Monday, May 09, 2005

Tour guide syndrome, with a cameo appearance by Clint Eastwood

As David mentioned in his blog, I have a new addiction. I have become obsessed with the forums on a travel website, where people post things like "Please critique my itinerary!" "Which area of Maui should I stay Wailea-Makena or Ka'anapali - Lahaina?" "Candid opinions about Sandwich, MA" and "If we can't get the Ahwahnee, then Fish Camp?"

The forums are divided into regional boards; I spend most of my time on the U.S. board, where most of the questions are about either Hawaii, New York, Las Vegas, or Yosemite National Park. The New York questions tend to be the same: what are the hot restaurants? How does the Marriott Marquis compare to the W? And, can I get tickets to Spamalot?

Occasionally, someone will ask a question for which I have a helpful answer; I will then join the crowd of people rushing to post their opinions. Sometimes posters will snidely dismiss the advice given in the previous answer. "Sure, that restaurant is cozy - so cozy that the next table is in your lap!" Or, "[Restaurant X] is not a good is dirty, cramped, and unpleasant!!! Went once would never, ever go again! The food looked terrible, I would not eat it, my husband did and he thought it was terrible. " Or dismisses a hotel that one person recommends as "crowded, loud and tacky!"

Sometimes the questioners ask that to which there are no answers: "Which Mall of America hotel would you choose, and why?" These posts sit lonely, unanswered, ignored. (If you're staying at a hotel at the Mall of America, you clearly haven't considered the "why.")

But what's worse is if you ask a question which has been asked and answered every other day ("Where should we stay in New York? We want something convenient to all the major attractions!") you will simply be wearily commanded to search the forums for the answers given when people still had the enthusiasm to give an opinion. Questioners become demanding "Tell me about Waimea Canyon!" It can become quite a fracas.

This forum appeals to me for two reasons: one is that it presses the "I'm a helper!" button in me quite strongly. I crave secret knowledge -- both learning it and dispensing it. By reading the forum, I now know whether or not I should stay in Wailea-Makena or Ka'anapali, and I now have my own candid opinion about Sandwich, MA. My heart leaps when I see a question that I can answer - recently there were a spate of queries about the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood, where I stayed a grand total of one night last summer. My stay there, of course, makes me an expert willing to bestow my considered opinion ("it was great!") on anyone who asks.

I was shocked to see a question about Michigan's Upper Peninsula recently; I raced to clack out a post covering the bits that I knew, all in the vicinity of Eagle Harbor - which is not even the most traveled section of the U.P. Still, it was information I had that nobody else had. I was needed!

The number of "Here's our itinerary - critique us, please!" posts is quite extraordinary. At first I was surprised that anyone would open themselves up to the often-finicky appraisal of know-it-all strangers, but then I began to see that there was something to be gained. First-time visitors to New York often don't have a sense of how much time it takes to get around the city, or a sense of which locations are near each other. I did point out to one traveler that her shopping plan for a Sunday took her from the Upper West Side to Chinatown and back again - on the weekend when subway service is usually disrupted in some way.

The most difficult cases are people who are trying to pack in every possible experience in a madcap Manhattan weekend. For instance:

Here's my itinerary for a long weekend in Manhattan. I know it's busy but I'm trying to be very efficient with my time. I'll come back later to see my favorites. We're staying in midtown at the Belvedere. Should I take the airtrain from the airport and then taxi the rest of the way to the hotel. Please comment on my itinerary, food choices, anything I'm missing or not worth it? Thanks!

FRIDAY (Arrive at hotel 7am ish)
NY Water Taxi @ South St. Seaport to Grimaldi's Pizza in Brooklyn, Ice Cream Factory, Walk Bridge
Shop Soho/Village/Canal St. (Shopping: Betwixt, Soho Market, Pearl River Mart, Best Canal St. bet. Mulberry/ Broadway) (Eats: Dos Caminos (Mexican), Dukes (American), Paul's, Tenesee Mountain House, Balthazar, Cupping Room, Florent, Mayrose, Pastis, Zoe, Elephant & Castle, Tartine, Ferraras Pastries) Taxi by Ground Zero on the way to Ferry Round trip on Staten Island Ferry to see Statue of Liberty
MOMA (Free 4:00-8:00) - Concentrate on 5th Floor exhibits
Go to bed!!!!

