Former Busabout tour leader Ben Oliver writes: My body screams for sleep, my mind is a scattered mess and I’m well past the point of breathing without my eyes closing of their own accord. In a never-ending effort to stay conscious, I pinch my leg — harder this time — sending a bolt of adrenaline through my system.
I scan the coach, a 51-seat Greyhound, for a distraction. The faces of my fellow trainees look similarly haggard, like we’ve all aged 10 years in 20 days. My eyes rest on Jill. Seated a few seats back, Jill is one of my favourites. The time is 5am, and she is yammering away at top speed, a feat for someone of even her prodigious talking skills. I like Jill, but right now I just wish she would just shut up.
I barely remember which city we are departing this morning, or our destination. We are in Spain, right? Or is France? Did we leave Tours this morning? Are we in Amsterdam tonight? I scarcely remember. The battle between mind and body is being won by the latter and my eyelids begin closing, like curtains on a feature film.
A hand suddenly rests on my shoulders, perhaps a little too forcefully. ”Don’t you even think about it, Ben” is the stern warning from my trainer. I smack my lips and mutter something along the lines of ”never, never” although I’m sure it comes out as gibberish. I shake my head in an attempt to rid myself of the aura of exhaustion now obvious to everyone.
Sleeping on the coach is strictly forbidden and guides caught napping are punished in a variety of ways. Cleaning the coach was a favourite penalty among our trainers and the bus drivers, particularly the latter who got 15 minutes of their life back while we struggled to clean the windows to a factory-grade level of cleanliness.
Sleeping on a real tour also poses a real safety risk, although by the time you reach your second year, most guides will sneak in a cheeky powernap, provided the driver approves.
What you don’t want is powernaps turning into full blown kips; a tour guide once got so drunk the night before departure in Munich, he slept on the coach’s back seat for an entire morning, only waking after the driver drenched him with a bucket of water.
Of course, like the other less-than-sacred rules of tour guiding, the rule of no sleep is only enforceable if you get caught. Much like the supposedly sacrosanct rule of never fraternising with the passengers, a rule bent by some, stretched by others, twisted by most and entirely smashed by a few. In short, it was a rule no one followed to the letter of the law.
I can still hear Jill talking in the background. Or maybe it’s my imagination. I feel like Edward Norton in Fight Club; I’m having odd daydreams of Tyler Durden appearing on the coach and instructing me to remove my teeth with a pair of pliers; I am Ben’s distorted sense of rage.
Tour guide training has a degree of military precision. Our trainers, in our case spilt evenly between the genders, are the harsh but fair drill sergeants, quick to haul us over the coals for unsatisfactory work but happy to applaud our successes. The type of trainers I’d feared — totalitarian monsters who openly berate and denigrate — are not found here.
Some tour companies still use humiliation as their primary training tool, but many are embracing a more nurturing approach as the attrition rate on tough love training tours is horrendously high, more than half the trainees are usually culled. Of our trip, two out of a group of 26 are kicked off, while another two would be sacked during the course of the season for various indiscretions.
Rising early, we split into four groups to investigate a combination of practical and site information. There is no time to be spent drinking in the details of a city, even if it is Paris. Police station locations? Check. Opening and closing time for the Louvre? Check. Single and carnet prices for the metro, including closing times on weekends? Check.
We blaze through cities in days, some in mere hours; at one point we covered five countries and seven cities in just four days.
After a full day of information gathering, we return to the hostel for dinner, followed by information exchange, bed, repeat. Most exchanges last well into the early hours of the morning; our first information exchange in Paris — a monster of a city to cover in 24 hours — lasted more than four hours, finishing around 3am.
We carry notes everywhere and they multiply like rabbits. I bring a standard black backpack; it overfills within a week and my suitcase soon doubled as a filing cabinet. I buy an additional satchel in Berlin, but that soon fills. Maps and handwritten notes and borrowed notes and cue cards are everywhere. Eventually I learn, and reap, the benefits of organisation. Indexing becomes my dearly beloved friend and ally.
Travel days between cities are filled with reading tour books, note taking and spiel writing, punctuated by pop quizzes and spiel requests, seemingly chosen at random. Typically, a guide would be told: ”Ben, you have five minutes to give me a Bruges spiel”. Cue the mad scrambling of notes as the book on German history you were reading is shelved and your half written, barley legible notes on Bruges are retrieved.
Thankfully, you have a few months before the training trip begins to collect some basic information on each country and city. As Bruges was one of the cities we were due scheduled to visit, on a whim I did a fair bit of research on the Smurfs, created by Belgium artist Peyo; while other trainees were spieling about the golden age of Flemish art, I was regaling passengers about Papa Smurf, Gargamel and the only female in the village, Smurfette.
City spiels — unaided and without notes — are expected to last 30 minutes to an hour, depending on the city. Anything less than an 45 minutes for a city the size of Paris, Berlin and Rome would be considered a disaster. The spiel for the French Riviera, for example, can last up to an hour and a half as your France country spiel (a good 30 minutes) segues into your French Riviera spiel (another 50 minutes), ending with your final approach to Nice (20 minutes at least).
Luckily the French Riviera is such a visual treat, the scenery provides plenty of visual aids as the sights of the coast sail past. From the quaint town of Monton, filled with retired folk and lemon trees, to Monaco and the famous Hotel Paris, Monte Carlo Casino and tales of Grace Kelly, to Eze-Sur-Mer — where Bono and the Edge were married, not too each other is the common tour guide joke — before reaching Cap Ferrat, once a fisherman’s cove and now full of Russian oligarchs and then finally Tina Turner’s holiday home in Villefranche.
