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The last day of our one-week tour through Jordan – from my journal 11 October 2015: I haven’t slept well. I felt people in the group didn’t like me but they liked Don. I said to him it’s because I’m abrasive and I say what I think. He simply replied ‘that’s the difference’. I felt like I’d been slapped. There were a lot of early morning tears. It’s not that I say what I think, it’s the way I say it – and I realized that I believe I have to be abrasive just to be heard.

This next tour (Egypt) will be different I think. It feels as if the one we just did was practice for being with a group of people all the time. We’re both so very sensitive, but don’t show it, and try to compensate for it in different ways. This next tour I’ll practice saying what I need to say in a more measured way and trust that I’ll be heard.

Also I’ll ask more questions about the schedule when we’re given time off before the next activities. I’m still annoyed about the way we were rushed through Wadi Rum after hanging around doing nothing much for the morning before in Petra and for the following afternoon in Aqaba.

This journal entry highlights two of the challenges of travelling with a group: being with other people almost all the time, and scheduling.

With the exception of day tours and an eight-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands, Don and I have been travelling independently for almost five years. We’re not used to travelling with other people, and honestly we’re not that sociable. We’re mostly very content with being alone, and often joke: Look at us, being sociable! when we go “out on the town”, which usually means having dinner with other people we’ve met on the road and being home by ten o’clock. We’re the antithesis of party animals, and we mostly don’t drink.

When a whole group of strangers travels together it’s inevitable that not everyone will like you, or that you’ll like all of them. From my admittedly limited experience most people most of the time are easy going and friendly. If anyone is likely to be difficult it will probably be me, but even I met my match in Africa.

During my twenties I did two four-month overland tours, one through South America and one through Africa. In South America there were twenty-four of us all living together in a truck travelling from one end of the continent to the other. We had what we needed for camping and cooking our own meals. We spent a lot of time together and gelled really well as a group. During that entire four months I think the only friction came when my boyfriend at the time got mad at me because I didn’t make his porridge the way he liked it. One member of the group was off in the bushes having a quiet early morning pee when suddenly a bowl of porridge came flying past her. I still chuckle at the image that conjures up.

On the other hand there were only twelve of us in Africa and there was a lot of friction. Heather was obnoxious and nobody liked her. In Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic, we were camped on the edge of the city and had a roster to keep a round-the-clock guard on the camp. One night Heather and Eddy were on the graveyard shift, midnight to eight in the morning. At some point they started arguing. If any of us weren’t awake at that point we all sure were now. Eddy got so riled he slapped her. She started screaming, He slapped me, he slapped me! Nobody responded. Nobody cared. There’s no way to condone his behaviour, but there was no way to condone hers either. She was relentlessly entitled and irritating. I was pretty graceless myself in those days. I swore like a trucker, and I know for sure that at least one member of the group didn’t like me. When you join a group you get what you get.

The up side of course is that you can meet some fabulous people and have a great time, in many cases making friends for life. There’s nothing like being thrown together for the right people to find each other. It’s like water, always seeking its own level.

Most tours are designed to give you a ‘best of’ experience, and also are built around a time frame. This was really brought home to us with the tour we took through Jordan. It was a tour organized for people from Britain taking a one-week vacation. They could fly out on Saturday and be home the following Sunday. There is no doubt we covered the highlights of Jordan, but I would have liked a closer connection with the people, and to go hiking in Wadi Ibn Hamad. Wadi Ibn Hamad is difficult to get to, even so I’d have chosen it above some of the other places on the itinerary. And I’ll never be happy about the rushed scheduling of our visit to Wadi Rum. On the other hand we chose the tour because it was the only one offering two full days at Petra, and if only for that reason we were happy with our choice.

In South America, before the advent of the internet, when everyone travelled with such weighty tomes as Europe on Five Dollars a Day, and The Student’s Guide To (wherever), and Lonely Planet in book form, we all rode along in the truck reading The South American Handbook. I think there were five or six copies circulating amongst twenty-four people. The South American Handbook is surely the most comprehensive travellers’ guide ever written for any country: almost two inches thick with tissue-thin pages and tiny print, it covered everything you would want to know. With this guide, and the help of our expedition leader who had been travelling the length and breadth of the continent for four years, we largely made our own itinerary. We had four months with the only proviso being a fixed arrival date in Rio.

