I’m in Melbourne today, on vacation with family, and being on vacation with family means that I’ve been spending more time than usual looking at the world from the touchscreen-side of a camera sensor. Most of the photos I see are of our day trip yesterday along Great Ocean Road, taken on a guided bus tour we booked from our hotel.
My parents particularly enjoy these kinds of tours. We’ve been on several in our family travels, and on sightseeing bus tours, too, in places like Boston, Barcelona. The understandable appeal of the efficiency of hitting up main points of interest in a limited amount of time. (“They only travel,” my brother says of my parents. “They never go on vacation.”)
But I always enjoy these tours too, even though they are not my natural tendency when landing in a new city. Moving sights from the other side of a pane of tinted glass, occasional pull overs and photo ops – like watching a Broadway adaptation of a movie adaptation of a travel novel, where at each intermission you get to go on stage and take pictures with the sets. Shortly after we left the hotel, I saw my reflection in a store window, and my reflection was a bus.
But it’s its own art form, really, one I’ve come to learn to appreciate. A good tour bus driver is like a good actor, or maybe a good stand-up (sit-down?) comedian. He or she can deliver the same lines time after time and still sound fresh. Our driver, Pete, fit the bill. He works these tours one day a week, and spends the rest of his time helping a friend out with an online travel magazine. Pete is relaxed, natural, can deftly maneuver a twenty-five-seater bus with a broken latch on one of the windows for a U-turn on a two-lane highway, and has an affinity for early 2000s indie rock, which he plays from his iPod during lengthier periods of quiet on the drive. He’s amusingly bossy, too: “One of you who went on the helicopter ride, come up and show me your pictures!” “Hey Wilson, tell me if we have everyone back there!” “I’ll give you your twenty dollars change later, but it’s your job to remind me.”
“That’s what all Australians are like,” my brother jokes.
Some time ago I had an idea to open a novel with a chapter narrated by a tour bus driver. The driver would talk directly to you, the reader, as though you were just getting on the bus on a rainy day. He’d map out the town geographically and historically through its legends, and as he brought you along, the rain would pick up. It could start clattering on the metal roof. The bus would come to a stop at a police barricade in the middle of the road and the driver would get out to see what the deal was and boom. The story would start there.
It’s almost dinnertime now. We’re flying to Cairns on a red-eye later tonight, and once we arrive there’ll be more traveling to do, more day trips to take, more tour buses to ride – and tour bus drivers to watch.