Stories from Nearly Disastrous Days

As a travel professional, you learn that experiencing nearly disastrous days is a given. Heck, sometimes you even have actually disastrous days, like the unmitigated disaster of leading my clients through a blood-sucking leach-infested forest, which you can read about here. It’s what you do with these experiences though, that either puts a positive, memorable spin on them or just turns them into plain old crappy days.

I began my summer guiding in Colorado last week, and already we’ve had some minor incidents. The first day, I took a Japanese high school group to remove graffiti and clean streets in a low-income neighborhood. Part of their American educational experience was to learn about the different facets of American society and interact with them. We leave Union Station in downtown Denver and are supposed to alight at Perry Street, 6 stops away. Just before Knox Street, I hear the words “Next Stop Perry Street”, panic, and tell everyone to jump off the train. I then discover that we’ve gotten off a station too soon, feel like the dumbest tour guide in the world, and have to wait 15 minutes for the next train. Luckily the students and teachers were nice about it.

Arriving at the streets we were going to clean, we discover that there is almost no graffiti or garbage to throw away. Instead, it is blazing hot. We doodle around for two hours, picking at some candy wrappers, pulling weeds and my favorite – playing baseball with balled-up work gloves. Since it’s still early, we head back to Denver, give the students some free time to go shopping, and call it a day. I suppose flexibility is another essential trait when working in the travel industry.

The next day, I meet a different group of Junior High girls and their teachers, who want to go to the Red Rocks Amphitheater, then go shopping. Ready at 12:30 for a bus that is supposedly leaving at 1:00, we wait and wait for a bus that does not arrive. Apparently the driver had received instructions to leave at 2:00. I am apologizing and doing my best to keep the girls entertained, but there is only so much you can do.

The bus finally arrives, and we’re off to Red Rocks. I tell them all about the outdoor amphitheater and how great it is – only to discover that a) we only have 10 minutes to see it, b) it’s raining and c) it’s not even open because the band that is playing in the evening is tuning up. I’ve learned that it’s best not to hype things up that you aren’t sure about but when you’re going to a specific place to see something and it’s closed, you’re toast. We continued on the shopping, where thankfully a monument to capitalism – the American shopping mall – is open rain snow sleet or hail.

It’s been a fun summer so far and I continue to learn. Whether in Japan or America, my attitude dictates the experience for my entire group – dealing with the inevitable challenges and managing their expectations makes their experience so much better.

After going to Rocky Mountain National Park again on Wednesday, I leave for Nebraska and the State Games of America pickleball tournament on Thursday. Wish me luck!

This is what it's all about

The people are what it’s all about

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What is Your Travel Philosophy?

Last week I began my first of several Japanese tour guiding trips this summer. I love working outside, speaking Japanese, seeing beautiful scenery and hanging out with people. The first day I took 15 Japanese guests to Pikes Peak, Garden of the Gods and the outlet mall in Castle Rock. They loved Pikes Peak, but to my chagrin, we only did a drive by of Garden of the Gods… to allow more time for the outlet mall. It’s not what I would choose, but I suppose the customer is always right and there really is nowhere like America for cheap brand name omiyage (gifts).

Riding up the Cog Railway

Riding up the Cog Railway

The second day, one of the guests asked me to translate, as an American family who had stayed in his house in Japan wanted to show him around Denver. Since his English and their Japanese were basic at best, he hired me! It was a great experience, although I stumbled my way through the Denver Museum of Natural History. Somehow in all of my years of living in Japan, I failed to learn sciency terms like cyclocilicates, stalagmites and carbon dating of dinosaur fossils. I’m learning that as a translator, knowing where you’re going is crucial and google translate is a lifesaver.

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In traveling around the world and working as a tour guide, you learn what you want from travel, and realize that people have different ideas about what travel should entail. Many Americans, for example, go to Mexico or Hawaii or Florida for the sole purpose of doing absolutely nothing except getting a tan while sipping margaritas by the pool. That’s nice for a time, but I can’t imaging going somewhere and only seeing the inside of a resort. Japanese, on the other hand, cram in as many famous sites as possible, taking thousands of pictures in the process. They see a lot of things in a short time, but for me it’s a little fast-paced and touristy. I would comment on Kenyan travelers but since most Kenyans can’t afford it, their travels involve riding a crammed bus “up-country” to see their relatives for Christmas.

So what is my travel philosophy? Cliche, but I think it’s all about the people. Whenever I go somewhere, I make sure I know someone. Not only is it cheaper, you also experience the real place with a little adventure, local cuisine and fascinating conversations thrown in. In Mexico, I remember partying with couples in their 40s until 3:00 AM as this old dude explained proper tequila drinking etiquette to my dad and I. In Damascus, I went to a Turkish bathhouse where a huge Syrian guy  “massages” you by karate chopping your back, cracking your neck and rubbing uncomfortably far up your thigh – sort of a martial arts chiropractor masseur. While studying abroad in Cairo, Egypt won the Africa cup of Nations. Breaking the rules, a friend and I participated in the celebrations, where people danced on cars, spun machetes, pointed flamethrowers in the air, and circled around the Americans to watch us dance. Yes, I’ve experienced some crazy things that probably weren’t the safest, but I wouldn’t trade those memories for the world.

So what is your travel philosophy? Ask yourself what you want from travel and do it. Maybe that is lounging at an all-inclusive resort. But maybe it’s just a little bit more 🙂

The Next Step

I’ve been back in the US for a week and a half now. It’s strange how quickly whatever circumstance you are in becomes the new normal. Writing this in the quiet, cool, green backyard in Denver where I’m house sitting, it’s hard to believe that I was in the midst of Kenya just two short weeks ago. They are worlds apart, let me tell you.

Last week I helped teach a tennis camp at the US Air Force Academy. It was fun, hanging out with kids and focusing on nothing more complicated than teaching a kid a forehand (which can be surprisingly complicated). I also met a new Japanese friend, Hiro, who stayed with me over the weekend and was game for playing tennis, golf and pickleball. I was glad to get my Japanese speaking fix and make a new friend.

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This week, I’m getting everything ready for my application to a scholarship program in Japan where I want to get an MBA. Sometimes I feel mixed emotions about the possibility of going back to Japan, but one thing is for sure, when I was there this Winter, I was reminded that it feels more like home than anywhere else.

Next week my trips begin. I’m excited to get more experience and see if this is something I really want to do. On the trips I have conducted, I loved the fact that I can work while having great conversations and seeing beautiful places in Colorado. Getting paid to do that is pretty awesome.

After July, I become a high school tennis coach again. I look forward to what the season holds and appreciate my athletic director’s reminder: “Even if we don’t win a match again this year, if the students have fun and learn to love a game that they can play for a lifetime, we have succeeded.” Truth.

And that’s my life. After September it is a huge gaping hole and I have no idea what will fill it. Something always come through though because God always provides. And I almost forgot, I have my work at The Food Source starting an organic farm in Nairobi. I am no longer physically there, but the work continues and as it becomes successful the big question is, “What Next”?