My career as a travel writer began innocently enough. I was looking for a way to deduct the $10,000 my five-month honeymoon in Asia had cost.
“Why not write an article?” my wife suggested. “You could write about honeymooning in Japan.”
The piece I wrote about our nights in the love hotels of Japan slipped out of the word processor with almost no effort on my part and was published in quick succession by the San Jose Mercury News, Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Sunday Examiner, Orange County Register, Sacramento Bee, and Salon among others. Suddenly and unexpectedly I had become a writer.
Within weeks press releases began appearing in my mailbox. A small flurry rapidly evolved into a blizzard of offers to visit destinations exotic and remote as well as domestic and mundane. Without ever knowing how, my name found its way on to the mailing lists maintained by the tourism authorities of Austria, Panama, South Dakota, Australia, Switzerland, Britain, Hawaii, Anaheim, Orlando and the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. All wanted me to visit. All offered free food, flights, accommodations and the promise of a story that only a writer of my caliber could bring fully to life.
Like most free offers, it was all too good to be true. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had effortlessly merged onto the literary road to ruin; the road known as travel writing. In reflection, I now see that I started on the trip to rock bottom, like so many others before me, in Las Vegas.
“Hi, this is Patrice,” the preternaturally cheery voice on my answering machine stated before asking that I “please excuse the message however my attempts to notify you personally have been unsuccessful.” Patrice buoyantly went on to inform me that I had been “selected to receive two fully-paid round-trip airline tickets as well as two nights deluxe hotel accommodations in the heart of Las Vegas, Nevada. Congratulations.” All I had to do was call an 800 number and confirm.
“This is so cheesy,” I said to Nina, as we pulled into the parking lot of a non-descript office building halfway down the San Francisco peninsula. “I can’t believe we’re doing this.”
“Come on,” she insisted. “It could be fun. Plus, it’s free.”
Ninety minutes later we left the time-share presentation with a coupon redeemable for our free trip to Vegas.
“Don’t you feel dirty?” I said to Nina as we drove home.
“Of course I do,” she said. “But I’ll wash off in our Las Vegas hotel room. It’s freeeeee!”
When we got to Vegas, I had the taxi wait outside the Wild West Motel. Despite what Patrice had promised, “deluxe” is not the word I would have chosen to describe our room at the Wild West or the smokers’ lounge that was filled with truckers or the small pool that was crowded with their wives and children and surrounded by a chain-link fence.
“Let’s go someplace else,” I said.
“Why?” Nina said. “It’s just a room. And it’s free. Plus I want to get to the Liberace Museum today.”
“I have something else in mind,” I said.
By the time of this trip I was already an “award-winning travel writer,” thanks as much to any native talent as the fact that the number of awards given out annually by the travel industry makes the people behind the Emmys look like pikers. We made our way back to the Strip and the looming, gold-mirrored complex where the local Four Seasons occupies the top several floors of what is otherwise known as the Mandalay Bay, and where the publicist was more than happy to accommodate us… since we were in Las Vegas anyway.
“Better?” I asked Nina as we looked down on the neon from our room on the thirty-first floor. Our bathroom at the Four Seasons was significantly bigger than our room at the Wild West. No doubt the plush terrycloth robes had more thread in them than all the Wild West’s linen, carpet, curtains and towels combined. “It’s okay,” Nina said as she moved over to look at the rate card affixed to the back of the door. “But I’m not paying $425 a night.”
If Las Vegas began my descent into traveler writer’s hell, then a call from San Francisco magazine completed the trip. Would I be interested, an editor wanted to know, in helping to inaugurate “He Drives/She Drives,” a special advertising section in which a married couple drives a luxury car to a luxury destination every other month or so and then writes about it.
“You’ve called the right people,” I said without hesitation.
For our first trip we were given a baby Benz and a lovely suite overlooking Monterey Bay. “You know,” I said to the hotel manager, “if we were able to visit your new spa, I’m sure we would have that much more to write about.”
“I’ll see to it right away, Mr. Strauss,” the man said, dispensing with the knowing wink that surely would accompany such a request in a Hollywood movie.
“What?” I said to Nina who was glaring at me, her jaw slightly cocked to the side in an expression I had come to know as one that combines disbelief with disgust.
“You are a whore,” she said.
“So I guess then I’ll be going for the salt-rub exfoliation by myself?” I asked.
“I didn’t say that,” she said.
“You’ve gone over to the dark side,” my writer friends told me before explaining that as far as responsible journalism was concerned there was no place held in lower regard than special advertising sections such as “He Drives/She Drives” where any pretense of a separation between commercial and editorial interests disappears altogether. I wasn’t troubled. “He Drives/She Drives” was a gig I hoped would go on forever. We were traveling around California in a style more typically associated with newly minted IPO babies than with lowly travel writers.
