Those odd moments when travel writer meets travel reader

Spotting Guidebooks in the Wild

An attractive couple on holiday, standing on Charles Bridge in Prague and holding a Lonely Planet guidebook. I'm a little too shy to take surreptitious photos of travelers using one of 'my' guidebooks, but this cover photo for Lonely Planet's Christmas card last year captures that sensation well. Photo credit: Lonely Planet.
The first time I ever saw someone using one of my guidebooks in the wild was on a flight from Prague to Bulgaria. A guy, a couple of seats away, pulled out a copy of this book and read it from cover to cover. Photo credit: Amazon screen capture.

The first time I remember seeing one of my own guidebooks in the hands of a traveler was years ago on a sparsely filled flight from Prague to Sofia, Bulgaria. I was heading to Bulgaria to update the Frommer’s guide to Eastern Europe. I had just settled into my seat when a guy across the aisle from me, in the same row, reached into his bag and pulled out an older edition of the same title I was updating -- one I’d worked on a couple of years earlier.

It was somehow flattering but also excruciating to sit there through the 90-minute flight and try not to watch him read what seemed to be the entire book, cover to cover. He’d chuckle to himself, and I’d wonder what was so funny; he’d frown, and I’d think to myself he’d probably found a mistake.

Over the years, I’ve experienced many similar moments like this while traveling all over Central and Eastern Europe, and usually at times I’d least expected. It could be walking down a side street in Kraków or sitting down to a meal at an out-of-the-way café in Cluj. You never know, but it's always a shock.

Whenever I tell people, non-travel-writers usually, that I spotted someone on the street carrying a guidebook I’d worked on, they invariably ask me why I didn’t simply walk up to the person and introduce myself. Friends tell me that most travelers would probably love this kind of interaction, and besides, I could use the conversation as an on-the-fly assessment of what people like and don’t like about the book.

That might be true, but there also seems to be an informal rule of engagement (or rather, non-engagement) among travel writers not to encroach on a person’s holiday – at least that’s my impression from talking over the situation with my guidebook-writing colleagues. I don’t know if it’s the idea that vacations are like dreams and you wouldn’t want to wake a person up, or that a traveler’s relationship to his or her guidebook can be personal and you wouldn’t want to intrude. Maybe I’m just naturally shy. It’s unlikely I’ll ever approach someone on the street and say: “Hey, I wrote your guidebook!”

Fame and Fortune (In Small Doses)

That said, guidebook writers, particularly those who’ve worked on the same titles over several editions, do gain a modicum of (low-key) notoriety over time. Destination marketing organizations, travel agencies and even some readers often know the names of the authors of the most popular guidebook titles. Over the years that I’ve lived in Prague, for example, I've always known that a guy named Rob Humphreys was the author of the "Rough Guide to the Czech Republic," though I’ve never met him in person. I certainly wouldn’t mind if he walked up to me sometime in the street and introduced himself.

After working on several guidebooks over the past decade, I am reasonably well known here in the Czech Republic and in Romania, which I write about frequently. I admit, though, I haven’t reached the level of fame that some of my fellow writers have. My Lonely Planet colleague, Steve Fallon, for example, is so well-known in Slovenia, after working on several editions of Lonely Planet's Slovenia title, that he was even declared an “Ambassador of Tourism” there in 2015. I’m still waiting on my Czech ambassadorship, by the way.

Steve’s notoriety in Slovenia is so complete I was even called out once for not being him by a receptionist at a youth hostel there. I was traveling in the country at the time as a co-author of the Lonely Planet Slovenia guide and decided to book a room at a hostel at Lake Bled. It was toward the end of my stay, and I was sitting on a bench outside the hostel. The receptionist on duty stepped out on her break and came over to say hello. She was obviously curious about me. (It pains me to think about it, but maybe she thought I looked a little too old to be staying at a hostel?)

“So, what are you doing here?” she said, clearly not mincing words. In order to salvage my reputation, I decided to come clean and tell her what I was really up to. What harm could it do? “Well, to be honest,” I said, taking what I thought was the upper hand in the discussion, “I’m actually the Lonely Planet author on Slovenia.” I gave her a serious look: “I’m here to evaluate your hostel.” She sized me up skeptically and then put me in my place: “But you’re not Steve Fallon.”

Would You Autograph My Copy?

That’s not to say there aren’t some pleasant surprises here and there with all of this. Last summer was relatively light on guidebook work and I decided to take an impromptu road trip from Prague to Ukraine and then down through Romania and on to Greece. I wrote about that trip here. It was my first real vacation in years, but I found it hard to switch off my inner guidebook writer.

