Bad Trip: How To Annoy Your Tour Guide

donkeyWe’ve all been there. Maybe we’ve been one. The person on a guided tour or trip who’s a complete, utter, pain in the ass.

Perhaps it’s unintentional. Maybe it’s due to deep-seated issues that would cause empathy in another situation. Or just possibly, it’s because the person in question gets off on being a jerk. Does it matter? Whether they provide unwitting entertainment or seething aggravation, that person manages to disrupt others’ enjoyment of the experience. The person who really suffers, however, is the guide.

I’ve had good guides, bad guides, guides who should be nominated for sainthood, but regardless of their skill, they have a difficult job. It’s not easy to wrangle any combination of clueless, headstrong, enthusiastic and grumpy tourists, and get them to points A, B and C on schedule – ideally with an unfailingly polite attitude and unwavering smile on your face. It’s a gift, being a guide possessed of technical, personal and mental skills.

Even those who love to travel solo occasionally require the services of a guide. Thirteen years as a travel journalist has given me a lot of material (in part because my favorite thing to ask guides for are bad client stories).

As a holiday gift, I’m providing a list on how to annoy your guide. Follow it, and I promise you’ll always be remembered – just not fondly.

Wear inappropriate clothing/shoes
I had an absolutely priceless two days in the Atacama Desert last year with two middle-aged Chilean couples. Read: they were such drunken louts, it was painful for the rest of us to keep our mouths shut. My favorite experience with them was on a late-afternoon hike of the stunning Kari Gorge.

The key word here is “hike.” To which one of them, a spoiled Santiaguino physician’s wife, wore staggeringly high boots with a narrow wedge heel. She was also completely shit-faced, so when she wasn’t face-planting on the rocky floor of the gorge, she was screaming at her worthless husband to help her climb up the craggier parts of the trail. The rest of our small group finally broke down and pitied her as we summited a steep, mile-long sand dune. She was openly weeping at that point, clutching her chest in panic (a chain-smoker, she thought she was having a heart attack; ironically, her cardiologist husband was the least concerned of all of us).

Because we had to spend so much time waiting for her, we nearly missed the highlight of the excursion, which was watching the sunset from atop a cliff. By not bothering to check what kind of outing she was taking, she kept the rest of us at her mercy, tested our guide’s patience, and subjected us to her marital issues. Um, awkward.whiningOverstate your abilities
Along the same lines, this woman wasn’t fit enough to master a climb up a flight of stairs. It’s not just inconsiderate to fail to accurately access your physical abilities; it can be deadly. At best, it will ensure you and your guide (who will have no choice but to coddle and devote extra time to you) have a miserable time; at worst, you may well end up having that coronary in a sand dune. Don’t be that person.

Bring your bad attitude with you
True story from a sea-kayaking/orca-watching trip I took last summer. We were on the northern tip of San Juan Island, just miles off of Vancouver Island (i.e. Canada). Our guide pointed out this interesting fact to us, which elicited the following response from the one unfriendly person in our group. She was a taciturn woman in her 30s, a self-professed “bird-lady” who owned 12 parrots.

Annoying Client: I made a promise to myself to never leave this country for any reason, whatsoever.

Hapless Guide: That’s an interesting promise. Why?

AC: Because I believe in America. I don’t ever want to support another country’s economy. Why should I? I even go out of my way to buy products made here.

HG: Aah….hmmmm. Okaaay.

I’m not sure what I love most about this incident: that this woman knowingly took a trip to the Canadian border, or that she supports exotic bird smuggling from foreign countries.

Be late/unprepared
A great way to piss off your guide, and everyone else in your group. Also helpful in ensuring you won’t get your money’s worth from your trip or tour, since the schedule will be compromised. This one’s a winner!

Whine
Because nothing is better for group morale than someone who complains about everything.

Engage in excessive PDA with your significant other
It may start off as amusing for your guide and fellow travelers. Trust me, by trip’s end, they’ll be ready to kill you. Get a room.
camping
Don’t pitch in
Hey, Princess. I know you paid a chunk of change for this (fill in the blank: raft trip/backpacking trip/guest ranch stay). So did everyone else. But your guide and support staff are working their fingers to the bone for very little pay because they love what they do. You know what else they love? Guests or clients who make even the smallest effort to help them out. Ask where you should stash your gear, collect firewood, help chop vegetables or cook dinner (right). Not only will you gain their respect and gratitude, you may even enjoy yourself.