1 hr. bike ride in Central Park
Use restroom at Tavern on the Green
Lunch in Central Park (Boat House?)
Wicked The Musical - 2:00 matinee
See St. Patrick's Cathedral
See Trump Plaza Hotel
Top of Empire State Bldg (212-736-3100 for wait time and visibility)
Times Square at night

(Eats: Carmine's Italian, Blue Fin Sushi, Patsys, Becco, Cara Mia, Puttanesca, Marseille,Stardust, outdoor restaurants on Columbus, Trump Plaza Food Court, Café 123, Hell's Kitchen, John's Pizzeria, Grand Central Food Court on lower level, Serendipity)

(Bagels Everywhere: Essa Bagel or Pick A Bagel)

Do whatever we didn't get to/more shopping until it's time to go to airport around 1:00pm

Now of course, this man knew he could not eat at every one of these restaurants - still, a day that begins with a bike ride in Central Park, and includes seeing a Broadway musical, St. Patrick's Cathedral, Trump Plaza and the Empire State Building is just plain exhausting. At least there was a bathroom break scheduled in.

I used to plan itineraries just like this when I first lived in New York and friends came to visit. I would be gripped by "tour guide syndrome", when we absolutely had to get to every major tourist attraction, and my entire self worth was based on whether on not everyone was constantly having a good time. Oh, yes, those were delightful vacations for all involved.

For example: my college roommates Richard and Jill and I would always reunite for New Year's Eve (we did this 11 years in a row, right up until the Millenium, after which we were exhausted.) The first year that I was hosting the gathering in New York, Richard and Jill and I, along with my roommate Jeannette, set out for a day of sightseeing and theater. I believe this was December 30. We first went to the TKTS theater discount booth in Times Square. Silly me - after standing in line for hours, there was nothing available. But ah, here's a show that looks good, and it's playing in the Village. What? A discount you say? Off we rush to the Village on the subway to the theater box office, only to find out that there are no more tickets. Ah - but wait, we have to meet our friend Lorraine uptown for drinks in twenty minutes - rush back to the subway! We make it breathlessly to the Paramount hotel, where we shovel stuffed mushrooms and martinis down our gullets in the overheated and overpriced bar. We take a moment to recover in the lobby. Seeing a show is out - how about a movie? No movies are playing at any time that we would be able to see one, and still be able to meet up with other friends in the Village for dinner. We lay there, spent, still hungry, with hours to kill and no way to kill them. Rush rush rush back down to the Village to meet up with our friend Brett. I am marching along like a drill sergeant, while Jill is gradually turning green around the gills and lagging behind. Do I stop? No! We will be late! Hurry! Hurry!

Finally, Jill clutches a wire mesh trashcan somewhere along Christopher Street in the Village, and spews up her bad mushroom appetizers. Richard holds her hair. I fume and check my watch. There is no time scheduled for vomiting! In a surreal moment, Clint Eastwood stops to ask, "Is she all right?" I miss this, because I am again checking my watch and looking for a taxi.

In an incredible display of assholish-ness, instead of caring for my sick friend, I instead pack her off in a taxi by herself back to my apartment - we can't wait for her, we'll be late to meet Brett! If we had been in an Eskimo tribe, I would have abandoned Jill on an ice floe to be eaten by polar bears while we met up with Brett for a meal of blubber and more martinis.

We had the longest, most exhausting and unsatisfying day on record, where I marched my friends uptown and downtown until they literally collapsed from fatigue and hunger. And I was churlish and bossy, consumed with the idea that getting the troops everyplace on time was my sole responsibility.

