Fifteen Minutes: The Lush Life at Let's Go

It beats working for Goldman--if you don't like stiff suits and you're up for months of exotica on a shoestring
By Adam M. Taub

It beats working for Goldman--if you don't like stiff suits and you're up for months of exotica on a shoestring budget.

Let's Go guides, the travel books written and edited by Harvard students, sound pretty brilliant on the face of it: send impoverished students out with a few bucks to Paris, Sydney or Rio and let them write about their adventures. The project has met with great success since Harvard Student Agencies first printed Let's Go: Europe in 1960. What was then a 20-page pamphlet is today a line of 30 travel guides and 18 map guides, available in bookstores nationwide. Published by St. Martin's Press, Let's Go: Europe has grown to a glossy 992-page behemoth. Hundreds of applications for summer jobs pour in each spring, as Harvard's would-be Tom Ripleys plan summers of bliss on the Continent. But casual dress and a torrent of daiquiris give way to grueling work, internal struggles, marijuana brownies, la cucuracha! and the Let's Go libido. So the staffers tell FM. Despite the tangles that come from the dubious mixing of business with undergraduate pleasure, Let's Go writers and editors for the most part praise the organization, and the resulting travel books take on a unique feel--aimed at the young crowd and dripping with Harvard wit. If Let's Go is new territory for you, allow FM to be your guide into the inner workings of the organization: many of its followers subscribe to Let's Go dogma with a pseudo-cultish devotion, but what happens behind the doors at 67 Mt. Auburn may surprise the uninitiated.

power and professionalism

The Let's Go hierarchy consists of managing editors, book editors, assistant editors and, at the bottom, researcher writers. Researcher writers--RWs, or (better still) "r-dubs"--are the lucky ducks who go out into the field with a little Let's Go change in their pockets to document the Chilean nightlife. The editors make more money--$7,000--but have to stay behind in the Cambridge home office.

From the start, the setup poses problems, according to insiders. The Let's Go hiring process, they say, is less than professional. Typical of publishing politics, it seems people favor their friends. It helps to be a celebrity--all the editors showed up when the daughter of a big-name politician was interviewed. And classically, it helps if a prospect can offer a bit of eye candy. (Kaya R. Stone '00, Let's Go production director, takes exception. "I don't think our staff is tremendously good-looking," Stone objects. Adding that Let's Go is a "professional outfit," Stone concedes he wishes the staff were a tad more attractive.)

Where a business staffed entirely by professionals would immediately shun even the appearance of a conflict-of-interest, Let's Go is more lenient. This means stories like that of Lindiwe Dovey '01, who selected her boyfriend to write for the South Africa guide she was editing. The young man, Nick P. Weiss '00, was the best candidate for the job, Dovey maintains. And, to avoid a fight, Dovey ran her choice by the upper echelons of Let's Go management. Since Weiss had worked well for Let's Go before, they signed off on the hire. "It wasn't nepotism," Dovey explains. Weiss complements her strengths. "He's a computer science major. I'm into writing." The guide was generally considered a success, but the dubious nature of the hire still raises questions about the committment to professionalism expected of a successful publishing company.

Relations between the sexes often expose the fissure caused by the combination of college and capitalism. Romances are occassionally consummated on pieces of office furniture, according to one former editor who requested anonymity. But as D. Jonathan Dawid, editor of Let's Go: France, puts it, "We don't frown upon romance in the same office the way they might in a professional organization." Liasons at Let's Go's 67 Mt. Auburn HQ aren't serious--just a reflection of the organization as a way for students to spend their free time as well as work a job. "Most of the time, people [are] just having fun," Dawid says. Insiders tell FM that some staffers show up to work stoned, as pot brownies and mixed drinks circulate in various quarters. Let's Go forbids such behavior in its offices, and in the past workers have been disciplined for violating those policies, according to Stone. "On the one hand, we're kids and we're carefree," explains Peter D. Richards '01, who edited Let's Go: Southeast Asia, "But on the other hand, we want to make money and sell books. Sometimes we want to think of ourselves as professionals."

The result, according to graduate student Zahr K. Said, who edited Let's Go: Middle East, is a more insidious side masled beneath the organization's "glossy facade." Said's history with Let's Go points to the confusion over professional conduct in a student extracurricular. After returning to work after a vacation, during which she had contracted pneumonia, Said was unexpectedly fired. "They made me feel like a leper. I wasn't welcome there," she recalls. "There was whispering. People were told not to talk to me. It was like The Firm. It was like a big conspiracy." Said says the reasons for her termination were never explained, but she surmises either that her extra vacation days--she took 13, three more than the allotted quota--or else a perception of anti-Israeli bias in the Middle East guide led to the cutting loose.

