Sunday, October 19, 2014

It's Work Jim, But Not As We Know It

Hello dear reader(s)! You may have surmised from my writing hiatus that my travels are over and that I have returned to the world of the working. And you would be right ... to a degree. It is true that I now have a job, with a pay-cheque and everything, however the travelling has not abated as much as I had envisaged upon my return to the UK.

Upon my return to the UK I decided to do a little tourism somewhat closer to home. Despite having worked a mere 15mins walk from the Tower of London for over 1.5 years I had never actually visited the iconic monument - a lacuna I quickly set to rights.

I had thought that I would return to my desk-bound existence once my vagabonding had come to an end, to take up the banner of responsibility and settled life. And it was certainly an option. However I find that I now have a skill-set that, although it doesn't exclude more traditional, corporate-esque employment, makes me ideally suited to doing something travel-related (I have some experience...). And so, having talked to a few friends in the industry I set about sending off CVs, filling out applications and attending various travel shows to see what I could get and where. Admittedly I had set about my endeavours a little late, as the recruiting season in Europe starts in October and it was January when I finally got round to facing the task in hand (Christmas and New Year were spent catching up with friends and returning to the bosom of my family). Nevertheless I managed to get a few nibbles at my enquiries and attended a number of interviews until I was offered a job with Tucan Travel to lead tours in southeastern Europe.* Luckily, for both Tucan and myself, it was a region I knew reasonably well and liked (the Balkan region is my favourite corner of Europe), so my main worry was to get a handle on the actual tour-leading. Usually as a rookie you get sent out on a tour with another, experienced leader to learn the ropes and see how things are done. Unfortunately that wasn't to be as the tour itinerary was new and my "training" consisted of tracing the route on my own and creating my own tour notes. But on the flipside I got to add my own imprint on the itinerary.

The initial tours went well and I enjoyed imparting my knowledge of the countries and enthusiasm for travel with my passengers. The job is certainly varied with no two days alike and the interaction with people a constant motivator. Of course it's not all chocolates and roses: I'm effectively at work 24/7 with next to no time between tours, and although most of my passengers are lovely people, there have been a few times when personalities have clashed. But that said, it is certainly one of the more enjoyable jobs that are out there - I just need to see when I return home in winter whether it is one that has the potential for sustaining a balanced life on the side ... but more on that in a later post.

Being a tour leader certainly has its perks as a job, including being able to have a golden eagle perch on your arm (and they're surprisingly big birds once they spread their wings) and calling it "work".

Although my initial remit was for the one tour between Budapest and Istanbul, opportunities for diversification presented themselves and I got switched to tours from Moscow to Budapest, and then on a couple of Transmongolian tours. This is, I suppose, the greatest draw of the job: getting sent to places that you want to go to anyway, and getting paid for it. Russia in particular is notoriously difficult to travel in as an independent traveller thanks to the difficulty in getting visas and the system of foreigner registration, a hangover from the Cold War era where Big Brother was watching your every move (He still is). And although the Transmongolian has never been high on my List (for long journeys I think it'll take quite a bit to beat my Pacific traverse) I wasn't going to say no to the opportunity to revisit such a magical country that had gouged out its own niche in my travellers' heart.

 But the reason for reason for today's post isn't to talk shop (workplace blogging is too full of potential pitfalls that I'd rather keep clear of it if possible). Instead I have just finished my penultimate tour in Saint Petersburg and have two weeks to get down to Budapest for the final tour of the season. Finally a little time to myself to travel as I'm used to, with all that that entails (none of this hotels and train tickets booked in advance malarkey). And looking at the map of Europe, between my two points lies a country that does its utmost not to make waves or be noticed: Belarus. Honestly, when was the last time you'd hear of Belarus in the news? Regularly described as the last remaining dictatorship in Europe the country has been ruled by Alexander Lukashenko for the past 20 years. The former director of a collective farm, easily recognisable by his distinctive moustache, has held the country in an iron grip, stamping out any and all dissent and maintaining many of the trappings of the Soviet period. Nevertheless all who visit it remark on the cleanliness and organisation of the country, as well as the surreal time-warp it seems to be stuck in. Obviously the truth is quite complex and I'm looking forward to seeing if any of it will make any sense to me.

At $228 the Belarusian visa is easily the most expensive one I've ever had to pay for. Obviously they're not too interested in attracting the foreign tourist dollar.

*In a strange twist of irony the only organised tour I have ever done, was back in 2004 as a naive youth setting off on my first proper individual trip in South America, with Tucan.


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