Tour guides are like the estate agents of travel – even when you like what they’re showing you, they’re still kind of creepy and annoying.
I’ve met some bad tour guides.
The guys who take you around Robben Island are so boring you want to swim back to the mainland just to get away from them.
A guide in the Cairo museum once put his hand on my thigh – right next to Tutankhamun’s casket – and said confidently: “You like. Yes. You like.”
My guide in Shanghai collected me at the airport and was so drunk he pulled over on the freeway and went to sleep with his face on the steering wheel.
But in all the world there is no tour guide as bad as Sa’if.
Sa'if was my tour guide in Yemen. You have to have a guide in Yemen, one with an AK-47, because otherwise you’ll be in constant danger from gun-wielding bandits from the untamed hill-tribe. Yemen is funny that way.
Sa’if wasn’t even supposed to be my guide – he was just the driver. He drove as though he believed that every man on the road was trying to date his daughter. He would veer out of his lane to try to run down pedestrians and cyclists. His happiest moment was when he caused a truck to swerve into a ditch.
The actual guide was a nice guy named Rassam. I liked him, because unlike Sa’if he could speak English and wasn’t a homicidal maniac. Then one morning on the drive between Sana’a and Ta’izz, on day two of a week-long expedition around the striped sandstone hills and green wadis of Yemen, I noticed Rassam wasn’t in the car any more.
“Where’s Rassam?” I asked.
Sa’if just grinned wolfishly.
At the time I didn’t know what that smile meant, but it turned out to be the smile of someone who has deliberately abandoned the guide in the desert in order to earn a double salary.
I had been told scary stories about the bandits. If they kidnapped you, they would do horrible things to you and post the footage on YouTube, like an angry ex-lover. But after a few days I began to think that if I saw any approaching bandits, I would run to them like long-lost family. Anything to get away from Sa’if.
I started to think Sa’if might be a bandit himself. He had a forked beard and cheekbones like daggers. Someone had bitten off the tip of his nose in an argument involving a goat. From time to time he would squint through the windscreen, then he would make a startled noise and pretend to scramble for his AK-47 and yell, “Bandits!” just to laugh at my reaction.
He smoked non-stop, as though he believed fresh air was poisonous and could only be made safe by passing it through fire. If he ever kissed his children he would leave burn marks on their faces. He especially enjoyed lighting cigarettes while driving through winding mountain passes without safety rails. Then he’d whistle for me to steer while he rolled a fresh one and lit up with groans of satisfaction, stepping on the accelerator to show how happy he was. “Just stop the car!” I’d beg. My fear made him happy.
One evening at Wadi Dahr Sa’if decided I needed to learn to shoot in case bandits came for me while he slept. He took me to a cliff and fired out into the thin air, then handed me the AK-47. Later he charged me 50 riyal for each cartridge I fired. And each one he fired too.
Still, it was kind of fun, but daylight was fading and scattered lights came on below us in the wadi, and I realized there were houses down there, just about where our bullets were randomly falling. The sounds of distant Arabic swearing drifted up through the purple desert air.
Sa’if stood up and shouted back, and waved his fist to prove he wasn’t intimidated. Then he squeezed off a couple of rounds at the village to make his point. There were distant pops and whining sounds. They were firing back.
I leopard-crawled in terror from the rim as bullets whined overhead. Sa’if stood and ripped open his shirt, bearing his chest to the gunfire in proud Yemeni defiance, shouting at me in Arabic to stop being a coward. How I wished they’d shoot him.
We made it back at last, and at the airport Sa’if hugged me like a brother and slapped my cheeks, which is either the Yemeni version of kissing, or just his idea of fun.
“No tip,” he said. “No tip!”
Wow, I thought. Maybe he’s not so bad after all.
Later, on the aeroplane, I discovered he’d stolen my money.Darrel Bristow-Bovey is a columnist, screenwriter, travel writer and aspirant retiree - follow him on twitter: @DBBovey