On my way through Romania, I decided to stop off in Bucharest for a few nights to relax and meet up with friends. I splurged on a beautiful Airbnb apartment in the center of town that came with its own working kitchen and a small garden. At last, I thought, I’ll be able to cook something and not have to eat in a restaurant again.

I was little homesick for my mom’s chili, so I bought the ingredients and invited a friend, Madalina, over to dinner. I hadn’t realized it when I booked the apartment, but there were actually two Airbnb rentals in the same building. As Madalina and I were sitting in the garden, eating chili and drinking wine, the neighbors arrived to check into their own apartment.

The sudden arrival of strangers spoiled the mood a little – I thought our conversation in the garden might disturb them – but they turned out to be a very friendly couple. He was from Los Angeles, not far from where my brother lives, and she was Bulgarian. They were both visiting Bucharest for the first time.

We invited them to join us and had a pleasant chat in the evening air. After an hour or so, the couple returned to their rental unit, and Madalina and I started clearing the table to end the evening. Just then, our new friend from Los Angeles came back into the garden holding in his hand a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Romania & Bulgaria; one I had recently worked on.

“Are you this Mark Baker??” he asked, pointing to the author photo in the book. These moments can be a little awkward, but I confessed that, well yeah, it was me and that normally at this time of year I’d be traveling in Romania to update a guidebook. He then asked if I wouldn’t mind autographing their copy and went back inside to get a pen. Madalina was very impressed!

'Thank You. Very Good, Sir!

By far the strangest example of one of these guidebook-recognition moments, though, didn’t involve me spotting a guidebook in the wild or even being called out by a reader. Rather, it was the time the guidebook – totally out of the blue -- came to me.

This was a summer afternoon a few years ago in Prague and I happened to be riding my bike north out of the Old Town in the general direction of my apartment. I had just crossed the Vltava River at Čech Bridge (Čechův most) and had stopped for a traffic light.

Suddenly, off to my right, I heard a guy yelling to me in what sounded like very formal, Indian-accented English, “Excuse me, sir! Excuse me, sir!” I turned to face the man, who was approaching quickly and clutching a familiar, blue-spined guidebook. It was a copy of the “Lonely Planet guide to Prague & the Czech Republic” – the same edition I’d updated a year earlier.

Do you speak English?” he asked. “Yes,” I answered, “How can I help you?”

He held out the book and opened it to the chapter on Letná Park, which was just off in the distance to the north from where we were standing. He pointed to some text in the book and asked me whether the park was nearby and if it was worth seeing. “Is it nice there?” he asked. “Yes,” I said, motioning upward with my arm in the general direction of the park. “Just climb some steps over there, and you’ll have a beautiful view out over the whole city,” I said.

“Very good, sir. Thank you,” he said. He then closed the book and paused for a moment. It was precisely in that pause that my mind started racing. He’d obviously not made any connection between me and the book, so I wondered to myself, should I tell him I’m the author or let it go?

It occurred to me in that moment that from his perspective, at least, telling him might actually freak him out a little. I mean what are the odds that he would approach a complete stranger with a question about his guidebook and then happen to stumble across the very author of the book himself? It would seem like a million to one. Yeah, it was a little too weird. I decided to ignore it, and he walked back over to the sidewalk to meet up again with his friends. And that’s when curiosity finally got the best of me. Oh, what the hell, let’s see what happens.

“Hey, can I see that book again?” I yelled out from my bike.

“Yes, of course,” he said, and walked back over.

I took the book from his hands, flipped through the pages, and found the author page, with my photograph. “See that guy there?” I said. “That’s me.” His eyes widened at first like he didn’t believe me and then he took a closer look. “Very good, sir,” he said, nodding his head. Without missing a beat, he thanked me once again, closed the book and walked off. I swear it happened exactly like that, but to this day, I still wonder if it wasn’t some kind of travel-writer dream.

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About the author

Mark Baker

I’m an independent journalist, travel writer and author who’s lived in Central Europe for nearly three decades. I love the history, literature, culture and mystery of this often-overlooked corner of Europe, and I make my living writing articles and guidebooks about the region. Much of what I write eventually finds its way into commercial print or digital outlets, but a lot of it does not.

And that’s my aim with this website: to find a space for stories and experiences that fall outside the publishing mainstream.

My Book: ‘Čas Proměn’

In 2021, I published “Čas Proměn” (“Time of Changes”), my first book of historical nonfiction. The book, written in Czech, is a collection of stories about Central and Eastern Europe in the 1980s and early ‘90s, including memories of the thrilling anti-communist revolutions of 1989. The idea for the book and many of the tales I tell there were directly inspired by this blog. Czech readers, find a link to purchase the book here. I hope you enjoy.

Tales of Travel & Adventure in Central Europe
Mark Baker