"I know Zahr left unhappy," Stone admits. But the organization has little else to say about its one-time employee. "Whenever you have an organization that's over 200 people, there may well be people who are unhappy," says Anne Chism, assistant general manager of Harvard Student Agencies, which owns Let's Go. "That's not unusual. But we also strive to have one hundred percent of the people satisfied."

As a business, the for-profit Let's Go, Inc., must also consider the satisfaction of its readers. They aim high, with no small amount of hyperbole: their website declares its product "the Bible of the budget traveler." A representative of the well-known Chicago bookstore Savvy Traveler makes slightly less divine assessments of Let's Go's market, limiting its niche to the youth of America. "We tend to sell Let's Go books to student or recently post-student travelers," said Savvy Traveler rep Don Schubert.

The backpacking-across-Europe reputation Let's Go has acquired, and the series' cheap listed accommodations tend to scare off upper-crust travelers--the "well-heeled" in Schubert's words. That's not likely to change, either. The costs of updating the guides every year keeps daily stipends for r-dubs as low as $30 and never above $100. In countries such as Mexico, where American dollars go a long way, sometimes even this relatively small amount isn't completely spent (partly due also to the researchers' profit motive to keep what's left over). The combination of stinginess and the automatic tendency of students to gravitate towards socially geared locations gives the books a youthful slant.

Lonely Planet, Let's Go's chief competition, targets those who have more to spend on their getaways. Lonely Planet General Manager Eric Kettunen remembers that he used Let's Go the first time he went to Europe and thought it was "the greatest thing." But five years later, he found the series simply too unsophisticated. Kettunen says, "My girlfriend and I felt we were getting information for a student"--the kind of information he no longer needed.

That he first used Let's Go's European guide is telling: Let's Go's reputation for accuracy and usefulness are rooted in trips to "developed nations." Lonely Planet has put a lock on the more out-of-the-way destinations for American tourists. "We are the clear leader in Africa, New Zealand and South Pacific destinations," he declares. "We still pretty much rule in Southeast Asia," Kettunen says. In the travel book biz, Let's Go's push to expand its coverage has been duly noted, but Schubert says Let's Go's Asia and Middle East editions clearly lag behind the series' more established guidebooks.

on the road

The responsibility for maintaining Let's Go's factual accuracy, expanding its coverage in the Third World and in general finding those places where the "well-heeled" people don't go falls to r-dubs, for whom eight hours of mindless toil every day for seven straight weeks adds up to "a wonderful experience."

Working as a Let's Go r-dub can be a dream come true, providing a free ticket to a far away land for a seven week trip with a daily stipend to boot. And a summer writing gig for Let's Go can be an attractive bullet on any Harvard resume. Let's Go requires its writers to front the money for their tickets, however, since r-dubs have been known to bail. "Every year there are people who don't follow through on their eight weeks of research," Stone says.

The reasons for bailing are pretty obvious. R-dubs spend most of time on the road alone, either collecting a massive amount of mundane, seemingly useless facts or writing in a hotel room for hours and hours, usually in longhand, compiling facts and cleverly worded accounts of their travels--all this for a net profit that usually comes out to about $100.

"While I was doing it, it was kind of lonely and a little bit miserable," confesses Maya Sen '00, a Mexico r-dub, who says she ultimately enjoyed her Let's Go experience. "It's fun to be on the road, but when you go back to your hotel room, and you're faced with four hours of writing, and you can't call your family because it's too expensive and your editor hasn't called in a while, it can get pretty hard."

The job must be completed in solitude. The enormous cost of long-distance calls from Namibia, Malaysia or the Ukraine back to mom and dad in the United States precludes the use of Let's Go-provided phone cards for anything except calls to editors. Sending a second researcher for each route is also impossible due to financial constraints. And traveling even with a self-supporting companion leads to a certain loss of initiative. "When you're traveling with someone who isn't a Let's Go employee, they sometimes want to just chill out," production manager Stone says. "One person did go with his brother, and it didn't work out. He didn't do the research. He spent a lot of time going to bars," Stone admits.

Lucky r-dubs can use laptop computers and e-mail their handiwork back home. The rest have to dust off skills abandoned since elementary school and put actual pen to actual paper. Not just any words will do for the slave drivers in the home office. Let's Go witticisms are a must for any r-dub. If the r-dub can't produce, editors step in. The result is that special smart-assed Harvard prose only John Updike's mother could love.

Excerpt: "About 40,000 years ago, Europe's Neanderthal population was supplanted by our dear friend Homo sapiens, followed just tens of millennia later by the first European settlements on Crete. Then before you knew it, the Minoans, Mycenaeans, Greeks, Etruscans, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines, Franks, Vikings, Holy Romans, and Ottomans had all come and gone, and pretty soon (following countless tragic wars, a few really long boat trips, and a few pinnacles of Western civilization), the year 2000 rolled around, and you decided that it was high time that you went and saw it all for yourself. So you loaded some film in the old camera, packed a change of socks, and got your mitts on a copy of Let's Go: Europe 2000 and you're ready to go. So go." Tee hee.

