Trials of Tourism

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  6/18/2006

The job requires a willingness to brave freak acts of nature like monsoons, fend off pickpockets and other potential miscreants, and stomach the solitude of traveling alone for two months, often in a foreign country, with no more than a dim grasp of the language.

Candidates should expect to bunk in dingy hostels, sample the local cuisine, whether it be cow hearts sprinkled with salt or stir-fried dog, and pay the digestive consequences – all while taking copious notes at countless guesthouses, restaurants, museums, and nightspots.

Oh, and depending on the country, hires must survive on roughly $50 a day.

Sound like torture?

To Ross Arbes(cq) and generations of Harvard students, the highly competitive positions are about as close to Shangri-la as a summer job can get.

"It’s definitely in the awesome category,’’ says Arbes, 20, a soon-to-be junior now exploring Vietnam. ‘‘Last summer, I was an intern sitting in a cubicle. Now I’m going to be near tropical beaches and shopping in foreign markets.’’

Last week, the English major began a unique opportunity offered to a select, hopefully hardy crew of Harvard students – that is, a job that pays them to travel and publish their journal musings. As part of an annual summer tradition, about 80 newly trained field researchers shipped off this month to five continents to update 15 of the popular Let’s Go Inc. budget travel guides, which Harvard students have produced since 1960.

To qualify, Arbes had to distinguish himself during a battery of interviews from hundreds of similarly bright students who filed into their grungy offices just across from The Harvard Lampoon on Mount Auburn Street. The 14 editors at Let’s Go – which only employs Harvard students – sought out those who wouldn’t go wobbly in less than five-star conditions.

To land a spot as one of five researchers for the 2007 edition of “Let’s Go: Vietnam,’’ Arbes had to impress Julie Vodhanel(cq), 19, who just finished her freshman year and serves as editor of the book’s second edition. He had to prove that not only could he manage to live on just $49 a day, which she insists is a relatively generous stipend for Vietnam, but that he would be ‘‘gung-ho’’ to do the work. Meaning he wouldn’t fail to file the weekly dispatches to Vodhanel, who like Arbes had never been to Vietnam.

‘‘We didn’t hire people who thought they were getting a free vacation,’’ says Vodhanel, who alone interviewed about 80 students interested in researching Vietnam. ‘‘We expect he’ll work as hard as we need him to, and probably harder.’’

Arbes joined Let's Go at a time when the top brass has decided the travel guides – which face increasingly stiff competition – should return to their roots, a core audience which they describe as "the young and the young-at-heart" who want to explore the world with an irreverent companion that won't burst their budgets.

Before 9/11, Let’s Go, a for-profit company owned by the nonprofit Harvard Student Agencies, was sending some 200 researcher-writers every summer to update more than 60 titles that covered 70 countries and 18 major cities around the world.

But as the attacks triggered a slump in the travel industry, and with the rise of competition – ‘‘Rough Guides’’ now publishes some 200 titles covering similar territory and ‘‘Lonely Planet’’ prints about 600 titles that offer budget travel tips – Let’s Go felt pressure to try to broaden its audience. Their publisher, St. Martin’s Press in New York City, urged more safety advisories and higher-priced listings, which translated into new items such as ‘‘The Big Splurge’’ and hotel recommendations that sought to appeal to young professionals.

The strategy hasn’t necessarily paid off; the general manager of Harvard Student Agencies says Let’s Go now sells some 500,000 books a year, down from about a million books a year in the late 1990s. Overall, in royalties and advertising, he says the books generate about $2 million in revenue for Harvard. Let’s Go’s website, which now gets about 5 million hits a month, still takes in less than $20,000 a year.

One sign of the guides’ hard times, editors and managers noted, was the publisher’s decision this year to try to boost sales by dropping the price of “Let’s Go: Europe,” the company’s best-selling book, from $24.99 to $14.99. (More than 130,000 copies of the 2006 edition have already sold this year, double the number from last year, according to St. Martin’s Press.) Also, with about half the field researchers on staff than as recently as five years ago, Let’s Go now updates fewer books.

“We’re a student-run operation – we can’t compete with ‘Lonely Planet,’” says Bob Rombauer(cq), the general manager of Harvard Student Agencies. “So we’ve tried to narrow our focus in recent years.”

To do that, Let’s Go decided to junk its “sophisticated” covers for more “colorful” covers. This year’s “Let’s Go: Europe,” for example, scrapped the striking yet obscure image on last year’s cover. Instead of a sculpted face peering out of a field of sunflowers, the 2006 edition features a collage of easily identifiable icons, such as the Eiffel Tower and Dutch clogs.

“We saw the 2005 cover as a pretty picture that wasn’t appealing to those in our age group,” says Laura Martin(cq), 23, a recently graduated senior who’s now Let’s Go’s editor in chief. “We wanted our audience to easily identify us.”

The more substantive changes involve reasserting Let’s Go’s cheeky tone, which she says editors muffled to some extent in recent years to cater to the broader audience. The difference, she says, is they’re encouraging writers to forgo neutral descriptions for more saucy or “honest” language, the kind they say college students value.