In Africa there was no such handbook, and no World Wide Web. We were completely dependent on our expedition leader who, like our leader in South America, had also been travelling the length and breadth of the continent for four years. He convinced us to go to some of the lesser-known game parks instead of to the big two in Tanzania: Serengeti and Ngorongoro Crater. He said something along the lines of: we could go to those big game parks and see lots of animals, and lots of other tour groups, or we could go to these smaller parks where you’re really lucky if you spot a lion in the grass. In retrospect it was clear that he’d had his fill of the big game parks. And we didn’t know any better, so we went along with his suggestion. So not fair! I still long to get back there to see those huge herds of animals that roam the Serengeti Plain and Ngorongoro Crater. Nevertheless the tour of Africa remains one of the great highlights of all my travels.

The tour that we took through Egypt immediately after Jordan was about as good as a tour can get. We had an excellent guide, plenty of time to see all the places that are at the top of anyone’s Egyptian bucket list, and plenty of time to explore on our own.

For the most part tour organizers try to include the places and events that will be the most popular, but there are always the places you find out about when you get there that aren’t included and you wish they were. There’s no pleasing everyone, and there’s no getting to see everything – even when travelling independently.

Would we do a tour again? Absolutely. On a tour you get all the highlights without all the hassle of making any major decisions. Hotels, transportation, meals, and guidance are all taken care of. And there are other reasons: we chose to do a tour in Jordan for ease of travel. Public transport there is limited and not clearly publicized, not even in Arabic, let alone in English. Locals simply know the system, but for a visitor it can be difficult.

I have two sisters who are extremely experienced independent travellers. They both found travel in China difficult, mainly due to having a very limited knowledge of both spoken and written Chinese, and the Chinese having an equally limited knowledge of English. So we will probably choose a tour when we go to China. We’ll hand over all the details and logistics to a tour company and enjoy the ride.

We chose to travel with a tour in Egypt for security. It felt safer that way, going to such a restless part of the world, and indeed the entire tour felt very safe. Then on 31 October 2015 Metrojet Flight 9268 from Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt to St. Petersburg, Russia was destroyed as it flew over the Sinai Peninsula. We’d crossed the Sinai Peninsula on a flight from Amman to Cairo only three weeks earlier. And seven months after our EgyptAir flight from Cairo to Amsterdam, EgyptAir flight MS804 from Paris to Cairo crashed into the sea after an internal explosion. There’s no guarantee of being safe: there’s only trusting the journey.

What have we learned?
1. Research the country yourself before you book: discover for yourself what you’d like to see or experience and find out if it’s on the tour schedule.

2. Quiz the tour company in detail before you book. Where, when, how, and how long? Will there be a chance to meet the local people; will we have some experience (however brief) of their ordinary life? Who sets the schedule?

3. Never be afraid to speak up about scheduling decisions once you are on the road. I didn’t speak up, or clearly express my reservations about the scheduling around Wadi Rum in Jordan. Having learned my lesson, when the scheduling of our felucca trip on the Nile seemed rushed, I requested a longer time. It turned out everyone else in the group agreed with me and things were rearranged.

There’s no perfect tour, and travelling as part of a tour group will never be the same as independent travel. There’s no room for lingering, or for spontaneity, or for creating the itinerary as you go, or for travelling for days down the Nile on a felucca instead of for a couple of hours. But with a good tour company and a really good guide it can still be a rewarding experience, and it really is wonderful to be able to hand over all the organizational details, and sit peacefully gazing out the bus window enjoying the ever changing scenery.

Some of our group in a Cairo cafe.

Some of our group in a Cairo cafe.

Next post: The Egyptian Museum, a four and a half thousand year old boat, and screaming like a banshee inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2016.