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personal: becoming a tour guide

Robert Wright, Rick Steves, tour, Portugal, 2018
• Telling the tragic love story of Pedro & Inês, Portugal · 2018

Help me celebrate a very special anniversary: my first tour as lead guide with Rick Steves twenty years ago. I’d hoped to invite tour members to a surprise party right now, but coronavirus has us in quarantine around the world. At least we can raise a toast together online! To commemorate these past two decades, I thought I’d answer in detail one of the most-asked questions for every guide: how did you get started with Rick? Get comfy cuz this is the long version…

First, let’s go back to college. I’d never dreamed of being a tour guide. Far from it. I obtained an undergraduate degree in biochemistry & turned down admission to medical school to focus on lab work instead. I needed a serious break from studies & some income. While a lifetime of pathology research tempted me, I didn’t want to finish school in my 30s with a ton of debt to boot. Maybe a break would help me decide the next step.

I ended up working in toxicology for Roche Biomedical in Mississippi, just across the Tennessee state line near the neighborhood I grew up in. I had a great time, laughed with coworkers & learned a lot; however, our work load grew hectic & my shift supervisor had a co-dependent spouse who thought she too was our supervisor. Definitely not much future there, so I began looking for a way out. Not just out of that job, but out of the closet & out of Memphis too. After coming to terms with being gay, I thought I wouldn’t find a partner if I stayed in Memphis… the reality of the South in the 1990s. Heck, friends tell me things haven’t changed much today.

Robert Wright, Roche Biomedical, Southaven, Mississippi

Fortunately I had another undergrad degree up my sleeve: history, mostly Asian. I’d continued to take Chinese at Memphis State while working in the lab, so why not go that direction? I applied to the Chinese Studies graduate program at the University of Washington, was accepted & drove all my stuff to Seattle in 1994. That move took out what little savings I had & then some. On a whim, I looked for work during my first week in town & found a temp agency that needed a toxicologist… paying almost double what I’d made in Memphis! New job + new friends + new dating opportunities + new city = fun. Although my time at SmithKline Beecham wasn’t the career dream I’d hoped for, I put off grad school to explore not only Seattle but myself as well.

Robert Wright, Iowa, Seattle
• Taking a break to see family in Iowa before continuing out west · 1994

I wouldn’t go so far as to say SKB mistreated me, but well, they kinda did. Let’s leave it at that. My only way to stay in Seattle seemed to be grad school, so I reapplied in 1995 & was accepted again. Much to my surprise. Two years of Chinese studies awaited: language, politics, history & current events. With Hong Kong set to go back to the PRC & Seattle’s many ties with Asia, I thought for sure I’d found my path. But no. I still wasn’t happy. I entered a side program of Global Trade, Transportation & Logistics & became fascinated with the international movement of cargo. One of my thesis papers was on that very topic. In spite of not being thrilled with the program overall, I finished. But with over $45,000 of debt… exactly what I’d tried to avoid a few years earlier.

Robert Wright, University of Washington, Jackson School, China Studies, GTTL

I promise we’ll get to Rick. I promise.

The world of international trade gave me some new, interesting contacts. As I searched for work after getting my Master’s degree, container shipping seemed to be a good place to start. I’d already done an internship with China Ocean Shipping Co., knew a lot about the business & had been on several of the boats. I ended up as a Customer Service Rep for Cho Yang, a South Korean shipping company that has since gone bankrupt. Good money at the time, lots of vacation, office perks & working in downtown Seattle seemed fun… until it wasn’t 🙂 Non-stop phone calls, a supervisor who couldn’t relinquish the slightest bit of control & paper pushing didn’t have much appeal. Ah, but a solution soon appeared.

Robert Wright, Seattle, Susan Tyler-Freer
• Serving up some 1990s goatee realness in Seattle.

My partner taught Spanish at UW, & his department had a study abroad program in its second year. Students could spend one or two semesters living with host families & taking classes at the Universidad de Cádiz. Spain! My ex accepted the position as assistant director for the 1998-99 term, so off we went to España. I tried to prep as best as I could… I audited Spanish 101, took the Destinos video course (oh, those adventures of Raquel!) & decided it was time to sell my rather large Star Wars toy collection. Unsure of what income —if any— I’d have in Spain, placing those collectibles for sale on consignment would hopefully give me some extra cash. My airline ticket had been comped by a wonderful flight attendant that I used to catsit for while in grad school, & we even got permission to sublet our apartment. Everything somehow came together.

