39. Tour Leader

The Andes-Route 2006.

This line is the shortest sentence to explain what I’ve been doing the last 2 months. And because it were two special months I asked a small company in Cusco to make some T-shirts with this line on the front and a map of the route on the back.
The Andes-Route, a tour of 58 days and a journey past more than 24 places in Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Bolivia. It was my 8th tour as a tour-guide and at the beginning of the year I told myself that when I could guide a tour like this, I would see myself as a real tour-guide. Especially, because a lot of tour-guides have a bit of fear for guiding a tour for 2 months.

Some of you have send me e-mails to ask for a new story and after 2 months of traveling I should have a lot to write about. But do I have enough to write a good story???

All right, I hope I made you curious. Lets tell you a little bit more about my group, without using real names and getting to private. To start with the oldest couple:
A couple of 60 and 52. The oldest group member, but don’t try to beat him. His young spirit doesn’t give up soon. He’s one of the few group members who didn’t become sick during the whole tour. Together they seem to be the perfect example of a husband and housewife.
A couple of 53 and 52 years who celebrated their 30th marriage on the 31th of October in the highest city on the route, Potosi. It became a highlight for the whole group.
A couple who were both 50 and like the first couple they almost never left the side of the other half. They had never been on a long groups-journey before and liked birds. I also think that he was the only groups member who didn’t hate the pan flute after the first 3 weeks of our journey.
Than the last “older” couple of 50 and 41. They are both working as psychiatric nurses, very social and a bit alternative. The man told me ones: “Sometimes I tell my patients that the only difference between me and them is, that I have the keys…”.
The last couple of this group were 2 man of 34 and 35. One of them likes to take photo’s of details in nature, gets sick in busses and a bit crazy when he drinks alcohol. The other likes trains and whisky. They both like to party until the small hours.
Then now the people who traveled alone, again from older to younger:
A single woman of 50 who’s used to walk and who always likes to be first. She wasn’t soon afraid for things. Maybe sometimes for being alone.
The second single was a lesbian woman of 48. She likes strong women and her dream is to make a long hike over the Alps, when she becomes 50. She did the Inka Trail well, but I think she can still use some more practice for the alps… She’s social and had an eye on the third traveler alone. Unfortunately for her;
This third traveler was a women of 46 years who is already together with her first boyfriend for 31 years! Quite amazing I would say. I also think that it’s amazing that she’s afraid to be in the dark, to be in small rooms, to be on heights and more, but still travels a lot on her own.
The fourth woman (40) was an even more experienced traveler. She worked as a government worker and could so save a lot of free time to travel all over the world. She likes to party, is single and her goal was to see and try “all” the good things from every country, without getting fooled…
Than finally a single man (37) in the group. He said in the beginning that we could remember his name with a famous movie-star. But I think that I can say, without a doubt, that most group will remember him when they hear the name of that movie-star again. He’s a special character who wouldn’t hurt a fly. Maybe only the feelings of a Peruvian woman ;-) I think that he has seen most of his journey through one of his cameras, film or photo. Still he found time to introduce a new move on the Latin American dance floor. He closed his hands and moved his index fingers up and down. We would think that this belongs in a swimming pool, but if this is next summers hype, you know where it comes from.
The next single man (37) wasn’t really single anymore. He just fell in love before he started to travel. He is calm and in good shape. Especially in the beginning we could count on him to find the hotspots during the night. However towards the end he looked more and more forward to go back to his own new hot love ;-)
The next single is a woman again (34), a tall woman with long blond hair. A strong woman who ran after the person who stole her camera in Arequipa. Unfortunately she lost and had to buy a new one. Her job is to plan and organize. Sometimes she had problems to let go of this and thought out loud how she could reorganize half of Latin American. Sometimes I wish she could.
The last single woman (24) was the youngest in age en looks, but not in behavior. She was calm and could take care of herself, even when she was surrounded by young thieves.

As you can read, our group had an interesting mix of people who seem to be very different. Most of them have also very strong personalities and know what they want, so this could be a difficult group…
However the truth is different. This tour went so very smooth that I spent the last 2 weeks wondering what I could write about? How can I write an interesting story about a journey with no big problems, through places you’ve all read about before? This doesn’t mean that it was a boring journey, for sure not. It was one of the best tours I’ve guided, but the biggest reason for that was the special mixture of my group. The best stories I could tell you, will be about the group itself and its members, if it wasn’t impropriate to tell them all ;-)

With a lot of strong characters, they weren’t the most following group or best listeners. But that wasn’t necessary, maybe it even would’ve been a little boring ;-) If somebody at this moment would ask me about our secret for this great tour, then my secret would be that I gave the group all the freedom I could give. I tried to give them the feeling that it really is their journey in which they could do what they wanted. Within the possibilities off course. Their “secret” however is far more important: Take, but also give.
This group knew their rights, knew what is possible, but also knew that some things just are the way the are. They didn’t complain or stopped enjoying their vacation during or after some unpreventable problems. This may sound logic, but believe me, it really isn’t always like that. Even I still have problems to accept certain things, which are probably never going to change…

