“A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.” My father would often share this Ralph Waldo Emerson quote with me when he felt I was becoming a bit too overwrought about adhering to a plan when variables changed. He was teaching me the value of flexibility and how I should always be willing to change course on the fly. This preamble is to say that, in order to have a bit more time to celebrate my favorite American holiday, I have changed things up a bit for today’s “college essay.”
What you will find below is a lightly edited piece that I wrote as a college sophomore in 1999 for the Harvard Independent. It was intended as a (long-winded) advertisement for one of my all-time favorite jobs: Let’s Go Travel. It documents my summer after freshman year when I was a researcher-writer for the Israel and Egypt travel guide, which, at my suggestion, was changed the next year to Let’s Go: Middle East. The following summer I served as editor of Let’s Go Italy, but we’ll have to save that story for another day.
Without further ado, here is the piece:
“Free sex, sun, and sand in the Greek islands,” “Leverett Towers or Eiffel Tower,” “Wanna free trip to Alaska?” These were among the advertisements for Let’s Go that bombarded me as I struggled with my summer plans at this time last year. Finally in college, I could no longer just pump gas, frolic on the beach, or vegetate in front of the TV; I needed a “real” job that would impress my future employers. I seemed destined for a suit, working 9 to 5 in a sweltering office, bringing coffee to my overbearing superiors, and theoretically receiving on-the-job training. As you can probably tell, this prospect did not excite me.
I’d heard that even intriguing internships for the Late Show with Conan O’Brien or at the White House were often underwhelming. This was all the more reason that the Let’s Go posters I saw around campus so grabbed my attention. Here was a job that combined my two greatest passions, traveling and writing. What more could I ask for than free round-trip airfare to an exotic land, a generous daily stipend for living expenses, and the chance to have my book published throughout the world? As soon as the researcher-writer (R/W) applications appeared, I filled out the arduous form. A couple of weeks later the phone rang and my summer conundrum was solved, I had been offered a job as an R/W in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon!
Apprehensive but wildly excited as I boarded the plane for Amman at the end of May, I kept on asking myself how I was qualified to write for the bestselling budget travel guide in the world. Sure, I’d studied a year of Arabic, but I was still 19 years old and had never researched anything beyond secondary sources for Matter in the Universe. Fears such as these soon crumbled as I instead focused on the immensity of my task. I had to check every fact that was in the book from last year and make decisions that might vastly affect the business of a given hotel or restaurant. Boldly knocking on embassy doors, accidentally entering the emergency room of a hospital, and getting tongue-tied with street peddlers, I fumbled my way through the capital of Jordan for a few days.
After about a week I had finally acclimated to my new environs and began to get the hang of Let’s Go research. No longer did I clumsily announce to a hotelier that I was fresh out of America and working for a guidebook only to receive unrealistically low room prices. No longer did I march up to the manager of a restaurant, flash him my press pass, and wonder why I received such royal treatment. Instead, I crafted sly questions that would get me information without alerting the hotelier of my ulterior motives, or I would let my waiter know that I was evaluating his restaurant only after he’d overcharged me and spilled hummus on my lap. I had soon shed my shy nature and was engaging anyone who would engage me in conversation. Five weeks later, near the end of my stint as an R/W, this friendliness got me into trouble in Beirut.
I had just finished writing my second-to-last copy batch and was exhausted. I decided that all I needed was a quiet evening in my hotel and an early bedtime. As I waited for the elevator at my $5-a-night fleabag, a portly Lebanese man approached me. We exchanged niceties in Arabic as we rode up to the hotel. Once there this man, Mr. Haloo, got a room from the manager. At this point I bid Mr. Haloo goodnight and began walking back to my room. Mr. Haloo would hear none of this and followed me into my room. Though surprised, I didn’t want to offend him so we sat on a couch and continued our forced conversation.
As I was talking to him I realized that he was staring at me with the glazed eyes that a dog might get when she is in heat. Not knowing what to do, I changed the conversation to love and asked if he was married. Nope. Did he have a girlfriend? Nope. At this point Mr. Haloo asked if he could remove his shirt as it was so hot and humid. Recognizing that Beirut in the summer is fiery, I acquiesced but immediately began formulating escape plans. I began to wax eloquently about my fictional wife and our baby daughter who was on the way. This seemed only to stir Mr. Haloo’s amorous attention as he insisted that he stay in my room that night. At this point my foot went down and I set a time limit. I said, “In 15 minutes I’m going to bed right here, and you’re going to your own room down the hall.” Mr. Haloo must have heard, “Please take off your trousers, lie on my bed, and ask for a backrub,” because this is exactly what he did. By now frantic, I left for the bathroom. When I returned Mr. Haloo had thankfully re-robed himself and informed me that he was going to bed. With the roly-poly Lebanese man finally out of the door, I had weathered one of my greatest crises and had an exciting story for the Let’s Go office.
It’s unlikely that I will ever find a job quite as satisfying as being an R/W for Let’s Go. Over the course of 7 weeks, I improved my Arabic, met countless fascinating travelers and locals, and learned many problem-solving strategies. Moreover, I received marriage proposals from women and men, became addicted to falafel, and fell in love with the mystique of the Arab world. How much of this would I have accomplished on the 32nd floor of a consulting firm in New York?
Let’s Go is not an easy job- the writing is voluminous, and I pulled several all-nighters trying to get it done. Traveling alone can be lonely, and the Mr. Haloo’s of this world don’t necessarily solve this problem. The Let’s Go job is nonetheless unique and remarkably satisfying. Getting that shiny book in November with a section that documented my entire summer was far better than any (considerably fatter) paycheck. For anyone with a penchant for traveling, a knack for foreign languages (not a requirement!), a flair for wordplay, or a love of worldwide name recognition and fame, Let’s Go is an unparalleled opportunity. Though the application is long and scares many people away, completing it was one of the best decisions of my freshman year. Anyone looking for a unique job that brings your resume to life should definitely apply.