6 Ways to be better at my secret aspiration

Want to know a secret? I’d love to try being a tour guide. Sssh! Don’t tell!

My prior experience with tour guides was when they would glower at me, suspecting me of eavesdropping on their spiel about the Coliseum/temple/painting, or of being poised to purloin the pockets, purses, and possessions of their flock. As fun as it is to play Spy, I’d politely move away.

But that role, stockpiling information about a place, managing the distracted peregrinations of a population, and hopefully, somehow enhancing their travel experience? That looked…worthwhile. Challenging. Fun.


Had to dig deep into the files for that one.

Had to dig deep into the files for this one.

I’ve fallen into something similar a couple times in the past, most memorably in Morocco, when I made travel arrangements for a dozen British university students who wanted to come with me into the Sahara, but didn’t know how to go about it.


Maybe it’s my WASPy, Victorian English-American upbringing, that yearns for connection but doesn’t always know how to get there, but I enjoy the finite closeness of a group of people bonded to me by some external factor. When I was a property manager, I felt I was just the right level of friends with most of my tenants, and in that accidental guide position, I felt a similar ease; these people needed me for something, which I was able to provide, and if they happened to like me..? .That’s what I call job satisfaction.

Sweet tea within sight of the Algerian border

Sweet tea within sight of the Algerian border


As the sun set into the Saharan dunes where laughing Liverpudlians sand-boarded, I took satisfaction in their shouts, and the words of thanks when we parted ways in Marrakech were even sweeter than the mint tea.



Cuba was the first time I’ve been in a formal flock, and our shepherd was an encyclopedia with legs and a fedora named Joel. I periodically pulled my attention from the sights, tastes, culture and culos of Cuba to watch how he did it.


For example, when we found ourselves with an extra hour, Jeff, Joel’s US counterpart, suggested an old cemetery on the edge of town. “No problem” said Joel, “I know the place, let’s go.”

Half of the grand arch, complete with bicycle

Half of the grand arch, complete with bicycle

Moments after walking under the grand arch, Jeff got a dubious look on his face. “This isn’t the place I meant.” With no time to head to the other cemetery, what do we do? Get back on the bus in defeat?


“This cemetery is veerrry important” Joel assured us, and started the tour. Cuban leaders, businessmen, and landowners occupied places of honor near the entrance…and when Joel saw our eyes glazing over at the unfamiliar names, he moved right along.

“That big monument there, those are troops who died in South Africa fighting against….how do you say ‘apartheid’ in English?” We all nodded, murmuring “I had no idea Cubans fought against apartheid” and soberly read the names.


“Joel, what’s the deal with these tiny tombstones?”Cuban burial customs, tiny headstones


“In Cuba, people are usually buried, but after a couple years, when most of the body is gone, the bones are removed and cremated, and these are placed on the family tomb. Why? Because there is just not enough space for everybody.”


Direct sun turned markers into pizza stones, but under the pines and palms the air had the dry warmth that feels like falling asleep on an old book on an August afternoon. It’s a comfortable feeling…a sleepy feeling…


“Did I ever tell you about the two lifelong friends?” Joel asked as our steps started to slog. “They were friends from childhood, playing baseball in the street of their barrio. As they got older, they made a deal: whoever died first would come back to tell the other one what heaven was like.


graves and needles“So one day, one of them, he died. The other was very sad, he missed his friend, but that night, you know what? His friend came back to tell him about heaven. ‘What is it like?’ he asked him.


“’Well, I have good news, and bad news. The good news is we have baseball!’ The living friend was very happy to hear this, because being Cuban, he loved baseball. ‘And the bad news?’

‘You’re the starting pitcher in tomorrow’s game.’”

We all groaned (as you do with jokes) and shook our heads, conveniently knocking some of the sleep out, and Joel’s tour moved on.


That hour Joel demonstrated six only slightly demanding rules:

1. Know every possible destination for every possible city, and how to get there.
2. Be able to talk up a location’s importance.
3. Adapt instantly and effectively.
4. If using another language, have 99.9% of your lexicon listo, only words like “apartheid” get a pass.
5. Have the answer to every question.
6. Keep an awful joke on hand to make people groan themselves awake.


That’s six, anything else I need to know before you’d take my tour?

What good or bad guides have you had?

(For a great story of the latter, check out this story from Iran on the wonderful Where To Next? blog.)