Should You Use a Guide?

It’s been a while since I dipped into the mailbag to answer a question from my readers.

Here’s one from Jeff Shore, who posted on Facebook:

When you travel to an exotic locale, would you rather educate yourself and find things by word-of-mouth from locals; or hire a professional guide to assist, and why?

First, great question Jeff. It shows you’re thinking outside the box of pre-packaged “excursions” and “travel-as-product.”

Choose carefully. Guides can be informative, but they also isolate you from the place you’re traveling through.

Your interactions with the people around you are moderated by a gatekeeper. You’re eating in “approved” places and talking to people who are used to dealing with foreigners. That can feel very routine, like everyone you meet has done this a thousand times before.

If you’re in a busy tourist centre like the Caribbean, you also risk the stupefying boredom of being taken to gem shops or “pottery workshops” that are just dusty stores. Your guide gets a kickback on anything you buy there. So if he insists on an unexpected stop for shopping, slam on the brakes and say, “Wait a fucking minute pal!” Don’t let that set the stage for your day.

If you do use a guide or interpreter, check his reviews. A lot of these guys keep a book with comments from previous clients. You probably won’t find anything overly negative. But watch for faint praise — that means the client wasn’t impressed but was too polite to say so. And keep an eye open for pages that were carefully sliced out…

A great guide can open up a whole new world. And a bad or incompetent guide can colour your entire trip in shades of misery. I’ve experienced both.

I’d like to take a second to recognize a couple from my Best list…

I met Caleb Gilkerson on a magazine assignment to South Dakota. He was hired to take me and a photographer into the Badlands on a camping expedition. And I knew he’d be great the first time I talked to him on the phone. He said, “Listen, I hope you guys ain’t expectin’ no gourmet food…” Caleb loved being out there as much as we did. We threw away the map and lost ourselves among the weird spires and square topped buttes. We were charged by buffalo more than once, and we got scolded by park rangers for tying a rope to a visitor overlook and rappelling down the side. It was like camping in 8th grade with my best friend Rob. I hadn’t had that much fun in years.

And the best of the bunch, John Wake from Wales: former drug squad detective and current expert on the legend of King Arthur. Yeah, the magazine hooked us up with a cop. I was expecting a puritanical bore who would scold me for speeding or lecture us about loose morals. But this guy was amazing.

He pulled obscure facts out of the air like a magician conjuring a coin. He took us to backyard Roman ruins, deserted castles and Baskerville Hall — always on a whim, because they were just around the corner. He’s a kindred spirit, and a fuck of a good man to sit down with for a pint. We giggled so hard I nearly drove the car off the road more than once.

If you can find guides like these, then rip up your plans and kidnap them for as long as you can. You’ll have an unforgettable experience.

If you decide to go solo, you’ve gotta do your research.

Learn as much as you can about a place before you go there. And by that I don’t mean read a bunch of guidebooks.

Focus your research on what interests you. And forget about “1001 Things to See Before You Die”. You’re looking for life changing experiences. And you won’t find them on a checklist.

Read a couple volumes of history about that place or region to get oriented. I also like to read early travel accounts and old explorer’s journals, to get a sense of which aspects of life have remained constant and which have changed over time.

You might end up searching out locations related to a specific time period, person or series of events — Baroque architecture, landmarks from the novels of your favourite author, or traces of Roman occupation, for example. Or you might decide to explore cafe culture, riverside life, wine regions or specific schools of art.

All that pre-trip reading makes your journey a personal one, shaped by your interests rather than the generic “must see” list from a tourist guidebook.

Another great trick is to use web forums and make notes of locations and sites that keep coming up — and then compare that to a map to see which places they’re not talking about. Tourists tend to cluster together. And that’s true of backpackers as well. If you want to get completely off the track, learn to use the guidebook in reverse.

It all depends on how much time you have. Who’s available. And what sort of experience you’d like to create.

I hope that gives you some ideas.

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