"Writing the stuff was hard," says Mexico r-dub Ellen H. Schneider '01. "It took a long time. There were a lot of things that were hassles. I usually stayed in my hotel room sitting on this crappy mattress. There were some places I didn't really like, and I had to make them not sound totally awful in the book."

Though she found her Let's Go foray worthwhile, Schneider called it quits with Harvard's travel biz. "It was very draining," she says. "I would not do it again."

R-dubs, however, cherish the chance to sit on deteriorating mattresses and scribble poetic descriptions of Mexico City's atmosphere of smoke and car fumes to send back to Cambridge as "copy batch," since it's the alternative to "shit work."

Also known as "grunt work," this part of the job exposes just how hard traveling can be. R-dubs' shit work entails confirming restaurant hours, hotel prices and a countless number of tedious details required to maintain the series' credibility. "It's your hardest work," said Greece r-dub Mike Seid. "The majority of your job is fact-checking. I got a little tired of it towards the end. You occasionally think that these things are meaningless."

Certainly, a Let's Go summer has its advantages over opening constituent mail, organizing dockets or filling in spreadsheets of corporate growth potentials. "You get to know a place in a way you never would otherwise," says Seid. "You get to see some pretty spectacular things. I saw a place that was announced as the birthplace of Homer, which it clearly wasn't. I got to see and cover the Acropolis." In Skagway, Alaska, another r-dub was shown an abandoned brothel. Under the floorboards she found an array of strange and terrible contraceptive devices of the Nineteenth Century. In South Africa, a female r-dub had to find the words to explain gently to a local that she was not in fact interested in doing promotions for his nude beach.

It is, perhaps, these moments of memorable experience that lead r-dubs to describe their time with glowing and clicheed adjectives--"a great experience," "wonderful," and enriching," gush scores of staffers. Though some say they wouldn't return, most say their time traveling for Let's Go was well-worth it.

the home office

Already, Let's Go is planning on a staff of 90 that will keep the homefire burning over the summer. The workload is intense, but the flavor is light and crispy. Casual dress and spontaneous beach trips are staples of the Let's Go lifestyle. "We're trying to create a nice office culture," Stone says. Friendships form, and the office provides a summer social scene for its editors. "Tons of people live together. We go out drinking together, play softball and kickball together. We try to set up as many outlets as possible," Stone says. Managing editors are expected to hold parties and inject some play into the office work. "There's always something fun included in the weekly meetings," Dovey explains. And what comprises fun for Harvard's aspiring travel writers? "Poetry competitions, for example. One week we read limericks at the meeting."

Silliness aside, however, Let's Go, as a business operation, requires an end-product, and the pressure to produce yields high stress levels in the office. As deadlines approach, this means 15 hour days. "The last two weeks I was averaging three hours of sleep a day. It was misery," Weiss recalls. The regular 40 hour weekly total grows to more than twice that, says one editor. Many of the editors find themselves turning into nocturnal creatures. "By the end of it, you roll into work in the mid afternoon and stay into the small of the morning," Dawid says. "You can go in anytime and find probably 20 or 30 people." Editors bring their sleeping bags to the office with the intention of holding the fort until the last word is set down. "There was a guy who came in at nine and left at five. We kind of laughed at that," Dawid recalls.

Deadlines transform summer life into an extra exam period, staffers complain. The stress can be overwhelming and one editor says the stress has absolutely ruled out a return to the Let's Go office.

Three a.m., the night before deadline, the office is abuzz. Computer screens glow as editors, sustained by caffeine, frantically click at their keyboards putting finishing touches on their babies. Red-eyed editors litter the floor amid a wasteland of sleeping bags. The trash overflows with tinfoil and napkins, remnants of late night stops at The Wrap. As the sun rises over Cambridge, some editors panic and some breathe a heavy sigh of relief.

As Let's Go puts out the annual call for new staffers, blanketing the campus with its celebrity-filled fliers, the process of indoctrination will begin. Would-be travel writers will wander into information sessions to hear testimonies from London club kids and Indian backpackers who found enlightenment, courtesy of Let's Go. Aspirants should note, however, that like a fresh rhinoplasty, such wisdom requires, if not heavy sedatives, a healthy dose of healing time.

Benjamin D. Mathis-Lilley '03 may not know much about pot brownies, but he sure knows a lot about pot bellies!

Adam M. Taub '02 recently returned from a trip to Reykjavik, where he bought a pair of orthopedic clogs. With Dr. Scholl's odor eaters installed, he says they're real comfy.