It stinks in here. Mold, BO and the distinctive scent of used toilet paper in bathroom trash cans down the hall. It’s midnight, and I’m in the bottom bunk of a youth hostel in Istanbul, Turkey. There are six more guys crashed out in the other beds, all of whom have apparently been backpacking in Laundromat-free zones for several months now. Judging by the Let’s Go: Europe guidebooks strewed around the floor, we all wound up in this four-buck-a-night pit the same way. At last I nod off, dreaming of the Turkish-prison scenes in Midnight Express.
I’m jolted awake at 4 a.m. by a shrill air-raid siren. Turns out it’s just the usual morning call to prayer, broadcast from speakers atop mosques all over town. The wailing awakens the chickens, which begin screeching. The chickens awaken the stray dogs, and the dogs awaken one of my bunkmates, who greets us all with an explosive display of flatulence.
In a neighboring part of town, past the elegant garden courts of the Blue Mosque, near the ancient fountains along the Hippodrome park, Nathan Green (not his real name) sleeps in a restored Ottoman mansion tucked away on a hilly side street Nathan, 21, is the student researcher-writer (R-W) for the western-Turkey region of Let’s Go:Greece and Turkey 1995, one of 21 titles in the internationally best-selling Let’s Go series. Though his hotel isn’t actually listed in the self-declared “bible of the budget traveler” (you’ll find it listed in the Insight Guides with other luxury hotels), his mom reserved a night there to cushion Nathan’s arrival today in Turkey. His room is filled with antiques and hand-woven carpets, and there’s a minibar beneath the color TV. Draped across the toilet seat, a paper banner makes a boast rare in these parts: Sanitized for your protection.
Earlier tonight, Nathan and I ate at the Pudding Shop, one of the budget restaurants he needed to review for Let’s Go. Wandering through a maze of ancient alleyways in search of the place, we passed tiny teahouses where men in white robes sipped from glasses on silver trays. Once we got to the main drag, the Pudding Shop was as easy to find as any of the other tourist cafes sharing space with postcard stands. This restaurant uses chemically, Physically and Microbiologically Safe water purified by life flo read a sign by the window, written, like everything else in the place, in English. The menu offered such treats as fish pudding, chicken pudding and Turkish sex pudding, a tasty combination of rice, figs, something that resembled lamb chunks, maybe a few old nuts and bolts…. “But you’re coming here to eat, so enjoy the pudding (which isn’t bad),” Nathan writes of the place in this year’s Let’s Go. How he knew it wasn’t bad is a mystery since he didn’t taste it. A strict vegetarian with a fear of traveler’s diarrhea, he ordered what became his favorite dish during our week in Istanbul: plain white rice. “I think restaurant listings are dumb anyway,” says the travel writer, who is somehow supposed to check about a hundred more restaurants during his 38-day stay in Turkey. “I mean, you go wherever you’re hungry.”
Reported, written and edited entirely by Harvard students, Let’s Go gives more than 100 R-Ws every summer the chance to travel the globe in search of cheap accommodations, meals, attractions and night life. But Travel & Leisure this is not – a lesson R-Ws like Nathan learn the hard way. A boyish, soft-spoken sophomore wearing a Banana Republic-ish safari vest over a “Harvard is hot” T-shirt, he has been thrown into the depths of Istanbul– a serpentine city populated by 10 million people and bombed regularly by Kurdish terrorists – for just five days, during which time he’s expected to cover the entire city by himself. From there, he’ll traverse the rest of western Turkey, following an impossibly dense schedule planned by his editors back home. I’m tagging along just for week No. I (always the toughest and most disorienting), but Nathan will spend the remainder of his summer alone. He’ll tear through Turkey at an average rate of a town per day, barring the one day his editors expect him to research six. He won’t get paid for his work but will receive air fare plus about $40 a day to cover expenses. His mission: To furiously update and add information to last year’s Greece and Turkey book and airmail his “copybatches” to Let’s Go’s Harvard Square office, where they’ll be furiously edited and typeset by other students and transmitted to St. Martin’s Press in time for the publisher to furiously distribute and sell the books to an estimated 3.5 million readers who use them to furiously tear through their destinations each year. According to one staffer, the paperback parody Let’s Blow Thru Europe describes the process of producing the books as much as it does using them. Like many R-Ws through the years, Nathan has barely left the United States before; he describes his travel background as being limited to summer camp and Bermuda, where he toured with Harvard’s Hasty Pudding theatrical company. He was hired not for any experience roughing it on the road (according to in-house literature, most applicants have never traveled Let’s Go style – “single and poor”) but for skills considered more useful to a job that isn’t as much about covering new ground as it is about updating thousands of phone numbers, prices and bus schedules compiled by past R-Ws. Among the most important traits of an R-W: “neatness,” “reliability,” “aplomb” and “a degree of fastidiousness and hyperactivity – some former editors go so far as to use the vulgar term ‘anal-compulsive,'”according to Let’s Go‘s 1995 Editor’s Manual, a student written guide chock-full of tips on hiring and managing your peers.
