Guiding the Way

There is always that one person on most every group travel trip.

You know… “the one.”

They often exhibit one or more of the following characteristics:

  • An exhausting personality or offensive sense of humor.
  • The embodiment of the crass and entitled (North) American tourist stereotype.
  • Talking your ear off at dinner, all the while complaining about their food – which was specially prepared for them to comply with their obscure voluntary dietary restrictions that they adopted after reading something on the internet.
  • They’re always late, making the rest of the group wait.
  • They think international travel is a competition that is won by quantity, rather than quality, and assault you with a constant barrage of name-dropping the countries they have visited.

My brother-in-law Chris, who introduced us to the joys of group travel, often says “If you can’t figure out which person on a group trip is ‘the one’…then it’s probably you!” Touché.

We’ve done several trips with groups of strangers since our first one to Greece in 2006, including several during our recent around the world adventure.

Thailand.

Thailand.

Tasmania (Australia).

Tasmania (Australia).

Peru.

Peru.

Bolivia.

Bolivia.

Croatia.

Croatia.

Vietnam.

Vietnam.

Personality dynamics aside, group travel has a lot of benefits. Especially in the realm of adventure travel. Being a part of an organized tour group trip means that you can be hiking one day, biking the next and kayaking the day after – all without having to give a thought to the logistics. You just show up in the hotel lobby in the morning and you’re whisked off on a grand adventure.

The tour guides are one of my favorite things about group adventure travel.

Their profession fascinates me. They do every day for a living what I do a few weeks a year for vacation. I inevitably barrage them with questions: How did they become a guide? Why aren’t there more female guides? What do they do for fun in their time off? How did they learn English (American rap music has been my favorite response to that question so far)? Do they get bored seeing and doing the same things over and over again with each tour group they lead?

Admittedly, from the guide’s perspective, my never-ending questions probably mean that I’m “that one!”

I’ve learned a lot from the guides I’ve had – and not just about their country’s landscapes, culture and history. Among other things, many of them have taught me about how to live life to the fullest. Below I’ve outlined a few of the things I’ve learned from some of my most memorable guides.

1. Honor the past through your actions in the present.

Darwin was one of several amazing guides that toured us around Peru, including our successful traverse of the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Darwin is Quechua, the indigenous people of South American, and his ancestors pre-dated the Incas in Peru. He is passionate about learning the history of his culture and sharing that knowledge with others, especially Peruvian children.

Two of our Inca Trail guides, Alvaro (left) and Darwin (right).

Two of our Inca Trail guides, Alvaro (left) and Darwin (right).

I learned a lot by watching Darwin’s interactions with our Inca Trail porters, who were Quechua people from a nearby village. I felt very conflicted about having porters carry my food, tent and belongings on the trail. I vacillated between feeling like a privileged white person exploiting the locals to, alternatively, feeling like I was supplementing the incomes of these farmers in a much-needed way. In reality, the situation was probably a lot of both.

Several of our porters, carrying our food, tents, clothing on the Inca Trail.

Several of our porters carrying our food, tents, clothing on the Inca Trail.

Darwin treated the porters with the utmost respect. He clearly had a great relationship with them and he cared about their safety and wellbeing. Darwin guided us, the bumbling tourists, through honoring and respecting them as well. He taught us Quechua words of encouragement we could say as they passed us (which they did with amazing grace and speed). He helped us buy coca leaves we could give them as gifts of appreciation. He would tell us their names and a bit about their lives and families. It didn’t matter if a porter was the head chef, or the guy carrying the toilet, Darwin made everyone feel valued and appreciated.

Even though I couldn’t communicate directly with the porters due to our language barrier, Darwin created a sense of camaraderie and respect among the entire group. He showed me how to visit another culture with humility and sincerity in a way that honored their past. It was such a privilege to walk with these men along the trail of their ancestors. Darwin’s reverence for their history, their culture and them as individuals lit the way.

Such gentle and joyous spirits in these men, our porters. It was a honor to share the trail with them.

Such gentle and joyous spirits in these men, our porters. It was an honor to share the trail with them. Should you ever find yourself looking to do a trip that involves porters, I’d recommend asking the prospective tour company how they comply with the principles for the ethical treatment of porters. Spend your money where it counts.

