Gut Check, Tour Lessons, and Memories of a Great Mentor...
Up late typing up a French test for Mom's university class... Not a bad little primer for myself as I prepare to head back to Europe in the weeks ahead. It gets tougher and tougher to write and be blunt and candid as I seek to grow this company. There is one voice that says to bury deeper feelings in order that I don't offend anyone, and yet the core of why I chose this occupation screams the exact opposite. To travel is to challenge your comfort zone, to be a student, and to be in a constant state of learning...
I'm glad the greats never stopped thinking, learning, feeling, and writing. Much as I love running tours, I believe I'm a student and a teacher first. I'm more inclined to tell someone that they are missing the point on a tour than coddle them and pepper them with flowers and kisses for the sake of repeat business. I proved that point on my last tour, anyway. There's a great quote that sums up the difference in approaches:
"The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see..."
I'll never forget when I had several members of the board of the Wounded Warrior Project at France's biggest war memorial, Verdun. I was at the other end of the hall when I heard a few of the men begin talking loudly and laughing... They were caught up in their own world and walking the halls for their amusement and interest. But their approach was backwards. They were directing the energy... they weren't letting the setting talk to THEM. Had they stopped for two seconds to pay real attention, they would have observed this: a long, ominous hall reaching out in two directions from the center building, with archways facing one another all the way to either end. And one could clearly see a pair of caskets in each giant windowed space, with the names of two of the many villages that were obliterated by the massive bombardment that lasted for ten months of brutal fighting. Below each of these spaces lie thousands upon thousands of bones found in each of these villages. Bones of thousands of people blown up beyond recognition...
We happened to be on the grounds of the bloodiest battle in human history - France's national holy of holies...
Ironically, many of these men were with the Wounded Warrior Project were combat veterans. They weren't meaning to be disrespectful, but they clearly were. And the sound of happy, hearty laughter had no place there at all. Before I could get down the long hall to silence them, a proud French lady tersely barked...
"Be quiet! This is a place for the dead! Where is your respect?"
I was embarrassed to be an American, and yet fiercely proud of this woman for saying what needed to be said. And after we left the hall and got outside, I was quick to remind these gentlemen, who were fully embarrassed, that they would likely have ripped into a bunch of French kids - were they laughing and joking loudly at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington. And formed some opinion that European kids were disrespectful and arrogant.
It is true that the Chinese and Russians have done a great job of wiping out or erasing much of the memory of the term, "ugly American." But we still have them, and whether they mean to be or not, the fundamental issue with any person who travels is this: where is your focus? Is it some bucket list experience for you? Do you want to simply say, "I was there" and move on to the next conquest? Have you always wanted a "selfie" at some famous location? Or is this something you've read about and wanted to view and inspect?
While I understand all of those reasons, I find them all shallow and lacking enough. The fundamental error is this: you're approaching the experience with your own set agenda. You've already set expectations and schedules on the experience, before you even stop to listen to what it has to say. You're not letting the moment and location talk to and instruct YOU.
And maybe people don't want too much of that. Maybe it will be unsettling to them. Maybe some aspect of it will offend them... or maybe it will change their mind about something, God forbid.
I remember another tour I did, and the subject of the day - in Amsterdam - was the legalization of another type of drug. Our group was spread out as we were taking a stroll along the canals and seeing the Old Church and the Red Light District as part of an understanding of that amazing and unique city. I was talking to my Dutch friend about it to hear what he had to say, when a couple of my travelers jumped right into our conversation and got rather agitated...
"This is just awful! I cannot believe they would do such a thing in this country!" they protested.
I was still a novice tour guide and tried to correct these travelers on the matter, but it was useless. I only offended them, for their minds were already made up. Had they wanted to understand, they would have been listening to the views of my great friend, the Dutch native, who had kindly joined us for the day and evening to add to the color and experience of our time there. It was quite annoying to me to hear a few Americans lecture a Dutch person about law and order, when our United States has the highest incarceration rate in the modern world and the Netherlands enjoys a rather crime-free, balanced way of life.
And this brings up a point that is more and more needed in our present time, for people are bombarded with fear and distrust of others as more and more becomes uncertain with security, prosperity, and environmental issues. And instead of learning from others or entertaining different perspectives, there are those who dig their heels in even harder. We have news channels which do a great job of fanning the flames of such xenophobia and blind extremism. And I vehemently reject such a black-and-white approach.
We need broad, charitable views of mankind. We need to challenge what we believe and what we think works. In America, we've thankfully challenged our palates exceedingly well with sushi, Mexican, Indian, and Thai food. But in matters of belief, we often stay far too rigid.
