Tales of a Tour Leader - Part One

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September 24th 2014
Published: September 24th 2014
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What follows is a collection of thoughts, experiences and short stories from our time working as tour leaders in Taiwan.

Part One

Back in the UK, not quite a month had passed before the opportunity to work in Taiwan arose. A combination of some family connections, our travel blogging and some sheer endeavour led us to a meeting on a Cornish computer screen. We had come full circle and were now beaming out to Taiwan via the medium we had become accustomed to, Skype. The opportunity to “keep the dream alive” and travel for our living was too good to turn down and with terms agreed and bags barely unpacked we hopped on a plane to Kaohsiung which was to be our home for the next two years.

Interestingly, ironically maybe poetically we had not been to Taiwan on our travels. Arriving in the southern port city of Kaohsiung wanderlust gripped our stomachs. Unlike the travellers stomach bugs we had both continually had this lust hadn’t passed through us. This was a new country and a new chapter. We would approach it with fresh eyes.

Our jobs as tour leaders would require us to take tourists cycling around Ilha Formosa (beautiful island), as the Portuguese who first sighted the island named it. Now we would both confess to not being cycling enthusiasts. A few rides here a few rides there but we were not necessarily multi day kilometre-crushers. More languid pedalling than lycra medalling. But, who doesn’t enjoy a good cycle and the art of traveling, the art of tour leading as we would later discover, is about adapting, learning and well…bullshitting.

Before being thrown into the lions den of running paid client tours on our own, we joined our boss on a 2 week cycling trip to hone our skills and our legs. It was a new experience for both Hannah and I. It was travelling but it was different. Now, it was about keeping the guest happy and not necessarily ourselves. Consisting of 9 eager cyclists this group would prove to be the ideal training for the coming years. We learnt on that first trip not only what to do but what not to do. Before we had even reached the tour hotel in Taipei, Taiwan’s capital, I had managed to lose the boss’ camera…a fact that he humorously never let me forget.

See, the art of tour leading and the smooth running of trips not only lies in taking people to beautiful places, but in systems. You cannot deal with 9 people’s queries, problems and life stories as well as manage tour funds, ferry tickets and route notes without systems. This means always have a bag with you to hold the essential items such as pens, notepads, plasters, torches, suncream. The list could go on. This process came naturally to Han, who was used to carrying a handbag with all the goods when we travelled, but I was learning a new game.

As the tour rolled on and the art of talking, planning, booking and dining with a diverse group of people was thrust upon us we quickly warmed to the idea of this as our job. The Portuguese were right, Taiwan was beautiful. Its history of cheap products and efficient commerce had been made in Taiwan creating with it a notion, from the outside at least, that the island was all factories and fish farms. Of course, there were factories and fish farms aplenty but beyond the densely populated western cities the island is awash with a collage of crescent shaped beaches, verdant jungle and towering mountains, ideally suited for those with the will to cycle its immaculately maintained roads.

Managing people whilst they cycle on these roads was the next challenge. Although not an alluring analogy, people’s cycling styles tend to match that of love making. Some like to go fast often pulling away from the group. Some like it slow, taking in the scenery at the same time. And others fall off before they’ve even started. That was the case with one rider. You would think a prerequisite of booking on a two week cycling trip would be to be able to cycle but one lady, who hadn’t cycled for over 20 years, actually fell off her bike on the first day…going uphill!

When one rider was falling off another, dare I say, less experienced cyclist was persuasively pedalling his bike in full jeans, t shirt and jacket. He topped his attire with a motorcycle full head helmet which he assured me was needed on Taiwan’s “dangerous” roads. It was an amusing sight to say the least, however, cycling alongside him became a test of patience when every few kilometres he would begin the laborious process of taking his helmet off, finding his handkerchief and wiping his sweaty brow. It wasn’t until the last few days that we persuaded him he might be better off in the 30 degree heat if he wore shorts and a t-shirt like the others.

The last few cycle days consisted of a cycling detour to Green Island, a short ferry ride out into the rolling Pacific Ocean. We visited old Buddhist temples, soaked in some of Taiwan’s ubiquitous hot springs and cycled amongst swaying betel nut palms. The natural beauty was clarified by a 6”3’ German guest who punctuated each possible camera opportunity with “this is UNBELIEVABLE” said in a distinctly camp and Bavarian tone.

As Hannah and I began unlocking the parked bikes for the final day of cycling the key for the last adjoined pair of wheels had slipped Han’s bag. We searched everywhere but it seemed she had misplaced it. As the 9 guests streamed out of their relaxing hot spring it was the German’s bike that we could still not unlock. Our frenzy to find a solution led us to sourcing a pair of bolt cutters from which we freed the immobile bike. As we pulled the bike away from the other a small silver key appeared beneath its wheel. “UNBELIEVABLE” the German uttered. This tour undoubtedly had been. We’d learnt a big lesson in this game. It’s all about systems.


24th September 2014

And then when its all done...celebrations. Well done.

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