Acapulco was covered in water. After days of constant downpour, the gushing, bubbling water had overrun the inadequate sewer system. In its merciless drive towards the ocean, the flood stirred up leaves, soil, and trash. Acapulco had been put under siege by its own filth.
The tourists were prisoners stayed in their high-rise hotels, waiting for the sun to welcome them back to the beach. The locals remained in their shops and restaurants, betting on who would be the first to leave, and chiding those who did. No one wanted to venture outside, least of all me. But Acapulco was stop 10 out of 27 town journey along the southern Mexican coast and I needed to visit every night club, beach, bus stations, half a dozen different hotels, about 11 restaurants, the city park, the post office, the tourist office and an internet cafe south of town. I had two days. I was drenched the entire time.
Researching and writing for Let’s Go, the Harvard student-produced travel guide was an often arduous experience for me. Over 700 people jockey for about 200 positions each summer, and I felt lucky to be picked for this legendary Harvard job. In the early 1960s, an small group of motivated Harvard undergraduates created a Xerox pamphlet called Let’s Go: Europe that highlighted cheap places where students could afford to stay and eat. It was a hit. After a couple years, several more guides, and serious updating, the guides were bought by St. Martin’s Press. Today there are 35 titles including nine city editions. The operation is completely written, edited, and managed by Harvard students, and, unlike all other travel guides, it is updated every year. This makes it the top-selling budget travel guide series in the world, and the provider of the most coveted summer jobs among Harvard students.
Despite the glamorous reputation of traveling for the guide, the reality of the job is quite different. On my return, I found that many Let’s Go researcher/writers had similar experiences to mine. When asked about their summers traveling for Let’s Go, the response is almost predictable. They will take a moment to answer, their minds working fast to translate the vivid images and memories into words, unsure of how to process such vast quantities of information. Then, with a perfect balance of conviction and uncertainty that suggests they believe what they are about to say but are still surprised by it, they let out their breath: it was hard.
Two summers ago I worked as a research/writer (RW) for the southwest section of the 2000 edition of Let’s Go: Mexico. My job included updating listings in the Let’s Go: Mexico 1999 guide as well as improving maps and adding new spots as I saw fit. That was the official job description. The reality was much more complex. A deserted road that should have led to a beach, the sunstroke after an afternoon riding an emaciated donkey to a mosquito-infested trickle of water, waiting for buses that didn’t arrive, and jumping off buses that didn’t stop—it was hard, but not because of these mishaps. After all, I was there to experience the bad hotels, the missteps, and the food sickness, and the illegal border crossings so that our readers wouldn’t have to. Being misdirected and disappointed by the 1999 guide fueled my desire to improve and correct it. Of course, it is ironic that even with such dedication, year after year, that there were so many missteps in the guide—shouldn’t they have been ironed out by now? Shouldn’t we have this down to a science? Perhaps. But what I and many others found, was that problems inherent in the job itself impeded even the elementary objective of simply improving the guide.
One of the most difficult aspects of the job was judging the sites and locations I visited. I didn’t trust my own opinions. Before our crew of six left for Mexico, we were instructed to base our judgements on a comparison with what we perceived as a standard in Mexico, rather than compare conditions to those in the United States. Does this mean we should lower our standards? We were also told to list the cheapest hotel in any town. We could preface the listing with a negative write-up if we did not endorse it, but the cheapest place was to be listed nevertheless. Does this mean we could honestly say a place was foul and nasty? We had a training session on how to support particularly critical write-ups with evidence in order to avoid being sued by unhappy proprietors. We can be sued? I had so many questions and no one seemed to have answers. Just how many cockroaches do you have to kill before the hotel has a “bug problem”? If I feel unsafe at a club, is that because it really is unsafe, or because I am a young female who is traveling alone? Why did the previous writer gush about this restaurant’s ambience when I feel it is dirty and smoky? What I wrote would be echoed to an international audience. I was very conscious of unjust criticism based on my own ignorance and Amero-centrism, but on the other hand I did not want to lend a false sense of unique rustic identity or security to sites I felt did not merit it. A precise and honest evaluation was hard to deliver.
