International Writers Magazine: Lifestyles
day In the Life of a Tour Leader.
Tariq El Kashef
a job you love says Confucius, and youll never
have to do a days work in your life.
A little over two
years ago I set out to do exactly that. Bored with a nine to five office
job, that provided a regular pay check and stability, yet failed to
inspire me, I looked into the only thing that I have ever been truly
passionate about, travel. Now I work as an adventure tour leader, guiding
groups of travel enthusiasts of all ages and background, through some
of the worlds most interesting countries, and breathtaking landscapes.
In the three years since I changed my life, my journey has taken me
to Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina,
Syria and Turkey. Now Im working in Vietnam, where the only two
men more influential that Confucius are Ho Chi Minh, and David Beckham.
Its 7am as I peel my eyes open to the familiar sound of my mobile
phone alarm clock. Ive only been in bed a few hours, I am tired,
and I start work in less than one hour, but the prospect is anything
but bleak. This morning Ill be hiking into the central highlands
of Vietnam, along side the rice paddies, through the jungle, and across
rope style bridges that wouldnt look out of place in an Indian
Jones movie. That should take me up to lunch time, when Ill dine
on fresh fish and cold beer with my clients, before floating back down
the river on an inflatable raft. Its going to be a long day at
work today, but I know Ill have a couple of hours to myself in
the afternoon to dry off by the red river before we meet the local villages
for more food, dancing and rice wine.
Thats a typical day at work for me, or at least as typical as
any day can be. Because no two days are the same. Locations change and
activities vary. For example, instead of trekking I could be kayaking,
camel riding, sailing across the sea or racing through the desert in
a four wheel drive. The afternoon might just as easily be spent swimming
or snorkelling, on top of an elephant, or underneath a parasol, gazing
across the South China sea, or the red sea, or the Bosphoros.
By 8am I am showered, fed and waiting in the hotel lobby as the first
members of my 16 strong party start to gather together. One by one they
arrive, sleepy eyed and clutching their day sacks. Water, sun
cream, hats, glasses, walking shoes, mosquito repellent? I reel
off the list, a daily occurrence. Covering myself from a potential headache
later in the day, when a pax (industry speak for client) find theyve
forgotten something and need somebody to blame.
Wheres Jenny? I inquire as my head count concludes
an incomplete fifteen. Jennys the last one to arrive everyday.
Never quite late enough to mention, just always last by one or two minutes.
Morning! Im not late Jenny comes round the corner
indicating to her watch. I smile, were ready to go.
five minutes, and a short bus ride later, were following our
local guide Mr Tuan through the jungles of Vietnams central highland.
The sun is already a powerful force in the sky, and the jungle is
alive with sound. This is my third time doing this tour, and I know
Ill be spending most of the morning asking Mr Tuan to slow
down. Like some kind of jungle hobbit he scampers about wearing
his wifes hat to keep the sun off. A big red floppy thing
complete with bows that wouldnt be out of place at the horse
Hes a comical
sight as he disappears into the bush, the older members of the group
struggling to keep up.
Sixteen is a pretty standard number for an adventure tour group. Many
more and theyre unlikely to bond as well, too few and theyre
likely to get on each others nerves. Most individuals tend to be between
thirty and sixty, and theres always a few that fall either side
of that. The tours are not cheap, so those that book are usually professionals
with limited time to arrange such an expedition for themselves. Sometimes
theyre retired or on their way to retirement, looking for someone
to do all the hard work so that they can sit back and enjoy their trip.
I am careful not to use the word Holiday here. With early
starts almost everyday, and a jam packed, often physically demanding
itinerary, we provide travel experiences. Certainly not
the way everybody would choose to spend those precious few off days
we are allocated each year. A holiday is what you may well
This particular tour is an extensive three week trip of Vietnam. Flying
in to Hanoi in the far the north, we make our way south, by train, and
sometimes by bus, from the limestone cliffs and turquoise water at Ha
Long Bay, to the city of Hue, the scene of a month long siege during
the Vietnam war,. Then on to quaint riverside village of Hoi An, into
the dense jungles of the central highlands, and on to the beach resort
of Ngha Trang for a little R&R before arriving in Ho Chi Minh City.
In Ho Chi Minh we have a couple of days to explore the surrounding area
before boarding our riverboat, affectionately called a junk,
and leisurely cruising down the Mekong delta. By the time they fly home
from Saigon in a little under two weeks, theyll feel like theyve
been away for months, and Ill have a couple of days to recuperate,
before flying back to Hanoi to meet another group, and do it all over
Mr Tuan brings the group to halt in a clearing. He points out some of
the local flora. Pointing to some tiny flowers that close up when touched,
We call this flower the virgin flower, he jokes, laughing
out loud as he does every tour. He explains how the presence of these
tiny flowers closed up would let the Vietcong know that American soldiers
had recently passed by. At the back of the group I notice Bob is having
some trouble with leaches.
Bob is an American, from Jersey, slightly overweight and in his fifties.
Hes loud, got a good sense of humour, but stuck in his ways. Bob
chose to ignore my instruction about wearing long trousers to protect
himself from jungle nasties waiting in the lower bushes. Instead Bob
is wearing a pair of ill fitting tennis shorts. He has a dozen or so
little black specs on his legs, from just below his knees, to the very
tops of his thighs, almost on his backside. About the size of two or
three grains of rice laid end to end, these are leaches. Soon they will
swell up to the size of a slug as they gorge themselves on Bobs
blood. Bob is clearly distressed by his new friends, and as I offer
my leach removal services, I am grinning on the inside, deriving a sadistic
pleasure from being right and taking my time to burn them off one by
one with a cigarette. Hell listen to me next time.
