Media | Reflections

September 29, 2005

Herb-Infused Nihilism

I fulfilled a childhood dream by attending luxurious press junkets at exclusive travel destinations. But that hot stone therapy came with a heaping pile of self-loathing.

Daniel Pepper

I'm home from the dentist's office, sprawled out on the couch watching Oprah some time in the late '80s. My sister Maya, 10 years my senior, has instilled in me a god-like reverence for America's wealthiest weighty entrepreneur. Maya teaches me to rebel against countless other institutions (parents, manners, traffic laws), but Oprah, she says, is sacred. Oprah is wisdom.

That afternoon, with a head full of Novocain and Oprah as my guiding light, I learn about people who have Dream Jobs: those tasked with traveling the world testing and rating and ranking and writing about spas, beaches, hotels, health clubs, and the like. For 45 minutes I lie there mesmerized as Oprah speaks lovingly to them and her audience fawns over them.

Daniel Pepper
The idle life in idyllic Cabarete, Dominican Republic.
I learn how these travel writers and luxury reviewers work for magazines and newspapers or special sophisticated journals. And I learn that acquiring one of these jobs involves some strange combination of magic and luck.

About 15 years on, I have come to know that this vocation is the result of neither prescience nor providence. I have come to loathe what is commonly referred to as the "press junket." The junket involves a sponsored trip to review a hotel, resort, or the like so that the destination can receive heaps of praise, and in turn cause the woefully, conventionally employed readers to swell with envy and one day save up enough money to wrap their own thighs in oatmeal, eat morsels of unpronounceable food, and be waited on hand and foot by people of lesser means.

Why the attitude? Let me paint a picture: You're at Starbucks. You mosey up to the counter. "I'll have a decaf skim latte, ah, one of those orange muffins, and, um, $40,000 worth of Starbucks beans and pastries." They hand it over. How the hell do you think that muffin is going to taste? You could have 9,000 more: It's OK, you're in la-la land. That, in a nutshell, is the experience of the press junket. Bewilderment. Disaffection. Ultimately, nihilism.

For the sake of full disclosure, I have only made it through two of these, but two is enough. Done properly, the job requires a Zen-like abandonment of one's self and giving in to the "gentle coaxing" of one's host. Usually, I'm pretty good at this: I've embedded with the Marines in Iraq and acquired an ability to listen carefully and do as I'm told. But in a world of round-the-clock leisure, I hit walls.

There are people along on these press junkets whose job descriptions can be loosely categorized as "PR," and who attempt to make their guests relax and unwind like marionettes. And because they are the industry's equivalent of Saddam-era government minders, you have to play along, complimenting the green marble from India and the blond wood from Oregon, lest they suspect you're disingenuous and ungrateful and perhaps undeserving of the hot stone therapy and herb-infused oil massage.

My first junket experience involved a new "extreme" hotel on the north shore of the Dominican Republic. The trip was going well at first—room and board fully provided with no major snafus to report—but at some point I ceased caring, about anything. Everything was provided for and taken care of, and as a result a profound sense of apathy began to wash over me. By the end of the one-week stay I was transformed into a full-time, unabashed hater. Of course, I can't fault the PR woman on this trip for my getting punched in the face and laid out in a local nightclub by a husky Aussie chick at 3 a.m. That was my fault.

After sobering up and pondering my predicament I've decided what my problem is with the junket institution: The naked, unapologetic nature of the junket—we'll put you up if you make us look nice—flies in the face of everything good journalism stands for. And granted, I don't actually put a whole lot of stock in the notion of journalistic objectivity. But the mafia-like underpinnings of the junket (I'm gonna make you an offer you can't refuse) are just plain creepy.

Daniel Pepper
One course down, 13 courses to go.
Of course, no one will put a gun to your head to drink a Presidente in the Caribbean, or eat fois gras in France, but it's part and parcel of the whole experience. They're putting you up, so you might as well eat that last truffle, even if it does cost the equivalent of Benin's per capita GDP.

My second junket experience took place in the Spanish Pyrenees, where I learned that there are only so many 14-course meals of deconstructed neo-Catalan cuisine a man can take before something inside of him snaps. Luckily I only had one and kept my shit together pretty well. But I was close to the edge throughout—especially as our PR minder told us for the third time that the restaurant's chairs were specially designed by the very same award-winning Spanish architect who did the hotel and the details down to the bathroom's pencil-thin showerhead.

The issue of journalistic integrity aside, there is something fundamentally disorienting about being the one person at a luxury destination who is doing all the getting, gratis, while everyone else is doing all this work. Unless you're a Saudi prince, you are born into this world told you will have to work for what you've got. That's what jobs are for. But what if your job is just to be on the receiving end—to be getting?

As for those who do it full-time, well, if you have ever seen six travel writers sitting around a table in St. Bartholomew impatiently awaiting their lychee daiquiris you will know it is not a pretty sight. They bicker and they bitch; they moan endlessly. They might not have started off as such, but they became bad people.

Of course, a travel writer has to write and a travel photographer has to take pictures, but, being the latter, I often think of what a colleague once said of the verdant valleys of northern Afghanistan: You shove a camera up a camel's arse and it'll fart one magnificent fucking photo. After visiting these high-end travel destinations, I feel like that camel. I've got some pretty pictures, but my ass hurts.

Will I ever do another press junket? It's hard to say, and I shy away from saying never, but it's not as alluring as it once was. Perhaps if Oprah came along.

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Article by Daniel Pepper

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