The Life of a Travel Writer by Bill Dalton


Publishing is called the “accidental profession” for a reason. Like many publishers who never purposefully intended to become makers of books, I never set out to be a publisher. Often we don’t pick our professions. They are decided for us by the choices we make, the people we meet or the places we go. Publishing is also called the “gentleman’s profession.” We like to think of ourselves as following a higher calling guided by noble principles and fine manners. That might be so, but publishing is also a high-risk, hard-nosed, intensely competitive business.

In my case, my love and experience of travel was to evolve into a guidebook publishing company. It all began in the early 1970s when I stumbled upon Indonesia completely by accident. It was just the next country to visit on my travels around the world.

After serving as a combat paramedic in street battles in the Dominican Republic after the 82nd Airborne Division invaded that Caribbean island in 1965, I attended the University of Copenhagen on the GI Bill for four years where I earned a totally useless Magistratus Candidatus degree in Scandinavian History and Philosophy. When I was not attending classes, I was penning the Great American Novel, now gathering dust in a tattered cardboard box in my garage in Bali.

Setting out from Copenhagen in 1970 with a $1000 dollar inheritance from my grandmother, I embarked on an 8-year backpacking journey around the world visiting 65 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Southeast Asia. For one and a half years I worked as an apple picker on a Kibbutz in Israel and a rumrunner in India (where I was bit by a rabid puppy in Goa) before finally running out of money in Calcutta. My brother and an old army buddy sent me $200, which flew me to Burma and then to Bangkok from where I hitch hiked into wartime Cambodia. After spending six months teaching English to government ministries in Phnom Penh, I made to travel around Thailand and Laos and down to Penang while it was still sleepy enough to smoke in Chinese opium dens. I took the ferry across the Melaka Strait to Medan, my first exposure to the wild energy and excitement of Indonesia.

For weeks I traveled down the huge island of Sumatra and then through Java to Bali, arriving in Denpasar where I took a horse cart to Adi Yasa’s. The only places to stay on the southern coast of the island at the time were a few kerosene-lit homestays in Kuta, a quiet fishing village with boats pulled up on the beach, cockfights in the back lanes and dances held in the middle of the dusty intersection that used to be called Bemo Corner. In Ubud, I remember dogs sleeping in the middle of the main dirt road and the only food available was bean soup at Oka Wati’s warung and the only place to stay was Tjanderi’s.

After six months, my Indonesian “landing permit” had expired and I was running out of money again. In May 1972, I flew to Darwin and took rides, buses, and trains down to Cairns, Queensland, where I got a job as a gardener for the Parks and Recreation Department. One night in a youth hostel as I was writing down some travel advice on my portable Hermes typewriter for some German travelers, a veteran New Zealand journalist named Noel came up to me: “You shouldn’t just give that information away. You should sell it!”

A new age Aquarius Festival at Nimbin in New South Wales – Australia’s equivalent of Woodstock– was to take place in a week. Two girls I knew in the town library printed six pages of my notes with crude handmade maps on an old mimeograph machine. I stapled the sheets together, called it A Traveler’s Notes: Indonesia, stuffed the 600 copies into my backpack and made my way down to Nimbin. Next morning, I fanned copies out on a blanket on the main street next to a vendor of leather goods. I remember going back to my tent at the end of each day with my pockets weighted down with 50-cent pieces. I sold out in three days. I knew I was on to something!

After the festival, I hitched a ride on the back of a motorcycle south to Sydney where I slept over the offset presses of Tomato Press on Glebe Point Road. Jenny turned my mimeographed notes into a little booklet. Replenishing stock out of my backpack at bookstores around the city, the little book kept on selling and kept on growing in size. By 1973, it had gone from 12 pages to 24 pages to 36 pages. I soon found myself becoming an information center for travel to that exotic country. I made my living as a flea market vendor at Paddy’s Market and—when the cops didn’t move me—on the sidewalks of raucous King’s Cross, selling counterculture paraphernalia like incense, puzzle rings, Zap Comix, smoking gear and “how to grow” books, earning up to $350 Australian dollars per night. They called me the Hippie Capitalist.

One day, Tony Wheeler, the founder of Lonely Planet, walked by my blanket. He had just arrived in Australia with his wife Maureen. Tony walked past, did a double take, then came back and asked me, “Where did you get that booklet printed?” I wrote down the address and telephone number of Tomato Press, who later printed his first publication, Asia on the Cheap (1973). The follow-up, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, laid out in a hotel in Singapore, became the “yellow bible” that was to eventually launch Lonely Planet into the stratosphere to become the largest independently owned travel media company in the world.