Be high-maintenance
It’s not all about you. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into when you sign up.

Forget to mention your “dietary restrictions”/preferences
Travel companies are savvy enough these days to always include a section for this on their registration forms; I’m not talking about legitimate food allergies or intolerances. But please be honest, not ridiculous, and if you don’t like what’s being served, be polite about it – especially if you’re in a foreign country.

Refuse to interact with your group
I can be a bit of an introvert, so I get how hard it can be to socialize with a group when you’re just not feeling it. But guides tend to stress about the lone client, and feel pressure to ensure they’re having a good time. If you really don’t feel like socializing, assure your guide that you’re just shy, but having a great time. Otherwise, I really recommend faking it till you make it. Once I come out of my shell, I’m usually grateful, because I end up meeting fantastic people who make my experience that much more interesting.

[Photo credits: donkey, Flickr user jaxxon; sign, Flickr user frotzed2; cooking, Laurel Miller]

Outside magazine’s inaugural ‘Travel Awards’ winners

travel awardsWith twenty-three categories and every continent up for consideration, the competition is fierce, but today Outside magazine released its picks for its new Outside Travel Awards. The winners include everything from travel companies and locales to cameras, suitcases, hotels, and apps, road-tested by those in the know (you know, those people).

Amongst the chosen is Seattle-based Mountain Madness, a mountain adventure guide service and mountaineering school, for its new Tsum Valley trek in Nepal, named “Best Trip in the Himalayas.” Known in sacred Buddhist texts as the “Hidden Valley of Happiness,” the Tsum Valley lies on the edge of the more visited Manaslu Conservation Area, which opened just three years ago to tourism.

Best travel company Geographic Expeditions (GeoEx) has “consistently taken travelers to the most remote regions of the world, from Everest’s north side to Patagonia’s glaciers to the far reaches of Papua New Guinea. This year its trailblazing new terrain with a 27-day trek to the north face of K2 ($11,450).” Bonus: “the price of every GeoEx trip includes medical assistance and evacuation coverage from Global Rescue and medical-expense insurance through Travel Guard.” Not too shabby.

Also making the list: Myanmar is the “Best New Frontier;” Canon Powershot G-12 makes the “Best Camera;” the “Best New Adventure Lodge” is the Singular, outside of Puerto Natales, Patagonia, Chile; and the “Best Eco-Lodge” is the architectural marvel, The Mashpi in Ecuador.

[Photo credit: Flickr user tarotastic]

Adventure vacation Guide 2012: Ecuador

Most Norteamericanos are hard-pressed to locate Ecuador on the map. Those familiar with this South American country the size of Colorado usually associate it with the (admittedly) spectacular Galapagos Islands. Yet Ecuador has so much more offer besides the Galapagos, and 2012 is the year to get your hardcore on. Why? Because the country’s adventure travel industry is blowing up–but it’s still affordable, especially if you opt for independent travel or book certain activities through domestic outfitters or U.S. travel companies that work directly with Ecuadorean guides.

Whatever your recreational interests, budget, or experience, odds are Ecuador has it: mountaineering, glacier climbing, and volcano bagging; trekking on foot or horseback; Class III to VI whitewater kayaking and rafting; sea kayaking, scuba diving, and snorkeling; surfing; remote jungle lodges and endemic wildlife, and agritourism. Need more convincing? Ecuador’s adventure tourism increasingly has an emphasis on sustainability. When it comes to protecting its fragile ecosystem and indigenous communities, Ecuador has become quite progressive for a developing nation, which hasn’t always been the case.

If you like a cultural or culinary component to your travels, there’s that, too. You can opt for an active, educational trip to indigenous-owned and -operated Amazonian eco-lodges, or play in the Pacific regions, which retain a strong Afro-Ecuadorean influence.

Agritourism is also hot in Ecuador, most notably at centuries-old haciendas, although there are also coffee and cacao plantation tours. Ecuadorean food is a diverse melding of indigenous and outside ethnic influences that’s regionally influenced: be sure to patronize markets, roadside restaurants, and street food stalls for some of the most memorable eats.

