The International Writers Magazine: Lifestyles

A day In the Life of a Tour Leader.
Tariq El Kashef

“Find a job you love” says Confucius, “and you’ll 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 world’s 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 I’m working in Vietnam, where the only two men more influential that Confucius are Ho Chi Minh, and David Beckham.

It’s 7am as I peel my eyes open to the familiar sound of my mobile phone alarm clock. I’ve 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 I’ll be hiking into the central highlands of Vietnam, along side the rice paddies, through the jungle, and across rope style bridges that wouldn’t look out of place in an Indian Jones movie. That should take me up to lunch time, when I’ll dine on fresh fish and cold beer with my clients, before floating back down the river on an inflatable raft. It’s going to be a long day at work today, but I know I’ll 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.

That’s 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 they’ve forgotten something and need somebody to blame.

“Where’s Jenny?” I inquire as my head count concludes an incomplete fifteen. Jenny’s the last one to arrive everyday. Never quite late enough to mention, just always last by one or two minutes. “Morning! I’m not late” Jenny comes round the corner indicating to her watch. I smile, we’re ready to go.

Forty five minutes, and a short bus ride later, we’re 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 I’ll be spending most of the morning asking Mr Tuan to slow down. Like some kind of jungle hobbit he scampers about wearing his wife’s hat to keep the sun off. A big red floppy thing complete with bows that wouldn’t be out of place at the horse races.

He’s 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 they’re unlikely to bond as well, too few and they’re likely to get on each others nerves. Most individuals tend to be between thirty and sixty, and there’s 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 they’re 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 need afterwards.
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, they’ll feel like they’ve been away for months, and I’ll have a couple of days to recuperate, before flying back to Hanoi to meet another group, and do it all over again.
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. He’s 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 Bob’s 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. He’ll 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 it’s 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. We’ll need them after lunch to float back down the river to the hill tribe village where we’ll 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 we’re scoffing it down, whilst Mr Tuan is chatting away about some aspect of the region or other, answering the “pax” questions. I’ve lost concentration though. I’m squinting in to the sun and watching a few locals washing in the river a little further down. They’re 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. It’s 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 there’s 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 leader’s 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. We’ll be making a bus journey in the morning south to Lake Lak, and in the afternoon meeting some elephants on the back of which we’ll 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. They’ll love it.
When I’m certain they understand what’s in stall for them tomorrow it’s 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 couldn’t 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

Author's Note:
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 I’d 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 life’s 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 
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"Tariq El kashef is the author and editor of The Online Egypt Guide for the Independent Traveller"

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