Welcome back to the continuation of my interview with Audrey*, a professional tour guide who has been leading groups worldwide for 12+ years. Last week, Audrey discussed her greatest challenges, favorite destinations, and suitcase romances in Confessions of a Tour Guide: Part I. Read on to learn about her strangest guiding experience and the one thing she wishes all travelers would consider when packing their bags:
Can you share one of your strangest guiding experiences?
I've had so many - the man who threw spaghetti at me, the Bolivian mafia buying my group wine, and getting asked out by the former president of a small Caribbean island. This tale, however, might be my favorite:
I was rambling through Tuscany leading a group…blind. Not the kind of “blind” that we use in the industry for doing a tour for the first time but “blind” as in extremely visually impaired.
I had just finished leading a tour in Spain and was on my way to Italy to lead a walking tour through Tuscany. My flights seemed simple enough: Seville - Madrid - Rome. As much as I like to fancy myself a good traveler, I am actually a terrible packer. I often get lazy and just toss everything in my checked bag. When I’m on the ball, I pack a carry-on bag with all the essentials - important documents, guide books, glasses, lip gloss (yes, it’s important!), change of clothing, jacket, and extra contact lenses. In this situation, I was so busy with my group in Spain that I did not take the extra five minutes to pack my carry-on well.
I left sunny Seville wearing flip-flops, a tank top, skirt, and a sweater (for good measure). My carry-on consisted of one guide book, a notepad, and a few pens. When I arrived in Madrid and was checking in for my next flight to Rome, I was was magically upgraded to business class. “Amazing!” I thought, but I should have known that airlines rarely upgrade for no reason. It’s true. Rome was cold when I landed and raining sideways. I stood beside the luggage belt watching anxiously as one by one the luggage appeared...until the last bag came out. Ugh. This has happened to me several times and I am never prepared for it. Already feeling defeated, I put in a claim, gave my itinerary to the very hostile airline representative, and made my way to the hotel in Rome. With nowhere to put my contact lenses, I slept in them and rose early to catch the first train to Florence where I was meeting my group.
The group was a bit shocked when their tour leader showed up dressed for the tropics and not a cold, rainy Florence. However, they were lovely and our tour of Florence was great. However, I was left shivering and sopping wet. I placed a call to the airline - they had located my bag, but it was hanging out in Madrid. Knowing full well my bag wouldn’t arrive before our hiking tour the following morning, I ran around searching for any store open on a Sunday that sold more than wine, souvenirs, and cheese. Luckily I found a tiny sports shop where I bought a pair of trainers, socks, and a somewhat sporty looking outfit.
After returning from a fabulous dinner, I could not wait to take out my contact lenses. It felt like sandpaper in my eyes. Of course, I had no contact case or contact solution so I resorted to using a plastic cup with saliva (I know, it’s gross). Without either my contacts or glasses…I am blind. Not a little visually impaired but the “I have no idea who you are until you are a foot in front of me” kind of blind. Just after I took out my contacts, I realized that I had not put in a wake-up call for the group. Instead of picking up the phone, I ventured downstairs to talk to the receptionist. I cautiously made my way down the stairs and to the front desk, grasping my way along.
Retiring to my room, I had a horrible realization as I flopped down on my bed, the covers turned-down. I didn’t do it. Oh no. I stumbled into the bathroom in search of my precious cup with my contact lenses and saliva. There it sat, rinsed and upside down beside the sink. Gone. My eyes were gone. NOOO!! I sat on the floor and cried. How was I going to lead a walking tour of Tuscany when I couldn’t see anything?!
The next morning, my bag hadn’t arrived. I put on my sporty outfit, gathered a few belongings, and fumbled downstairs to meet the group. I stood there in the middle of the lobby like a deer caught in headlights. Smiling. I couldn’t even see well enough to recognize my own group. After seemingly an eternity, one of my group members tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was okay. Was it that obvious? He helped me round up the troops, find our bus, and load everything up. It was during these moments that I was actually relieved that I couldn’t see, as imagining the mortified looks upon my group members’ faces as they learned that their “fearless leader” was blind was horrific enough. “I’ve led this tour heaps of times,” attempting to reassure my group and myself. In my head all I could think was that I had never so much as walked down the block without contacts or glasses…how was I going lead the group through vineyards and medieval hill towns?
Feeling car sick and unable to focus on anything, I attempted to speak on the microphone about the scenery that I couldn’t actually see. Not a great start. However, all things considered, our first walk through the Tuscan countryside went pretty well – I didn’t fall down, I didn’t lose anyone, and everyone sounded quite happy. As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I called the airline to find out about my bag which, as it happened, was still hanging out in Madrid. The charming hotel was in a tiny Tuscan village that had no pharmacy or optician, only shops selling prosciutto and wine. So…I bought some Chianti, drank it, and cried.
The sweet ladies in my group took pity on me and lent me some of their clothing. I hesitantly accepted - to say our fashion sense differed was an understatement. I put aside my vanity. Besides, I couldn’t even see myself. Other kind souls tried to lend me extra pairs of glasses, but most were bifocals or trifocals which made me walk like I was underwater and high. After the failed attempts of borrowing glasses, someone had a brilliant idea and lent me a small pair of binoculars. Genius. The binoculars saved the tour, my career, and my sanity! Over the next four days, I successfully led my group through vineyards, olive groves, cypress covered lanes, and walled medieval towns wearing the clothes of women more than double my age and a pair of binoculars strapped to my head. Sexy. My eyes were swollen and blood-shot from strain, my head screamed, but I was determined to make this an unforgettable trip for my group.
Just when I had given up all hope, nearly six days after parting ways with my bag, it arrived! I was so ecstatic that I burst into tears, kissed the receptionist, and ran to my room. I quickly put in my contact lenses, put on my make-up and got all dolled up before I met the group for dinner. No more binoculars! No more senior clothes! As I was making my way to the lobby, I saw three of my group members in the hallway. I posed and smiled…they walked right past me. They didn’t even recognize me. “Did I seriously look that bad before?” I asked. I didn’t need the answer.
What is the moral of the story? Always pack that carry-on as if you will never see your checked luggage again. Ever.
As a guide, what is the one thing you wish all travelers would consider when going abroad?
I would love for travelers to keep in mind how truly fortunate they are to be able to travel and see the world. There are so many people who will never have the opportunity to even travel in their own country, let alone abroad. We are so truly blessed to have passports and the chance to experience other destinations.
Anything else you wish to share about your job as a tour guide?
I absolutely love what I do! I don't expect people to truly understand what my job entails and I rarely talk about it as some perceive it as bragging. I never intend for it to come across that way, it is just what I've chosen to do with my life. I've been semi-nomadic for a good deal of my adult life and wouldn't change it for the world!
*Name changed to protect identity