Wednesday 5 October 2011

Interview: Asia tour leader

‘Mrs Gray!’ Mike says, proffering his hand. He eyes me up and down. ‘Although we should really be calling you Mrs Peacock! Or Mrs Rainbow! Eh?’ he adds, clapping me on the back and batting his eyebrows up and down suggestively.

I remove my drooping pashmina and stuff it in my bag. ‘Oh well,’ I say. ‘Just entering into the Asian spirit!’

He ushers me to his faux pine desk under the strip lights, pulls up a chair and swivels to face his assistant. 

‘Janet – cup of chai for Mrs Gray.' He swivels back to me. ‘Chai? Yes? You like chai? The real thing. Bring it back from Delhi!’

‘Yes, that would be great, thanks.’

‘So,’ Mike says, ‘what makes you want to be a tour leader to Asia? Not too old for it?’ He laughs, his eyebrows yoyoing up and down.

‘I have a Passion for Asia!’ I smile.

‘Excellent, Mrs… what should I call you?’ he says.

‘Eliza. Just Eliza.’

‘We all have a passion for Asia, Eliza. Goes with the job! Now…’ He twiddles a turquoise plastic Cathay Pacific pen between his fingers and looks at his printed sheet. ‘Areas of Expertise?’

‘Well I lived there for years,’ I say. ‘In Hong Kong, Saigon, Bangkok, Singapore,' I gesture towards his Singapore Airlines desk calendar, 'and I travelled all over the place, so I know it like the back of my hand.’

He is nodding and making notes on his sheet. ‘We call it Ho Chi Minh City these days, Eliza, eh?’ he grins, eyebrows a-yoyo. ‘How long ago d’you live there?’

‘Oh… not that long ago.’

‘Before they changed the name, eh, Eliza?’ I keep expecting him at any minute to say, ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink, say no more!’

‘No,' I say primly. 'They’d changed the name officially years before, it’s just that the locals still called it Saigon.’

‘Ah, you’d know, Eliza, eh? Living there…  So what, two, three years ago?’

‘Yes, roughly – perhaps a bit longer.’

‘Four, five?’

I look out of the window, as if trying to remember exactly when it was that I left. ‘Well it was 2000 and… oh, was it 7 or 6…?’

‘OK, say five years, shall we Eliza? And you go back regularly? Yes?’

‘Yes… although not as often as I’d like. It’s tricky with children, isn’t it? Although Lily can board whenever she likes now, so I can go away at the drop of a hat.’

‘Excellent, excellent. And, just to clarify, any particular Areas of Expertise?’

‘Food. I have a Passion for Asian food. I’m passionate about it! I cook it all the time, in fact I run a secret pop-up South-East Asian restaurant with a friend. So I know all the markets in Bangkok and Sai… Ho Chi Minh, and I know what to order and where to get the best pad thai and the best Vietnamese spring rolls, oh and the best cha ca in Hanoi – it’s this amazing sort of interactive fish dish with dill and noodles, where you put all the ingredients into this wok…’

‘Excellent, excellent, Eliza,’ he says, nodding and scribbling.  

‘And,’ I say, warming to my theme, ‘I have a Passion for Fashion. I know all the secret places to buy silks and the best tailors who can copy your own clothes or a Vogue pattern in an evening…’

‘Excellent,’ he says. ‘What about the history and culture? The architecture? Religion? Buddhist temples, wats…’

I’m aware that I’m screwing my mouth up in the same way Lily does when I ask her if she’s been secretly using her Ipod Touch.

‘So, I presume you’ve got bags of energy,’ he says, ‘despite being … of a certain age ourselves, eh? Shall we say, Eliza?’

‘Oh yes!' I don't wish to be lumped in the same category as him. He must be at least 57. 'You need loads of energy when you have children and a pop-up restaurant.’

‘Because when the group’s energy is flagging, you’re the one who has to keep the spirits up. Mmm? Yes, Eliza?’

‘Yup, yup, absolutely.’ His clipped speech is rubbing off on me.

‘OK. Let me throw some situations at you. Our Western tour leaders have to be able to think on their feet. Supposing you’re at a deserted hill station and the last train has been cancelled. What d'you do?’

‘Um… well, I’d ask a member of staff at the station where the nearest hotel was.’

‘And if all the staff had gone home?’

‘Well we must have had transport to get to the station. So I’d ask the driver to ask someone, or to take us to the nearest hotel.’

‘Excellent, excellent. And what if the driver had gone?’

‘Well I don’t think he should have done. He should have waited until we were safely on the train. I’d always make sure my driver waited.’

‘Excellent, excellent!’ He’s laughing and scribbling. ‘A client has a peanut allergy and you go to a local restaurant in some out-of-the-way place where they don’t speak English. What d’you do?’

‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to go to Asia with a peanut allergy,’ I say. ‘What about pad thai? Satay? Cha ca, even! It’d be miserable for them.’

‘Excellent! That’s a good one!’ He’s leaning back and guffawing. ‘Tell them not to go! Excellent!’

‘Well, I’d make sure they had their epipen with them…’

‘That’s a good one, Eliza! We’d hope not to have to resort to that at every meal,’ he laughs and leans forward conspiratorially. ‘It actually happened to one of our leaders and he got a local to write down, ‘If you give this woman a peanut she will die!’  Did the trick, Eliza!’ He leans back, laughing. Humph. His eyebrows are wearing me out and anyway, there would still be traces of peanuts in the wok, so frankly she's lucky to be alive.

‘Now,’ he says, ‘you have a Difficult Client on the tour. Some chap who bores for England. Whenever anyone mentions anything, he’s been there, done that and he’s done it better. Your other guests are getting mighty pissed off, yes? Yes? What d’you do?’

Have him mugged by a cyclo driver. Feed him blowfish testicles. Leave him behind at Banteay Srei.

‘I’d ask him to sit with me on the bus and we’d have a little tete-a-tete…’

‘Go on, Eliza, go on. Our tour leaders have to be diplomats, you know.’

‘And I’d find out where he’d really like to go to where no tourist ever goes, which would be like a real trophy in his travelling cap…’

‘Trophy in his cap, eh, Eliza?’ The eyebrows are yoyoing again.

‘Or a feather, even. Anyway, then I could arrange a special trip for him and tell him not to tell the others because they’d be really jealous, and I’d send him off with a local guide.’

‘Excellent, excellent. Good plan, Eliza. Mmm. Send him on a side trip, get him away from the group. Good plan.’

Mike rounds up the conversation by telling me he doesn’t have any particular vacancies for tour leaders at present, but it was excellent to meet me, and he’ll be in touch as and when.

Puh. After I’ve given him all those brilliant ideas for dealing with tricky customers.

No comments:

Post a Comment