So Arbes and the rest of this year’s crew will reassert Let’s Go’s cheeky tone, which she says editors muffled to some extent in recent years to cater to the broader audience.
In previous editions of “Let’s Go: New Zealand,” for example, she says a writer described a “quaint” town and objectively listed its various sights. In the latest edition, Martin says the writer describes the town as more of a place for “grandmothers,” somewhere not worth visiting to really experience New Zealand.

‘‘We were being too cautious,’’ she says. ‘‘We want to bring the vigor back to the books.’’
For Arbes and the other researchers recently hired, one of the first tasks is learning about libel law. Let’s Go has been sued by businesses miffed about the way writers described them. In one case settled in 1998, it took eight years and a Supreme Judicial Court ruling to throw out a lawsuit by an Israeli who claimed Let’s Go unfairly besmirched his youth hostel by telling travelers he had been sued for sexual harassment.

Writers are taught to document their opinions. If they find a place dirty, they must provide details. If they come across a cockroach, they should note the time and place. ‘‘Telling the truth is very important,’’ Martin says. ‘‘But we have to back it up.’’

They also go through "model mugging'' classes, and women, who have long made up about half of Let’s Go researchers, learn ways to avoid leering men. Among the tips passed along, women are told to wear fake wedding rings, and if necessary, lie about meeting a husband or boyfriend to men whose attention they don’t want.

Last summer, while traveling as a researcher in Poland, Stephanie O’Rourke(cq) was walking near the Warsaw Ghetto around noon when she says two men cornered her and grabbed her bag. At 18 and just finished with her freshman year, she used what she learned in the mugging seminars before leaving: She elbowed one of the men in the groin and screamed ‘‘help’’ and ‘‘getaway’’ in Polish.

‘‘I’m not very athletic, but it worked,’’ says O’Rourke, who’s now the editor of ‘‘Let’s Go: Germany’’ and oversees six researchers and an associate editor.

The harrowing experience wasn’t the hardest part of her trip; more challenging was just being alone.

‘‘I went days without talking to people in English,’’ she said. ‘‘I spent bus rides just formulating phrases.’’

The sometimes cruel serendipity of living on the road taught her coping mechanisms, such as diligently washing her tired feet every night, splurging on decadent desserts as often as possible, and always getting at least eight hours of sleep.

Amber Johnson had similar experiences while working as a researcher last summer in London. By the end of her route, the 26-year-old graduate student also felt the pangs of loneliness.

‘‘You kind of stand out having dinner by yourself in a romantic place,’’ she says.
So she learned to befriend strangers, and she discovered the joy of finding free stuff -- like museums -- and nearly free stuff, like cheap opera seats. She also found that as much fun as she had researching, it was real work.

‘‘It can be really exhausting being a fulltime tourist,’’ says Johnson, whose assignment this summer – about 15 percent of researchers do the job more than once – is to figure out how to survive in New York City on just $93 a day.

The fatigue comes from the requirement to move around a lot, but Let’s Go advises their researchers to avoid night transportation, especially night buses.

The warning has been a priority since 2001, when Haley Surti(cq) became Let’s Go’s first researcher who didn’t return from an assignment. The 21-year-old biochemistry major died when a night bus she took in Peru plunged off a mountain road.

No. 1 on a list of safety tips that Let’s Go gives researchers reads: ‘‘Never, ever take night transportation. Ever.’’

But for researchers like Arbes, whose itinerary has him taking a 24-hour bus ride the day after landing in Ho Chi Minh City, there’s often no other choice. ‘‘It’s the only way to go,’’ he says.

As the skinny student from Atlanta loaded his sturdy green backpack last week, he carefully follows Let’s Go’s packing instructions.

He wraps duct tape around a Nalgene bottle, in which he stuffed socks, waterproofs his backpack by lining it with a garbage bag, and packs, among other things, a pillowcase to cover potentially dirty hostel pillows, a loud alarm clock, and a deck of cards to play solitaire.

In addition to a laptop, an iPod, and a medical kit filled with malaria pills a pack of Starbursts, he sets out five boxer shorts, two pairs of khaki pants, a thin fleece, and one button-down shirt.

Then he organizes the seven folders that contain all the maps and CDs he has to update and mail to Cambridge throughout the summer.

Researchers have regular weekly call-in times with their editors and must send ‘‘copy 
batches’’ just about every week. (Those who don’t risk having their stipends cut off.) The editors spend the summer massaging the text, and in the early fall, they send the manuscripts to St. Martin’s Press, which around Thanksgiving will print 15 of Let’s Go’s current 48 titles.

The day before leaving, and still unsure how to say ‘‘thank you’’ in Vietnamese, Arbes says he has no illusions about the hard work.

‘‘It’s easy to romanticize this, but it’s an intense job,’’ he says.

His only real concern, he says, is getting sick and being far from a hospital.

‘‘But to be honest,’’ he says, ‘‘I’m not too worried.’’

David Abel can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

Copyright, The Boston Globe