[flickr image via Rinaldo W]

Five trekking options for adventurers with bad backs

trekking with bad backIf you’ve got a bad back or neck–and many of us do–it can make certain aspects of travel challenging, especially if you’re otherwise healthy and active. Perhaps the most frustrating issue for adventure travelers such as myself is being limited to day hikes, unless there are overnight options that don’t involve humping a 50-pound-plus backpack into the wilderness.

I suffered a moderately severe back injury in 1994, which has been exacerbated over the years by my recreational/occupational pursuits and being a general spaz (a fall on ice led to months of physical therapy). While I travel with a 35-pound backpack, it’s always for relatively short distances. When it comes to trekking, I know my limit is about 10 pounds, in a daypack.

Yet I love few things more than backpacking and trekking. Over the years, I’ve found ways to circumvent my back issues, and in the process, have taken some truly mind-blowing trips (as well as excelled, physically). There are those who consider it cheating if you don’t carry your own gear, but I’m willing to bet they haven’t experienced the joys of a herniated disc, whiplash, or spinal stenosis. Ignore the naysayers, and look into these rewarding options. Happy trails!

Note: I don’t want to underplay the importance of being physically fit and well-conditioned for a trek. You need to be able to walk long distances, on often steep, difficult terrain at very high altitude (depending upon itinerary). Any reputable company will provide you with an outline on conditioning for your adventure. Please be honest (with yourself, and them) about your abilities.

Use a porter
Outfitters in many locales, such as the Inca Trail, the Himalayas, or Kilimanjaro rely on porters to haul gear; you’re responsible for your daypack (which may include weather-related gear). The altitude presents enough of a challenge for the average trekker, and porters are usually indigenous peoples who are genetically adapted to their harsh environment. There’s a reason Sherpas always accompany climbers on Everest and why the Quechua porters of the Andes are capable of sprinting uphill for miles, barefoot, with 100-pound loads on their backs.

%Gallery-125080%trekking with bad backThe first time I did a trip with porters, I was bothered by what I saw as a social injustice. But my Peruvian guide from Bio Bio Expeditions explained that there are strict guidelines in place (this may depend upon region, so please check with your outfitter or the local permitting office) about maximum weight loads. By employing the local people, porters receive a steady paycheck, supplemented by monetary tips from trekkers (please don’t overlook this; it’s part of their livelihood, and believe me, they earn it), and donated clothing items that go to their families.

Pack trips
While long days in the saddle can wreak havoc on tenderfoot thighs and butts, pack trips are the ideal way for the physically-compromised or older folks to explore remote wilderness regions, often at high altitude (day hikes are usually included during downtime; be sure to ask). Alternatively, if your back (or you) demand a bit more comfort at night, you can descend on muleback into the depths of the Grand Canyon, and stay in one of the Phantom Ranch’s rustic but comfy cabins; note that these trips book out at least a year in advance.

Bonus: Many outfitters now focus on food, so rest assured you won’t be eating freeze-dried beef Stroganoff. Other outfitters will teach you packing skills, such as how to tie a diamond-hitch and load a pack mule, or focus on fly-fishing, photography, or personalized trips, so look for the company that best suits your needs and interests. Tip: There’s no unified national packers association. Your best bet, says Dave Dohnel of California’s (very excellent) Frontier Pack Train, is to “ask for references–I always tell potential clients to call the regional office of the Forest Service. They’re the stewards of the land, so they’ll give you an unbiased opinion.” Also be sure to do some online research on the companies you’re considering.
trekking with bad back
Llama/goat packing
Having a furry friend haul your gear as you walk alongside is becoming more popular in the States. Llamas, of course, have been used as pack animals for hundreds of years in the Andes. They’re tough, have excellent footing, and are cute as the dickens, but they’re also tempermental. If you’d prefer to trek with an animal you can really bond with, goats are ideal, as they’re more dog-like and enjoy interacting with people.

There are only a handful of goat packers in the U.S. at this time, but it’s grown in popularity since it was pioneered in the 1980’s by former Forest Service employee John Mionczynski. A large goat can carry up to a quarter of its body weight with a pack frame, and their small hooves and grazing habits make them a lower impact option than horses or mules. The North American Packgoat Association (NAPgA) is for those who want to start packing with their own goats, but it’s still a great resource.

Destinations for both llama and goatpacking include the Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and Southwestern U.S.. There’s also the Pack Llama Festival in Silverton, Colorado, held September 22-25.

