"I'm going to speak my mind because I have nothing to lose."--S.I. Hayakawa

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Aussie Journals, Ch. 12, It's Nice Being a Sheep

The Aussie Journals, Ch. 12
It’s Nice Being a Sheep

If necessity is the mother of invention, as the fellow said, then I offer that curiosity and discovery are her children. That’s what happened when I went to enter the names and e-mail addresses of all the people who were fellow travelers on the tour to Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji that I recently completed.

I opened Outlook Express and started searching for a way to enter all the names as an easily-recognized group. Lo and behold, there it was: click on “new” and “new group” is an option. Now, when I want to send something to all of them, instead of clicking on each name individually, I click on that group name and this infernal machine that is ever-so-much-smarter-than-me does all the work for me. No one gets left out because I can’t remember all the names, nor do my bank, doctor, and Ameritrade receive an account of hot air ballooning in the Australian Outback.

Simon M, an Australian, was our tour director. He was also our ticket facilitator, translator, instructor, guide, mother hen, luggage handler and guard, baby-sitter, fountain of knowledge, and, I hope, friend. He was always cheerful, humorous, kind, courteous, reassuring, and patient beyond belief. And cute. Very cute. We loved him. Especially my friend Kathy, who considered proposing marriage to him.

And, Simon spoke English with only a touch of an accent, though considering that we were in his country, and in the minority, I reckon WE were the ones with accents. I know that Australians and New Zealanders speak English as a native language, but at times they may as well have been speaking Hindi, for all I could understand.

At various times during the trip, Simon would answer certain questions by telling us that one of his cousins would handle that particular business. When we asked if he were going to accompany those of us who had opted for the three-day extension to Fiji, he demurred, saying that his cousin would be there for us. When he handed out some paperwork for us to evaluate the trip for the home office, he suggested that if we have anything negative to say, we should write that his cousin Paul Simon was responsible for that portion of the journey. One of his cousins, he said, would drive us somewhere in New Zealand, and a cousin owned a certain cafe in downtown Rotorua that we should not miss.

During our final dinner together at the five star Sofitel Resort and Spa in Fiji, after a sumptuous buffet of Indo-Fijian foods, a number of us were offering verbal evaluations of our experiences. Most comments were overwhelmingly positive, a few suggested minor changes to the itinerary (less time there, more time in another place). The home-hosted dinner night in New Zealand received rave reviews, though I am sure that many, just like me, were a bit anxious before our hosts picked us up at the hotel and drove us to their homes. We mentioned the little surprises during the journey that we had enjoyed so much, like drinking champagne at sunset before Uluru in Australia, and the unexpected ice cream stop in New Zealand.

We spoke of many aspects of the 25 day journey, the various hotels, events, optional side trips, and so on. Simon thanked us all for helping make the trip come in on time and under budget.

“I don’t know about Simon’s budget,” I remarked, “but mine is shot all to hell.”

He also said that the marks of a successful tour were twofold: one, he didn’t have to bail anyone out, and two, there were no international incidents.

When we questioned him further, he talked about tours during which flights had been cancelled because of weather, of flights that had to over-fly their destination and the passengers who had to be bussed back to where the hotel rooms were reserved, because finding 26 rooms in the same hotel in the large metropolis at a moment’s notice was almost impossible and horrendously expensive. That’s where the “under budget” aspect arose. Right now, he said, all the reservations are made for next year’s trip at the same time of year, which permits group discounts and makes it possible for the tour company to house their clients in very, very nice accommodations.

Earlier that day Simon had said us that the nightly charge for a room at the Sofitel Resort, where we were now staying in Fiji, cost almost as much as the entire three-day extension we had purchased for $599. Factor in the unknown costs of three included fabulous breakfast buffets with champagne, the traditional Fijian lovo feast cooked underground (much like the Hawaiian luau and the New Zealand Maori hangi), and the final Indo-Fijian buffet that we had just finished enjoying. With that, it was quite apparent that the entire cost of the three days wouldn’t have purchased one day at the resort for an independent traveler.

I spoke up, saying that with one exception, I had never traveled with an organized tour group before and always thought I wouldn’t like it. Unsaid were my thoughts about a flock of sheep, mindlessly obeying a tour guide, rushing about and seeing the country through the lens of a camera—or, as we do now, on the LCD display screen in digital cameras. I thought of all the tourists I had seen climbing down from diesel-powered coaches, allowed only 15 minutes at this spot or 30 minutes at that stop.

However, I continued, I now loved the whole concept. I realized I had seen and done things I never would have otherwise. The whole discombobulating experience of international travel, from passports and visas to entry and departure cards, and getting to the correct terminals and gates had been a snap because of Simon. He and his company had taken care of all the arrangements, all the transportation whether by airplane or motor coach, railroad and ancient steamship, trams and busses and trolleys. We hadn’t had to go through the process of registering at hotels, because Simon and company had already done it for us, and he simply passed out an envelope containing our key cards and maps. Porters handled our luggage. Coach drivers spoke knowledgably about the history, culture, and attractions of their area.

“I loved it!” I exclaimed. “All I had to do was show up when Simon said, and have fun.” Beside me, Simon was silent for a few moments. The he professed to being choked up with emotion. I’m not at all sure he was joking.

In retrospect, I realize that the reason I had never traveled much outside the U.S. before was exactly why I now appreciated organized group tour. All those arrangements had to be made way in advance. Arranging a simple flight from Anchorage to Phoenix and back can be exasperating. What about arranging the thirteen (or “thir-deen” as the Aussies say) flights my trip included, and the coach transfers to hotels and back?

How would I know, without hours of research, the best places to go, to stay, to eat? How long would it take to get to a certain airport? What happens if a computer eats my e-ticket? Where’s the nearest restroom? Where do I get tickets for an Aussie Rules Football game? Simon and company knew. Simon even escorted us there on the city bus in Melbourne, and watched the game with us. If we wanted to go somewhere in particular during a “free time” evening, Simon helped with the arrangements, and frequently got us discounted ticket prices.

In the humorous card bulging with tip money that we gave him at the conclusion of the trip, we nominated Simon as Mr. April for next year’s Go Ahead Tour Director calendar. I would have loved to have seen his face when he opened it.

So, when I was considering what to call the group of names and e-mail addresses that I was entering in Outlook Express, I chose the only possible name: Simon’s Cousins.
May 30, 2008

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