In Sydney, I helped my friend Made Wijaya set up the first beef rendang foodstall on Sydney campus. Nights I read books about Indonesia at the State Library of New South Wales. After a year and a half on a visitor’s visa, the Australian immigration officials wrote me: “Mr. Dalton does not fulfill a national need category and his economic viability is doubtful.” The authorities were cordial, giving me a month to sell off my furniture and clean up my affairs. A long, tall Texan woman, whom I met at the Paddington market, gave up her teaching job and agreed to leave the country with me. Mary later became the mother of my two American daughters.

Just days before leaving, I met the Wheelers again outside a bookstore in Sydney. Maureen gave me contact info for Toppan Printers in Singapore. “They’ll print 2,000 copies of a 200-page book for $2,000 dollars,” she told me. Mary and I flew first to Papua New Guinea, then to Irian Jaya (now Papua). We trekked the Baliem Valley in the central highlands, home of the warrior Dani Tribe, then took flights west to the Spice Islands, hopped over to Sulawesi and almost drowned amid stampeding cattle during a storm at sea on a floundering cargo boat to Kalimantan.

From Sarawak, we took a passenger freighter to Singapore. In less than a year, with Mary putting in $3,400 and my putting in $2,500, we produced with Toppan the 180-page Indonesia & Papua New Guinea—a proper guide to Indonesia—in the very same room of the Palace Hotel in Singapore where the Wheelers laid out their pioneering Southeast Asia guide. Two years later in Singapore, we came out with the 500-page first edition ofIndonesia Handbook under the imprint Moon Publications. A publishing company was born.

Over six editions, Indonesia Handbook grew into a tree-killing 1000-page behemoth to become the first comprehensive guidebook published on the country in the post war era. London Sunday Times called it “One of the best practical guides ever written about any country.” To research it, I climbed a dozen volcanoes, hitched rides on oil company helicopters, rode on top of buses, carts and motorcycles, trekked to isolated national parks and visited indigenous tribes the length of the archipelago.

During the Suharto military regime, my book was banned for sale in Indonesia itself, which I considered a badge of honor. Copies had to be smuggled into the country wrapped in a fake cover to get it past customs or else it would be routinely confiscated. In Palembang, I was arrested and interrogated as a trouble-making journalist because of what I wrote about corruption and the president’s wife “Madame Ten Percent.” In Java the police doggedly followed me around on a motorbike.

A modest typewritten gypsy’s traveler notes eventually grew into a publishing organization with a total of 65 titles distributed in 32 countries. 
For the 17 years under my ownership, Moon Publications had its triumphs, its bestsellers. At one point in the 1980s, we had just as many titles as Lonely Planet and were even the sole distributor of LP guides in the North America. During his search for a distributor, author and television personality Rick Steves slept on Moon’s front porch in Chico, California.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Moon, Lonely Planet, Rick Steves and Rough Guides were pioneers of a new breed of guidebooks that emphasized alternative budget travel, which continued the work of opening the world that had begun with the groundbreaking Fodor and Frommer guides. This was an era when one lone, determined guidebook writer—red-faced and sweat- drenched at the end of each day—could actually “cover” a sprawling archipelago the size of the continental U.S. during a three-month trip, working for royalties, retaining full copyright ownership and competing with virtually no other paper or digital guidebook. Even today, people I’ve never met before come up and say, “I travelled with you on my first trip to Indonesia!”

By 1999, I had divested all of my remaining shares in Moon. For seven years, starting in the early 1990s, I led up-market soft adventure tours onboard traditional pinisi wooden sailing schooners to Papua, Komodo and waded through the leech-infested swamps of Tanjung Putih National Park in central Kalimantan. Never thought I’d become bored seeing orangutans and Komodo dragons in the wild, but finally a Group from Hell – 14 peevish New Yorkers – cured me of ever wanting to lead another tour again in my life.

Moon Publications suffered the fate of many small presses, morphing into the “Moon Travel Guides” series, an imprint of the Perseus Books Group. Now I write travel, interview, culture and book review columns for regional newspapers and magazines. My Indonesian wife Mita, sixteen-year-old daughter Aysah, eleven-year-old son Dian and I grow corn and rice, raise cows and Muscovy ducks on our experimental farm deep in the countryside of west Bali. But yet ever since that ferry ramp slammed down in Medan’s port of Belawan 46 years ago, I am still endlessly intrigued by the complexity, diversity and mystique of this maddening, fascinating country that I now call home.

Bill may be contacted email pakbill2003@yahoo.com.

 

Copyright  2016 Bali Advertiser

You can read all past articles of

BA Feature Article at www.BaliAdvertiser.biz