“My first choices were Israel and Paris,” Nathan says after checking in to my hostel the second day of our trip. He decided to apply for Turkey after taking an Ottomans-history course for his major, Middle Eastern studies. “It sounded like a cool place. I like that They Might Be Giants song about Istanbul. I love the movie Gollipoli. Dude, any subsidized travel is better than no subsidized travel, right?”
When “Let’s Go” began, in 1960, it was a 20-page mimeographed packet for Europe-bound passengers who booked charter flights through Harvard Student Agencies (HSA), a nonprofit corporation founded to employ students. Written for “the adventurous and often impecunious student,” early editions nonetheless included chapters like “Wine Tasting” and “Collecting Art in Paris and London.” Thirty-five years later, Let’s Go is as much a symbol of student travel as a Eurail Pass – ask anyone who has ever ventured to one of the supposedly off-the-beaten-path pubs listed in the books only to find swarms of other students clutching their copies inside. Translated into seven languages, the series now spans more than 40 countries, and Let’s Go: Europe, the series’ flagship, has become the top-selling international-travel guide in the world. Meanwhile, Let’s Go Inc. has become the first for-profit subsidiary of HSA.
Compared with the funky basement digs Let’s Go outgrew a few years ago, its overwhelmingly beige new headquarters in a Cambridge office building could as much be the home of an insurance agency as of a student press – except for the Proclaimers tape blaring from a conference room; the senior management running around in ripped jeans; and the Wall o’ Fun, a bulletin board plastered with hate mail, fan mail and an application from bogus R-W candidate Anna Peartree, who lists “Europe!” as her first choice because “I love croissants and brie, and I belonged to the French club in high school.” Let’s Go operates on a budget of well over $ I million a year, brought in primarily by book royalties and student advertising reps who stuff the guides with about $500,000 worth of travel-related ads. Besides the publishing division, there’s a Let’s Go travel agency, Let’s Go backpacks, undercover waist pouches and undercover neck pouches. And lately, Let’s Go has had something else it never had before: competition. Three years ago, Fodor’s and students at Berkeley introduced The Berkeley Guides, a budget-travel series that cops a hipper-than-thou tone to counter what its editors see as the increasingly out-of-touch Let’s Go. Berkeley students “know what cheap travel is all about,” declare the books’ covers.
“We don’t have writers who’ve taken trips with Mommy and Daddy to Paris for two weeks to stay in a condo,” says Berkeley Guides executive editor Scott McNeely. “It comes down to the perspective you get from a public school like ours vs. a private school like Harvard.”
Pete Keith is the fresh-scrubbed publishing director who presided over Let’s Go‘s 1995 series from a glass-enclosed, Lou Grant-style office overlooking Harvard Square. “Travel itself,” he says, “no matter how hip and funky you try to make it out to be, is inherently sort of an economically privileged activity. You have to have some money and spare time to travel. “Even so, Keith bristles at the implication that his organization reflects a privileged point of view. For example, in 1992 the corporation started a scholarship fund for R-Ws on financial aid, many of whom couldn’t afford to spend summers working without pay. Out of 100 R-Ws who worked on the ’95 editions, about 37 received $750. Additionally, Keith points out, expense stipends for all R-Ws increased with the ’95 series, quelling some correspondents’ claims that they had to rely on their own financial resources to help cover basic expenses.
As for the hipness factor, the books have undergone radical graphic surgery, lest anyone believe a recent issue of Wired magazine that listed them as “tired.” In an overhaul initiated by their publisher (“the nimrods at St. Martin’s,” as they are called in the Editor’s Manual), the inside has a more readable layout and the outside is now a “nauseating orange color.” “But ‘hip’ won’t get you from a train station to a youth hostel when you arrive at midnight and have no idea where you are,” notes Let’s Go staffer Liz Stein.
