Travel guide author Ben Box in an interview about the joys and the chores of writing about travel for a living.
„Willing to go everywhere and see everything“
For nearly 20 years, Ben Box, 57, has been the editor of the South American Handbook, Footprint’s flagship guide book that was first published in 1924. Sebastian from tripwolf reached him on the phone in Suffolk, UK, where Ben lives with his wife Sarah who edits Footprint’s Caribbean guide books.
Sebastian: You are working at your desk in England at the moment. How much do you get to travel for work?
Ben: I do some traveling, but not as much as I could. This year I have been to the Falkland Islands for two weeks and I’ll travel to Peru for 3 weeks soon. Editing the South American Handbook is more of a desk job because many writers are involved.
Sebastian: How many writers do you need for that? The South American Handbook covers the whole continent and has nearly 2000 pages!
Ben: For the upcoming edition there are 12 writers involved, and they usually have other people supporting them. We pull together information from our country guides for Argentina, Chile, Brazil and other books, we follow up on hundreds of letters from readers, and we do our own research in the field.
Sebastian: I was always struck by the level of detail in Footprint guides. I remember a hotel in Puno, Peru, just being described as „Good value, many blankets.“ And when I went there, they really had 5 or 6 blankets on the bed. How do you pull together all this encyclopedic knowledge?
Ben: (Laughs) We try to be as detailed as we can. You have to give a lot of attention to detail and look out for that special thing. Of course checking hotel details and maps and restaurants is very time-consuming.
Sebastian: Being a travel writer is a dream job for many: I heard once that in terms of popularity it is only beaten by being an actor. Is it really such a glamorous job?
Ben: No, it is not a romantic job (laughs). There is a difference between a guide book writer and a „real“ travel writer like Paul Theroux or Bill Bryson. With guide books, the focus is much more on the details than on the descriptive part. I don’t get a chance to write lyrical pieces about the people and the country. It is more important to get the adresses and phone numbers of hotels right. Being a travel guide writer is harder than many people think. You need to pay attention to details without getting lost in the detail. And you need to be willing to go everywhere and see everything.
Sebastian: After so many years, do you still enjoy traveling, or has this work taken the magic out of traveling for you?
Ben: I still enjoy traveling to South America because most of the time I am going to new places, places I have not been before, or places I haven’t been in a long time and that have changed. South America is very dynamic. I never tire of it.
Sebastian: How has travel changed since you started writing?
Ben: 20 years ago most people I met traveling were backpackers. Nowadays it’s much more flexible: People might spend most of their trip backpacking, but then they do an expensive trip to an island like Galapagos, or they have pre-booked a custom-tailored jungle trek. People got fed up with the „Gringo Trail,“ the standard tour through South America. Now they go for niches like bird-watching or fishing. Fishing travel is a huge business in South America. And eco-tourism has seen a great increase since the early 90’s. Footprint was one of the earliest publishers to reflect this development with a section on responsible travel.
Sebastian: Do you ever keep secrets from your readers? Are there places that you don’t want to be discovered by travelers?
Ben: I have never done that personally. It happened to me only once that the owner of a restaurant in Brazil said to me: „Please don’t put me in the guide book. If you put me in, I couldn’t cope with the business.“ It was a tiny restaurant in the middle of a roundabout, and it was full all the time.
Sebastian: So being listed in a guide book can actually harm you.
Ben: Yes, it can happen that places become too popular and too crowded. This easily happens to tour guides: If they are good and they get listed, they can’t cope with the demand anymore and employ other people, and then the quality drops.
Sebastian: How has the internet changed your work?
Ben: When I started writing the only way to get information from South America was with a letter. Many places didn’t even have phones. Now you find so much information online. But as a writer, you have to be careful when evaluating online content.
Sebastian: Do you see the internet as competition for guide books?
Ben: It is a certain type of competition and in some ways it’s healthy. It keeps the book modern, up to date, you can’t rest on your laurels. But I think the physical book can’t be beaten as a tool on the road. It’s more user friendly than other things, its batteries can’t run out. Of course mobile applications that immediately show you the closest restaurant are very powerful. But from that you still don’t get insider knowledge that a book can give.
Sebastian: What were your most memorable experiences in South America?
Ben: There were millions of great moments. Rounding up sheep with a Range Rover on the Falkland Islands was a lot of fun. One of my greatest experiences was being on the Southern Altiplano in Bolivia, south of the salt lakes. Or sailing around Cape Horn. Or watching birds in Peru that were thought to be extinct, or the river dolphins in the Amazon. I know I’m very privileged and lucky to have seen all these things, and we have to make every effort to preserve them.