WHEN I WAS TOLD that I’d been selected to go on a tour to Turkey as the first traveler-in-residence in the partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center, my first thought was, “Awesome!” quickly followed by, “Uh-oh.”
Even with years of travel behind me, I’d somehow managed to experience an almost-uniformly independent roster of adventures. Being part of a tour would be a new one on me, and my excitement was tempered by ambivalence about group dynamics. Would I like the people on my tour? Would I be popular? Would my group eventually drive me to drink? Would the challenges of living with strangers for 15 days be worth it? The answers, in hindsight: Yes, yes, yes and definitely, yes.
Still, if I knew then what I know now, in between packing and researching and updating my papers, I’d have popped in a season or two of America’s first reality TV show and taken some notes from uber-host Jeff Probst, because everything I needed to know I could have learned from Survivor.
DO: Forge alliances early
A travel adventure tour is not a winner-takes-all game for a million dollars, but your success — an awesome experience — will depend on the conscious or unconscious support of your tour-mates, so form your friendships as quickly as you can.
The very first thing you’ll do as a group is meet for an orientation session. Your guide will be interested in explaining the rules. Don’t litter, do tip your driver, don’t indulge in street drugs. These are all handy tips, but if you’re playing the long game and thinking ahead to how much you’ll hate each other after two dozen meals at the same table, you’ll recognize that orientation is your first opportunity to secure jury votes. In the end, you’ll want as many of these people on your side as possible, so get cozy with your allies, and get even cozier with your enemies.
Think of it as a first date and play to your strengths. If you’re funny, be funny. If you’re a Boy Scout type, show your preparedness. And if you’re crotchety, unyielding, or ornery, choose to play under-the-radar and sit quietly for as long as you can.
DON’T: Be rigid
Even in a small group, you’ll have competing agendas. My Adventure Center tour included only 12 people plus our guide, but group decisions – like whether to eat at the lentil soup place or the intestine sandwich stand – came up daily. Be realistic about your expectations and don’t sweat the small stuff. You’ll get your chance to try that kebab, just maybe not today. Remember that on tour, like on Survivor, food is everything, and the better fed your tour-mates, the better off you are.
A word of warning from the flipside: Don’t be a doormat. Nobody draws resentment like the yes-man once you’re 12 days in.
DO: Be a provider
On season after season of Survivor, perfectly viable players have their torches snuffed because they’re perceived to be lazy or selfish. On an organized tour there’s not too much that’s going to come up that will require any real effort from you, and this makes the little gestures all the more important. Share your snacks, water, and aspirin. Lead the conversation during long haul drives. Take the hump seat over the wheel.
DON’T: Be a suck-up
Helpfulness and generosity are valued characteristics in a group, but nobody likes a hall monitor.
During my tour, I kept finding myself frantically rushing to meet up with the group. I couldn’t understand it; in my real life I’m known for my punctuality, so how was it that I’d turned so tardy? Imagine my simmering resentment to discover, after surreptitiously synchronizing my iPhone to the guide’s wristwatch, that I was not late at all but that the group was convening early. You don’t get points for being the first to dinner, people.
Relatedly, playing the flirt might get you the ocean-view room, but it will also almost surely damage your cred. You might not think you care, but be warned: as you’re throwing open the terrace doors and crowing about the sunset over the ocean, somewhere in the hotel revenge is being crafted. See how well you sleep now.
DO: Take down time
With extensive travel and a packed itinerary of must-dos, it’s easy to forget to step back and enjoy alone time. The fact is, even with boundless stamina and unimpeachable patience, you’d be unable to experience everything or tolerate the group without interruption. Trying to do so will only make you bloodthirsty.
I’ll admit it: The ocean-view incident got under my skin, so while the rest of the group got ready to meet for dinner (15 minutes early) I pocketed my iPhone, camera, and lira and went out for a meal by myself. And even though a street kitten stole my kebab while I was distracted by the call to prayer, my solo adventure left me recharged and ready to greet the next day – and my tour-mates – with a smile.
DON’T: Freak out when you have to go to tribal council
Your undoing may be a comment overheard, an unpopular personal habit, or even a bad vibe, but eventually your character or behaviour will be scrutinized by the group. Resist the urge to deflect, accuse, or defend. Remember that fortunes change, and rest assured that if you’ve followed the tips above, you’ve already established relationships that will survive the tremors of group travel.
[Note: The author is a Matador Traveler-in-Residence participating in a partnership between MatadorU and Adventure Center. During 2011/12, Adventure Center is sponsoring eight epic trips for MatadorU students and alumni.]