“That’s key,” adds Keith. “We get accurate information, and we’re reliable. We take a huge amount of pride in what we do and in doing it very well.”
Hello, American Tourists! You must buy genuine Turkish carpet!” Nathan and I are lost. Again. The afternoon heat is brutal, and we’re racing through jammed city streets in search of Topkapi, the sprawling palace compound of the Ottoman sultans. At every turn someone is trying to sell us a carpet (“Chip price for you, my frent!”) or run us over. Nathan is getting frustrated. He has been up since 4:30 this morning and has already toured the Blue Mosque and spent two hours on the phone fact-checking ferry schedules and three hours updating his tear sheets at the tourism bureau. R-Ws don’t go anywhere without their tear sheets, photocopied pages from last year’s books marked with questions and instructions from editors back home. “Every single goddamn fact on this page needs to be checked,” his editor scrawled in the margins of today’s tedious list of consulate addresses, bank locations and overseas phone codes. “I know it sucks.” Nathan has spent the day desperately trying to comply, but it hasn’t helped that he was sent here without knowing a word of Turkish – or that the clerk at the tourism bureau barely understood a word of English. They both knew a little French, though, so Nathan persevered until being bid a stern “Au revoir” by a manager who informed him that other customers were waiting.
And so we find ourselves in search of Topkapi, tear sheets in hand. “Don’t be overwhelmed by the seemingly endless attractions,” says the Topkapi entry in this year’s Let’s Go, and overwhelmed we’re not – especially since we never get inside. For one thing, we can’t find the place using the directions in last year’s edition (“Giving [extra] directions takes up more space, so accuracy, as always, becomes a trade-off,” notes the Editor’s Manual), though we do eventually stumble into some sort of strange Turkish carnival, complete with a petting zoo, bumper cars and the grating sounds of snake-charmer music. “Is. This. Top-kap-i?” Nathan nervously asks a stream of passers-by, who demonstrate with a smile that they not only don’t speak English but also are in desperate need of dental work. Aided by his handy Turkish phrase book, Nathan finally gets someone to lead us to the nearby palace. Unfortunately it’s closed on Tuesdays – something we would have known had Nathan bothered reading Let’s Go before we got there. “I didn’t go through the book before I left,” Nathan laments later. “I didn’t care. I was like ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m gonna have to revise it. How hard is that?'”
The rest of the day is spent ripping through museums and markets, including the Grand Bazaar, a Byzantine superstore crammed with 4,000 stalls where everything from silver shish-kebab skewers to fish heads is being hawked. We’re out of there in three minutes flat. And when we finally find yet another mosque neither of us can pronounce, the sun is setting, and Nathan isn’t just spent, he’s worried. “Before I got here,” he told me earlier, “everyone at Let’s Go kept saying, ‘You’ve got to hit the ground running, you’ve just gotta get all this shit done.’ Well, look how little I got done today.” His voice trails off. “Triage. Think triage.”
Triage is one of the most important words in every R-W’s vocabulary. It’s a strategy allowing them to skip parts of their itinerary whenever they’re pressed for time – which in our case tends to be always. R-Ws, after all, are expected to spend equal time “R”-ing and “W”-ing, theoretically leaving Nathan not five days but two and a half to see all of Istanbul. “We book through at a good clip,” says Jahan Sagafi-nejad, a Let’s Go managing editor, “but that’s because our information is only supposed to be good for a year, and then we do it all again. The fact that we [update information] year after year helps perfect it as it goes along. If you misspell a hostel one year, you go back the next and get it right.” And when you’re revising a book on a breakneck production cycle, meeting deadlines means meeting bottom lines. As the Editor’s Manual itself puts it: “Researchers still find their itineraries physically impossible and mentally inconceivable. Perhaps we have to be content with this equilibrium between the desire to do good and satisfying research and the necessity of recognizing the diminishing financial returns that seem to come from extra thoroughness.”
