Back in the 1970s as a tour guide, I drove 50 or 60 people in little minibuses around Europe with a passion for getting my travelers beyond their comfort zones. It’s fun to look back on the crudeness of my techniques. Today we have the same goals, but pursue them more maturely, gracefully, and effectively — for which the over 10,000 who join us annually can be thankful.
As a 25-year-old hippie-backpacker-turned-tour-organizer, I had this misguided notion that soft and spoiled American travelers would benefit from a little hardship. In retrospect, I was pretty cruel. I’d run tours with no hotel reservations and observe the irony of my tour members (who I cynically thought were unconcerned about homelessness issues in their own communities) being so nervous at the prospect of being homeless for a night. If, by mid-afternoon, I hadn’t arranged for a hotel, they couldn’t focus on my guided town walks. Believing they’d be more empathetic with people who never have a real bed, I thought it might be constructive to let my travelers feel the anxiety of the real possibility of no roof over their heads that night.
I remember booking a group into a horrible hotel above a sleazy bar thinking that would put what I considered petty complaints about hotels in perspective. Seeing a woman from my tour group shivering with fear on top of her threadbare sheets at the threat of bugs, I felt triumphant.
Back when I was almost always younger than anyone on my tour, I made my groups sleep in Munich’s huge hippie circus tent. With simple mattresses on a wooden floor and 400 roommates, it was like a cross between Woodstock and a slumber party. One night I was stirred out of my sleep by a woman sitting up and sobbing. With the sound of backpackers rutting in the distance, she whispered, apologetically, “Rick, I’m not taking this so very well.” I gave her some valium — which was about all I had in my “first aid kit” — and she got through the night.
Of course, I eventually learned that this was the wrong approach and you can’t just force people into a rough situation and expect it to be constructive. Today, after learning from 30 years of feedback from our tour members and the experience of our team of guides, I am still driven to get people out of their comfort zones and into the real world with the help of our tours. But we do it in a way that keeps our travelers coming back for more. (Yesterday my tour sales director told me our sales for 2009 are holding, but only because more than half of those signing up are return travelers.)
For me, seeing towering stacks of wood in Belfast destined to be anti-Catholic bonfires and talking with locals about sectarian hatred helps make a trip to Ireland meaningful. Taking groups to Turkey during the Iraq wars has helped me share a Muslim perspective on that conflict. And visiting a concentration camp memorial is a required element of any trip we lead through Germany.
As a tour guide, I always made a point to follow up these harsh and perplexing experiences with a “reflections time” when I tried only to facilitate the discussion and let tour members share and sort out their feelings and observations. I’ve learned that, even with the comfortable refuge of a good hotel, you can choose to travel to complicated places and have a rich experience. (And when our tour members complain about something, I can’t help but think back on what we used to inflict on our paying customers.)