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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Farting on Elbert

I just finished one of the most ridiculous, memorable and difficult weeks of my tour guiding career and I wanted to share some stories from this experience.

Japanese people are sometimes so… well, Japanese. Mannerisms, ways of doing things, habits. It’s so distinct and noticeable and sometimes hilarious.

For example, before and after any amount of exercise, Japanese people always want to do a group stretch. Now this wasn’t a problem when we started climbing Flat Top Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park at 5:00 AM. Returning at 2:00 PM, however, was a little different. Oblivious to passers-by, the Japanese tour guide decides to do our group stretch in the middle of a busy walkway. Right as we are doing a stretch where you thrust your hips around in a circular motion, a shuttle bus pulls up right behind. Since I’m the closest to the bus, the passengers get a full backside view of my thrusting buttocks. Sometimes you just have to ignore what other people are thinking and go with the Japanese flow.

Then there is the fact that everything in Japan is individually wrapped and packaged. At a supermarket in Estes Park, the attendant and I somehow got to talking about how she had just moved from Boulder where they used far fewer plastic bags. Just as we’re finishing this conversation, the Japanese tour guide decides that each sandwich needs its own bag: 9 bags for 9 sandwiches. The attendant is rolling her eyes and I can faintly hear environmentalists crying in the distance but all I can do is watch disapprovingly.

There is also the lack of appreciation for good beer. Asked to recommend a good Colorado beer the first night, I went with Blue Moon. It’s a local beer and I think it’s pretty darn good. Snubbing their noses at this, they fell in love with the high quality choices of Coors and Bud Light, ordering them at every restaurant. Again, all I could do was chuckle and drink my Fat Tire or Colorado Native as they talked about how much they loved their piss water. Whatever floats your boat I suppose.

Now for the naming of this post. Since this was a hiking tour of Colorado, the highlight of the trip was climbing Mt. Elbert, the highest 14’er in Colorado. Leaving our hotel in Leadville at 3:00 AM, we hiked much of the 4-mile ascent in darkness before watching the sunrise across the mountains and finally summiting. The views were absolutely breathtaking and the weather was perfect.

Sunrise on Elbert

Sunrise on Elbert

I’ve always heard that Japanese people consider burping to be ruder than farting. I initially doubted this, as I had never heard Japanese people burp or fart very much. Everything changes on the mountain though. For some reason (maybe the night before’s pizza), everybody experienced abnormal levels of gas, and the tour guide (the worst of them all) instructed them to just let it out. “Better out than in” is roughly what he said. And oh did they let it out. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard such a prolonged, continuous chorus of flatulence; at one point I was actually jealous. And that was just the men! Like most places (I would imagine) the women did not partake. What was really strange was the lack of reaction. Every time someone farted, I expected a courtesy chuckle or a snide comment. They just ignored it and continued on as I listened in amazement.

Our Gasy Group

Our Gasy Group

Ultimately, I think the way people travel reveals a lot about them. The Japanese tour guide was often so obsessed with keeping things the way they were in Japan that he forgot to let the guests enjoy the way things are in America. In Estes Park, he asked the hotel manager which television stations were in Japanese. Hmmm, sorry buddy Japan is not the center of the universe. He made me ask for the bill at the beginning of each meal in order to “not keep the guests waiting”. And instead of eating local food, we went to Thai or sushi places and had Japanese “Obento” lunches. That’s fine, but when I was allowed to take them to BBQ or local steakhouses they loved it. And food is just one part of it: To me, travel means letting yourself adjust to all aspects of life in another place.

The night before they left redeemed it all. Talking about American culture during the trip, I had explained that hugging was just as common as shaking hands. Since ceremony is everything in Japan, we all got in a circle and talked about how great the trip was and how good my Japanese was and how thankful we all were. Towards the end, in accordance with American culture they each wanted to give me a hug. I proceeded to give 8 people a series of the most awkward, arm-flailing, bent down hugs I have ever experienced. But the fact that they were willing to try something new and appreciate what Americans do made it worth all the effort. That’s what it’s all about.

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