All of this may explain why Nathan later admits visiting only about half of the destinations in Let’s Go‘s Istanbul chapter. “Definitely check this place out, it’s the cool bar district,” an editor wrote on his tear sheets near the listing for Ortakoy, a neighborhood Nathan is supposed to hit later in the week. Unfortunately, this also happens to be the one day he has found time for cutting and pasting, the much-loathed manner in which R-Ws spend hours producing copybatches by glue-sticking snippets of updated information over last year’s text. I end up venturing to Ortakoy by myself, drawn by a separate note the editor wrote about this district. “We have an ethical dilemma,” it reads. “Do we keep quiet about the cool place and keep it for ourselves, or as travel professionals are we obligated to reveal its secrets to our fellow tourists?”
Feeling somewhat obligated to reveal, I play R-W for a day. It’s exhausting, repetitive work, but by afternoon’s end, I learn the key to true budget travel: Just tell bartenders you’re reviewing their place for a famous guidebook. After several rounds of research (all on the house) with a hilarious group of “correspondents” from Istanbul University, I report back to Nathan with as much as I can remember of the day’s itinerary. Most of it appears on Page 417 of this year’s Let’s Go: Greece and Turkey, although I make no promises about accuracy.
Harvard grad student Cathy Springer lets out a howl of laughter when asked what it’s like to be an R-W. “It’s such a scramble, it’s unbelievable!” she says. “You can only hope that in the last few years, some other R-W made it to all the sights you missed.” That doesn’t always work out. Nathan discovered that many of the museums listed in Let’s Go‘s ’94 guide to Turkey had been closed for years. Springer, who was an R-W for ’94’s Italy guide, isn’t at all surprised. After dismissing the process of choosing restaurants as “totally random,” she goes on to estimate that R-Ws have time to stay in only a fifth or fewer of the accommodations evaluated in their books. (Those assigned to coveted city guides like London or Paris aren’t required to stay at any of the lodgings they recommend, since Let’s Go generally puts them up at apartments for the summer.) According to Springer, many accommodations are chosen based on rushed, 15-minute inspections. “Generally, I only had time to go on first impressions.”
Despite hectic schedules, Marc Zelanko, a ’95 Let’s Go managing editor, asserts that “R-Ws take the time to make sure what they’re doing is smart, fair and comprehensive.” But to do truly comprehensive research, Springer maintains that Let’s Go needs to loosen its purse strings and send out twice as many people with twice as much time. And another thing, she adds, somewhat mischievously: It may want to exercise twice as much caution screening R-Ws. Springer, who spoke no Italian and admits she had “no interest in Let’s Go besides a free summer vacation,” was hired to research Italy by her then boyfriend, who happened to be that book’s editor.
Despite such cases, most staffers say Let’s Go isn’t the nepotistic clique it was once rumored to be. One of the most competitive activities at Harvard, it draws more than 300 R-W applicants each year, and they vie for only a third as many slots. After completing detailed applications and undergoing rigorous interviews, those who make the cut attend R-W training day, a seminar covering topics from time management to packing. Before they leave for real, R-Ws are encouraged to attend self-defense workshops and weekly meetings with their editors. From the ’95 Editor’s Manual: “Get to know your R-Ws. Kill them with kindness. They will perform much better if they know you as a friend instead of the nameless, faceless, distant oppressor that you may seem when they’re hitting the bricks at 9 a.m. in 90-degree heat.”
Apparently such Pavlovian peer conditioning works better in theory than in practice. After one disastrous attempt to follow his schedule by visiting half a dozen towns on the same afternoon, Nathan sent a note to Alp Aker, the editor who planned his itinerary: “I hate Alp. I loathe Alp. I despise Alp. I detest Alp.” Another R-W just learned to take the schedule in stride. “If a place was listed in the tear sheets as ’15 minutes outside the city by bus,'” she says, “I was like ‘Fuck that.’ You have to wait all day before the bus gets there, and nothing’s open by the time you get there anyway.” What’s an R-W to do? “You try to get some information from the tourism office or make some phone calls. In the afternoon, you just try to stay out of the sun.”
To be fair, while that R-W was spending days in the shade, her editor was probably spending nights at the office. Editors work under the same time constraints as their correspondents. Though HSA pays them an average of $270 for a 15-hour week during the spring, Maria Colbert, editor of this year’s Spain and Portugal guide, figures the job took her more like 30 hours a week. (It’s not until summer that HSA starts paying for 40 hours a week.) “It’s not a Job, we’re indentured” proclaimed Let’s Go‘s office T-shirt from 1988, and those determined to climb the Let’s Go ladder retain a dues-paying sensibility. It’s all part of “the weirdness that is Let’s Go,” says junior Mimi Schultz, who has been both an editor and an R-W. “Some of the students at the top of this organization have been ready to fit into a corporate mentality since they were 7 years old and their parents were dressing them in little Harvard T-shirts.”
