SIMPLE LIKE THAT

A moment’s research discloses that effective tour guides should possess the following characteristics: patience, courtesy, diplomacy, selflessness, tact, organization, caring and sensitivity.  Indeed, in separate tours to Costa Rica and Panama, we enjoyed Anita and Miguel, respectively, who embodied all of those facets.  Imagine our surprise at the initial group meeting in Madrid, ahead of a three-week tour, when the guide, a short, intense man dressed in jeans and wearing a cap, introduced himself, as follows:

“I am Jiao.  I am to take you through Spain though I was expecting to be in my favorite country, Portugal, this week.  But, well, the company told me I have to be here.  So, well, what can I do?  Here I am.”

A woman raised her hand.

“Not now,” said Jaio, thrusting his chin ahead of his face like a bantam rooster and tugging on his suspenders. “I am speaking.”

The assembled thirty or so travelers looked taken aback.  Most probably concluded, as I initially did, that Jiao was simply nervous and a little overwhelmed by logistical and paperwork concerns, hence his abruptness.  He continued:

“You must be on time to the bus each day, well, in fact, be ten minutes early.  Jiao does not want to wait for you.  And, just so you understand, if you are late, you can take a taxi to the next town, because the bus will be gone.  Simple like that.”

Several of us tittered nervously.

“I am serious,” said Jiao.

“Are you going to hand out name tags?” asked a man in the front row.

“Why should you need name tags?” asked Jiao.

“We usually get them to help know everyone,” responded the man’s wife.

“Let me explain to you,” said Jaio, scanning the entire group.  “This is not going to be like every other tour.  Jiao runs his tour in a, well, special way.  The only name you need to know is Jiao.  But, well, I am sure you will learn each other’s names in good time.  Simple like that.”

With that, Jiao handed a pile of papers to one of the guests and indicated with a waving motion of his hand that they were to be distributed, then strode out of the room.

“On the bus by 7:50 tomorrow,” he said over his shoulder, as he disappeared.

Our group appeared to be stunned into silence by our introduction to Jiao.  Most whispered to their spouses or seatmates.  A few introduced themselves to neighbors, but most attendees, many of whom had arrived from far-off places like Australia and Asia, were beset by jet lag.  Concerned about waking up on time, they dispersed towards their hotel rooms.

“That was interesting,” I said to the couple beside us, the only people under forty in the group.

“Is that normal?” asked the husband, in a lilting accent of India.  “We have never taken a tour before.”

“Not in our experience,” said my wife.  “I hope he will relax.”

Alas, her optimism was not rewarded.  Jiao’s behavior remained churlish.  The following morning, as we were to depart for Valencia, he sat unapproachable in a far corner of the breakfast room.  He did not respond when guests said “Good morning.”  His only value at the hotel appeared to be brusque but efficient-looking management of the group’s luggage.  He flicked ashes from a cigarette as he supervised the bellman and the driver wrestling our bags into the belly of the bus.

“Jaio has never lost a bag,” he boasted to no one in particular.  “This group will not ruin my record.”

As we drove, Jiao occasionally activated the loudspeaker from his position in the front seat.  He read facts and figures, in a monotone, from a large binder.  Some of the information was relevant to the passing scenery, such as a town’s population and history; other information seemed random and improvised.  Often, he would compare something about Spain to his preferred country, as in:  “You see the apartment buildings on the left.  Well, they are not much to look at.  In Portugal, they really know how to design.  Simple like that.”

Jiao generally spoke only with the bus driver, in Spanish.  Occasionally, however, he would favor the travelers in the front of the bus with disjointed bits of personal philosophy and history.  “My third wife is waiting for me now, well, at home.  We have been together eight years, since I left the seminary.”

“You were studying for the priesthood?” asked a surprised guest.

“Why not?” said Jiao, defensive.  “I am a man of spirituality.”

“But priests can’t marry,” said another guest.

“Ah, you think you know so much,” Jiao responded.

Another theme of Jiao’s was the purity of his body.  At rest stops, he ostentatiously retreated away from the crowd to the far end of the parking lot with a yoga mat.  One day, while we re-boarded the bus, I could not resist noting the dichotomy of what he referred to as “refreshing his temple” with the cigarettes he invariably consumed immediately afterwards.

“But I am a European man,” he replied, as though that explained everything.

By the end of the first week almost everyone was imitating Jiao.  “Well” was included in every second sentence and declarative sentences were punctuated with “simple like that.”  As we approached each of the ten cities on the tour, Jiao emphasized that “this is my most favorite city in all of Spain.”  Positive statements from Jiao were welcome after several hours of dour monotone or disinterested silence, but his impossible use of the superlative for every town called into question any hint of sincerity.

Soon enough, my fellow travelers exhibited accent-imitating skills as we referred to each passing church as “my most favorite cathedral in all of Spain” and pointed out the window at “my most favorite olive tree” and “my most favorite stop light.”  Boisterous laughter accompanied Jiao’s explanation of Spinoza’s philosophy as seeking “the porpoise of life.”

