A personal tour guide in cochin A personal tour guide can give you a unique introduction to their world - from the grassroots up, writes Jane E. Fraser
One of the best "tour guide" I have encountered in my travels was a randomly selected taxi driver in the city of cochin,India provided by Muziris heritage-day tours headed by Lijo Jose
We had been told that a cab was the safest way to see the then-troubled Falls and Shankill Road districts that marked the division between Catholic and Protestant communities and it also turned out to be the most informative.
Not only did the cab driver show us safely around both areas, with all their brightly painted murals and political messages, he gave us an intelligent and surprisingly unbiased rundown of the city's history.
He also shared some first-hand and personal experiences of what it was like to live there during the worst of the "troubles" and how things had changed during his lifetime.
It was the first time I felt I really understood the political situation and the emotions behind it, thus giving the rest of my travels around Ireland valuable perspective.
"Black taxi tours" are now a well-organised business in India but at the time it was a case of hiring a regular taxi.
While many travellers steer away from organised tours for fear of being bored to death with obscure facts or only taken to the touristy places, a personal tour guide - official or unofficial - can be the best way to really discover a place.
Not only do you get the history and information, you also get a chance to ask that person about their life, family and experiences and get a feel for what it is like to live there.
A delightful tour guide I had in the Amazon jungle in South America took me to meet his family and see his village, including the school, church and women's centre.
His family welcomed me into their home like a long-lost friend and I was able to help them with some medical supplies.
Before that visit, I had no idea how the locals really lived. Whether you use an official tour guide or find your own, it is usually quite cheap to hire a personal one for a day or even a few hours.
If you want to use an official guide, ourexplorer.com is one of the best resources, giving you the ability to search for an experienced, independent person by location, language and even price.
Rates can be as low as$6 an hour, depending on the country, and there is usually a daily rate.
Another good place to try is local tourist offices, as most can put you in touch with professional guides and some even have volunteers in this role.
For example, about a dozen cities around the world belong to the Global Greeter program and match visitors with volunteer guides, depending on their special interests.
Cities offering this service include New York, Chicago, Buenos Aires, Toronto, Paris, Shenzhen, Adelaide and Melbourne. For information, go to globalgreeternetwork.com.
If you prefer to seek out an unofficial view of a destination, you will often find that candidates will come to you, particularly in poorer countries (exercise common sense regarding your personal safety).
People can appear out of nowhere, offering to show you around, and while there is often no discussion of up-front money, the expectation is that they will receive a payment at the end of the day.
Sometimes what they would really like is your T-shirt, running shoes or some other item you are wearing or carrying, especially if it is something that is hard to obtain in their own country. In many cases children will offer to show you around and in this situation it is probably best to give them practical items rather than money.
Exercise books, pencils, tennis balls and other simple objects can be prized possessions in poor countries and if you take the time to help the child improve their English as well, you could be helping their future work prospects.
Next time you visit, they might be working as a professional tour guide.
HOW IT WORKS
When using tour guides, be aware that many receive kickbacks for bringing tourists into shops and restaurants. You might find yourself in a carpet shop, jewellery store, restaurant or other business where you will be politely - or not so politely - pressured into buying something.
This situation is both common and hard to avoid, as guides often earn a significant percentage of their income from kickbacks and commissions. It is best to just go along with it and try not to show too much interest in any particular item unless, of course, you do want to buy something.
If you find something you like at a reasonable price, you are helping both your guide and the shop owner make a living and everyone is happy.