After about three hours of steady hiking we emerge at a clearing by
the side of a river. This is the Red River that snakes its way
through northern Vietnam to the gulf of Tomkin and into the South China
Sea. I usher the group to sit on a cluster of large rocks, where there
are a couple of Vietnamese boys unloading a hamper of our pre organised
snacks. Hiking is hungry work and never before have bread, cheese spreads,
sardines, boiled eggs and beers seemed so appealing. At the bank of
the river a couple more guys are pumping up our inflatable rafts. Well
need them after lunch to float back down the river to the hill tribe
village where well be spending the night.
Everybody pitches in to get lunch organised, offering whatever tools
they have. Several brand new, unused Swiss army knives emerge, and a
few tubes of antiseptic hand wash. Then were scoffing it down,
whilst Mr Tuan is chatting away about some aspect of the region or other,
answering the pax questions. Ive lost concentration
though. Im squinting in to the sun and watching a few locals washing
in the river a little further down. Theyre laughing and splashing
and waving. The pax begin to strip off and slip into the river to cool
down. Careful swimming on a full stomach please, I offer
lamely. Its a comment pretty much ignored by all, but I have to
say it. I resist from adding you do it at your own risk;
something I say a few times everyday, just to cover myself. Whilst they
swim, I stay on land to tidy away all our litter, and all traces that
we were ever there. Then I sit back on a rock again, light a cigarette
and survey my horizon.
The scenery in the Vietnamese central highlands is absolutely superb
and theres no better way to take it all in than floating down
a river on an inflatable raft, fully reclined with one foot hanging
limply over the edge into the water. From here the jungle is silent,
our oars making the only sound as they cut through the water propelling
us along. Imagine the last Vietnam war movie you saw, take away the
apache helicopters, the sound of gunfire and the marine with the cigarette
packet attached to his helmet, and what do you have? A dramatic backdrop
of terraced hills, and thick, luscious seemingly never ending jungle
with peace and quiet lurking behind every leaf.
I tip the local crew, coordinate the dismantling of the rafts , and
then lead the group up the bank to the Keran hill tribe village that
is going to be our base for the evening. We have a couple of hours before
dinner so the group are free, and more importantly so am I. Whilst they
mingle in the village, taking photos and getting to know the locals,
I take the opportunity to sit in the shade of one the thatched huts,
and get up to date with my paperwork. Daily reports, accounts, incident
report forms, hotel sheets and fund sheets all have to be completed
or amended. Along with the complaining clients, paperwork
is the thorn in the tour leaders side, the trick being to do a
little bit everyday and not to let it pile up.
At 8pm I meet the group inside the thatched house that serves as the
village hall. Here I brief them on the following days adventures. Well
be making a bus journey in the morning south to Lake Lak, and in the
afternoon meeting some elephants on the back of which well explore
the region. A briefing is paramount to a successful day on tour. I emphasise
what they need to bring with them. If I know some aspect of the day
will generate a few complaints, a bad hotel, or uncomfortable bus, I
play it up, make it sound so hellacious that when they finally come
face to face with it they can only be pleasantly surprised. Understate
and oversell I remember my training. The elephant ride is always
a highlight of the trip but I play it down. Theyll love it.
When Im certain they understand whats in stall for them
tomorrow its time to eat and party with the local villagers who
are waiting outside. We can hear their drums beating enticingly. Everybody
is in their traditional dress, joining hands and making a circle around
a flickering fire. In the centre of the circle just to one side of the
fire are two tall clay earns, Each with a long white straw standing
straight out the top. These contain the local speciality, rice wine.
The village chief, a tiny man with a weathered face and a cheeky smile
calls me to join him centre stage.
A good 2 feet taller than he is, I shake his hand and we kneel down.
We take a straw each and suck. One second, two seconds and then I relent
at the putrid taste, my insides burning. The chief smiles and there
is a round of applause. Then everybody is taking a turn on the rice
wine. The drums are beating wildly and the circle of villagers is dancing
around us like a giant oriental hokey cokey. Looking around
the star lit village, between the thatched houses, and the exotic plants
I note the only reminder of home and Europe is the large picture of
David Beckham on the side of the local store. Even here, where the kids
have never heard of London, and couldnt point out
the UK on a world map, he is here. Long haired, on a motorbike and looking
uber cool as he advertises Castrol oil to the Vietnamese
I first heard of the concept of adventure travel when I was backpacking
in Asia. I was hiking to the Annapurna base camp in the Nepalese Himalayas
with a few other travellers Id picked up along the way. At the
various night stops we kept bumping in to a French a group. One night
over dinner, as we all huddled around the fire I got talking with the
leader, a laidback guy in his thirties. When he told me
he actually got paid for what he was doing I almost wet myself. I remember
commenting, I wish there were jobs like that in the UK. Look into
it he told me.
A year later, I was clean shaven and wearing a suit. Squeezing on to
the tube with a few million others as I made my daily commute to London
Victoria. My free flowing world traveller days a hazy memory, too busy
hating my job to ponder any of lifes greater questions. It was
on a cold December morning in 2002 that I remembered the French man.
My line was down due to a train derailment adding an extra hour and
a half on to my daily commute. It was dark when I went to work, dark
when I left, and if you believed the propaganda in the British press,
unless we toppled Sadam soon, a nerve gas attack on the tube was imminent.
Arriving at work that morning, I turned on my computer terminal, found
my way to google, and the rest is history...
© Tariq el Kashef June 2006
my website www.soultravel.co.uk
"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of www.alternativeegypt.com.
The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"
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