writing industry. I grabbed 'All Over The Map' by Laura Fraser simply because it had a review by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of 'Eat, Pray, Love' one of my favourite books.
Below - Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert in Eat, Pray, Love
I had time for one more quick pluck from the haystack. 'Do All Travel Writers Go to Hell?' by Thomas Kohnstamm was my final pick. The cover was less than impressive for me, cartoonish and doesn't really represent what I think this book is about, however the contents proved to be more intriguing.
This book took on a more seedy and adventurous approach to travel than Fraser and Gilbert. Although he did break off his relationship with his long time girlfriend (similar to Gilbert) and quit his desk job all for a six week low paying job as a travel writer in Brazil for Lonely Planet. This Non-fiction travel book presents a number close calls and exposes the underbelly of Brazil as well as the travel writing process.
Kohnstamm himself is an adventurous and surprising character for someone like myself who hasn't 'really' done any drugs or been any where dangerous (my dad would never allow it) and I haven't really had the means or the balls to be spontaneous. But Kohnstamm reached me with his words, despite my disapproval or shock of his actions.

"I am not opposed to challenging myself. I am not opposed to the risk or pain for the opportunity of a unique experience...I am the same person who decided--while at a Halloween party in Manhattan--that I'd run the New York City Marathon with absolutely no training...four days later. [I] finished just over four hours with little more than excruciating knee pain , bleeding nipples, and a raw scrotum...It is pushing those boundaries and comfort zones that make you remember how many millions of ways it is to experience life, to explore the fringes of our physical and emotional perception" (p.129).

In the midst of Kohnstamm's exploration of the human experience and it's limits he is held at gun point by Brazilian teenage cops, sells drugs as a means of income in order to reach destinations he must cover for the book, he sleeps with what seems like one woman each town including his roommate, a prostitute who poses as a model, and heavily drinks. I am not so down on the drinking part but, Oye! What a ride! 

Besides the obvious adventure this book offered, Kohnstamm also reveals the difficulties and contradictions he faced as a writer.
Below - Thomas Kohnstamm

"...as with the rebellious college graduate who finally cuts his hair, buys some suits, and gives up his bong hits for golf, the struggle to endure often requires a sacrifice of spirit and individuality.
Whereas Lonely Planet used to offer up rather polemical political opinions and frank advice on drugs, sex, and how to cut corners, the books now aim to be as inoffensive as possible, to talk up how fun and exciting each place is rather than reveal any unsavory or controversial realities....Instead of telling crafty budget travelers how they can slip into the pool at the large resort hotels, as LP once did, they are dedicating a significant number of words to reviewing the actual resort hotels for families and wealthy travelers...They have cash in their checking accounts and functional credit cards; the only problem is that we writers are still just as poor as the original backpacker audience" (p.142).
With six weeks to visit 60 towns and cities in Brazil Kohnstamm realizes that what Lonley Planet is asking of him is impossible, especially on his budget. So in the end he does what any writer would do, use his imagination to fill in the missing information. He makes up what he thinks it would be like to go to the places he has not been and he uses the older issues to help him out. In the end he also has freedom to include new towns that we not originally included but he then realizes the potential power he contains in his finger tips; he can change the lives of the people belonging to those towns forever....

"I float on my back in the pool between dunes, staring up at the sky. Atins is paradise. It is the perfect tranquil place...I do not want to include Atins in the book. All that will do is bring in more tourists, and 90 percent of the profits will go to foreign investors...The world is good in its natural and perfect state, from the sand up to the stars. I simply need to strike a balance between myself and nature to discover true harmony, the perfect, pure form of being...I must try and remember this" (p. 237) ---Kohnstamm after taking drugs in Atins.

Surprisingly there is a similar drive for all the writers I have mentioned in this post,
including myself.
Kohnstamm reaches my conclusion with the use of drugs. My desire, Gilbert's & Fraser's
and even Kohnstamm's reasons for travel (perhaps even yours) can all be linked.
It is more than just traveling because we need to relax, a vacation, although that helps too.
The incidences that happen to us when we travel enlighten us, especially the unplanned,
unexpected, spontaneous events.
We are traveling the world to find a common energy, the power of the Universe, God in
Gilbert's case, however you may define it, we travel to see the differences but also the
similarities. We find ourselves in discovery, we find balance in a world of chaos and 
technology. In the simplest of places wether it is Brazil, Italy, Bali, India, Mexico, 
we are set free in the discovery of a new world, our world.
Below - Elizabeth Gilbert praying with Ketut in Bali

Thank you to the following websites for photos:


  1. Hi Murissa - I really enjoyed your post! What a fascinating read! I don't know if it's everyone's cup of tea to travel that way - but the idea to get lost in another culture and experience something different is very appealing. I think this is something worth exploring for you! ;) Looking forward to your next post.

  2. Murissa, I really enjoyed this post. Like you, I love to travel. I can't imagine a life where I will be confined to one spot for eons. It does help to have that next trip planned...something to look forward to. I've rented cars in Costa Rica and Italy, a way to get off the beaten path and explore for yourself. I also love the opportunity to learn a new language, and the way people find a way to communicate despite language barriers.

  3. Hi Murissa. Great post. I also love to travel and live in other countries. Being an ex-pat is difficult, but I find it rewarding as a writer. I greatly admire those who travel to (what I consider to be) less comfortable places. I once watched a Lonely Planet show featuring an Australian guy who would go anywhere and eat anything. He ended up getting a massage (that hurt), given by a skinny naked man in a steam filled cellar in Morocco. Okay. Not for me, but fun to watch :-)


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