Charge of the Bus Brigade

Tour guide Rita Banning leads her charges on a 14-day
Tour guide Rita Banning leads her charges on a 14-day "Magnificant Cities of Central and Eastern Europe" tour. (Steve Hendrix - The Washington Post)
By Steve Hendrix
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

There are two words that we tour guides hate to hear when checking into Budapest hotels with 30 road-whipped passengers waiting in the bus, all limp from their third change of cities in six days and footsore from hours of sightseeing in 93-degree heat in a country without air conditioning amid a group-dynamic that is just barely propped up by the prospect of a much-anticipated "Hungarian feast" in the hotel dining room an hour from now.

Those words are: "What dinner?"

But that's exactly what the smoothly dismissive desk clerk says to me and my tour guide boss, Rita Banning. "Dinner for 33?" he purrs, as we gape at him in the lobby of the Mercure Korona hotel. "I'm sorry, we have no record of that."

Gulp. I have been Banning's faithful sidekick for a week by this time. She usually works alone, but she and her superiors at Collette Vacations agreed to let me sign on as an assistant tour guide for the 14-day "Magnificent Cities of Central and Eastern Europe" tour last month. I hoped to see how these package tour sherpas negotiate the perils of mass travel. It's hard enough for most of us to get the family over the river and through the woods each November. Imagine taking on a family of 30 that you can't even yell at.

I admit I was fairly dubious about big-bus travel when I reported for duty in Berlin. I've spent most of my traveling life trying to blend in to local scenes and negotiating the world on my own. Those massive coaches, I always assumed, were a less-pure travel experience, rolling bubbles designed to insulate timorous flocks from the same rigors of the road that I embraced.

Still, I did relish the idea of doing battle, as a professional mercenary this time, with all the dragons of foreign travel.

And so far, through Berlin, Prague and Vienna, we have easily batted away every snafu, from missing passports to busted cameras. I have hauled baggage, fixed broken watchbands and waited -- sometimes for hours -- for some truly dedicated souvenir shoppers. And I have marveled at the unflappable Banning, a brash, short-haired grandmother, as she sways at the front of the coach with a cellphone in one hand and the bus microphone in the other, tracking down missing luggage and riffing on the Czech monarchy, respectively.

But even her seen-it-all-before eyes grow wide at the news that we have no Hungarian feast for our edgy wards. The sheaf of tour documents that she's waving in the face of the desk clerk clearly shows that dinner has been prearranged. But he remains unmoved, in that way that only a post-Soviet apparatchik can.

Banning has been hoping to spend the hour doing paperwork, and I have dreamed of a shower. Now we go into full crisis mode, scrambling to scare up dinner for 30 on a Sunday night in Budapest.

'Where's My Room?'

Being a professional tour guide may be the most schizophrenic job in all of travel, equal parts master and servant, lecturer and concierge, scold and nurse. Banning, 62, has been at it for almost 20 years, leading nearly back-to-back tours through Australia, Canada and Europe. She's a former special education teacher, which she describes as near-perfect training for herding vacationing Americans around the globe. On the road for 250 days a year, she's most at home where the rest of us are most at sea, in the out-of-a-suitcase transience of vacation time. She pays her bills electronically and has standing arrangements with her Florida neighbors to collect the mail and mow the grass.

"It can be a lonely lifestyle," she says. "A lot of guides get into trouble with alcohol."

We had met in Berlin one day before our guests were due to arrive. She always shows up early at the starting point so she can meet the first incoming flights and to get a jump on the jet-lag crankiness that often colors the gathering of the group. Sure enough, we're in far better shape than the two couples from Texas who reach the hotel after a two-mile Berlin traffic jam.

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