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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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 🙂