Nonetheless, some Let’s Go editors have never actually been to the countries of the guides they edit. According to former editor Lynne Echenberg, the year before Nathan went to Turkey, neither the editor nor the assistant editor of Let’s Go: Greece and Turkey had been to either country. The problem wasn’t that editors are the ones responsible for writing introductions to each region in their book (they use brochures, guidebooks and R-W reports for that); the problem was that they decided to send a single woman off to research Turkey by herself. She flew back home after being assaulted.
“I trusted my editors’ judgment to know what they were doing, and they didn’t know what they were doing,” says Lenore Labi, who has considered filing a negligence suit against the organization after her experience. The former R-W maintains that no one at Let’s Go ever warned her about Kurdish terrorism in the region or mentioned that she would be the first woman to be sent there “for as long as we can remember,” as they wrote later in the book.
Though this case is extreme, it’s standard for an R-W or two to quit and be replaced each summer. The first casualty of the ’95 series was a Spain correspondent who bailed midtrip after suddenly developing anxiety, insomnia and depression (and contended Let’s Go had nothing to do with any of it). Nathan nearly became the second, but that Pavlovian peer conditioning paid off. “If I cop out, I’ll alienate half the people I know at school,” he says one day after inspecting a Laundromat. “Everyone would know I wussed out on my editors.”
Early one morning in the middle of the week, I wake up to a knock on the door that shoots straight through my skull. To escape another wild night of updating fax numbers with Nathan, I spent the previous evening on a quest for belly dancers with Mike, a 20ish Texan we met as he was sneaking into the Hagia Sophia church. Since Mike hadn’t trusted Let’s Go ever since travel writer Bill Bryson referred to it as Let’s Go Get Another Guidebook in his collection Neither Here nor There, Mike was negotiating Istanbul with a Lonely Planet guide, penned by a Turkish scholar and former resident with more than a decade of travel experience in the country. To scope out the evening’s fun, however, we decided to ditch the guidebooks altogether and employ a more adventurous approach: a cheesy belly-dancer postcard we flashed at pedestrians, followed by the international greeting “Belly-belly-where-belly?” We wound up at a Bulgarian folk-dancing show.
Another knock at the door. It’s Nathan, who has just returned from a phone booth where he called home to Mom. Struggling to hold back very real tears, he is apparently suffering a three-day version of the Three-Week Blues, described in his R-W manual as a common affliction marked by “feelings of deep resentment toward the whole Let’s Go enterprise…the time when you’ll really start figuring out whether you think Let’s Go is a worthwhile operation or not, whether you think you’re being exploited.” The prognosis is bleak. “Everything is a fight here all the time,” Nathan told his mom between sobs. “It’s a fight to get people to understand you, to get people away from you, to try and get all your stuff done. Everything is a hassle!”
I ask what Mom had to say about all of this. “She said, ‘Nathan, just go to Paris.'”
Instead, we band-aid our blisters and hit the streets to review hotels. This proves challenging since (a) Nathan’s editors have provided time to stay overnight at just five of the 12 places he ends up reviewing, (b) Nathan actually stays overnight at just one of them, and (c) we smell so bad that probably no one would give us a room anyway. None of this, however, stops him from compiling the most critical information of his tour. Since Let’s Go has no firm policy on traveling incognito, he blows his cover immediately and gets treated to a series of 15-minute tours. Unfortunately this haste doesn’t permit careful scrutiny. Of one hostel listed in this year’s guide, Nathan writes: “a cool roof terrace with a small cafeteria.” In his rush, though, he neglects to see a way uncool sign (complete with skull and crossbones) posted in that cafeteria: Warning. Danger. Recently several travelers have been drugged and had their possessions Stolen while they sleep. He’s more observant at another spot. In the margin of one of his tear sheets, he informs his editor that “this place was just gross, grimy and dark with dirty teen-agers hanging out in front that sneered at me when I walked by. I just put it in because it’s another hostel.”
Here is how that hostel is described in this year’s Greece and Turkey book: “Truly budget accommodations.”