Day treks from a base camp
Many outfitters offer combination trips that enable experienced trekkers or climbers and beginners to travel together. Seattle-based Mountain Madness, historically a “hardcore” mountaineering outfitter, now offers a “Trek or Climb Program” that allows partners or families to enjoy the same trip–each participant has the option to climb or trek only, or a combo of the two–and reunite at a new base camp each night. For those with no experience wanting to get a “taste of climbing but not commit to it 100%,” this offers a great compromise. All trips include porters, so you only need to carry your daypack (they’ll even hire a porter to do that, if you’d like). Other companies, like Seattle’s Alpine Ascents, will hire porters to carry your gear on their international trips if you’re unable (they suggest you be able to handle a 50-pound pack).
trekking with bad back
For my first mountaineering attempt, I did a Mountain Madness trip to Ecuador’s Cotopaxi, the world’s highest active volcano (19,347 feet). Because we had to spend the night at a refugio located just above 15,000 feet in the acclimatization zone, it meant I only required a day pack for the ascent (which was unfortunately thwarted at 17,000 feet due to avalanche danger). But the point is, you can have the best of both worlds, bad back or not. And I still had a great time and felt I’d made a massive achievement.

Specialty trips
Mountain Madness also offers a Mt. Baker “Slow Boat” beginner summit climb in the Cascades (FYI, a lot of outfitters are based in Seattle, an outdoor industry Mecca). This is a four-day trek–usually, it’s done in three–created specifically for those who need a little more time for whatever reason (you still need to be able to carry 35 pounds). Ask outfitters what options they offer if you have limitations; many companies will create personalized itineraries for two or more clients.

Have back problems and a trek or outfitter you want to rave about? Let us know!

[Photo credits: pack train, Flickr user Mouldy17; all other photos, Laurel Miller]

Yoga: Postures to Help Relieve Back Pain

Australia’s Kakadu National Park floods trap tourists after they ignore closed road signs

Australia floodsWhat is it with German tourists and Australia’s Northern Territory? If they’re not getting eaten by crocodiles or succumbing to dehydration, they’re blatantly ignoring road signs and driving their way into croc-infested floodwaters. NT News online reports that four wayward Germans visiting remote Kakadu National Park drove their rented four-wheel-drive–allegedly at 80mph, no less–through the flooded crossing at Magela Creek and Oenpelli Road. The group were en route to see the famed Aboriginal rock art at Ubirr, in the East Alligator region of the park.

The car stalled out, leaving the foursome stranded in three feet of water, smack-dab in the middle of a 300-foot crossing. Despite their apparent inability to heed large, glaring warning signs and screams from more intelligent roadside onlookers, the Germans possessed enough survival instinct to clamber to the top of their vehicle, where they were rescued by police 30 minutes later.

Look, I’ve spent a lot of time in Australia, including Kakadu. I’ll be the first to point out that the international media and popular film and literature make the country out to be some kind of fauna-invoked death wish. If the great whites and saltwater crocs don’t get you, the box jellyfish, blue-ringed octopi, brown snakes, taipans, or redback and funnel web spiders will.

I’m not disputing the deadliness of these creatures. And I can’t deny that certain situations like the current floods in Queensland make an encounter more likely. The advice to avoid “crocky” areas of tropical Northern Australia is no joke, and should be taken very seriously. In general, however, it’s easy to avoid crocs and the rest of these much-maligned critters; your odds of ever seeing one (even if you’re Australian) are unlikely. It’s a huge continent, guys, and like most venomous or aggressive species, most of these animals won’t attack unless provoked.

When I visited stunning Kakadu (with a seasoned outfitter from the region, because there’s no shortage of untrained, self-proclaimed, even downright dangerous guides in the world), it was this same time of year; the “Wet,” or monsoon season. It’s low season for tourists because many roads are flooded, and as such, that does make for greater statistical odds for a croc encounter. But more to the point, why would you intentionally disobey safety precautions, especially when you’re in a foreign environment/they’re prominently displayed/designed for easy comprehension by international visitors?

The bottom line is, whether you choose to explore isolated places alone or with an environmentally-responsible, accredited professional, use your brain. Obey the rules, because they exist for a reason. Behave with respect for the land, flora, fauna, and people. Your stupidity or carelessness often cause more than just inconvenience to others. It can result in great expense and lost lives, including those of your rescuers. If nothing else, you’ll become fodder for global news outlets, who use you as an example of what not to do.