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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Confessions of a Travel Guide

Often I get people asking me if they can join me in what I am doing, if I need someone to lead trips along with me.

Often I wonder, if I have to scale and get bigger, I might need to hire a few people to lead parallel trips. Someone to lead a trip to Bhutan when I am doing Ladakh, someone to do Vietnam if I am doing Europe.

But there is so much that goes into being a good trip leader that no job CV will ever cover. What you see on Facebook, the pictures, they hardly tell the complete story. And this post is just about that, about the kind of person that would make for a worthy trip leader. Not just about him knowing which hotels to book, and what all to show people in that city or country, but a lot more than that.

1)      A good trip leader needs to be a people’s person:  If you aren’t, this job is not for you at all. In every trip of mine, there are 12-16 people and it is but obvious that they will have different personalities. There will always be some people who are extroverts and will mingle immediately and be absolutely comfortable. And there will always be people who are quieter, who will take their time to open up. It is important that a trip leader recognize different personalities, and ideally should not take more than a day to do so. Being perceptive is the key here.

It is important to identify the ones who are more reserved. He will know soon if they are comfortable in their silences, or if they find it hard to be part of conversations with strangers. And subtly he will, in his own way, tease them, or bring them to notice, and include them in conversations with the group, especially if they have come all by themselves for the trip and not with their friends. Making everyone comfortable is the first priority once a trip starts.

2)      Forging friendships: They say “don’t mix business with pleasure”. Well, I never much cared for management maxims. Making friends is what I have done and what I will do, in life, in trips, everywhere. But then on the trips there will always be people you find easier to become friends with than with some others. It is basic human nature. But as a trip leader it becomes my responsibility to talk to everyone, and to create situations in which everyone finds new friends. 

When you are with friends, they will help you out unconditionally. I feel I am extremely lucky that I have had so many people help me out in everything. In our last trip to Bhutan, this guy Sagoo would be the first to climb onto the bus’ roof and pass down the luggage. Then I remember way back on my first trip, everyone was at a Karaoke bar and having fun and realizing they did not serve any food, I stepped out at ten in the night to find a restaurant that had not shut. Varun and Antara,  followed me even without me asking and together we roamed around for twenty minutes before finding one place that was open and sitting there together for half an hour while the food was being made and later packed. They needn’t have sat there with me, and could have gone and had their fun at the bar but they did because we are friends.

3)      A trip leader needs to be a little mad, he should be a character. The group must look up to him for inspiration. We live in a world which has conditioned us so much, especially here in India. We have always learned to play it safe. I find it amazing that a lot of people will just look at a waterfall and not bound towards it the moment they see it. I find it perplexing that if you see a steep hillock, your not thinking of finding  a way to get on top of that bloody rock. If people ask me why must we get wet in a waterfall or risk banging our knee while climbing, my answer always is “Because when else will you do it” . We can’t always be playing safe, for crying out loud.

The world loves characters. And if you are a trip leader running up a mountain or stopping the bus and jumping out because you saw a river or a yak or a meadow you wanted to run in, chances are your group will follow you – to laugh at you, or to run with you, to liberate themselves or to just be part of that entire infectiousness.

And that, my friend, is how your trip is separated from most others.

4)      You must know how much to lead, and how much to let go:  Everyone else, besides you is on holiday. But they will want to do their own thing and it is right for them to want to do so. You need to know when to lead from the front, and when from the back, and most importantly when to just give everyone their space.  You can’t let things go haywire; if there is a schedule for a day, you need to make sure people get ready in time in the morning. But if you are at a place and see people enjoying and wanting to spend more time there, you need to be flexible enough and let them enjoy that space. 

I have often had people ask if it will be a problem if can just go sit on a hill a little far away, by themselves. Especially women. In the unequal world we stay in, I guess they feel the need for liberation a lot more than us men. I could never say no to someone wanting to sit on a hill by themselves and just stare at the valley. They shall find their way, and they shall find their way back, and we can wait.

5)      Sensitivity will always take you far in life. If not in life, well in the hearts of some at least.

It does not matter if you are just nice to the people who paid to come on your trips. It also matters how you are with everyone you met in that place. Can you, after a whole day’s excursion, when you are sitting at the back of the bus, realize something and walk to the front and wipe the front window screen when there is rain or will you let the driver do it all by himself?  Can you help your man to unload the luggage from the bus’ roof or does it not matter?  Can we rub a dog’s back, tell people lightly to not litter, put your arm around the driver and treat him like a friend, in the same breath?

We needn’t. We will still get paid for the trip. But you win far more in connecting your soul to someone else’s – be it an animal’s or a man’s. Money will take you places, but your soul will tell the world who you are.

And no MBA college will teach you that.

Or so said This Guy On His Own Trip.