Vintage suitcase

I haven't been everywhere but it's on my list

I was around 12 years old when I first started taking travel seriously. I don't remember exactly what it was that sparked my passion. I do remember that the first travel plan I researched was a road trip around the US in an open-topped car, visualising myself as the next Thelma and Louise. I stole an atlas from my school library (clearly prepared for the criminal aspect I assumed was part of travel) and I carefully drew my driving route around the circumference of mainland America. I measured driving distances between each location and calculated the fuel costs, putting together a budget and timeframe for my first big trip.

It was no mean feat in those days. The internet wasn't popular yet so a lot of these sums were done with the help of a ruler and a lot of time spent in the library. Almost twenty years later, the route is still a good one - we offer several trips at work that follow an almost identical itinerary, although thankfully as of yet none of them end with the travellers driving off a cliff in Utah.

Even at 12 years old I knew what I was doing. After many years of putting it all into practice, I now do it for a living. People walk into a shop, sit down with me - a stranger - and together we plan something that's going to change their lives. Some people sit down with a suspicious glint in their eyes, expecting me to rip them off, and others choose to trust that I'm going to put together something even better than they've been imagining. From those people I get postcards, emails, facebook friend requests (lovely but no, better not), presents and the odd terrible souvenir. I get customers who run back to me the moment they return, excited about the next adventure they started thinking about before the last one was even over.

As they hand over their hard earned cash, what they get in return isn't palpable. At most they walk out with a few leaflets and a wad of paper that reminds them when to be at the airport. Yet what they've just paid for is something that's going to add to their real life CV. Whether their experience is a good or a bad one, they will always be someone who is well travelled, who once spent their days mingling with people from all walks of life. Someone who knows what it means to be away from home and what it means to make a home while you're away. They'll make friends, lose friends, fall in love, break up, get engaged, get married, get pregnant, get sick, get better, fulfil dreams, create new ones, learn about the world, learn about themselves. Maybe not all of those but definitely at least one of them. That all has to start somewhere and from time to time it starts with me.

When I applied for the job I had no idea what it would entail. I thought I'd get to talk about travelling all day, click a few buttons and send them off on their way. I could never have guessed what a diverse range of skills you need to be truly good at this. It's a sales job, yet I don't know any other sales job like it. You're responsible for some of their biggest highs in life and with that you must also deal with the times when they hit their lows. Homesickness is the common one. I try to warn people that they're going to be homesick but they're too excited to understand that this means more than just missing home. It's a physical punch in the guts. It hurts. It passes. Forewarned is forearmed. No one really takes any notice of me though and I often write soothing emails to them and make reassuring phone calls to their family. If it hurts too much, I get them home.

What I was less prepared for was the grief. The personal tragedies that happen when they couldn't be further away from home. Robberies, deaths, rapes, illnesses, break ups. I'm the person on the other end of the phone or computer when you're in the middle of nowhere and you desperately need to be somewhere. I'm the person that makes you trust that you're going to get home and you're going to get there as soon as possible. I'm the person that makes sure that then happens. Sometimes it's really hard (both emotionally and technically). Changing flights and finding availability isn't as straightforward as you might think. Every time you buy a flight you're signing a contract and it doesn't matter what situation you're in, that contract is binding. I'll do my best for you but if you can't do what you need to do, that's just how it is. I'll calm your anger, I'll listen to your tears, I'll do my best.

So far none of my customers have died while they've been away but it will happen one day. There have been some high profile traveller deaths in the media recently and almost all of them booked through us. Travelling is dangerous. It really can be tragic. Bad stuff happens even when you're having a good time.

Yesterday I spent my afternoon calming a panicked parent whose daughter was unable to cope with the culture shock of her trip and wanted to come home. She was 3 days into a 6 month trip and her mum had the awful task of sitting helplessly at the end of the phone 11,000 miles away and listening to her daughter cry her eyes out. This morning a man came in to see if there'd been an update on whether he could get any money back from his non-refundable flight after his dad died. His mum has untreatable brain cancer and had been given 12 months to live 10 years ago. This afternoon a customer's brother yelled then cried down the phone after his brother had tried to commit suicide in Argentina. I deal with this stuff all the time. I'm a saleswoman. I'm a dreammaker. I'm a counsellor. I'm a friend.

I go home and I mull the day over. Most of the time I smile and think of the people who make my job a joy. Sometimes I come home and feel sad. No matter which it is, what I always feel is glad that when they pick up that phone or when they write that email, the person they get through to is me.

I care.
  • Current Location: London
  • Current Mood: thoughtful thoughtful
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