Lonely Planet: the world famous travel guidebook company which has scores of writers in the field at any one time and scores more desperately trying to get a job with this coveted organisation. So the logic behind Lonely Planet Unpacked is sound – given that LP has a veritable travel anecdote treasure trove scattered amongst its past and present writers, why not pick a theme – travel disasters – and gather the best ones together in a book.
It’s such a good idea it makes the crushing disappointment of reading this collection of stories all the more palpable. Of the 26 stories in this slim volume, only around a third have any real merit to them. Because of the intelligence that usually oozes from the LP guidebooks, topped off with a sense of consideration for the places you go and the people you meet, it’s a pity to see that some of these stories are about the crassest form of spending time abroad – like Nick Ray’s "The Motorcycle Diaries", which catalogues Mr Ray’s deeply tedious drink and drug anecdotes in Cambodia. On a motorbike.
It takes a good writer to make such stories worth reading rather than being mere transcriptions of boozy anecdotes from the bar. Instead, a lot of these stories suffer from the delusion that merely because they’re situated somewhere exotic, they are interesting per se. This isn’t enough.
It’s also somewhat questionable calling this a collection of "travel disaster stories" when a lot of the stories are nothing but slight mishaps easily rectified. Being held up at gunpoint and having all your valuables taken, that’s a travel disaster – making an elephant stampede because you ignore your guide’s advice and get too close, that’s just idiocy. Similarly, being lost in the jungle for a couple of hours until being found by a search party doesn’t really add up to a travel disaster either. In the hands of a skilled writer, such a small anecdote could possibly be turned into a masterpiece of suspense and dramatic tension – but flatly narrated as it is here it leaves you with a distinct sense of "so what?"
Nevertheless, there is an irritating more-intrepid-than-thou attitude emanating from some of the writers featured in this collection, which gets in the way of them actually writing about the places they’re passing through. This is compounded by some of the obviously self-penned biographies of these writers being excruciatingly self-satisfied, while the book’s concluding story, "A Week Lost And Found", is one of the most self-indulgent exercises in soiling paper I’ve had the misfortune to read. The point of travel writing is to share experiences, not boast about them.
What becomes apparent reading this collection is that being a good travelbook writer does not necessarily make you a good travel writer. Compare Unpacked alongside a similarly themed travel collection like There’s No Toilet Paper On the Road Less Travelled (ed Doug Lansky) and the depth missing from Unpacked’s stories becomes apparent.
Even more frustrating is that there are several excellent stories here that hint at what Lonely Planet Unpacked might have been. Daniel Robertson’s "Expulsion From Hanoi" and Suzanne Possehl’s "Three Spies In A Diamond Tub" both document deeply wierd and distinctly dangerous run-ins with state bureaucracy – Robertson’s description of pre-doi moi Vietnam is fascinating, in part because this level of suspicion and complete incomprehension of foreigners has pretty much passed away, but also because he captures the fear of being caught up in the state apparatus. Similarly, Possehl’s visit to the Siberian mining town of Mirny is a genuinely scary look into post-Soviet Russian paranoia and reads like something out of Kafka.
Chris Rowthorn’s "New Year’s Eve In Borneo", Paul Greenway’s "The Mongolian Scramble" and Miles Roddis’ "The First Hour Of the First Day Of My First Assignment For Lonely Planet" manage to be effortlessly humorous, entertaining and informative about foreign places. It’s not a case of being profound or scintillatingly witty – it’s about writing with sympathy and empathy for your subject without being po-faced about it.
It’s precisely these qualities that are present in the collection’s one true travel disaster story, Jim Dufresne’s "Last Rites On The Tatshenshini", which describes discovering a dead kayaker whilst in the Alaskan wilderness.
In all, Lonely Planet Unpacked seems like a real missed opportunity. There’s been an attempt at diversity but not enough stringency about quality. There surely must be plenty of material amongst LP’s writers for numerous sequels, but there needs to be some far more vicious editing to make it worthwhile for the reader.