IIt was a wildlife park in Uttar Pradesh near the India-Nepalese border in May 1993. We arrived after a long journey in a bucking old bus hoping to see elephant, antelope, leopard, possibly even tiger. But the only two vehicles of the safari center, a minibus and a 4×4, both were broken. While the staff tried to fix it, we all had to kill time in the hot, dusty office.
Every hour or so during that seemingly endless afternoon, a new group of western backpackers would be dropped off, and each would head purposefully to the reception desk and start variations with the following request: “We would like to get to outside areas of the park so we can optimize our chances of finding a tiger.” to see. So we really don’t want tot use the minibus – we prefer to wait for it Land Rover. Will it be available today please?”
That Rough guide had an undeniable importance
Given that the vehicle in question looked like it would never be available again, the rest of us, who had already been waiting for hours, rolled our eyes and groaned every time this happened.
The reason all these comers said the same thing was because that’s what it said to say them… in The Rough Guide to India.
This title was so ubiquitous in the backpacker fraternity back then that in several months of traveling I don’t think I met a single other party that didn’t have a copy. Many referenced The rough guide simply called “The Book”, as if it was biblical, what it was in a way: our travel bible, as indispensable as a rucksack. Of course there were other guides lonely planet, especially. But the Rough guide had an undeniable importance.
The 1990s were arguably the high point in the history of the travel guide industry. The copy I packed that day was worn but my replacement 1996 edition had a protection price of £14.99. Adjusted for inflation, that would be £31.30 today. That sounds like a lot, but with 1,279 pages and an exceptional level of detail, it was actually quite inexpensive. When I randomly open it, I find there are 16 pages about Agra and the Taj Mahal alone, explaining everything from the historical context to a cheap masala dosa. Those hefty cover prices — and healthy sales to a willing audience — meant the company could afford proper research: a team of writers was dispatched to every corner of a country for months. Six authors are named on this Indian edition.
All of this was before the digital revolution that kicked in towards the end of the decade and wreaked havoc on this type of business model. Suddenly the idea of paying £31.30 for content when Google was free led to most people opting for the latter and publishers struggling to move on. Despite a valiant attempt by penguin to save the decay Rough guide Brand, even this giant could not get the model to work.
These days, writers have just weeks to update old issues instead of the months they were previously allowed – and often they’re asked to do so from their desks rather than visiting the country in question. Like many of their former readers, they now use Google as their primary research tool. Contributor pay rates, I am told, are a fraction of what they used to be. The free online version contains only a fraction of the knowledge of the old print editions. It’s a sad state.
Nothing has come to replace them.
They never fixed the SUV that day in 1993
Without a Rough guide They’re hoping that maybe you can find a “48 hours in…” feature in The guard or telegraph because if that doesn’t work, you’re left with the stuff from the local tourist office, or, God help you, tripadvisor. Free content doesn’t make better content.
That’s why I still use a print edition Rough guide practically everywhere I travel. This isn’t an attempt to be eccentric — although to younger fellow travelers it may seem like I’m a concerned poser, practically using an Edwardian Baedeker instead of an iPhone to navigate a city. Because while the “where to eat/stay” stuff is hopelessly outdated – the chef of these 1993 masala dosas is quite likely dead by now, the restaurant long closed – they go into detail about what to see and do in each city it means, and that stuff is largely timeless.
Since we have a library with dozens of things, not taking any seems contradictory.
We recently returned from a tour of provincial France on which we were accompanied by our 1997 Rough guidee. This credits a research team of eight authors. Her guide on how to get around in two cities new to me, Grenoble and Nîmes, still worked in almost every way, and we were able to google the rest.
Of course, one could say – as my memory of India suggests – that their widespread use had a tendency to homogenize. I would say the opposite: where much travel literature today is reduced to “ten things you must see”, the Rough Guides offered ten thousand things you want to see. Experienced readers knew that the “can” destinations were very often more rewarding than the “must” destinations. This reduced rather than increased traffic to the same crowded places.
They never fixed the SUV that day in 1993, but we finally made it to the park in the van in the late afternoon. Its loud, stalling engine scared away any leopard, antelope or tiger, but we saw a few elephants – and peacocks too. I’d only seen them in English country gardens before, but seeing them resting in a verdant woodland setting was a stunning image that has stayed with me ever since. Like them Rough guide that led me there.