2. What matters most is what’s in your heart.

By the time we arrived in the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, Glenn and I had been mostly traveling by ourselves for 6 weeks in South America. I don’t speak anything beyond rudimentary Spanish…and although I love Glenn dearly, I was desperate for someone new I could talk to in English.

Which meant poor Yasu, our guide, was on the receiving end of my endless chattering. We spent several days hiking across the driest desert in the world – Yasu in the lead and me on his heels yapping away. Yasu and I had a lot of great talks about every subject imaginable. I spent a lot of time learning about his passion for extreme mountaineering (think ropes, crampons, ice axes, possible death) at very high altitudes in the Andes Mountains.

Glenn (right) playing a little South American tune with Yasu (center).

Glenn (right) playing a little South American tune with Yasu (center).

Although I’ve lost a lot of weight and feel strong and healthy, I still battle self-doubt when it comes to taking on big physical challenges. Will I be able to do it? Will I be able to keep up? Are others judging me?

Yasu and I spent hours and hours talking about this. One of the things I learned from him was that physical ability doesn’t matter as much as I often think it does. He shared countless examples of teams he’s led up dangerous mountains. Stories of how often the people in phenomenal physical shape turned back, while those with less physical prowess, but more determination, made it to the top.

Me (back) chasing Yasu (front) through the desert...chatting his ear off the whole way. Wait up!!

Me (back) chasing Yasu (front) through the desert…chatting his ear off the whole way. Wait up!!

At one point we set out to hike to the top of a big steep ridge (keeping in mind we were already at 10,000+ feet in elevation). I fell in line behind Yasu, trying to match his pace by placing my feet in the dusty footprints he left behind. When we crested the ridge he said that I had reached the top 45 minutes faster than a previous group of marathon runners he had guided up the same trail. “You have heart Michele,” he said as he gave me a high-five, “you can do anything you set your mind to.”

I try to remember this lesson from Yasu every time I start to doubt my ability to take on a new challenge. I might not be the fastest or strongest person out there, but I know in my heart that I can make it to the finish!

3. Love of family conquers all.

Vu and Thai were our guides on our biking trip across Vietnam. Vu was the consummate professional that was always quick to laugh. He is probably, hands down, one of the very best guides I’ve ever had. Thai had the soul of a revolutionary with an infectious pride in his country, especially the Mekong Delta where he was from.

Thai (left) and Vu (right), striking a pose as we take a break from biking in Vietnam.

Thai (left) and Vu (right), striking a thoughtful pose as we take a break while biking in Vietnam.

Vu and Thai’s families were South Vietnamese prior to the Vietnam War (or, the American War as it is known there). After the war, their families lost everything – homes, businesses and livelihoods – at the hands of the victorious Communist government. Both of their fathers were sent away to “re-education camps” (prison) for many years. It was devastating.

Vu, leading the crew. Always a smile on his face.

Vu, leading the crew. Always a smile on his face.

Vu and Thai are really the first generation in their families that have been able to begin putting the pieces back together again. They’ve dedicated themselves to their education (graduating from college with degrees in tourism) and the pursuit of careers that can help them create more stability for their families. They are dedicated, hard-working entrepreneurs, forging a path forward that has enabled them to build a better life all while sharing the country they love with visitors.

Thai helping Jack lift some weights. Ever the entrepreneur, Thai makes custom Vietnam bike jerseys like these that he sells to eager clients - talk about a great souvenir.

Thai helping Jack lift some weights. Ever the entrepreneur, Thai makes custom Vietnam bike jerseys like these that he sells to eager clients – talk about a great souvenir!

It was an honor to meet Vu and Thai – two of the most dedicated, industrious people I’ve ever met. I learned a lot from them about having a vision and then working really hard to make that vision a reality.

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Last year Thai was able to come to the U.S. to attend his sister’s college graduation. He came to visit us in Oregon and we were able to act as tour guides for him! He enjoyed this great hike in the Columbia River Gorge.

