Life as a tour leader is one of constant change. A revolving door might be the closest comparable job. You’re in a new town every other day, sleeping on a different bed in a different hotel, with different wifi speeds and different water pressures (sometimes none). One moment you’re sardined in a beat up school bus, rocketing across the Belizean countryside, the next you find yourself airborne in a tiny motor boat, clinging to life on a Guatemalan lake. Sometimes you’ve got your feet up on the dashboard of a nice air-conditioned van, staring out the window with your headphones in on a hot afternoon in the Yucatan (my personal favorite). Some roads are windy and full of potholes, others are smooth and straight. Sometimes it’s raining, sometimes it’s dry. You are forever packing and unpacking your bags. Some nights are hotter than hell and others you swear you can see your breath as the AC gives its best Antarctica impersonation. Some days you’re sipping rum punch on a sail boat, others you’re watching traditionally dressed Mayan women weaving cotton into beautiful scarves. Sometimes you’re squeezing a lime onto a pile of tacos al pastor, others you’re sprinkling Marie Sharp’s hot sauce onto some Thai style chicken in your favorite restaurant in Belize.
Not only are you constantly on the move, the people in your life are forever changing as well. You meet 18 strangers, lead them across several countries, and have incredible and genuine shared experiences with them. Right as you really get to know people, they leave. You come down to an empty lobby confused as to where everyone went. Then you remember the tour ended yesterday. You are alone. You haven’t had to worry about just yourself in three weeks. “Should I go outside?” “What do people do with time to themselves?” You miss your group. Some have turned into really good friends of yours! You never really have time to contemplate how you’re supposed to feel because before you know it, you’re standing in that same hotel lobby three days later introducing yourself to a new group of excited travelers. Then it starts all over again.
Your emotions too are constantly changing. There are times where you could not be more excited to be alive. You’re standing on top of an actively erupting volcano watching the sunrise over Guatemala and you think to yourself, “If this volcano exploded and I died right here, I don’t think I’d be too upset.” You did it. You’ve reached the pinnacle of joy and adventure. It’s why you travel. You live for these moments. All those cliche Facebook memes with pictures of some faraway place (usually Thailand) with motivational life quotes come true. Your life feels like a 4K GoPro video to the tune of that one M83 song. You can’t help but think of all the life decisions that led to this moment. From choosing to learn Spanish, changing majors, studying abroad, moving to South America, moving back home, getting a desk job, growing social and professional roots, then uprooting all of that in the name of the search for a fulfilling job and life. You feel invincible.
Wow! That sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? I’m getting emotional just writing about it. But it doesn’t end there…
You see, while the highs are waaaaaay high, the lows can go all the way down to the bottom. With this job, you can take that exact overdramatic logic about all your life decisions that led you to that special moment and equally apply it to the not-so-great ones as well. While most people who come on your trips are wonderful, sometimes you get some unruly passengers. You’ll hear complaints about the heat, the cold, lack of food options, too many food options, the prices, the bus, other passengers, waiting, not waiting long enough, leaving early tomorrow. Individual complaints don’t really kill you, but overtime they compound and weigh you down over the course of the trip. Sometimes you just want to shake people and remind them that they belong to that fraction of a percent of the people in human existence that are even able to fly across the world and stand where they are right now. Sometimes you have to take people to the hospital. Sometimes you’re telling police not to arrest someone in your group. Sure, being stuck in a roadblock in an non-airconditioned bus was a fun adventure the first time, but what about the fifth time? Sometimes you get to your hotel and they forgot to reserve a room. And that’s not even the half of it. Sometimes your 4K GoPro life just wants to sit on the couch and watch Netflix.
The thing is that you need to fully embrace the constant physical and mental change, both the good and the bad, otherwise you’ll implode. It’s a roller coaster and it can be difficult to keep your head on straight. When people and places are constantly shuffling past you in search of the new and exciting, insanity becomes the norm, and your mind begins to crave the opposite. This is also why when you cross with another tour leader on the road, you can equate the sensation to that of someone being stranded on a deserted island and seeing a passing boat. These fine people are literally the only ones on the planet who understand what you’re going through. You grab a drink together and use each other to vent like good coworkers do. It’s a job that requires you to be a highly social person, while being alone most of the time. You can finally have a deeper conversation than the surface-level dinner convo’s that run your every day life. These guys are what make it all worthwhile. They might even be the reason you keep doing it.
It’s forever moving you and forever changing you. There’s so many people, places, and experiences being thrown at you that it makes it really hard to compartmentalize everything. It’s a beautiful chaos that you really fall in love with. And while after a long trip you just want to be in one place and be bored, it only takes a few days to get the urge to get back out on another trip. It’s like a less violent version of The Hurt Locker. What makes this experience unlike any other is that you feel alive in every way. At the end of it all, you have to love the good parts with all you have and not let the terrible ones bring you down too far. I guess that probably bodes well for life in general. When you finally do get the time to stop to reflect, you’ll see that while tour leading might not quite be that fairy dust 4K GoPro video everyone thinks it is, it’s more like 1080p. And, you know what, that’s still pretty damn good. You just have to hang on and enjoy the ride.
Written in Caye Caulker, Belize and Antigua, Guatemala
Published from Antigua, Guatemala.