Give Me a Guide who Offers Flavor, Not Facts

Spud Hilton: On the times when a little "flexibility" with dates and definitions can be a good thing

01.29.10 | 10:46 AM ET

Malta (iStockPhoto)

In “Slumdog Millionaire,” the main character as a child finds himself in Agra, basking in the jaw-dropping spectacle that is the Taj Mahal, when a German couple mistakes him for a guide and offers what seems to him a small fortune for a tour. Among his outlandish claims while faking it: The Taj was built to be a luxury hotel, but the emperor died before the rooms and elevators were installed; and the woman in whose memory it was erected died in a “maximum pileup” traffic accident.

It’s not exactly a revelation that some tour guides can be, um, flexible with the facts. What may seem odd, however, is that I like it that way.

In 2007, Philadelphia officials proposed testing and licensing tour guides, reportedly because some were mixing up dates and, well, spicing up some of the city’s history. (Did Ben Franklin really have 69 illegitimate children?)

Aboard the Big Bus circuit in Dubai, my wife, Ann, and I sat through a different version of the tiny emirate’s past on each of three buses. History in Dubai, it turns out, must be multiple choice.

And depending on whose story you believe, New Orleans voodoo priestess Marie Laveau was either a series of mothers and daughters with the same name, or is one woman who through dark magic has survived 250 years and is currently living under the name Diana Ross. Best of all, legend has it that a part-time guide in San Francisco would measure tourist gullibility by deadpanning that Alcatraz originally was one of the Hawaiian Islands, towed to the Bay Area for use as a penal colony.

Can you blame them? Faced with the prospect of reciting the same stories of local history over and over to tourists more interested in umbrella drinks and cheap souvenirs, there is a very real temptation among guides to, shall we say, embellish. There is a bigger factor than boredom: More interesting history—accurate or not—usually equals a more entertaining tour, which in turn equals a better tip.

It’s easy to be baffled and frustrated by people who are paid to inform but who are obviously making it up. And while I wouldn’t want them teaching freshman history, I’ve found an appreciation for guides who take liberties—with the facts, with interpretation, with anything that could otherwise be a desperately stodgy subject.

Moreover, it’s not always about what guides say so much as where they take you.

During a day trip to the tiny isle of Miquelon-Langlade, part of the French territory of Saint-Pierre et Miquelon off the coast of Newfoundland, our guide was Janot, a gruff-but-likable Frenchman who spoke almost no English. (Six French-speaking Canadians provided subtitles.)

After landing on the island, we started with snacks and wine at a nearby cafe (which, not coincidentally, was called Chez Janot), a brief tour of the summer resort where Janot and his wife rent a cottage, and then lunch and more wine back at the cafe.

The island’s history is colorful even without embellishment—Miquelon-Langlade had been two islands until 95 shipwrecks between them provided anchorage for a sandbar and, eventually, a permanent land bridge—but Janot spent little time on the topic. In Miquelon town, he pointed out the powder-blue church, the cemetery full of French and Portuguese ancestors and a tiny two-story cottage that is the local museum, but then he parked the bus and trundled off for a smoke, leaving us to explore on our own.

At that point, I began to sense that Janot was being flexible with the general interpretation of the word “tour.”

Near the land bridge, he parked the bus on a shoulder next to a field flush with wild blue iris and tiny yellow blooms of fleur de beurre. We climbed a small hill 100 yards from the road and gazed over the quiet island’s eternal drama: the North Atlantic, enraged on one side, soothing on the other; and the endless land war between sunshine and writhing fog. If the hill had a name, he didn’t offer it.

On the road back toward the cafe (and likely more wine), we veered down a crenelated gravel road to what I assumed would be a stunning beach or secluded cove—but turned out to be a mobile home park.

We piled off the bus and Janot led us to the door of a neighbor, who greeted us as old friends and invited us to sit on the back deck. She offered homemade cookies from a paper plate and refreshments from bottles of Liqueur de Framboises (raspberry liqueur), Granier Mon Pastis (anise liqueur) and Malibu Rum (liquor de Spring Break).

The nine of us sat in the sun and sea air, happily munching and sipping, not caring that our tour wasn’t so much an organized excursion as it was a bunch of folks hanging out together, spending a day eating and drinking.

No doubt Janot could lecture at length about the early explorers and the 12,000 times the island changed hands and the diplomatic intricacies of the island’s role as a territorial collectivity of France.

But he didn’t. He showed us his home, the way he wanted people to see it—as a home.

Sometimes, flexibility is a very good thing.

Spud Hilton is Travel Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and he blogs at Bad Latitude. His stories have appeared in more than 70 papers and magazines in North America -- a few of which still publish. He has been hopelessly lost on five continents.

2 Comments for Give Me a Guide who Offers Flavor, Not Facts

Grizzly Bear Mom 02.01.10 | 1:14 PM ET

Amazing!  I now feel qualified to lead tours of DC.  “George Washington was called the father of our country because he had 13 wives and 123 children…”

Nick 02.01.10 | 1:54 PM ET

I was a tour leader in Egypt and Jordan for two years, and I totally agree with the sentiments expressed here. I love this sentence, “He showed us his home, the way he wanted people to see it—as a home.”

All too often, guides just regurgitate the facts they learned in guide school, which are invariably dryza bone and often out of date. Besides, you can often get a whole bunch more “facts” by reading around.

Of course, it totally depends on what you are looking for. My favourite guides in Egypt were the ones who added a bit of spice - hamming up all the mystery, and telling lurid anecdotes about Gods masturbating the universe into existence! (Yep, that really is one of the ancient Egyptian creation myths!)

You want someone with a bit of character, who can give you an insight into what you are experiencing that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to get. Here’s to guides with flexible facts!

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