4. There’s always something. Just keep looking.

Jorgen is a towering Swede with long blonde hair, yellow rubber boots and a mischievous sparkle in his eye. A perfectly logical guide for our travels around Ecuador and Bolivia in South America, right? Turns out Jorgen moved to Ecuador twenty-some years ago, fell madly in love with the culture and never looked back.

Jorge, leading us through wind, rain and mud...in his trusty yellow rubber boots.

Jorgen, leading us through wind, rain and mud…in his trusty yellow rubber boots.

I remember talking with Jorgen about what it’s like being a guide, and if he gets bored seeing and doing the same things over and over again with different tour groups. He said “Oh, Michele…there is always something new to see. You just gotta keep looking.”

Jorgen, paddling us down a river in the Amazon Jungle.

Jorgen, paddling us down a river in the Ecuadorian Amazon Jungle on a balsa wood raft. A smile on his face, even though this is something he has surely done a hundred times before.

There were several times where he said that same refrain to me…when I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the water for yet one more snorkeling trip, or when I was feeling a little too lazy to go for another outing on the jungle path.

“There’s always something to see Michele.”

I credit Jorgen’s wisdom for having what is, to date, the most amazing experience of my life. We were in the sub-arctic in northern Canada (about as far from South America as you can get) walking among the polar bears. We had spent several hours out on the ice watching the bears. My hands were freezing, my toes were numb and I really had to pee. Many in our tour group decided it was time to head back to the lodge to take a break and warm up. We started making our way back – visions of hot chocolate dancing in my head. Then I heard Jorgen’s voice whisper in my ear. “There is always something Michele. Just keep looking.”

I turned around to Glenn’s brother Chris and said, “I think I want to stay.” Chris – who is always up for an adventure – said, “Great, I’ll stay too.” We trudged back onto the ice and stood waiting in the middle of the white expanse of tundra…and that is when a mama bear and her two cubs came in close to get a better look at us.

Well, hello mama bear. Don't get too close now!

Well, hello mama bear. Don’t get too close now!

Coming face to face with such an amazing animal was the most terrifying and exhilarating experience of my life. It gives me goose-bumps just talking about it. If you want goose-bumps too, check out this video of the experience. It was captured and edited by Glenn’s brother, Chris. I, on the other hand, was busy hiding behind his back! (You may need to let the video buffer for few seconds for uninterrupted play)

 

I’m so thankful I heeded Jorgen’s words and stayed on the ice with the bears. But beyond that, I think there is a deeper wisdom in Jorgen’s statement as it applies to life more generally. Always go into experiences with an open heart, even if it is something you’ve done a million times before. Just keep looking and you’re bound to delight in something new you haven’t seen before.

5. The world is f*cking awesome!

Wes is a true living legend. Wes (sounds like “wez” when speaking Australian) is impossible to describe. He always wears an iconic fleece beanie, sunglasses, leg gaiters and short-shorts (which are custom-made for him by a big outdoor clothing store similar to Columbia Sportswear here in the U.S.).

Wes (right) telling a grand story.

Wes (right) telling a grand story.

He is the most unique, caring and inquisitive person I think I’ve ever met. Wes was one of our guides on our amazing 6-day hiking trip on the Overland Track in Tasmania (you know, that island off the southern tip of Australia). It was a true honor getting to see the world through his magnificent eyes.

Wes is infamous for doing food drops in the wilds of Tasmania for trekking companies. He carries packs weighing in excess of 100 pounds and hikes over a thousand miles every year doing food drops. We were a group of nearly a dozen hikers doing a 6-day trip in an area that can’t be accessed by car. Wes had hiked in the food supplies for our entire group (plus others) about a week prior.

Wes seems to have an insatiable hunger for knowledge. He is constantly learning about the world around him. He is equally passionate about sharing his knowledge of nature with others, including many at-risk youth he leads into the outdoors.

Hiking with Wes is like hiking with a human encyclopedia. Geology, history, indigenous cultures, politics, aliens…there wasn’t anything that Wes couldn’t talk your ear off about. See an interesting plant? Wes could tell you the scientific name, the common name, the bushman’s name, what it was good for, what it would do to you if you ate it, how many millions of years its species has existed, and where – in the great expanse of the Tasmanian wilderness – his favorite specimen lives, etc.

