Tour Guides I Have Known

At heart I am a novelist. I have written a terrorist thriller entitled “Nine Lives Too Many” and a suspenseful, modern paranormal story called “The Daemon in Our Dreams.” I have a new novel coming out soon which deals with rice queens. Most of my fictional efforts are chronicled on my website – Now and then I like to go back to my start as a travel writer. Especially I like travel writing with humor interspersed. My novel “The Daemon in Our Dreams” is essentially a travel novel peopled by many tour guides.

Heard any good tour guides lately?

On an Alaska tour our female guide said, “We have a saying here in Alaska. There are nine men for every woman. The odds are good, but the goods are odd.”

But the male guides fight back in this battle of the sexes. One male said he had a tee- shirt made with the inscription: “Girls, remember when you get back to the lower forty-eight, you’re going to be ugly again.”

Another male Alaskan guide the next day, “Here in Alaska the men are men, and the women are too.”

Every time I hit a new city on a land trip or a new port on a cruise ship, I take an orientation tour with a guide. They are called cultural orientations when they stop at a museum instead of at a crafts market where the tour guide’s relatives work.

Guides can tell jokes, propagandize, scapegoat, recite poetry, and tell whoppers. They have a captive audience for a few hours, a day, or in some cases a week or more. For some reason the tour guides in Alaska are the best. Here are some illustrations of the breed from all over:

On Moorea, sister island of Tahiti, our guide Ben said:

“This is the church where the members of a certain denomination worship. They come to my door two or three times a week with pamphlets. Please give me your address so I can give it to them, and they can visit your house instead of mine.”

Alaskan guides are full of bald eagle and bear stories. One guide told us about the black bear that wandered onto the airport and into the arrival area. He got on the luggage carousel and started riding it around. They thought they would get rid of him by turning the carousel off. He growled and acted menacingly so they had to let him continue his ride until the game wardens trapped him and took him away.

A guide told this story:

“Two bears, a male and a female, attack and eat two men who were out hiking in the woods. One man was a Pole and one man a Czech. The two bears were shot by hunters. Autopsies were performed. The Pole was found in the female so they knew that the Czech was in the male.”

On a Princess ship in Alaska while we were having martinis in the observation lounge, the captain would come on the p.a. “This is Captain Glug from the bridge. On the port side on the tallest tree, there are two bald eagles. About fifteen minutes later he would announce. “On the middle tree, again port side, you will see two more bald eagles.”

Our barmaid said, “I think the captain has a picture of two eagles pasted to his eyeglasses. When he looks out of the corner of his eye he sees them in the trees.”

The comedian on the ship would imitate the captain, “To the starboard there are three killer whales breaching, seven porpoises jumping, and three sea otters with calves floating on a icebergs. On the port side two grizzly bears are washing salmon by the waterside, and there are two bald eagles that Princess Lines pays to follow the ship to Seward.”

Guides can give very different versions of the same thing. On Bora Bora in French Polynesia a huge abandoned Hyatt hotel site with only the foundations stands by the seaside. A local guide said the reason that the hotel had been abandoned was because of the builders’ greed, and the costs of mismanagement, graft and corruption.

Anthropologist Bill Kolans on Raiatea gave a different version. Polynesians never really give up their land. Relatives are often buried in the backyard which helps to insure that the land will stay in the family. After the Hyatt builders had assembled land for their hotel, hundreds of Bora Borans came forward with claims on the land. To buy them all off would have been horrendously expensive, so the project was abandoned.

On tours of French Polynesia resentment against Chinese shopkeepers would surface. “There is such and such supermarket. It is owned by Chinese, and groceries are expensive there.” The Chinese who were originally brought to Tahiti to work in the sugar fields, stayed on after the work in the fields ceased. They gradually became the merchant class and now own many banks and businesses.

One Tahitian guide said, “The French bake our bread, the Chinese deliver and sell it, and the Tahitians pay for it.”

In Bora Bora one tour guide was incensed when a tourist asked him if they ever ate dogs. Paul Theroux in his book about Oceania found that some islanders in some archipelagos did eat dog. He thought that was why island dogs often seemed so bad tempered because they knew what was in store for them. Our guide said, “Of course we wouldn’t eat dogs. They are our pets, members of the family. What do you think we are, savages?”

Then his whole mood changed abruptly and he said mischievously, “Now Americans, that’s a different story. They are really tasty, especially the fingers. We call it finger food.”

Captain Cook hundreds of years ago detailed South Seas cannibalism.

In Alaska tour guides specialize in poetry recitations at tour’s end. Their favorite is Robert Service, the Kipling of the Yukon, and on many a bus tour just before tip giving, you will hear “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” “The Cremation of Sam McGee,” or “The Spell of the Yukon.” They are recited from memory, and somehow the lines seem more immediate as you travel through a gold rush frontier town like Skagway.

We took a steam engine train ride in vintage railway cars that followed the gold rush trail from Skagway over the mountains to the take-off point for Dawson. In 1898 thousands of gold seekers braved the awful conditions, and thousands of pack animals perished. Over the loud speaker on the train a woman tour guide read from an account by Jack London that poignantly described how these animals fell or were thrown over the steep mountain trails.

In Skagwag our guide brought us to the old graveyard where Soapy Smith and Frank Reid are buried. Soapy Smith was the leader of a gang that terrorized the town in Gold Rush days. Reid shot Soapy and on his grave is an inscription that says he gave his life for the honor of Skagway. Nearby is the grave of a woman of pleasure. On her tombstone it says: “She gave her honor for the life of Skagway.”

In Hamburg, Germany, a tour guide trumpeted patriotic ecology at work. A block away from the notorious red light district on the Reeperbahn, he pointed out some women he said were prostitutes. “Good for them. They are saving precious energy. They are walking to work.”

I’ve met a lot of good tour guides over the years, and I have laughed with and learned from most of them.

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