Until quite recently, I hated tours. With a passion.
How can that be, you ask? There is so much to learn, and the knowledge of the guides is right there at your disposal. Why not let them open up that world for you, show you what you didn’t even know to explore?
Oh, let me count the ways.
And I don’t mean bees. I mean the droning voice of the guide taking us from place to place, whose name I completely miss. The guide whose over-rehearsed words get lost amidst the running monologue in my head, because I have found tours to be so, very, tres, totemo (or as my high school Japanese teacher taught us, totttttttemo) boring.
As a kid, I would get most frustrated by the MonoDroners. I suspect this is because I was fortunate enough to have lively and engaged teachers at school. It was stunning to me that, despite having information to share that could actually be really interesting and fun, the guide would be completely lifeless, totally phoning it in, running the numbers as though they were talking in their sleep. (As I grew older, I learned to recognize this as the guide being burnt out and hungover from the night before.)
MonoDroners definitely suck, but there is another category of drone that has been the bane of my existence as an adult. It’s bad enough when the tour guide’s words are dry and uninspiring. Fine, some exhibits and locales just aren’t going to peel my banana. But the worst of the worst, in my book, is the dreaded Mumble Droner. Mumble Droners are terr-i-ble! Because first you are straining to figure out what the heck they are saying, and then even if you do, it’s totally unrewarding. And I fully admit, this likely drives me as crazy as it does because of my hearing loss. But come on, they were hired to be The Guide. The MC, the showrunner, the storyteller! It’s their job to present the material. I’m sure the ability to pronounce consonants was somewhere in the interview process? (Argh, grrrr, mumble, mumble …)
Let me preface this by disclosing, I am short. Not little person short, but short by average Midwestern U.S. female standards. I’m short enough that I’m always put in the front row for group photos. I’m short enough that being in the 3rd or 4th row of the main floor at a concert is unbelievably frustrating (the mezzanine is so much better). I’m short enough that there are several cabinets in my kitchen that I can’t reach from the floor, but I keep putting stuff in them because I enjoy crawling on counters like a cat. So, yeah — short.
And I should mention that I rather enjoy my stature. I can sleep comfortably in cars and planes, on love seats and twin beds. I can put my backpack by my feet on a bus and not feel claustrophobic. I can dart through a crowd on a busy street, barely noticed by “the tall ones” as I weave among them. I’ve been short all my life, and I’ve gotten pretty good at it.
All of that said, the culture of so many tours of my childhood felt intensely short-person-averse, and the biggest culprit was the dreaded cluster. I’m sure you’ve seen it: the tour group that gets off their bus, is cattle-prodded into line, pushed into the entryway of whatever “site” they’ve come to see, and then — SMUSH — Cluster-Fest, like so many fruits and nuts. Everyone squeezed together to see The Thing that the guide is talking about, and I am stuck smack in the central compression point completely obstructed from a view of The Thing, unseen and unacknowledged by the rest of the group that is pushing and leaning and squirming to look closer at The Thing, and what is The Thing, anyway? Forget it, I don’t care, I”m just going to turn up my Walkman and drown out the boring with some A-ha and U2.
Clusters. Bah, humbug.
“Stay with the Tour”
I have yet to find a better way to manage the Drone and the Cluster debacles than to separate a bit from the tour itself. It’s too late to back out of the tour completely — I bought my ticket and I’m taking this ride — but I can still treat the experience as if I never joined the tour to begin with.
One would think.
Which brings me to my final gripe about going on tours: the strict requirement to stay on them. Often rigorously enforced by staff that is clearly wrestling with their OCD and just can’t handle anyone straying too far away, or stepping back with their camera to get a better angle, or getting a little space from the horde.
Nope, uh-uh, not allowed. Sorry.
“Stay with the tour!” they screech, as though your stepping outside of the imaginary circle they’ve drawn around the group will somehow trigger an irreversible sequence of events that will erupt the site and everything within five square miles into flames.
Stop harshing my mellow, tour guides!
Perhaps needless to say (but I gotta say it): this all led to my avoiding signing up for tours completely. Hedonism wins while I travel. If it doesn’t, I’m not doing it right.
The Tours Have It
I held onto these feelings for a very long time, until I started to go on trips with a friend of mine who works at a museum, and has a front-seat view to all the work and education behind sharing “more than meets the eye” with the general public. Her perspective helped me begrudgingly admit that, okay, a well-developed tour does bring something important to the traveler’s experience, especially if you want to be spared having to do much research on your own. It’s a service, a benefit, for those who want to better understand the area of the world they are visiting. To not be open to the information of those who are experts, is a kind of willful ignorance.
But … but … we have some serious issues to address, says I! (see above).
Most of which can be addressed, she wisely noted, by going on a smaller tour. And they all become non-issues when there’s an audio tour option, which is essentially the same as going without a guide but with the added pleasure of actually learning extra cool stuff about the place you’re visiting (and I quickly learned I can crank the volume up to my happy level in many cases).
But … but … Hmmmm. That’s kind of a really good point. (grumble, grumble)
Thus I had to eat my shoe for all the shite-talking I’ve done about tours in the past, based on crappy experiences where I was too moody and self-conscious to take a minute and solve for my own silly little grievances. I learned that when I open myself up to the wisdom and knowledge of people whose job is to have wisdom and knowledge about places and things that are brand new to me, well, maybe the whole experience is a tiny bit enhanced in certain ways. You know, just a smidge.
But meanwhile, one more plug for the random wander. It’s pretty fantastic to explore without a guide. To decide not to read any of the plaques next to the art in the museum, where they tell you what you’re “supposed” to think and feel, and just let yourself witness, and respond. You might not come away with as much “knowledge”, but your head will be up, your heart will be open, and most of the time you can still come away feeling inspired, and changed.
Yet this doesn’t have to negate a more touristy approach, here and there. Seeing the same place from these two different perspectives, now that sounds like the Golden Ticket to me.
So now I am a changed woman!!
I go on tours a little more often. I sometimes even (gasp!) look for tours when I’m in a strange place, focusing on the audio tours (no more drones!) or a smaller group (clusters, be gone!). As for the “stay with the tour” problem? Meh, I’m probably at least another decade of age away from being able to do that, so those tour guides will just have to find a way to deal.