Such whitewashed lingo is a sure sign an R-W is writing – or being edited – in accordance with Let’s Go‘s Vigilant “Guidelines for Better, Libel-Free Writing.” Having lost at least one lawsuit in the past (one establishment sued over a claim that it was “untidy”), staffers today seem hyperparanoid about revealing anything that might be deemed slightly damaging. In an effort to elevate journalistic integrity, all copy is screened by Harvard law students, and editors attend libel seminars conducted by attorneys from St. Martin’s. Still, one editor estimates that Let’s Go gets about one threat of legal action per year, and R-Ws are warned that “to lose a single major libel suit would mean the end of Let’s Go. Finito. No more guides.”
Let’s Go‘ is the Bible! don’t take it away from me!” “Lonely Planet kicks Let’s Go’s ass! Harvard is a bastion of rampant Westernization!” Over a dirt-cheap dinner of spiced octopus and other Turkish delectables, several students from Seattle are critiquing their guidebooks. They invited us to join them here at the Cicek Pasaji (Flower Passage) – a kind of Turkish food court and garage sale tucked in an alley of the upscale Tepebasi district, away from the Pizza Hut, Benetton and cineplex showing Ace Ventura, Budala Dedektif. At the tables surrounding us, crowds of Turks and tourists huddle over pitchers of 200-proof raki, and strolling accordionists fill the hall with music. The scene is wildly frenetic compared with yesterday afternoon, when Nathan and I darted past the same restaurants while updating exchange rates and English-bookstore addresses. Unfortunately, Nathan isn’t here now to experience any of it. With just three days until he has to mail his first copybatch to Harvard, he’s alone in our hostel, the model of a diligent R-W. From the Editor’s Manual: “Ideal R-Ws know when to succumb and when to take a cold shower…. And late at night they do not seek love or liquor but would prefer to compile their information and write it up neatly.”
When I get back to the hostel, our room is empty, and there’s a note on my pillow: “I’m going crazy here. Too loud. Can’t write. Going to Alp’s parents’ to write. Maybe they’ll let me sleep there. – Nathan”
Alp, of course, is Alp Aker, the associate editor responsible for Nathan’s travel schedule. Aker’s parents, both natives of Turkey, live outside Istanbul. I give them a call the next morning to see how Nathan is doing. “I’m worried about him,” says Alp’s mother. “I was very surprised they picked someone with so little travel experience.” Later she directs a sound bite to her son in Cambridge. “I’m on the record here, ” she says with a laugh. “Alp, there’s just too much on this itinerary for one person.”
Last night, Alp and some other editors made a sort of R-W crisis-hot-line call to Nathan, reassuring him that things get easier after the first week and reminding him not to lie about visiting places he has no time for. (Editors try to do last-minute fact checking by phone.) Since he has no time for any of the places on this afternoon’s itinerary, Nathan has decided to boldly triage the entire day and decompress at the Akers’, where he’ll finally finish his copybatch. I agree to meet him there later, after visiting as many of the four islands on his afternoon agenda as I can fit in.
I can fit in only one, Büyükada, a pretty yet malodourous spot. On the ferry ride back I witness a dangerously drunk man molesting his 7-year-old daughter. “You’re a whore, and your mother is a whore!” he shouts at her as a passenger next to me translates. “I’m going to kill you!” The hulking figure slaps the little girl, and screaming passengers fan to the sides of the boat. “This man could be a terrorist,” says my translator, who claims to have been on the same ferry before when a passengers fired gunshots in the air. “He could have a gun.” After taking several wild swings at the one crew member who Cont. On 117 (Cont. From 77) tries to restrain him, the man reassumes his seat and starts sobbing. He kisses his daughter’s lips, caresses her chest. When the boat finally docks, a group of policemen rush on board. The man flashes some sort of ID badge at them. “He says he is a police, too,” says my translator, and we watch the officers disappear as if nothing happened.
Meanwhile, Nathan is perched in the guest room of an opulent five-story estate overlooking the Bosporus. Turns out his editor’s parents live in Istanbul, 90210 (aka the affluent suburb of Bebek). Nathan, freshly shower-massaged, is changing for dinner when I arrive. “When I got here,” he says later, “the housekeeper brought me up a huge sandwich on fresh-baked bread and a bowl of juicy cherries and tangerines, and it was all on a big silver platter! With a Coke! With the bottle cap unscrewed for me, even!” The Akers smile politely when I suggest listing their address in Let’s Go for other cost-conscious travelers.
