My life as a tour guide


Follow this young woman's example and decide for yourself if you're thirsty, or need to use the bathroom.

Follow this young woman’s example and decide for yourself if you’re thirsty, or need to use the bathroom.

“How much money will I spend today?”

You’d be surprised how often I was asked that question. At least once a tour. Sometimes once a day. Or more.

I was working in Europe for a tour company, helping to ferry young Australians and Kiwis around the continent, keeping them safe and giving them a shot of culture while they drank shots of various other things and enjoyed themselves. Those passengers were usually a lot of fun, but they would also ask some of the dumbest questions imaginable.

“How much money will I spend today?” I don’t know. What are you planning to buy? How much are you going to drink?

It’s the question tour leaders dread the most. That is, along with, “Should I go to the toilet now?” And, “What language do they speak here?” (Ah, we’re in France, so…) And, “What city is this?”

When you go on a tour, you have a tendency to just stop thinking. You don’t make any more decisions for yourself. You don’t figure out any issues by yourself. Everything becomes someone else’s problem.

This is not a phenomenon that’s limited to drunk young people on European bus tours either. On cruise ships the world over, on barges, in minibuses,  on trains and planes, there are tourists on package deals who’ve completely surrendered their ability to think for themselves.

I’d love to see a scan of the brain of a passenger on a tour. All of the bits that deal with problem-solving, with spatial awareness and personal responsibility, would be completely dark, while you’d see a carnival of lights flashing in the regions of the brain that control social interaction, souvenir-purchasing and alcohol consumption.

People book tours so they can let someone else do the thinking for them. I get that. But it’s amazing just how much control they surrender to that person at the front of the bus, or to that voice blaring from the speakers on the boat.

I’ve just been doing a train trip through Mongolia and Russia, a private, guided journey along the Trans-Mongolian route. A few days in, we’d just done a city tour, having taken a welcome chance to stretch the legs in our first Russian port of call, and were back on the train as it rolled out of the station.

An American tourist on board glanced at me as we leant on the rail, gazing out the window as the buildings drifted by. “So,” she asked, “what city was that?”

That was Ulan-Ude. The town we’ve just spent four hours walking around. The town someone has just spent four hours telling us about. Ulan-Ude.

It would always make me laugh when I worked on the European tours and we’d decide to give the passengers some free time at the end of a city tour. Finally, this was their chance to explore the place on their own, to go exactly where they wanted to go, to do exactly what they wanted to do.

We’d set them a time limit and say, “OK, you’re free!”

They’d all kind of look at each other for a while, and then at us, and then they’d shuffle around in circles for a few minutes, and then someone would inevitably come over to talk to the tour leader. “So… What are you guys gonna do?”

With a few exceptions, everyone would wind up staying together. Usually just going to a pub.

A similar thing happened in Russia as well, even though the average age there was raised by about 50 years. People spent their free time milling around wondering what everyone else was doing. At one point a Canadian guy asked the tour leader, “Will I need to get Russian money? Or can I just use US dollars?”

Dunno mate. Can people spend Russian roubles in Canada?

It’s questions like that, however, that you come to expect on tours. The reason people pay so much money for these experiences, after all, it that someone else is doing all of the hard stuff for them. On a tour you don’t want to battle with local cab drivers, or try to figure out which hotel to stay in, or even attempt the local language. You pay someone else to worry about that.

You probably never even realise that you’ve begun relying on someone else for absolutely everything. You’re told what to have for breakfast. You’re told where to go, what to see, who to talk to, where to eat, and what to avoid. And you welcome this advice, because you’re on holiday, and you don’t want to have to deal with thinking.

You don’t even want to figure out how much money you’ll spend.

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