This was only surpassed a few years later when I led Mr. Ex, his traveling partner and saintly friend Richard on a commando raid on Walt Disney World which began at dawn. "RUN to Splash Mountain! No! No! Don't turn here, that's Critter Country! Stick to the plan! STICK TO THE PLAN!"

Since these debacles, I have tried to spot the symptoms of tour guide syndrome whenever they creep up. It has certainly happened, as David will attest. New York has a way of making it worse, because if you are not incredibly early and already in line for something, you will NEVER GET IN. This is what led to my dragging David into the ticket line for Shakespeare in the Park at five in the morning, where we slept until one o'clock, when they actually handed out tickets.

I'm hoping that my obsession with the travel website can alleviate some of my tour guide syndrome just by allowing me to inflict it on total strangers, and not on my friends and family.

Oh my god. We've spent far too much time on this post already. Keep moving! Keep moving! KEEP MOVING!


Blogger Faustus, MD said...

Yes, but you got tickets to Shakespeare in the Park, didn't you?

Did anybody have a picnic basket?

3:57 AM  
Blogger Broadsheet said...

When I was planning a trip to Mexico a few years ago, I became completely addicted to a message forum on the Mayan Riviera. I would check it 10 times a day for new posts and clip all the advice I thought was good. when we got to Mexico, we quickly discovered that we were victims of overplanning based on wanting to do everything recommended by our message board family. Once we returned, it was nice to be able to offer up first hand advice on the board as a "seasoned" traveler. After a few months, the questions, answers, and comments all seemed to recycle themselves endlessly, and I (thankfully) lost interest because it was a huge time suck, but it was fun and plenty addictive.

6:18 AM  
Blogger David said...

It's usually a toss up as to whether this is an exasperating or charming habit. I do know that the more intent he is upon learning everything about a place, the less I have to bother. I didn't even once open the tour books on our last trip to Britain, for example, and the Crumb Lord memorized every page. But his addiction to message boards doesn't end with travel: he is also obsessed with message boards focused on obscure television cooking programs, the opinions on which he occasionally relates to me with the intentness of a psychotic. "Some of us think this," he will say, leaving me to wonder whether he is referring to posts on a message board or the voices in his head.

This is, of course, merely one of the reasons I love him.

6:39 AM  
Blogger Zenchick said...

hehe...I tend to do the same thing before I go somewhere. I nearly wore myself out in San Fran last year trying to see everything in one day.
When I first began to visit NYC I did the same thing. Rush, run, rush...museums, sights, food...
I'm over it.
(very funny post, BTW)

7:41 PM  
Blogger Licketysplit said...

I like to stalk and laugh at the peasants complaining about the continental breakfast. Anything that allows me to nurture a sense of superiority is A-OK, plus the hotel reviews are quite accurate in many cases, once you throw out "the food in Italy is terrible!!!!!" people.

9:55 PM  
Blogger Rindy said...

I don't know Clint Eastwood personally, but I gotta say, over the years I've heard a number of anecdotes about him that make me think he's a really good guy.

I mean--when *I* walk past women disgorging their mushrooms, I've never once stopped to ask if they were all right. Pukeophobic, I guess. Plus, around here, it's never food poisoning...unless you call 14 shots of Jagermeister "food".

1:53 PM  
Blogger Amy said...

The last trip I took to NYC, I amazed my friend with my itinerary.

- St. John's Cathedral
- perhaps the Demeter store, if we could find it
- tacky cheap-ass souveniers for my co-workers
- the Met, whichever part I happened to wander into
- good food

Ummm - I think that was it. I had 5 days to do it all. He kept asking "Do you want to go to the (destination spot A) or the (tourist spot B)?" and I'd say "Not really." We walked by the Empire State building, and he asked "Want to go up?". "Nope."

6:52 PM  
Blogger Knottyboy said...

I can totally see you as the mother duck with all her ducklings waddling behind with cameras in hand. Click click...ooooo.....aah. I think you just want people to have memories from their visits with you. But hospitalization isn't one of them.

7:54 AM  

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