In retrospect, Nathan feels that meeting the Akers helped shape his overall impression of Istanbul and of travel in general. “I thought all of Turkey was a slum before coming here,” he says, adding he may cancel plans to backpack through other countries now that he has had a taste of the good life. “I think I’ll wait until my parents buy me a trip and send me with a group of kids so I can ride in those big air-conditioned tour buses. At first I thought they all looked like a bunch of geeks in there, but now I’m thinking it’s really cushy; it can’t be that bad.”
I‘m a creep, I’m a loser, what the hell am I doing here?…” After an allnighter spent cutting and pasting, Nathan has taken to reciting Radiohead through the streets of Bursa. Most travelers come to this city en route to a nearby national park, but time doesn’t allow us a visit. Triage. Sixty minutes in the tourism office. Ninety minutes in the post office. A hundred degrees in the sun. By late afternoon we’ve finally found most of the accommodations listed in his tear sheets, but we decide against checking in since they look like homeless shelters (“defrilled” in Let’s Go-speak). Frazzled and sweat soaked after lugging our backpacks on a two-hour search for the final hotel, we give up, settling for some menacing flophouse on the freeway entrance, where we somehow wind up. You’ll find it described as “your best bet” for Bursa in this year’s Let’s Go.
“So, wanna go to a Turkish bathhouse?” I ask Nathan our last night together in Bursa, and I’m still afraid he got the wrong idea – especially since we spent the morning scouring the city for pharmacies that sell condoms. (Let’s Go lists them in its “Practical Information” section.) “I don’t have a bathing suit,” comes the first in his series of adamant excuses. “Don’t they just cover you with mud?” “I’m too tired, why don’t you go by yourself?”
Upon arriving at the ornate bathhouse recommended by Let’s Go, I follow the book’s advice and request “the scrubbing” and “the rubbing.” Silently, I’m led into a changing room and emerge in a tiny towel and sandals. Yep, it’s all guys in here – OK, mostly young fathers and their kids, who have a good old time watching the American shriek in pain as he is “scrubbed” by his burly Turkish friend: alternately splashed with scalding and icy water, then rinsed with the aid of a Turkish Brillo pad. My back is vigorously kneaded, pummeled and “rubbed” until I’m human string cheese. “You swim now,” grunts my assailant, and I spend 20 transcendental minutes floating in a warm mineral pool. Thoroughly relaxed, I’m wrapped in plush turquoise towels by another attendant, who ushers me into the vast main chamber, shows me to my chaise longue and fetches me a cold beer.
When I return to our oxygen free hotel room. Nathan is curled up on a stained mattress – Harvard is hot T-shirt on his back, money pouch around his neck, glue stick on the night table. Tomorrow marks the end of his first week in Turkey, but by the looks of him, it could be his last. “We exhaust them,” reads a passage on R-Ws in Let’s Go‘s Editor’s Manual. “We hire them and dangle travel in front of their eyes and send them out. Then we wring them dry. Then they come back in a heap and go to school, and by January they’re nostalgic to do it again. Amazing.”
This June a whole new crop of R-Ws will hit the globe with glue sticks and tear sheets – many happily returning for the second or third year in a row. “Every R-W’s experience is different,” says junior Ingrid Basset, who covered Portugal for Let’s Go in 1993 and Rome in 1994, adding that both trips were “wonderful.” From her perspective, “a lot depends on where you go, and a lot depends on your own personality.” As for Nathan, who did manage to finish his itinerary in Turkey (followed by an air-conditioned bus tour of Israel), he’s anything but nostalgic to do it all again. “I’m not turned off to traveling, just to Let’s Go,” he says bitterly, adding that his schedule prevented him from visiting several entire cities covered in this year’s guide. “Sure, I called up the hotels and updated prices and phone numbers, but what if some poor schlep actually goes out there, and he’s just like me and doesn’t speak Turkish and has been having a rough time of it, and he gets to this place that’s recommended in a book, and it turns out to be a total hole?”
Last night, Nathan got a phone call from one of this year’s student editors, urging him to come to an important meeting. “I want nothing to do with them,” he tells me. “I’ll put it on my resume – that’s fine. But I don’t want to have to go into that office ever again.”