Why You Shouldn’t Skimp On A Good Guide On Your Travels

Having someone decode local customs and traditions can save you a world of grief.  
Azerbaijan Khan Palace
Guide Yasin Aleskerli explains the imagery of the Khan Palace in Shaki, Azerbaijan. Photo: Chirodeep Chaudhuri

For those interested, I’m offering some travel advice. It’s quite simple: When you travel to a new place that you’re eager to discover, get yourself a good local guide. And, ask lots of questions.

Many important tourist sites now have superb audio guides, and I have enjoyed them, especially where there is a language barrier. But a private guide provides the critical human interaction, which creates a more memorable experience. When I explored Mumbai’s Fort Area (my very own backyard) with an architecture student as a guide, a world I’d been blind to revealed itself to me.

A good guide completely changes the way you experience a place. One summer in Ladakh, I had planned a visit to several monasteries near Leh on one day, and suddenly realised the evening before that I had not arranged for a guide. I walked into the nearest travel agent’s office, where a helpful lady at the desk found me one: a local schoolteacher on vacation. He was a font of knowledge about the monasteries, and shared with me interesting perspectives on local culture and the Buddhism of the region. His stories made the thangkas hanging on monastery walls come alive; the spiritual resonance of the places we visited became more pronounced. Without him, I’d have seen only a series of Buddhas in different forms and positions. Without him, I wouldn’t have stopped at Thiksey Gompa’s dining hall and kitchen and glimpsed monks cooking, eating, serving food, and going about their daily lives. Without him, it just wouldn’t have been such a culturally absorbing experience.

Getting the right person however, can be a bit of a hit-or-miss. I’ve had guides trying to scam me into shopping at a particular store to extract a hefty commission. I’ve had guides who bluff their way through their jobs. On the same Ladakh trip, at Alchi, a monk, or a man dressed as a monk, was assigned to us as a guide. It was a wasted afternoon as he knew even less about the place and religion than my hastily printed Internet-researched sheets.

Even better, I recall a writer once reported what a Khajuraho guide had told him. When asked why the temples were covered with erotic sculptures, this gentleman had insisted that these magnificent temples were built by kings just to tell their citizens what not to do.

Barring a few instances though, I’ve been lucky to find guides who are passionate about their jobs. A proficient guide provides insights into how locals live and their relationship to their town. For instance, in Jaisalmer Fort earlier this year, my guide Mukesh, took me into the interior lanes of this gorgeous living fort, to places few tourists actually roam. We ended the tour with a stopover at his traditional home, where I met his mother, admired his wife’s rangoli designs, and learned how, against community norms, he’d had a “love marriage.”

The nice thing about having a human guide as opposed to an app is that my questions are answered immediately. In Azerbaijan, on a trip with other Nat Geo editors and photographers, I had one of the best guides I’ve been around. Yasin was a storehouse of information and a good listener, but most importantly, he fed our sense of wonder and allowed us to gain more depth out of our visit. He infected us with his enthusiasm and— perhaps to his own exhaustion—we ended up asking even more questions. A few days into the trip it was easy to embrace him as a friend.

Guides are often more than just guides. Well-informed Nina led us through the forests of Indonesia’s Kalimantan. She was friendly, identified orangutans by name, and was extremely patient with my eight-year-old daughter, acting like an older sister to her.

I cannot emphasize enough, the difference having a good guide makes to the travel experience. Having someone decode local customs and traditions can save you a world of grief. She can, for example, help you order food that you will enjoy, ensure you are appropriately dressed for sightseeing, and show you a place’s little-known gems. Even when I’ve travelled on a budget, I’d rather skimp on the shopping or skip the nice dinner, and shell out that extra something for an accomplished guide.

Appeared in the October 2015 issue as “Inside Story”.

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    Niloufer Venkatraman ’s idea of unwinding is to put on boots and meander through wilderness or the bylanes of a city, and to instill in her daughter a love for the outdoors. As Editor-In-Chief of National Geographic Traveller India her gig involves more of pummelling stories into shape than actually travelling.

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