Are Lonely Planet Guides credible? Can their recommendations be safely followed? Do the authors have good taste? The answers to these questions are complex, as emerges from a conversation with Michael Kohn, one of the authors of "The Lonely Planet Guide to Israel and the Palestinian Territories," which is now being written and will be published next spring.
Kohn, 32, from California, came to Israel for two months to write the chapters on Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa for the new edition of the guide. (The previous edition on Israel and the Palestinian Authority was published in 1999.) In a meeting with him last week Kohn gave the impression of being a nice guy, serious and industrious ? almost nondescript. However, his character is surprising only if one imagines, erroneously, that Lonely Planet authors are adventurous, stylish swingers. Kohn actually does reflect the spirit of tourism according to the popular guidebooks, as being a serious business. This guidebook seems to be saying: There are places that have to be seen, pampering oneself is out, we did not come here for a good time.
Rabin Square at 2 A.M.
What's certain is that Kohn himself is far from being spoiled in any way. He behaves modestly. In visits to the countries he writes about, he usually stays in student dorms or inexpensive backpackers' hostels. This week he was staying at a guest house in the Old City of Jerusalem with his wife, Gail, a woman from Mongolia whom he met while working as a journalist in that country. He is not delighted at the conditions in the local hostel, but that's all he can afford. The terms of payment of Lonely Planet oblige him to economize wherever he can, he explains.
How are writers for Lonely Planet paid?
Kohn: "I get a basic amount per project. They give half the amount up front and the rest when I submit the text. The payment is meant to cover everything flights, accommodation, food, traveling and salary. If I save on expenses, at the end of the project I manage to get a reasonable salary."
Don't you feel you are missing out on certain experiences because of your need to economize? Doesn't this affect your ability to recommend good places?
"I think these terms are actually well suited to the Lonely Planet guides. It's true that in the past few years the target audience has changed: The Lonely Planet guidebooks have matured with their readers. People who in the 1990s were students who backpacked, now have jobs and a good income and a family, and they travel at a higher level.
"But even so, the emphasis in the guides is on the small details: how to get from place to place, how to avoid small mistakes, unnecessary expenses. I have to be in the field in order to get those details. If I had a bloated expense account and hired someone to show me the city in a limo, I would know nothing about the buses, I would not wander around on foot and discover new places ? I would not be doing the job."
Still, how do you recommend hotels and restaurants without visiting them?
"Usually we need to update a previous guide. So, first of all, I go to all the places marked on the map as recommended for visiting in the previous book and see if they are still there and if anything has changed. On the way, if I encounter something that catches my eye, I add it. Second, Lonely Planet gets letters from readers containing advice, recommendations and corrections. I get a copy of each letter and check it out. Third, I talk to people: journalists, backpackers, the owners of guest houses. In Jerusalem, for example, there is a guy called Danny in the Allenby guest house. He is an inexhaustible mine of information. He read our guides 1,000 times and can tell me what mistake appears on page so-and-so and what is worth adding and which restaurants to recommend."
Which restaurants do you recommend in Jerusalem?
"A restaurant called '1868' on King David Street it has a good atmosphere and a wine bar. [The Haaretz restaurant critic praised the food in this kosher restaurant, but was critical of the touristy decor and outrageous prices O.C.] Also the Village Green, a vegetarian restaurant on Jaffa Street."
And where do you eat in Jerusalem?
"Both to save and out of love, I eat mostly shawarma. A lot of tourists eat shawarma at Jaffa Gate for NIS 40, but I know a good place in the Old City for NIS 12. In the guide I also recommend King Falafel and Shawarma at the corner of King George and Agrippa Streets. And I like to eat in the Jewish Quarter there is a shawarma and beigele place there. Quick meals, not bad, in a wonderful atmosphere."
And in Tel Aviv?
"In Tel Aviv the food is a lot better, of course. Tel Aviv is world famous for its food. I recommend the Brasserie in Rabin Square it's terrific to sit there at 2 A.M. in a lively atmosphere (in fact, that's an exceptional quality of Tel Aviv: its nightlife?) and Kyoto Salsa, a restaurant that mixes Japanese and Latin cooking, on Montefiore Street, and [the tapas bar] Tapeo, near the Cinematheque, and Benny Hadayag [a fish restaurant] and the other restaurants around the marina. Last year I was here to write the chapter on Israel for 'The Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle East.' I spent hours in the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf branch in Rabin Square. I know it's American of me, but I like the place."