Talking again about this subject I can’t resist to share some of my thoughts with you:
I’ve been talking in earlier stories about the influence of tourism and how big this is on the Maya-Route. Also during this tour I encountered again on changes caused by tourism. Or maybe they’re just a progress in time, helped by tourism? The worst changes are that some places, like Quito, Pisco and Arequipa have become more dangerous. I hope this will change after the National and local elections this month in Ecuador and Peru.

Other places on this tour, especially in Peru which is still the most touristy country, became far more expensive. Colca Cañon (10US$) and Machu Picchu (38US$) are the best examples. Not only sites became more expensive, but also tours, either booked local or with agencies in other countries, like the one I work for. Yes, I understand that the people like me, who have the luxury and money to travel so far, do not have much reason to complain about some price increases. If we can help the economy of these poor countries in which we travel, why not spending a bit more money. The problem however is where this money goes and how it is used. This doesn’t have to have anything to do with if the company is owned by a local or a foreigner (I’m sure that there are even foreigner owned companies, which bring more money in the local economy than local ones), but more with the mentality of the owner(s). Making money seems to become more and more important, but service doesn’t always grows equal with the prices. The better organized companies have to be careful that they don’t get careless. Especially because the tourists nowadays have access to more and more information and know exactly what’s for sale and for which price…

Luckily there are exceptions as well, like the Bolivian owned “Downhill Madness” in La Paz, who organizes the bicycle tour downhill the most dangerous road. They do spend a lot of money on keeping improving their equipment. Or like the families on Amantani, an island on Lake Titikaca. Tourists can book a tour to Uros, Amantani and Taquile, during which they sleep with a local family on Amantani. Compare to almost 3 years ago, they’ve really improved the facilities on this island, as well for the tourists as for the locals. Unfortunately, because of that  it became also less authentic, but if everyone takes profit from it, maybe this is just progress and tourism makes it go quicker…

Something else y still have problems with is the factor of trust and confidence. Most of you know that I can be difficult to convince about something, but also that I’m easy in trusting people who I’ve just met. If they ask me here in Latin America if I believe in God, I say: “No, I believe in people.” However when I told this to a friend of my, who lives in Ecuador, she told me that this might work in Europe, but not in Ecuador. Unfortunately I think she’s right. I have to admit that promises and the truth still seem to be less important in most Latin American countries. This is especially a shame with the coming elections. If I ask people who is the best candidate, they often say the same. If they already know who they vote for, than an common answer is still: “It doesn’t really matter, they’re all corrupt anyway.”

Because I like to give the best possible service to my groups and often can’t trust on what Latin American agencies tell or promise me, I prefer mostly to work with Western organizations for organizing local tours. Maybe this is not fare to the local agencies, but this is their own fault.
Saying this, there might be hope. I met a Dutch guy who started his own travel agency in Sucre, Bolivia. While his agency has just finished its first high season, it is now already recommended as being the most reliable tour-agency in Bolivia. Luckily for Bolivia, this Dutch guy lost his heart in this country and is now dedicated, not only to let his agency succeed, but also to work only with Bolivian employees. He is teaching them a logic and effective way of working, build on confidence. I wish him luck and hope he succeeds in all his goals.

Now at the end of this story and after a successful tour of two months, do I see myself as a real tour-guide? I wouldn’t dare to say that I’ve seen it all, know it all. No for sure not, there is always more to learn and I have been lucky that in all my 8 tours I never had to deal with a difficult group. I also have to admit that, during my last tour, I didn’t got the impression to be a lot smarter or better organized than during my very first. If I look at some other tour-guides they look more professional. Off course I’ve learned some things, but being a professional? I still seem to live in my own tour instead of that I’m guiding a tour for tourists. Especially during this one, when I had done the things I had to do, I became part of the group. When they had fun, I had fun. I even made a lot of “over-time” during the evenings/nights and discovered a lot of new places to go out ;-)
I had a good time and according to my group, they had a good time traveling with me as well. They even made a song for me which they sung on our last dinner.
Maybe I don’t have to become a professional, or maybe I already am? Maybe this is what some of my very first group members recommended to me, when they told me that I should try to keep my spontaneity…
I like to end this story by giving you the translation of a little part of the song:
He talks a lot,
Gives a lot of information.
But still no relation.
Van je hela, hela, hela ha;
Van je hela, hela, hela, ho.

It has been one of the easiest tours to guide, but the most difficult to write about, I hope you liked it.


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