“Are we going to an aquarium then, mate?” blurted an Australian.  Alert to any perceived lack of respect, Jiao castigated us like an angry seventh grade homeroom teacher:  “You make fun of me.  Well, that is it.  Today I will not speak.  If you want to switch tour guides, just call the company.  Simple like that.  I will give you the phone number.”

Several of the guests called the number and learned that we would have to wait several days for a replacement tour guide.  Meanwhile, Jiao would act on a lame-duck basis.  Even more awkward, he would continue to travel with the tour for several additional days, until we arrived at a town with a train line back to Madrid.

“Is it worth it?” asked a guest over dinner.

“He’ll be even more miserable for four or five days,” said another traveler.

“We are enjoying the sights in spite of him,” I noted.

“And he is good with the bags – that’s important with so many loadings and un-loadings,” said a woman from Malaysia.

Simultaneously, several of us blurted:  “Well, I have never lost a bag, simple like that.”  We laughed.  Jiao’s defects were helping us come together as a group.  We decided to stick it out with Jiao.

At the mid-way point of the trip, as fate would have it, we arrived with several other guests in the lobby of our small hotel one morning to overhear Jiao shouting maniacally at the staff.  One of our group’s suitcases was apparently loaded by a bell-hop onto a different tour bus already headed north to San Sebastian.  That day, we were headed south to Seville.  Jiao slammed his fist on the front desk.  We admired his passion and truly felt a tug of sympathy for Jiao.  After all, besides his belief that Portugal is a better country to visit than Spain, there was nothing he was so proud of as his perfect luggage record.  We wondered which of the thirty of us was to be without a suitcase.

Still red-faced and muttering, Jiao studied his check-list and approached the knot of us gaping from the other side of the lobby.

“Uh-oh,” I said to my wife.  “He’s looking at us.”

“Mrs. Sanders,” he said.  “I am sorry to say that your bag has been, well, misplaced.”

“Well,” I said, unable to catch myself.  “Can’t we just call the other bus and get it back.”

“It is a different company,” said Jiao, “and I do not have their phone number.”

“Can’t the hotel reach them?” asked my wife.

“That is what I was just asking these, how do you say, idiotes,” said Jiao, indicating the front desk.  “They do not have the information.”

During the ensuing days, we received daily updates from Jiao on what came to be known in the group as “luggage-gate.”  First, he told us it would be delivered in one day, “simple like that.”  Next, he said that would not be possible because that would cost 500 Euros (about $650).  Next, he told us to buy new toothpaste and hairbrushes, etc. since it might take another day.  By the third day, he told my wife to buy herself a new outfit “on him.”

“Jiao,” I said.  “You should not have to pay out of your own pocket,” I said.  “Wasn’t it the hotel’s fault?”

“They deny it,” he said.  “They are not honorable like Jiao.”

“Has the bag definitely been located?”

“Yes, for sure!” he said.  “I think so.”

Finally, on the fourth day without luggage, we arrived at a hotel to find my wife’s bag waiting for us.  Jaio’s persistent hourly calling throughout the previous two days had finally paid off.  He reached into his pocket and promptly reimbursed us 100 Euros we had spent on clothes and toiletries.  We were relieved and appreciative for a moment until Jiao blew the good feeling all at once, announcing to everyone:  “Well, my amazing effort has returned my record to perfection.  I hope you will all remember the struggles I suffered when you think about the gratuity at the end of the trip.  Simple like that.”

The final days of the trip passed quickly.  The group had become more cohesive and enjoyed taking in the sights together.  Jiao was less of a factor, speaking infrequently to avoid derision and staying aloof at all the stops.  He made a final embarrassing appeal as we arrived back at Madrid:  “My friends,” he began.  “This tour had some, well, good things and some bad.  But I hope you enjoyed the beauty of Spain and know that you are the most favorite group I have ever led.  I invite you all to become my Facebook friends so that Jiao and you can continue to travel through life together.”

“If this is his most favorite group,” the man across the aisle said, “his others must have all ended in fist fights.”

Upon arrival at the final hotel, we were handed surveys to complete.  Nearly everyone stated their intention to savage Jiao, to make sure he never led another tour.  We left a generous tip for the driver but almost nothing for Jiao.  I agreed that a self-centered, narcissistic, egotistical, insincere and hypocritical person should not be a tour guide, and my numerical ratings reflected that; however, I could not resist noting truthfully in the “comments” section that Jiao was “unique.”

At breakfast the next morning, before heading to the airport, I was shocked to see Jiao approaching my table.   He appeared distressed, with tears running down his face.  My adrenaline spiked as I feared he would attack and I raised my arms in defense. I imagined that my review had cost him his job.  Instead of hitting me, Jiao grabbed me in a bear hug.

“What’s happening?” I blurted.

“You wrote the nicest thing anyone has ever written about me,” said Jiao.  “I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

“You read the reviews?” I asked.  “Aren’t they sent confidentially to the company?”

“I always read my reviews,” said Jiao, still regarding me with affection.  “No one ever acknowledged that I am unique.  You are now a friend for life, simple like that.  I will always stay in touch.”

I gradually extracted myself from Jiao’s arms. I did not know what to say, but I was happy to have given him an expired e-mail address.

“Best of luck,” I said.

“You, too, my friend,” said Jiao, worshipful.

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