Before starting to work for Lonely Planet, Kohn was a journalist in Mongolia for several years. He was a stringer for news agencies, the BBC and a local English-language paper. Another Lonely Planet writer arrived from the United States to update the book on Mongolia ? and was assisted by Kohn, the knowledgeable journalist.
"I always used the guides and I always wanted to work for them," he says. "When I got back to California on leave to attend my brother's wedding, I sent my CV to Lonely Planet and asked for a job. They asked me as they do every candidate to write an experimental Lonely Planet chapter on my place of residence, Burlingame, a small town near San Francisco. I wrote according to the usual formula, with the background, the general impression, the map and the recommendations and the details. They read it and checked it out, called one of the places I recommended to make sure I was accurate and that was it, I was accepted. That is, I entered a list of about 200 writers.
"I waited for an assignment. That was in 2001, and we had already agreed that I would write a guide on Russia, but then came September 11 and everything came to a halt. World tourism collapsed and Lonely Planet suspended most of their activity, fired employees and waited."
When the industry recovered, Kohn started to write chapters in travel guides, initially for "Rough Guide," the competition, and afterward for Lonely Planet, in the U.S. Midwest ("I didn't like that assignment, but I had no choice, I wanted to have a foothold"), in India ("four tough and fascinating months"), in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan ("I expected the same kind of chaos as in Pakistan, but I found very Soviet countries organized"), as well as in Burma, Hong Kong, South Africa, Tibet and again Mongolia. He spent a few weeks in each country.
Recently Kohn and his wife bought an apartment in Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia ("A three-room apartment in the city center, for $35,000 now I'm bankrupt"); they are now renting it out and have not yet decided where to settle down.
In addition to his economizing, Kohn has another prominent quality which, he says, is essential for writers of travel guides: neutrality. Ostensibly, a travel guide cannot take a political stand, it can only take an interest.
"In the past," he notes, "Lonely Planet had a radical spirit, of the counterculture. The guide on China, for example, expressed distinct opposition to the regime, there was a natural connection to a critical spirit. But with the change that has taken place in the target audience, and the hard time surviving after September 11, the line in the guides has become far more mainstream."
In Israel, Kohn says, neutrality is all the more essential. "When I write about Jerusalem, I have to walk on tiptoes, to think about the Muslim and the Christian and the Jewish and the Buddhist tourist, and not offend any of them. But that comes to me naturally."
Kohn's four main recommendations to tourists, which will appear in his guide to Israel, reflect this approach well. "First recommendation: to have a Shabbat meal with a religious family in Jerusalem. There is a guy, Jeff Seidel, from the Jewish Student Information Center, who sends tourists mainly American Jews, but not only Jews to the homes of American Jews from Brooklyn who live in the Old City and in Mea She'arim. I did it three times myself. It's very impressive. As a Jewish child in California I could not experience a complete Jewish experience like this. You sometimes hear extremist views there, plans to take over the Temple Mount. I just listen. It's fascinating.
"Second recommendation: visit the Western Wall tunnel. A riveting hour.
"Third recommendation: stand on a rooftop in the Old City early in the morning or at sunset and simply listen to the vibrations of the place. Tears come to one's eyes. It is a very deep, impressive experience, an immediate connection to thousands of years of history, to the sanctity of this place. If I had to recommend to tourists one place in the world where they should visit, I would recommend the Old City of Jerusalem. In contrast to other ancient cities in other places, which become frozen museums or are destroyed in China, for example, there is an unfortunate tendency to demolish antiquities and build skyscrapers on the ruins in Jerusalem and to a large extent in Acre, too the Old City is still alive. It has no competitors.
"And a fourth tip for a tourist in Israel: visit Nablus for a day or two. It is a fascinating city and the way there is even more fascinating. You go through checkpoints and you learn first-hand what is going on in the territories. You see elderly people walking long distances carrying baskets and bags. You see the long lines. You see the difficulty and the humiliation. I did it a year ago we stopped at a checkpoint in Ramallah and at another one outside Nablus. Soldiers removed me and another eight Palestinians from the taxi and made us stand by the side. They separated me from the Palestinians because they saw I was an American. They aimed rifles at the Palestinians. It was appalling. Because they are not all terrorists, after all. They are regular people. I saw how much it is not a pleasure to be a Palestinian. This is a fascinating experience for every tourist. I recommend it warmly."
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