Throughout my seasons of guiding, many guests have looked enviously at my job. They are on holiday from their own jobs and imagine that being a guide must be like being on holiday, too. Not quite, though admittedly there are some fantastic perks to being a guide. Having just finished a season of guiding in Greece and Croatia, I suddenly had a chance to switch roles: I booked onto the Baja trip as a guest.
I landed on this trip as a fluke. Currently on sabbatical from my teaching job in Hawaii, after the SwimTrek season I moved to a small Mexican fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta to live for about 6 months. This convenient location, the fact that I'm not busy teaching, and a last minute cancellation on the last Baja week enabled me to sign on as a guest. I looked forward to a week of swimming, eating good food I didn't have to prepare, and lounging around, activities I was more used to facilitating than actually enjoying first hand.
The week did not disappoint. It was surprisingly easy for me to turn off my guiding tendencies and instead enjoy the luxuries of swimming safely in a friendly pod of people. This was made especially easy knowing I was being watched over by trained and experienced guides. I quickly stopped thinking about all the preparation I knew went into each swim, the long checklist of things to get done and account for before gathering the swimmers for the daily briefings. Gone were thoughts about special diets, various allergies and other notable health conditions. Guest safety and comfort was no longer my concern. Once I stepped off the main boat and onto the beach at the camp on the island, my mind became preoccupied with thoughts of sea lions and mobula rays, of schools of fish and diving pelicans, of anticipation for cocktail hour and * I wonder what's for dinner? *
Not only was the food plentiful, it was also delicious. This became clear to me on the first morning while enjoying First Breakfast (cold) and anticipating Second Breakfast (hot), based on the delicious smells wafting my way from the kitchen tent. The menu changed daily, but for hot breakfast we could always count on beans, eggs, fresh tortillas, fruit, even a delicious porridge that, according to the Brits on the tour, was the best they'd ever had. My favourite lunch were the fish tacos, and my favourite dinner included a large, beautifully stuffed and steamed fish that one of the chefs caught off our beach that morning. In true Baja style, fresh fish was plentiful and delicious, making a few appearances as ceviche for cocktail hour, accompanied by margaritas, sangria or the richest, thickest, most delicious add-your-own-run pina coladas I've ever had. Go hungry we did not!
Turns out that the elements of guiding that have the least to do with swimming, for example providing tea, coffee and snacks post swim and prepping and providing lunch, became the very things I looked forward to and appreciated the most as a guest. Gone was any thought to the inconvenience (and improbability) of having refreshments and snacks on hand on a boat in the middle of the sea. One morning, I looked gleefully onto the plate of fresh brownies that appeared for First Breakfast and wondered only briefly how on earth the crew baked them in their magic mess tent. I don't normally eat sweet things in the morning, but I happily tucked into a few brownies that day.
Depending on the location, swimming time is limited for the guides. Even on theodd occasion when it's safe for me to jump into the water and accompany the guests on a swim, I'm always counting the swimmers and popping my head up to look out for potential hazards. It's not a time to relax. Swimming as a guest in Baja was fantastic. I toggled among the groups and enjoyed swimming at various speeds depending on my mood or the distance of the swim. I could lose myself in the swim and enjoy the meditative qualities of the water without much concern for anything. I didn't even need to spend much time sighting as I simply followed those I knew would not lead our pod astray. There was another woman in my group who shared my long, lazy stroke, and we often naturally drifted together, arms moving in slow unison. It was a treat to be able to swim comfortably next to another person who enjoys the water as much as I do. I found myself thinking I could go on forever when the guides announced we had come to the finish line of a swim. When guiding, I remember well that look of disappointment on some swimmer's faces when it was time to get back on the boat.
As a guide, I'm constantly trying to balance safety and fun and revising plans according to dynamic weather conditions and the abilities and general enthusiasm of the swimmers. Being a good guide requires one to be nimble, able to respond to a host of unexpected events and changing conditions, as well as accommodate a diverse range of personalities, swimming abilities and expectations. Guiding has allowed me travel the world, to visit tiny islands in Greece and Croatia, small coastal towns in Turkey, and remote parts of Scotland. I've immersed in landscapes I'd only read about in the poetry of the Romantics, and I've met a diverse range of people and made friends from all over the globe who share a love of the water. At one point during an afternoon swim along one rocky coast of Isla Espiratu, Pedro, one of the guides, casually rolled over onto his back to check in with the rest of the group he was leading. I stopped alongside him and flashed a big smile. Still on his back and looking up at the sky he said to no one in particular, I love my job. It's true; guiding for SwimTrek is unlike so many other 'jobs' out there. That's never lost on me, even on the most difficult of days. However, this past week I learned that being a guest is pretty darn magical, too. In the words of Trish, our other leader, guiding can sometimes feel like a working holiday. Some weeks it's more work, and other weeks it's more holiday. Exchanging my white guiding swim cap for a pink or orange one was decidedly all holiday.