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Meeting a guide is like a blind date: Anything can happen

Special to The Times

THESE were our first moments on Chinese soil. As we entered the airport, a gregarious fellow extended a hand to my wife and me.

“Adam Weaver,” he said, forging another link in our continuing exploration of the mysterious world of the guide.

“Adam?” I asked, as we settled in the car, commenting that I thought his name was unusual for a Chinese man. Very simple, he said, explaining that a Canadian tourist once had advised him to adopt a sophisticated Western name to make tourists think of him as more worldly.

At least Adam Weaver knew his way around Beijing. Would that some of our guides around the world knew where they were going or how to tell us what to see. Some confused us instead of educating us. From our experiences, we have gleaned ways to find the right guide. (See related story, Page 5.)

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When we landed in Buenos Aires, for instance, on our first excursion to South America, the guide asked, “So what do you want to see?” I thought it was her job to tell us.

The next leg of this particular trip took us to Rio de Janeiro. I had communicated by e-mail with our guide several times. He replied in perfectly written English. After a few minutes in the car, though, we realized we were having a communication problem. His spoken English was poor.

“So, how long have you been using the computer?” I asked. In broken English, he conveyed that he didn’t use one. His nephew translates for him.

Still, we were on overdrive with excitement. We were headed to Christ the Redeemer, the magnificent monument on Sugar Loaf. The guide took us to the foot of the mountain. Then he walked off. He told us to make our way up there ourselves.

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“There’s really nothing for me to say about it,” he said. At least that’s what I think he said.

Our misguided adventures have taken place around the globe. In Italy, we hit a wall in beautiful Siena, a place where we wanted to see it all, the square with the annual rodeo-like horse race, the fabulous plazas, the 1,000-year-old churches.

But the guide’s accent was thick and his agenda narrow. He specialized in the paintings in one particular church; we were practically in tears with boredom when he finished his dissertation. When he suggested taking us to another church, we parted ways with him.

Another trip took us to Costa Rica. We hired a pilot to fly us from the capital, San Jose, to the small Central American nation’s Pacific coast. Along the way, he dipped the plane to show us sights: a waterfall, the rain forest, a grotto. I sat alongside him in the four-seater, my stomach lurching.

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He spoke no English but enthusiastically pointed out the various sights, tilting dramatically, sometimes patting my hand when he noticed it clenching the armrest. As he prepared the plane to land, he reached into his shirt pocket, pulled out a piece of paper about the size of an index card and slid it under the windshield.

It read, “Tips are not mandatory but welcome.”

I snatched a $10 bill from my wallet when we landed and shook his hand. He seamlessly withdrew the 10-spot from mine, with a big “Thank you!” in English.

Our guide in Antalya, Turkey, was more interested in words than actions. When he discovered I was a journalist, he decided I should learn more about the roots of the age-old problem between the Cypriots and the Turks. So he took us for coffee to the Cypriot mission, where I received a crash course in the history of the feud. I nodded politely, though it wasn’t my cup of tea.

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But we’ve met some wonderful guides during our travels too.

One of these was at La Combe, in France, adjacent to the Normandy beaches where the great World War II battle between the Allies and the Germans was fought. Our guide said she was going to take us to a place most tourists never visited: the German cemetery, where more than 21,000 soldiers are buried, under black granite markers. Many of the dead were teenage boys.

She surveyed the somber scene, full of forbidding black crosses and said, softly, “Very Wagnerian.”

And I can’t forget my guide in the Amazon either.

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He was an Italian. “When I was a little boy, I used to watch the Tarzan movies,” he said. “And I prayed that one day I could be in the jungle.”

He studied jungle lore and his dream came true. He loved his job. He would take us in the mornings to find medicinal plants. We sprayed ourselves and our clothing with all sorts of natural bug repellent, and it worked. One night he took us fishing for piranha, using beef heart as bait. He caught one little rascal after the other, tossing them back as quickly as he hauled them in. We had no such luck, but he brought one into our little boat, lighting a flashlight on its impressive array of teeth. Then he said, “I’ll be right back.”

We saw him wade ashore, then heard some thrashing in the surf. He walked up to us, alone in the boat in the black Brazilian night, and carried a small caiman -- the local version of a gator -- with him.

He brought it into the boat with us, turned it over so we could examine it, then released it into the water, gently rubbing its head. I will never forget him.

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Nor will we forget the guide in Bangkok, Thailand, who apparently enjoyed hearing us tell stories about our kids. He told us he would like us to meet his folks and took us to a little village on the outskirts of Bangkok, where his mother served us tea.

We also had a warm family adventure in Costa Rica, where our guide in a forest area told us about his young son. We asked him to join us for dinner, and the four of us had a barbecue. In the distance we could see the Arenal Volcano smoking and rumbling. Then we saw lava flowing red down the side of the mountain. It was a dramatic moment made even more remarkable by the presence of the guide’s wide-eyed 10-year-old son.

These were among our fond memories of guides. But to avoid continued misadventures with others, I’ve come up with a fairly simple solution: I call these folks in advance. It’s a good preliminary test of how well we are able to communicate. If we have trouble, I say thanks and goodbye.

It’s an expensive call, but it helps avoid a fiasco.

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Find the right guide and then treat your guide right

IF you’re going on a tour -- especially a high-end tour -- you probably don’t need to worry about finding a guide because one will be provided. But if you’re an independent traveler or just an independent sort of person, you may want to choose your own.

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Here are some ways to find one.

* The easiest route is to ask for a recommendation from someone who’s been where you plan to go.

* Ask at your hotel. “The hotel will recommend drivers and guides with whom they have worked successfully,” said Melanie Ferrari of SFI, a travel marketer. “If I have a complaint, then I can deal with the hotel. The drivers and guides do not want to lose the hotel’s business.”

* Check on the Internet to determine whether the guide is government-approved or licensed. In some countries, such as Israel, guides attend classes regularly to remain certified.

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* “Do research ahead of time,” said Tom Armstrong of Tauck World Discovery. “Go online and check out the guide services websites. Search message boards and find out which guides are recommended by others. Be wary, though, because message boards aren’t immune from unscrupulous guide services who will pose as travelers and sing their own praises.”

* Use a guide provided by an agency. If things don’t work out, you have more recourse to complain or withhold payment.

* Call the guide personally to check how well the two of you communicate. Inexpensive international calling plans are available throughout the United States. You can take a plan out for a month or two, then cancel after your trip. The additional cost per month for this service is about $5, plus about 25 cents a minute per call.

* After you’re abroad, don’t forget to treat your guide like a person, not a library book. “I always suggest that clients have lunch with their guide if you are on a private tour,” says travel advisor Henry Kartagener of Kartagener Associates, a New York travel marketing company. “This is a wonderful opportunity to learn a great deal more about the destination, culture and people.” Clients usually do not have breakfast or dinner with their guide.

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* Your enthusiasm is important in establishing a rapport with a guide, who is judging you as surely as you are judging him or her.

* If you’re happy -- even if you’re not overwhelmed-- tip when you say goodbye. That is a given. In many countries, tips provide most of a guide’s income. A good idea is to ask the hotel how much you should tip. I tip about $10 a day for my wife and me if my guide is good and has taken me to some spots not on the usual itinerary. Bus drivers receive about $2 a day per couple; private-car drivers (who do not double as a guide) usually receive $5 a day. If you have a guide you feel comfortable with, you can sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s a wonderful feeling to know you’re in good hands and that around every corner there could be a new adventure. That’s well worth adding a gratuity as a thank you.

-- Gerald Eskenazi


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