By the time you reach the Cote D’Azur’s capital Nice there is barely time to cover the Cours Saleya markets, Place Massena or the Chateau de Nice overlooking the Promenade des Anglais before you reach the hotel.
At the beginning of each day, three trainees are chosen for special duties; GOD, Tom Tom and Oracle. Guide of the Day, given the telling acronym GOD, does everything a guide would be expected to do; morning and safety spiels, accommodation and coach paperwork, country and city spiels and sales. Tom Tom, as the name would suggest, is the map reader, responsible for knowing the location of the coach at a moment’s notice.
The Oracle is the fount of all knowledge. Any contentious or unknown facts are submitted to the Oracle, who is expected to report his findings to the coach the following day.
Some tests devised by our trainer’s border on sociopathic. In Vienna, a city most of us had never visited, we were systematically dropped around the city, without a map and told to find our way to a point in the city centre. Other tests are designed to ensure the demon drink won’t impair your guiding. After a night of quaffing red wine on the Seine in Paris, a slightly inebriated trainee was ordered to lead us home. Turning to me, he whispered somewhat manically, ”Mate, do you know where the hell we are?” Shrugging, I replied I didn’t know how much help I would be. What should have been a 30-minute metro ride lasted more than two hours, at which point our trainer took over.
It’s now been 36 hours since we left Tours in north-west France, and I open my eyes to unfamiliar surroundings. It’s late afternoon, and with the sun’s warmth beginning to wane, I push myself into a seated position, pluck out my earphone speakers and attempt to get my bearings.
I’m clearly in a park, as the grass beneath and afternoon sunshine can testify. As I wipe the last bits of sleep from my eyes and my post-sleep fog clears I wonder where the hell am I?
I survey the landscape for clues; to my right is a pathway, leading to antique metal gates connected by two stone columns and beyond that a canal — a vital clue.The list of possible cities can now be trimmed to a handful. Am in Venice? Perhaps Bruges? It’s only when I reach the gates, which clearly state ”Vondelpark”, do I realise where I am.
Opened in 1865, Vondelpark is Amsterdam’s best open space, and a favoured locale for tourists to experiment with the sort of drug paraphernalia which would normally get them arrested back home. Anything and everything goes here, even al fresco sex, which has been legalised since September 2008. Provided lovers account for their ”rubbish”, are not in the vicinity of any playgrounds and restrict their shenanigans to evening hours, then game on.
Unfortunately for me, all this knowledge is purely theoretical. Drugs are strictly forbidden during the training trip and I’m too exhausted to muster any enthusiasm for sex.
We are week three into a five week Blitzkrieg tour of Europe, covering 33 cities and eight countries — later expanded to nine after I was chosen for Greek Island training — and I’m beginning to feel the strain. Like many around me, I’m wondering if it’s all worth it.
Fast forward 17 days later and I am far from tired. In fact, I am positively euphoric, standing atop one of the tallest mountains in Switzerland, marvelling at the snow-capped splendour of the Aletsch glacier. I am atop Jungfrau, or the Young Virgin, in the Swiss Alps and the high altitude’s thin air and weeks of neglected exercise ensure the view is, literally, breathtaking.
Jungfrau earns the unique distinction of being home to the world’s tallest railway, post office and toilet. Jungfrau lies to the left of two other mountains, the Eiger and the Monch and legend says the Monch, or the monk, guards the virtue of the young lady from the predatory intentions of the Eiger, the ogre or old man.
Advertising brochures call Jungfrau the Top of Europe and that’s exactly how I feel. The weeks leading up to this moment have been a maelstrom of activity, full of tears and laughter, compounded by sleepless nights and countless assignments.
We white water rafted in Interlaken, got trapped in an elevator for four hours in Berlin and ate our body weight in schnitzel in Vienna, served skewered on swords. We toured a château in Tours, got hopelessly lost in Venice and obscenely drunk in Florence.
There have been moments of heartache, doubt, adventure, hilarity, absurdity and embarrassment. While becoming increasingly agitated with my group in Barcelona, I began barking orders while reading from my notepad — and smacked straight into a lamp pole.
In Madrid, I was lucky to escape serious injury after flipping my bike end-over-end after mistaking the rear brake handles for the front brakes. That night a trainee, allegedly speaking better Spanish than us, ordered Rueda de Queso in a tapas bar, only to be flabbergasted when the waiter produced exactly that: a thin wheel of cheese cut into triangular, pizza-like slices. We laughed until tears ran down our cheeks while the trainee shelled out 20 euros.
In Bruges, I made sure to try the city’s three great staples – chocolates, waffles and beer. What I didn’t do was space out my consumption and five minutes later, after sprinting back to the coach to ensure I wasn’t left behind, I emptied the contents of my stomach on the floor.
In Interlaken, we earned the distinction of being the first group in years to flip our ”unflippable” raft a shameful 30 seconds after entering the river. Our actions cost the lead rafter on the trip dearly; drinking copious amounts of beer from a decidedly unhygienic boot was the prescribed penalty.
It’s been nearly five weeks since we departed London on this remarkable trip and now, standing 3454m above sea level, surrounded by snow, the crisp alpine air and people once strangers now firmest of friends, I can answer my previous question without hesitation. It was so worth it.
Ben Oliver spent a season working as a Busaboat tour leader in Europe. He’s soon to head off on another big trip: this time 12 months travelling the globe with his girlfriend, so expect to see him return to Back in a Bit as a regular…