Despite the wit I attempted to infuse into each junket, our handler at San Francisco did not see us as heirs apparent to Tracey and Hepburn. When the magazine opted for an all-male “He Drives/He Drives” for its gay pride issue we lost our pole position permanently. For me, as a writer, it was already too late.
In the beginning, I had been productive, reliable, and conscientious. Then something happened. The concept of actually having to pay for a trip out of my own pocket, whether or not I would or could actually write a story about the experience, became distasteful. Why should I fork out for a trip when so many were begging me to visit? Trying to get something for nothing had become a game between two fixtures of the lower species of the modern literary world, the professional travel writer and the publicist. I had reached a point where paying for a meal, or a hotel room, or an airline ticket, or a round of golf, seemed like something only commoners did. Why bother with a Motel Six or a Holiday Inn when an email could secure a luxurious suite where a complementary fruit basket, bottle of wine, and a hand-written note from the manager were sure to be waiting? If invitations had started coming to me from Faustus Public Relations I would have been only too happy to accept. How, I wondered, could I have fallen so far? Not long before I had been enrolled at a Quaker college.
My wife and I maintain a list of “things to do” in life, a list that includes things like seeing a space shot and the aurora borealis, building a house, and owning a small island. One of the items had long been riding the Blue Train, the famed South African railroad that runs between Pretoria and Cape Town. I called an editor friend and was given a loose assignment that was just solid enough to extract a luxury cabin. For free.
We never should have gotten on the train. After all, I still “owed” stories on the cruise we took to Napa on a luxury yacht. And on the nights at the Hotel Mediterraneo in Rome. Then there was the personalized cooking class we took in Archidosso, in Tuscany, where the chef himself hosted us in his castle-like home. And what about the safari at Tiger Tops in Nepal? Or the days spent on the pure white sand of the Full Moon Beach Resort in the Maldives? And would I ever get around to writing something about the mountain biking and helicopter excursions I’d been given at Whistler in British Columbia? Or the free rounds of golf at Mauna Kea in Hawaii? I mean to write about all of them. I do. Honestly.
Even before boarding the Blue Train in Pretoria, I had a sense that this was a train too far. Despite the irresistible attraction of soaking in a full-size tub on a moving train, I should have turned down the assignment. I should have known better. The guilt I had accumulated over free trips and unwritten pieces had become disabling. But instead of saying no, I took the Blue Train’s offer and built upon it, asking for free rooms at some of South Africa’s top hotels. They all said yes.
I couldn’t help myself. I had become a free travel junkie and each fix had me lusting for the next. Of course, I had no one to blame but myself. Yet an addiction like this can’t thrive without willing dealers.
Less than a year earlier a woman had called from Colorado to ask if I would be interested in four days of free skiing at Vail and Beaver Creek. Sure, I told her, before explaining that I was moving to Africa in a month and didn’t think I’d ever have time to write about it. Plus, I told her, practically begging to be let off the hook, “I don’t write skiing.”
“You might some day,” she said in the ever-upbeat tone that seems to belong exclusively to those in marketing and publicity. “I’ll send you a ticket.”
Like Al Pacino in The Godfather III, I knew very well that I needed to get out - but I kept letting them suck me back in.
The Blue Train was fabulous and lived up to every bit of its reputation. Twenty-seven hours on board was hardly enough. Had I $2,000 to spend on such a trip, I might have even considered paying for it myself. And then there was the dinner in Paarl, in the heart of the wine country, at Bosman’s, one of the country’s best restaurants. On the veranda, under a full moon, it could not have been better. The cherry encrusted steenbok was gamy, delicate and sweet all at once. And there was the free room at Johannesburg’s elegant Westcliff and at its sister hotel in Cape Town, the Mount Nelson, where, quite by surprise, we were given two nights in the recently refurbished Royal Suite, not long ago inaugurated by Prince Edward himself.
“Not bad,” Nina said as she took in the vast, two-room suite where everything was done in mirrors and shades of gray and where the television rose up out of a mirrored box at the foot of the four-poster bed on some kind of hydraulic lift system one would expect to find only in a love nest designed for Austin Powers.
In fact, although everything about our trip to South Africa was wonderful I have been unable to craft a story worthy of the many thousands of dollars of transportation, food, and accommodation that we were “comp’d” as they say in the trade. There are, after all, only so many things one can say about sumptuous meals, luxury transportation, jade green golf courses, and expansive rooms in five-star hotels.
In the years since our trip to South Africa I have written failed draft after failed draft. I have been up for hours, frozen at the keyboard, blocked for the first time since I began writing years ago. I suppose it’s some type of cosmic torment for the promises I have made and failed to keep. I’m sick about the whole thing.
At long last, I think I have learned my lesson. I can no longer handle the angst of taking something for nothing and carrying the weight of a debt unpaid. The offers of free meals and hotel rooms keep coming. Despite my love of travel I cannot accept them and remain at peace with myself.
Unless, of course, they throw in the airline tickets.
A version of this story originally appeared in The Best Travel Writing 2005: True Stories from Around the World.