You’re in the process of finding your footing while crossing a colonial era cobblestone street in flip flops. You clutch your phone in one hand as you look down at where you’re stepping while simultaneously checking to see if that Guatemalan chicken bus is going to acknowledge you or simply keep accelerating with secret hopes of plowing gringo meat into the pavement. They chose the latter, but you don’t run out of the way. You simply pick up the pace by walking just a little faster, narrowly avoiding the fume spitting, “Jesus’d out” rickety school bus without even batting an eye.
And why should you? You have to reserve dinner at a restaurant you’ve never been to because your usual “go-to” options are closed, so you need to check the menu for prices and options before taking your group. It’s also important to know step-for-step exactly how to get there because you cannot for one second look like you don’t know where you’re headed (credibility is next to tour leader godliness). On the way you need to call a local tour company to get prices and information about an overnight volcano hike scheduled for that evening. You also need to figure out where the best massages in Antigua are, confirm 5 pax (people on your tours) for a cooking class, get prices and info for a coffee plantation tour, figure out some cool bars to take your group to after dinner, and confirm your pickup time for your ride to the next town the following day. Oh, and you have 20 minutes to do all this. The hour you had originally given your group after coming off an 8-hour bus ride has evaporated since you had to take one of your passengers to the pharmacy because he’s been sneezing and coughing the moment his flight began its initial decent into Mexico a week ago. Now it’s a race against time, tuk-tuks, and chicken busses. You also haven’t used the bathroom since morning…
It’s a nerve wracking, high speed adrenaline rush that never makes your Instagram feed. Exhausted, sweaty, brain juggling a thousand things, shattering the Olympic speed-walking record. It feels like you’re in a video game and the people and vehicles around you are simply obstacles in the way of your group of 18 pax having an amazing experience. You haven’t made eye contact with anyone in six blocks as you stare aimlessly into the pavement and shout Whatsapp voice messages in spanglish at your phone. This turns out to be the best way to be ignored by the haggling street vendors that are always trying to sell you the same colorful shit that you’ve seen in every colonial town from Mexico to Patagonia (of which you’re pretty sure all just comes from China). It’s stressful, but part of you is having a blast. What’s more is that your group have no idea that you’re even doing this, that somehow all of this local knowledge and seamless travel experience is something you inherited, like someones’ blue eyes or premature baldness. The reality is it’s earned after months of trial, inevitable error, and ultimately improvisation. Even the most experienced tour leaders see something new every trip. Which is a nice segway to what happens next because after all the blocks of street vendors and eminent death you avoided over the past few minutes, you get to the restaurant and find that this one too is closed.
“Closed for Patron Saint ScrewYouChristian Day” But of course…
Oh and you find out that no one can hike the volcano that evening because they accidentally overbooked the tour.
One thing at a time!
With 10 minutes to go until you need to meet your group and still no restaurant reserved, all that crap about speed walking and how cool you are for being able to dodge traffic, walk on cobblestones, and talk on the phone all at once goes out the window. You’re now in a dead sprint, running back towards the hotel as you assess some backup options to yourself out loud like a crazy person.
What about the spot with the live music? Did we already eat there or was that my last group? That’s just a simple phone call and will save a ton of headache.
No, I can’t go there, it doesn’t have many vegetarian options and that pax will hang me if I make her eat rice for the 3rd night in a row.
How about that place where those women were making corn tortillas in the doorway? Those smelled nice, and it’s not too far from the hotel. That’s probably some delicious local food. Do they have good service? Whatever, let’s go for it.
You arrive to the new restaurant drenched in sweat and start rapid firing questions to the unbelievably polite Guatemalan waiter (side note: Guatemalans are really, reeeeally nice people).
“I need to make a reservation here….how many? 19. Yeah 19 of us I know that’s a huge group…..when?….right now…yes, in like 10 minutes I’m bringing them all here….do you do separate bills?….nevermind I don’t have any time…is that cool?….. what’s good here?….do you guys have pepián? … never mind I have to go get them right now… I’ll be right back! Gracias!!”
You make it back to your hotel with just a few minutes to spare. Your bags are still sitting out in the open cause you never had time to throw them into your room. You haul everything up three flights of stairs to your room, take out a wrinkly shirt, and give it the “backpacker’s ironing technique” consisting of 9-10 aggressive whipping motions before putting it on. Then it’s back downstairs for a quick briefing on the next day’s activities and then off to your amazing restaurant shortly after.
The food turned out to be great, and your pax really enjoyed it. You’ve had better, but you’ll never say that. Although you couldn’t pay much attention to the food because you were too busy with your phone under the table, scrambling for alternative tour providers to get these guys up a volcano in t-minus: one hour. Luckily a colleague gave you the number of a good provider who still had room for a large group that night and you got everyone all booked right at the buzzer. Victory! It all worked out in the end as it always does. There will be more battles to fight tomorrow, but for now you sip on a well deserved cerveza Gallo and carry on trying to remember what you were conversing about with your group. One of them is marveling about the trip so far and looks at you:
“You’re job is so amazing, it’s like you’re being paid to be on holiday!”
Your mind trails off to the panic induced, urban chase scene you were a part of just moments ago. You think about insisting to them that it’s not really the case, but all that comes out is just a nod and a smile:
“It’s pretty awesome.”
Written and published from Mérida, Mexico
Written and published from Mérida, Mexico