With less than a month’s notice, I bought my plane ticket and made living arrangements to spend six weeks of my summer interning for an Ecuadorian-based travel book. I would act the part of a living, breathing, international journalist with all of the guts and glamour that goes along with interning abroad. Viva Travel Guides is the young company that was able to give me some of the best hands-on experience that is generally not available at large veteran publications.
I had applied for my internship in the spring, but my lack of Adobe InDesign experience stopped the company from originally hiring me. My interview went well though, and when another intern backed out, I accepted their offer to take the open position.
My arrival in Quito, a city with approximately 9,000-foot elevation, was both exhausting and exciting. My body’s adjustment period was about five days – where I slept a ton, ate very little and watched the Ecuadorian version of Desperate Housewives. As soon as I was acclimatized, work began.
Working at a travel guide wasn’t exactly what I had expected, but I’m not sure what I expected. I knew that I wouldn’t be traveling the continent sending in stories from afar, but I knew it had to be more than a 9-to-5 desk job (or actually 9:30 to 5:15 because nothing ever seemed to happen on time). “I think it’s a little different than people expect,” said Erin Helland, who completed her sixth-month internship with Viva in July. “A lot of people I talked to think that I’m being shipped around the world to fancy places. But mostly my job was office based.” There are, however opportunities for travel for those that want to take them. Helland was able to travel to the coast, the mountains and the Galápagos Islands, though most was on her own expense.
When traveling on business for Viva, the writers live off of about $15 a day. “It doesn’t sound like much in American money,” Helland said. “But, buses in Ecuador are about a dollar an hour and I was usually on a bus for two-three hours. Cabs are a couple bucks. My hotel was about 7 dollars a day and breakfast you could get for about a dollar. I usually ended up spending about 20 dollars a day but really it’s very reasonable.” Helland’s travel guide research took her to several small mountain communities including Ambato, Riobamba and Salinas.
One of the main misconceptions about field work for a travel book is that it’s all very glamorous and posh. The reality isn’t quite so. “You really don’t have a long time in a place. You eat alone. You’re working a lot and quite intensively and you don’t have internet connection,” editor-in-chief of Viva’s travel books Paula Newton said. “People need to be quite resilient. You can be gone for a long time. It’s pretty intense. We expect quite a lot from our writers who are out in the field.” Writers must do a lot of research before reaching a destination so that they may not waste time. Viva expects their writers to have contacts available, know where they are going and where they are staying while traveling for the company.
Once the content is collected, the writers and interns upload the new information on to Viva’s Web site, where all their content is kept. Twice a year, they update their print versions from the new content on the Web. “The company was set up with the idea of being the most up-to-date guidebook on the market recognizing that when you take guidebooks with you like Lonely Planet which is updated every couple years, things have gotten a bit outdated,” said Newton. Viva’s latest book is their Ecuador guidebook, which updated in September. Their first edition of a guidebook to Peru is almost complete and guidebooks to both Columbia and Argentina are in the works. For a company that’s only a little over a year old, they are expanding quite gracefully.
The Web site works much in the way of Wikipedia, where users can create new pages and update pages about hotels, restaurants, cities and activities that the Viva writers have not been able to cover yet. They make suggestions and give ratings based on their travel experience – all of which is taken into account when publishing the books. If their review or description fits Viva’s standards, it will often make it into the book.
Since the office is based in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, the interns do their best to keep the Quito nightlife section updated on a regular basis. “We work hard, we play hard,” Newton always said. Part of the job of writers and interns is to put their own personal experiences into the book, even if they didn’t get paid for the research. A passion for culture and travel is a requirement for this job. “I get to do for my job what I used to do during my lunch breaks, which is research different places to travel,” Newton said. “Now, I get to research places to travel and I get paid for it.” Aside from research, a ton of editing and rewriting go into publishing a book. In such a small company, about five people read the book over and over until its ready for publication and quite often the interns and the editors are doing the same job.
Besides editing and reviewing travel destinations, the staff can find themselves doing other things like writing a personal narrative, updating the Web site, or even creating a MySpace or Facebook page to get more of the word out there. “Because we’re such a small start up company I can end up doing anything really aside from cleaning really,” Newton said. Being based in Latin American gives the workplace a more homelike feel. The office atmosphere is just as relaxed as the staff’s titles are.
Friday evenings at Viva come with beer and chips from the boss, and often the staff goes out together afterward. Doing anything out in public can be seen as research for the book and that’s the excuse we used for going to the bar even if we had to work the next day. The next day, we might have quite a few reviews to write about the drinks being too expensive in one place or the place with the best chicken Schwarmas near the nightlife.
I left Ecuador with a new outlook on life and journalism: my profession may be one of the most exciting yet tiring livelihoods in the world – something I always thought but had never experienced. I left professionally published both online and in a book. I left with a new understanding of a culture different than my own. I was given the means to do my three favorite things: writing, traveling and socializing. And I still get to call it work.