Friday, July 26, 2013

Tour Group Junkie I am not…

The Adriatic makes me feel at home
I’m sitting in the last hotel on a long itinerary list that has taken my daughter and I to six countries in 16 days. It’s been a fascinating trip – lots of history, culture, amazing scenery and ... interaction with 24 other members of our tour group.

Other than the guide, we were all Americans and came from every corner of the States in order to travel through the heart of Europe. I would guess that the average age of most of the travelers was over fifty – but we had five teenage girls sprinkled among three families and that kind of messes with the numbers. Most of the adults were professionals from a range of fields – teaching, business, law, medicine, finance. Oh, and one politician – but his wife was a kindergarten teacher so we forgave him.
We had in common a desire to learn, travel and be on time.

The rest of the group had something in common that I didn’t share: they had all traveled extensively on tours like this before. I believe that most everyone had been on a Rick Steve’s tour prior to this one – sometimes four or five – even the teenagers. At the first dinner, listening to them practically wax poetic about these tours got me a little worried.
Because I already knew this whole tour thing was going to be a love/hate relationship from the beginning.

I'm not all that contrary but I think it's safe to say that I'm a fairly independent person (and getting more independent with each passing year). I like to eat what I want to eat, go where I want to go. I like quiet. I don't really like small talk. If you've ever been on a tour somewhere in the world, you're starting to get the picture, right?

I loved the fact that I didn’t have to get out the road maps and find hotels in Poland, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia. On the other hand, finding your own way around a country is a great way to really connect to the places you are traveling through. That doesn’t really happen when one is on a touring bus, reading a book to pass the time.
I loved having a local guide (A Hungarian gentleman trained as a history teacher) who made all the transfers, travel, tours of sites happen seamlessly. He was smart, funny and very patient with his gaggle of Americans. I really treasured the personal stories that he shared.

I didn’t like the group meals where the decibel levels climbed so high you couldn’t talk to the person next to you. There’s a stereotype about loud Americans – we confirmed it. I don’t think our guide is going to be able to book that last restaurant again in Lake Bled.
Don’t misunderstand; it only takes a few boisterous people to crank up the volume. And for some people, it only takes one drink before they cut loose and get really annoying. For the most part, our touring companions were delightful, easy going and interesting – and it’s pretty much a given that I’ll never see them again. With a few folks, that leaves me conflicted and wistful.

View from Prague Castle
I asked many of my fellow travelers about their past experiences, what they liked, what didn’t work. This was a pretty savvy group of travelers who talked about past tours where most of people were “Rick Steve’s Junkies”.  I didn’t mention that that had been exactly my first impression of this particular group. They talked about groups that didn’t gel – and I wondered what that would look like. Apparently it has to do with at least three single women traveling in the same tour who are rotating roommates with each other or a solo traveler who was a lot more incapacitated then they should have been on an active tour. Issues that screw up a tour group seem to center around member dynamics - not tour logistics - which is magnified by the forced community that is a tour group. I realized how lucky we had gotten with our relatively easy going group. Sure there were some moments when I had to bite my tongue or put my headphones on.  I watched a couple people make complete idiots out of themselves – which I probably did at some point as well. My daughter could probably list off a couple of dozen of those moments so who am I to judge?
I have no complaints about this tour – it was a fabulous learning experience. Touring multiple countries in such a short time serves a purpose and I knew it’s not my preferred way to travel. However, I feel that traveling is necessary to continually come up against my own ignorance and cultural blinders. Walking through a series of countries that were “behind the iron curtain” less than thirty years ago is humbling. Standing on the old railroad tracks at Birkenau is horrifying. 

Travel not only brings history alive but it lets you breathe in the subtle and profound ways our cultural heritages weave together and produce a human cultural heritage that is bigger than any one country, language, religion or belief system.
And that realization, above and beyond anything else that I experienced will keep me traveling this wide world of ours as long as I am able. I might – someday – even do another tour.


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