If it's affordable, always get the guide
There is always a certain amount of travel snobs out there. I readily admit I used to be one of them, before I saw the light. Before I heard Ian Wright (one of the most adventurous travel journo's out there) explain how no-one had the right to judge anyone else on their style of travel, but that's another story…
My point is there is always someone who prides themselves on never using a guide and that is their prerogative. All hail the No Guide status!
I however, subscribe to the story of where I am. You know how a photo can be amazing, but if you know the story behind the photo it can be gob smackingly stunning. To me: that's what I want out of all my travel experiences.
- I want to know how this got here, who built it, who tore it down or who lives here today.
- I want to feel what past and present inhabitants feel or felt.
- I want to be able to 100% know the challenges behind the 4000 year old ruin I'm standing in and in truth,
- I can't honestly say I feel that I can fully respect where I am unless I know all its history no matter how ugly.
So, I always get the guide…
While I'm an avid reader, I'm not someone who can stand in the ruins of the Parthenon and recall what I read – my memory is crap. I'm also personally don't like standing in the middle of the Parthenon reading my guide book to see what I'm supposed to be looking at. I just don't like doing that, and you know what it achieves? Attack of the local guide possy. You just make yourself a target by looking as if you don't know what you're looking at and of course who heads over in the most direct route – all the local guides!
How to find a guide
- I don't always wait until I'm at the location I'm going to, I often ask in cafe's or restaurants a few days before if anyone knows of someone who is a good reasonably priced guide who can help me for a day, or a half day or whatever I want. I've had some of the best experiences this way. Once in Indonesia we asked at a tiny little cafe if anyone knew of someone who was a trustworthy driver that could take us out to a remote local beach we had heard about, and after lots of very loud negotiations and much hand waving, this 70 year old man rushed into the cafe about ½ hour later with his grandson in tow to offer his services, literally hat in hand. It remains to this day one of the best weekends we've ever had. They took us to the beach we wanted but also to another beach after dark to watch the turtles coming up to lay their eggs. We went to his brothers for lunch, to the local farmers markets shopping, to a local school, to a swimming hole so we could play with the local kids after school and to their own home for dinner. For around $40 AUD. Two days of some of the most grass roots fun we've ever had.
- If you have no luck there and you are in Rome and want to do the Colosseum just not until Friday, head down around 4 or 5 in the afternoon and ask people as they come out if they liked their guide, where did they get him/her and how much it was. There is nothing like fresh honest opinion to help find a good quality operator.
- Don't be scared of the local tourist offices – people work there for a reason. Yes they sell products but they also sell services. It would be strange if a little tourist office in Siem Reap didn't have someone who knew all about Angkor Wat, so head in to a little tourist booking office and ASK for what you want. Remember though – its your experience and if you don't want a group tour and that's all they sell, very nicely tell them that's not what you want and move on. Be nice but say no. Its easy once you've done it a a few times.
- If you aren't staying in a hostel, head over to that area of the city. Traditionally you will find services in your budget in the area that caters to that level of traveller. If you are treating yourself to a nice hotel but still want to get a budget tour, you won't find that in the hotels booking office. Get your shoes on and make your way over to the hostel area and check out the tour offices there.
Don't get all – “I'm not paying for that” about it. Guiding is a skill and a service the same as getting a haircut or calling a plumber and you need to remember that. Remember this can be your way of supporting a local in the community.
Consider an actual tour
Be prepared that in some places, you just may not be able to get what you want. Sometimes its just not possible so you have to be prepared to adapt if necessary.
Don't always avoid the group tour. Yes it can feel very restrictive but mostly these days group tours are quite aware that everyone wants to see and or feel something different so they can move you from spot to spot telling you about this area or that area and give you 10 mins to wander before moving on.
We got a guide at the Red Fort in Agra a few years ago and there was us and a group of 22 Koreans and it was excellent. The guide was so knowledgeable and we learnt so much stuff we never would have known if we had of steered away from the group tour. We also went to lunch with them and had the best fried chicken I've ever eaten. The Colonel was definitely Korean!
Did you know that the Indian palaces 200 years ago had air conditioning?
Nope – me neither, but our guide showed us at the Red Fort how they managed to cool the air in their sleeping chambers. So cool (literally) and I'm pretty sure I would never have read that somewhere or been able to really comprehend it if I had.