Time was another enemy. School ended the first week of June. The new Let’s Go copy had to be edited by late August, giving me two months to cover more than 27 cities and about 15 more sites and day trips. This could be done only by rushing, taking overnight buses, and walking really fast. The real problem—the problem that helps explain why there were so many holes in the maps, in the directions, in the descriptions—was that I constantly fought to stretch time, and I almost always lost. I had just enough hours to update the already mentioned information, check out before noon, and catch the one daily bus to the next stop. If I happened to see a new enticing hotel on the way, I stopped in. But I left many undiscovered gems in my wake. I desperately wanted to make my portion of the guide better than the previous edition, desperately wanted to improve and fine tune the listings and directions. I couldn’t. Instead I improved what I could—the way the listings were written, the colorful asides. Because of researcher/writers with similar circumstances, Let’s Go books are known for their witty and vibrant writing. The result is Let’s Go Mexico 2000: delightful to read, but hard to use.
A lot of these problematic issues stem from structure and of the Let’s Go operation. The turnover is so high that institutional memory is either short-term or nonexistent. Stephanie Coon, the Associate Editor for the 2001 edition of Let’s Go: United States remembers her own difficulty with the lack of solid leadership and explains, “You cannot have a professional organization if you are replacing the management every year. Almost no one has the same job for longer than a year.” Angie Chen, editor for Let’s Go: Mexico 2001 adds that the experience depends on how good your editor is, and her own experience as editor was made difficult by a lack of guidance from the rest of the Let’s Go staff. These shortcomings have a significant impact on how Let’s Go develops its Latin American coverage. Currently there are three Latin American editions, including Central America, Mexico, and Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Latin America is an untouched gold mine for the series. Increased political stability and democracy in all but a few Latin American countries have improved traveling conditions. The strength of the dollar and other international currencies against Latin American denominations mean that Australians, Canadians, Europeans, and Americans can make their leftover tuition money go a long way. Latin American governments are seizing on the recent flood of international visitors by establishing tourist industries that offer basic support networks and highlight attractions without the over-development that tends to preclude budget travelers. Let’s Go is trying to capitalize on this market. Series on Argentina and Chile are in the works and hopefully Let’s Go: Brazil will not be too far down the road.
But expanding coverage of Latin America is not as easy as merely sending more researcher/writers to new countries. Let’s Go was delivered a serious setback this past summer when a recent college graduate and RW traveling and writing in Peru was killed when her bus inadvertently drove off the road and fell down an embankment. This tragedy generated a lot of negative press and critical scrutiny into the Let’s Go operation. Although Latin America is becoming more tourist oriented, accommodations and facilities in Latin America are often underdeveloped and can be extremely difficulty to navigate for RWs without time, experience, or good guidance. As a result, many RWs have to learn the hard way.
The future of Let’s Go appeal for budget travelers going in Latin America depends on several things. There is a market waiting to be entered and areas waiting to be explored. Let’s Go needs to move quickly, and expand its coverage with focus and careful direction, which only comes from experience. Let’s Go as an institution has over 30 years of experience, Let’s Go as a staff, does not. Quality and accuracy of listings, as well as the writing needs to be improved. The places that are listed should not only be cheap, they should be the best cheap places available.
Let’s Go, above all, prides itself on “holding true to our founder’s goals of providing student-written, up-to-date travel guides for budget travelers.” Yet this objective threatens their precarious success in places such as Latin America. I didn’t break through the surface of Acapulco’s identity, I remember a wet, dirty city and my write-up, perhaps unjustly, reflected my disappointment. But I am not satisfied with my work. I want to return to Mexico and distinguish the character of each bar in San Miguel; to discover the finest silver for the cheapest prices in Taxco; to visit a vast assortment of restaurants in Zihuatanejo and confidently endorse one as the “best.” I want to write a comprehensive, thorough, and completely updated travel guide, to do the job I was hired to do.
Ellen Schneider is a 2001 graduate of Harvard college where she earned her degree in History with a Latin American focus. Along with Mexico she has traveled extensively through Nicaragua, Spain, France, and Japan. Ellen currently works as the Student Services Coordinator at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.
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