We’ve had a lot of guides that could tell you similar factoids along hikes because they had memorized those things out of books in order to answer the inevitable questions from the clients they were guiding. But for Wes, he knows that stuff because he is truly enthralled with the world around him and wants to know everything he can about it. His passion is infectious and you find yourself looking anew at the world as if it is a magnificent playground full of amazing and wonderful gifts.

Spend a few minutes watching this video of Wes, and you’ll get an idea of what a delightful guy he is. You’ll also get a taste of the amazing scenery in Tasmania, one of the absolute highlights of our recent around the world trip.

Everyone on our trip lined up to get their feet bandaged up by Wes prior to starting the day of hiking. I think it was as much about our feet as it was about getting some extra time to chat him up one-on-one.

Everyone on our trip lined up to get their feet bandaged by Wes prior to starting the day of hiking. I think it was as much about first-aid for our feet as it was about getting some extra time to chat him up one-on-one.

I’ll never forget walking past a tree that had been downed and cut up by the park rangers to clear the path. Wes could tell you the exact age of that tree. Not because he was taking a guess based on its size, but because he had taken the time to sit with that tree, count its tree rings and learn its life history. He had a personal relationship with that tree and could tell you when it faced drought and lived through fire, based on what the tree rings told him. That is the sort of awe, wonder and reverence for the natural world that shapes Wes’ life and can’t help but shape yours if you are lucky enough to meet him.

I was shocked to learn toward the end of our trip that Wes was just completing his second battle with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. True to form, Wes seemed to be meeting the challenge of cancer just as he meets the challenge of hiking the steep incline to Marion’s Lookout – one step at a time, a big smile on his face and an interesting story on the tip of his tongue.

It seems that nothing could slow him down. Not even a 100+ pound backpack filled with blocks of cheese, pasta noodles, tortilla wraps and Tim Tam Cookies for tourists…much less cancer. He turned his battle with cancer into a positive by creating a fundraising effort where he donated $1 of his own money for every kilometer he hiked, and encouraged others to donate as well. He raised over $7,000 for the cancer clinic that he credits with saving his life…twice.

Wes is larger than life. His personality and his passion for the natural world are unparalleled. His zest for living is infectious. Much like I’ve failed to find the words to adequately describe the uniqueness that is Wes as a person, I am unable to really articulate the profound effect Wes had on my life. I feel as if he sprinkled a little bit of fairy-dust out in the world for me and I now find myself in awe of the simplest of things.

I learned from Wes, quite simply, that the world is f*cking awesome!

Maybe you can be “the one” on a group trip that drives everyone crazy!

I definitely encourage others to try group tours for adventure travel sorts of trips. Glenn and I have met a lot of really great people on our trips, many of whom we now call friends…and, there is always a chance you’ll run into an amazing guide like the ones I’ve mentioned above. A guide that will leave you with a piece of wisdom that will enrich your life forever more.

We’ve used a variety of adventure tour companies over the years and would highly recommend the following:

There's always one!?!

There’s always one. It could  be you!

8 comments on “Guiding the Way

  1. Michele & Glen,
    Where are you this evening? I’m at the Mazama Lodge. We completed our second RTM day today: Timberline to Ramona Falls. Thought maybe you two would be here. I decided to sign up at the last moment as a means to stall “old age.” I think it is working! Michele, how is your Mom.
    Been thinking about all of you.
    Gwen

    • Hi Gwen! I’m so excited you did Round The Mountain again! We looked to do it this year too, but it was already sold out. Timberline to Ramona Falls…my knees remember that one! Hopefully the river crossing went well. My mom is doing as good as can be expected, given the circumstances. We’re all hanging in there with her. Glenn and I miss you!

  2. Loved seeing the videos and photos. One of your guides in Peru looked just like a shaman that we met there. This winter I will be in Mexico for several months, also Cuba, the Yucatan and Copper Canyon. And then a little shopping trip to Tonala with friends. I hope I can upgrade my own blog with some of your wonderful ideas. Following it is a real treat. Thank you! An old friend…. Judy

    • Hi Judy…Nice to hear from you again, and thanks for following my blog. I’ll never forget you or your zest for adventure!

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