Tour leading is an amazing way to see the world. For sure. It is not without its challenges however. I’ve had many mind-blowingly incredible experiences with a smattering of terrible ones. When asked about my most difficult tour leading experience, I have the same reaction – I pause, tilt my head to the side and smile as snippets of 75+ countries, countless groups, and a myriad bizarre tour leading moments flash before my eyes. One of my favourite travel tales? Leading a walking tour through Tuscany…blind. Not the kind of “blind” that we use in the industry for doing a tour for the first time, but “blind” as in extremely visually impaired.
I had just finished leading a tour in Spain and was on my way to Italy to lead a walking tour through Tuscany. My flights seemed simple enough – Seville to Madrid then Madrid to Rome. Now as much as I like to fancy myself a savvy traveller, I am self-admittedly a terrible packer. I sometimes get a bit lazy when I pack and just toss everything in my checked bag. When I’m on the ball, I pack a carry-on bag with all the essentials such as important documents, guide books, glasses, lipgloss (yes, it’s important), change of clothing, jacket, and extra contact lenses. In this instance I’d been so busy with my group in Spain, that I was not on the ball and therefore didn’t take the extra 5 minutes needed to pack my carry-on well.
I left sunny Seville wearing flip-flops, a tank top, skirt, and carried a sweater for good measure. My carry-on consisted of one guide book, a notepad, and a few pens. When I arrived in Madrid and was checking in for my next flight to Rome, I was was magically upgraded to business class. “Heck ya!” I thought but I should have known that airlines rarely upgrade for no reason. It’s true. Rome was 12C when I landed and raining sideways. I stood beside the luggage belt watching anxiously as one by one the luggage appeared on the belt until the last bag came out. Ugh. Although this has happened to me several times, I am never prepared for the moment the last bag does its rounds on the belt before it stops. Already feeling defeated, I put in a claim and gave my itinerary to the very hostile AlItalia lost luggage woman, then I made my way to my hotel in Rome. With nowhere to put my contact lenses, I slept in them and rose early to catch the first train to Florence where I was meeting my group to start the tour.
I’d imagine they were a bit shocked when their tour leader showed up dressed for the tropics and not a cold, rainy Florence. My group was lovely and our tour of Florence was great, but when it finished, I was left shivering and sopping wet. I placed a call to the airline, they had located my bag, but it was hanging out in Madrid. Knowing full well my bag wouldn’t arrive before our departure for our hiking tour the following morning, I ran around searching for any shop open on a Sunday that sold more than wine, souvenirs, and cheese. Luckily I found a tiny sports shop where I bought a pair of trainers, socks, and a somewhat sporty looking outfit.
After returning from a fabulous dinner, I could not wait to take out my contact lenses as they felt like sandpaper in my eyes. Of course, I had no contact case nor contact solution so I resorted to using a plastic cup with saliva (I know it’s gross). Without my contacts or glasses…I am very visually impaired. Not a little bit vision impaired, but the “I have no idea who you are until you are a foot in front of me”, kind of blind. Just after I took out my contacts, I realized that I hadn’t put in a wake-up call for the group but instead of picking up the phone, I ventured downstairs to talk to the receptionist. I cautiously fumbled my way down the stairs and to the front desk, grasping my way along. The guy at reception must’ve thought I was a creepy close-talker as I leaned over the counter, however it was the only way that I could make out what he looked like. Handsome I thought. I requested the wake-up call for the group and fumbled back to my room, exhausted. Retiring to my room, I had a horrible realization as I flopped down on my bed, the covers had been turned-down. I didn’t do it. Oh no. I leapt up and stumbled into the bathroom in search of my precious cup with my contact lenses and saliva. There it sat, rinsed and upside down beside the sink. Gone. My eyes were gone…NOOOOO!! I sat on the floor and cried. How was I going to lead a hiking tour of Tuscany when I couldn’t see anything?!
The next morning, my bag hadn’t arrived so I put on my sporty outfit, gathered my few belongings and fumbled downstairs to meet the group. I stood there in the middle of the lobby like a deer caught in headlights. Smiling. I couldn’t even see well enough to recognize my own group. After seemingly an eternity, one of my group members tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I was okay. Was it that obvious? Yup. He helped me round up the troops, find our bus, and load everything up. It was during these moments that I was actually relieved that I couldn’t see, as imagining the mortified looks upon my group members’ faces as they learned that their “fearless leader” was blind, was horrific enough. “I’ve led this tour heaps of times,” attempting to reassure my group and myself. In my head all I could think was that I had never so much as walked down the block without contacts or glasses…how the heck was I going lead the group through vineyards, across valleys, and medieval hill towns?
Feeling car sick, unable to focus on anything, I attempted to speak on the microphone about the scenery that I couldn’t actually see. Not a great start. However, all things considered, our first walk through the Tuscan countryside went pretty well – we didn’t get lost, I didn’t fall down, I didn’t lose anyone, and everyone sounded quite happy. As soon as we arrived at our new little hotel, I called the airline to find out about my bag which, as it happened, was still hanging out in Madrid. Our charming hotel was in a tiny little Tuscan village that had no pharmacy nor optician, only shops selling prosciutto, pecorino cheese, and wine. So I bought some chianti, drank it, and cried.
The sweet ladies in my group took pity on me and lent me some of their clothing which I hesitantly accepted (to say our fashion sense differed was an understatement). I put aside my vanity as I figured that my outfits were the least of my worries and besides, I couldn’t even see myself. Other kind souls in my group had extra pairs of glasses which they tried to lend me but most were bifocals or trifocals which made me walk like I was underwater and high. After the failed attempts of borrowing glasses, someone had a brilliant idea and lent me a small pair of binoculars on one of our walks. Genius. Those binoculars saved the tour, my career and my sanity! Over the next four days, I successfully led my group through vineyards, olive groves, cypress covered lanes, and walled medieval towns wearing the clothes of women more than double my age and a pair of binoculars basically strapped to my head. Sexy. My eyes were swollen and blood-shot from strain, my head screamed, but I was determined to make this an unforgettable trip for my group.
Just when I had given up all hope, nearly 6 days after parting ways with my bag and my contacts, we were reunited! I was so ecstatic that I burst into tears, kissed the receptionist and ran to my room. I quickly popped in my contact lenses, put on my make-up and got all dolled up before I met the group for dinner. No more binoculars! No more borrowed clothes! As I was making my way to the lobby, I saw 3 of my group members in the hallway, I posed and smiled…they walked right past me. They didn’t even recognize me. “Did I seriously look that bad before?” I asked. I didn’t need the answer, I knew.
What’s the moral of travel tale? Always pack that carry-on as if you will never see you checked luggage again. Ever.
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