In no small way, those 10 months in Spain changed my life. This was pre-€ Europe & without low-cost airlines, but travel could still be affordable. My ex & I went to Paris, London & southern England, Morocco, Greece, Portugal & explored as much of Spain as we could. I’d found heaven… after a lifetime of wanting to travel to Europe & not being able to afford it, there I was living in Spain.

Let’s not call it all paradise though. I struggled with gaditano Spanish (who doesn’t?), had little spending money & my relationship entered a downward spiral from which it never recovered. The decision to break up with my ex also meant I’d have to return to the US… but the sublease in Seattle wouldn’t end for another couple months. In the end, I returned to Memphis & lived with my mom again, at least until I could get back to Seattle. I don’t think either of us were thrilled but hey, family is family.

Robert Wright, UW Cádiz, Córdoba
• Sitting next to Paula, my bestie in Spain, after doing a very brief guided tour (my first ever) of the Mezquita-Catedral in Córdoba for UW Cádiz students · 1998
Robert Wright, Europe, Spain, Portugal, Morocco
• Some of the few print photos I still have of those first 10 months in Europe: Granada, Mérida, Gibraltar, Porto, Fez, Sintra · 1998-99

Eventually I returned to Seattle & my ex stayed in Cádiz one more year as the program director. I got my old job back at the container shipping company with a substantial raise & they hired new people to cover the increased work load. Bring it on. One of my new coworkers became a good friend, & we often hung out after work. Hilarious times. One day he invited me to a talk that Rick Steves was giving on the UW campus about travel in Europe. Rick who? I watched a lot of PBS, but somehow had never heard of him before. I thought reliving the Europe experience would be fun, so we went to a packed auditorium.

At intermission, I talked with a couple of people selling Rick’s guidebooks & mentioned that I’d spent a year living in Spain recently. “Spain?!” they said. “Call Steve for an interview! We need Spain guides!” My reaction? Uh, sure. Although a nice gesture, I didn’t give the idea much consideration. A couple of months later, the reality that my old job had not changed began to set in. I told my supervisor I had a doctor’s appointment, but really I had an interview at the Rick Steves headquarters in Edmonds. As the interview coincided with WTO protests in downtown Seattle, I was glad to avoid the commotion.

I must have made a good impression because they wanted me to assist on Spain trips in a few months in April 2000. The rest is history. Rick Steves had been on a crusade to save the American public from short vacations, so all his tours were 21 days back then. Three whole weeks. The first tour went incredibly well thanks to a fun lead guide for Spain-Portugal. The second tour had a different dynamic —as can happen— but later the office asked if I wanted to assist on a brand new tour: Village Europe. Yes, please! London to Barcelona but exploring small towns all along the way. Unfortunately that tour doesn’t exist anymore, but I assisted twice & fell in love with all those destinations that were new to me. I moved up to lead guide in 2001 just before 9/11 hit & continue to be as fascinated by Europe as when I first started.

Robert Wright, Rick Steves, Village Europe, tours
• Assorted destinations, Village Europe tour · 2002

Congrats for making it this far! Just imagine living through all that! As I boarded the plane in Seattle to go to my first tour, who did I see on the same flight? Rick Steves himself. He usually interviewed all employees but was out of town when I went in, so we hadn’t actually met. I introduced myself & said I was beginning to work for the company. He was deep into book research, but chatted for a minute before diving into the book again. What a crazy coincidence.

Twenty years later, I’m still leading 7-8 tours per year & have worked on guidebooks along with Rick since 2004 (18 editions total so far). I put together the Basque Country tour, the Barcelona-Madrid tour, assisted with Portugal & recently helped get the new Andalucía tour up & running. I usually tell everyone an abbreviated version of this convoluted story, but 40 days of quarantine have given me the opportunity to organize old documents, look at old photos & revisit the past. Thanks for celebrating with me!

Robert Wright, Rick Steves, 2000, 2019, tours
• Having fun on tour, from the very first to the very last · 2000-2019

2 thoughts on “personal: becoming a tour guide”

  1. What a great story! I am reminiscing over my RS Portugal trip I took five years ago with you at this exact time. What a great trip and experience!

    1. Hi Elaine – What a fun trip that was! Seems like it was just yesterday… I’m hoping to get back to Portugal as soon as the borders open 🙂 Take care!

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