San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Old guides rule, in both tourism and nature

A famous Costa Rican environmental hero earlier this year mockingly asked in these pages, “… who wants a 50-year-old tour guide?” (TT, May 7).

The answer should be: everyone. And if you can find older, that might be even better.

Full disclosure: I am an aging guide.

While older guides might not be as pretty or as strong, they may have other attributes that make them the best guides of all. After all, if you are going to try to teach someone about, say, the rain forest or the coral reef, experience counts. Couldn’t someone who has worked in an ecosystem for a couple of decades teach you more about it than kids guiding their second season?

The nuances of Mother Nature often take a great deal of time to appreciate and understand. How well can you grasp what may happen to the forests or oceans during an El Niño if you have lived through only one or two? Couldn’t someone who has known a wild dolphin pod for 15 years be able to enlighten you about dolphins more than someone who has just met them? Who do you think knows more trails through Corcovado National Park and when to hike them, the young guide or the old one?

What do visiting biologists, documentary film crews and people with money to spend on the best guides do when they want to be shown a wild place? They go to the older guides. It seems the folks who really are intent on learning about nature or getting the most from their experience know exactly what to do.

While many hotels and tour companies like to use young guides for the never-ending pool of cheap labor – many guides even start off working for free – the most well-regarded businesses, and the ones that seem to make the most money, all have a quiver of older guides for their VIP clients who really want to come back eco-educated.

A young guide might spend 10 years obsessed with daily patterns, while older guides will understand shifting baselines and the importance of seeing, and teaching, the long-term big picture. An ever-changing roster of youngsters might be doomed to keep repeating the same mistakes – mistakes easily avoided with the wisdom of age. In a way, most young guides see in three dimensions, while accomplished older guides may live in four.

Even animals know that old guides are best. That’s why dolphins, whales, elephants and primates are all guided by elders. It’s going to be the old grandma who knows where to score sashimi or shoots during the worst El Niño in a hundred years.

Sure, young guides will always dominate athletic tours like surfing, diving, rafting and biking. The energy and vitality of young guides are hard to beat. But chances are the successful ones are managed by older athletes who may be past the rigors of guiding daily but are now proven to know how and when to put together the best eco-adventures.

Most human cultures used to respect their elders for the same reasons, but times seem to be changing in many places. However, Costa Rica is world-famous for having what’s known as “blue zones,” areas where a significant number of people live to be very old.

The time has come for recognition of “blue guides” – guides who have been plying their trade for decades.

And perhaps a little respect for our elders will produce even better things than just the best-guided eco-tours. A few old-timers taught me more about the sea than university, books and the Internet combined. They also taught me a lot about life, like where to find the sashimi during very strong El Niños.

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