Tour groups and toy boys
Jill Worrall reflects on a year of managing tours from Costa Rica to Cork and several places in between.
Panama City, Panama
It can be a disorienting business, travel. One day you're in Timaru watering the tomatoes and then two days later you're in a Panama City supermarket loading up a trolley with bottled water, accompanied by a two-metre tall black Panamanian called Roberto.
It's not the safest place in the world, Panama City, especially as its said to be awash with laundered South American drug money. So I had reason to look askance at one of my rookie tour members the morning after we'd arrived late at night when she explained that as she hadn't been able to sleep she'd decided to walk down the road on her own to a casino.
Note for the future: Even when everyone says they're going to bed, cover all eventualities and warn against nocturnal gambling adventures.
Guatemala City, Guatemala
The domestic departure lounge in Guatemala City's airport terminal dedicated to flights to the Mayan ruins of Tikal was crammed with US college students. When it came to boarding time they were sent out to the plane first. "Typical," said, a tour member "bet there's no room for us". "We've got boarding passes," I tried to reassure her. "We'll be on the plane.
But we weren't. We had our own aircraft, a 19-seater made-in-Brazil plane that would, hopefully, fly us over remote tracts of Central American jungle. The two pilots got on without acknowledging our presence; since there was no safety briefing I did it myself. So I was quite surprised when, just as the plane was about to accelerate down the runway, a tour member from the back of the plane lurched up beside me. Politeness deserted me "What the hell are you doing?" I blurted, pushing her into the thankfully empty seat beside me and buckling her in as we shot off at speed. "It smelled of fumes down there," she said, "I was feeling sick, and by the way, there's no gluten free option in the snack box."
Note for the future: Never assume everyone has even the most basic grasp of safety issues.
I was handing out room keys to my group, explaining when we'd be leaving for our afternoon of sightseeing. I couldn't understand why this was causing so much mirth until hands covered my eyes from behind. "Guess who?" It was Jama, longtime guide and friend who I hadn't seen for about four years. I was gobsmacked; the group was agog. We arranged to catch up for a beer later. "They'll think I have a toy boy," I told him. Jama is an unconventional Uzbek, wears his hair long, caught in a pony tail for starters; we met just after his son was born and Jama confessed he was too terrified to hold his baby and no- one in his family would show him how. I found a doll in a shop and coached him. We've been friends ever since. He has an irreverent sense of humour and a deadpan delivery. I explained this to the group later. "It's OK," said a tour member, "Jama already explained . . . he's says he no toy boy but in fact a very well-preserved sugar daddy."
Note for future: Don't dig a hole for oneself; just smile enigmatically.
We were leaving Central Asia and one of the most bizarre and secretive countries in the world. Many of my group have had their perfectly legal, brand new handcrafted pocket and kitchen knives that were packed in their suitcases, confiscated by airport officials. They were not happy, especially as others in the group have emerged from the check with their knives still safely packed in their bags. The guards cannot explain to me why they've taken them. There was a lengthy impasse and eventually I told the group they'd need to set off through the labyrinth of further inspections and corridors to reach the check-in counters in time. I'd stay behind and make a last-ditch attempt to get the knives back. Just before they left, Jama, who's at the airport seeing off another group, appeared. The group smirked. "I'll try to get them for you," he said, "If nothing else I'll take them home and post them to you." I followed in the wake of the group but heard my name being called just before I reached the next security check. It was Jama. "I need one last hug goodbye," he said, winking. It's tough work but sometimes you just have to do what you're told. As Jama embraced me, he whispered in my ear "Open your handbag," I did so and four pocket knives and two giant kitchen knives dropped in. "I paid $50; it just needed a bribe when no-one was watching." I slipped a $50 note to him.
And so in a police state and now on my own I passed through the armed security posts armed with enough weaponry to commit a small-scale massacre. The group was waiting in the check-in queue as I sidled up to the knife owners and transferred their purchases surreptitiously into their bags. "How did you do that?" they asked. "Never underestimate the usefulness of a toy boy," I replied, enigmatically.
Note for future: See note above.
St Petersburg, Russia
I have been allocated a national guide from Moscow who I've introduced to our St Petersburg city guide. They disagreed on everything from the outset, from our starting time, to the order of our programme. It's seemed less a matter of personal enmity and more a matter of city rivalry: like Auckland versus Christchurch but with more vicious consonants. Over the next four days I alternated from being a referee and an irrelevant onlooker, a mere smear of sour cream on a blini. The St Petersburg guide expected the group to follow instructions to the letter; clearly she's not worked with Kiwi groups before. She made three suggestions for restaurants for lunch telling the group that as one restaurant in particular was very small, they would be best to divide up between the three. We let the lunch-goers off the tour bus. I stayed on board and as we turned a corner we saw the entire group heading into the smallest restaurant. The guide was agitatedly bouncing in her seat: "But I TOLD them not to do that. Why did they not listen?" The Moscow guide was smiling slightly: "They did the opposite," she said, I thought unnecessarily. "In Moscow, of course, we are more relaxed about these things."
Note for future: One Russian guide is fine; two promotes excess consumption of vodka.
Near Caherdaniel, County Kerr, Ireland
It was in the midst of an Irish heatwave and the van we were in has no air conditioning and only the front windows opened. "We normally have to keep the weather out in Ireland," the driver explained, " not let it in." Matters were made worse when we were stopped by roadworks. A young woman with hair dyed bright red was holding up a Stop sign while texting on her phone. A voice from the back of the van where it was especially sweltering inquired: "When do you think we'll be moving?" Frank our guide, without even a pause, replied: "I'm sure we'll be on our way just as soon as her hair turns green."
Note for future: Go back to Ireland soon; even if just for the jokes.
Hamedan, Western Iran
Midnight after an exhausting day on the road and an evening stuck in a horrendous traffic jam while trying to buy medication for a tour member who forgot to bring it from NZ. An ear-piercing alarm has just sounded in my room. Still befuddled with sleep I grope for the light then try to work out where the noise is coming from. There was no smoke alarm, no bedside clock; the shriek appears to be coming from the TV. I crawl under the desk looking for the plug and wrench it from the wall. There is a flash of blue and the room plunges into darkness, the alarm still sounding. Being Iran I can't just go down to the night manager in my T-shirt. So just about deafened by the noise I have to waste time finding suitable clothes, the search not helped because I can't lay hands on my torch at first. Eventually I find it, throw on suitably modest clothes and toss a headscarf over my hair. The night manager had little English and my Farsi didn't run to explaining complex electrical faults. Eventually he and a maintenance man are persuaded up to my room. It's still pitch black but the alarm has stopped. "What noise madam?" the manager inquired?
Note for future: Put torch by the bed before going to sleep and beware of clocks mounted two metres up a wall and inexplicably fitted with an alarm setting (it went off the following night on the dot of midnight as well. This time I tracked it down. It won't do it again ...).
The Timaru Herald