The American political culture is full of mockery for those who change their minds... who come to see things differently. They are accused of "waffling" or "selling out." Frankly, I haven't met a human being of any significant knowledge who hasn't readily admitted that they encountered some person, some bit of knowledge, or some experience that deeply CHANGED them. And travel is no different.
I have come to realize that I don't trust anyone who hasn't truly changed course or wrestled deeply with the political, religious, and cultural views with which they were raised at least once in their life. For those who grew up in multiple cultures, the bubbles got popped a whole lot earlier. And while I might be respected (and often loathed) for my "knowledge" and travels, I still have a great deal more respect and admiration for the many friends I have who didn't have such a privilege of exposure and still walked away from out-dated beliefs and commonly held views to find something more authentic.
One of the highlights of my life was the privilege of working directly under the late Dr. Stephen E. Ambrose at the University of New Orleans. Few people know the real story of this same icon of the conservative set and poster boy of cheap patriotism and feel-good history, which one element of America claims to possess above all others. He was too young for World War II and was in awe of the war veterans who returned to attend university. But he did not emerge from school as a straight-laced, Fox News prototype, with "good" character and wholesome appearances.
No, he was a true-blue American. He was strong-willed, unafraid to ask questions and challenge the status quo, had long hair, smoked "left-handed" cigarettes, and was kicked off the faculty of a mid-Western university for heckling Richard Nixon in protest over the Vietnam War. And something that struck me about him that I greatly admired was his personal life history and outlook: Ambrose changed his mind, OFTEN... He was honest to the core and was in search of truth, unafraid of how it might affect or change him. I'll never forget the day in a graduate school class on the Vietnam Conflict when he broke down in front of the class. This rising star of American military history shamefully admitted that he had stood silently while people heckled and even spat on Vietnam veterans when they had returned home and were attending classes on campus. He had been so wrong about that. Knowledge had humbled him and changed his mind....
It is why I fell in love with the man and viewed him as a second father - one I much more readily identified with than my resolute, steadfast, unflinching, conservative, former Marine, ever Southern Baptist father - who never learned more than two words of French in the eight years we lived in Belgium as a family. I simply couldn't relate to my dad as I got older and began forming opinions of my own. In fairness, I had an advantage. It was vastly easier for me to look at things differently and hold hands with so much more when we had moved abroad, thanks to Dad's hard work and competency, when I was only six years old. However, my mother reminded me that age isn't an excuse to grow and change, as did Dr. Ambrose.
"When we returned to the States, I went to our old church for one service, and that was it," she told me. "Your father was upset with me because I decided to go to the Presbyterian church instead."
"It's still the same church as before we left to go overseas, dear!" Dad had protested.
"Well, I have changed..." she flatly replied.
Go figure... 11 years in the Middle East and Europe might do that to a person.
It's a tricky business traveling with Americans... You never know what you're going to get, but one thing has become standard for the best tour operators I know. When it comes to Americans, they refuse to talk about religion or politics - and rightly so. Most travelers who avidly introduce such discussions don't care to listen - they only are concerned with whether you share their beliefs, so they can trust you fully - or fuss and bark if you don't follow their gospel truth. I had that on a recent tour, where I had a woman praising me and wanting to marry me to her daughter - only to recoil in horror when she discovered that I had a different view on theology than she did. I never asked for such praise and affection... and I deeply resented the resulting disgust and cold treatment.
But if I am conducting a tour and am judged on my theology or voting habits and not on my knowledge of history, language, culture, and food... then such judges are not people I would ever care to travel with again. The great travelers - the real students - prefer to take it all in and listen and learn from their surroundings and the locals they encounter. They still love discussions and even interesting debates - but it never turns into heated, bitter arguments. Such clients - those truly fellow travelers - are ones I cherish and stop at nothing to assist, appreciate, and enjoy. And I learn so very much from them as well... Many have become lifelong friends, as each tour creates a special kind of memory that we have together. And often enough, it is because we experienced something magical that changed or awakened something in a shared experience.
It's why the first thing one notices after our company name is the following motto: "For travelers, not tourists."
May I always strive to have tact and diplomacy, but I never wish to bury the very exposures and beliefs that made me who I am today - or, more importantly, the experiences and contributions of other cultures, peoples, artists, soldiers, and thinkers. For this has done so much to change my worldview and open my eyes to a more balanced understanding of history and culture. I learned that well from Stephen Ambrose. He was fierce in what he believed, and yet his life he was full of moments where he reached some new plateau and changed course. He was, as I aspire to always be, ever the model student of life and learning.
And that model student, that research scientist, that explorer knows this: you may sign up for a class, conduct an experiment, or head out on a voyage with a set of expectations...
But you have missed the greatest experience of all if you aren't prepared to receive all that you learn, discover, or experience and let IT change YOU.
Another favorite American said it best:
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime.”
― Mark Twain