When your pricey Paradise turns ugly

The Swiss man, who was 68, was running his mouth about Americans, about the military, about…well, the stupid shit loudmouths run their mouths about. He was obnoxious and I was doing my best to ignore him. At the front of the small wooden dive boat the divemaster, a soft-spoken African man who had put me through my paces in the shallows before the day’s first dive, flashed me the OK sign. I flashed him back. We had just finished our second dive of the day inside the bay on the Southeastern portion of Mafia Island, Tanzania, one of the world’s best reef viewing areas.


Sort of. The problem wasn’t anything he could do much about. The staff on our boat are neither equipped nor do they have the authority to do that kind of crowd control. This is Africa. Many can’t understand English, especially heavily-accented English. They don’t care about loudmouths, either, not really.

Bullies aren’t their job. Okay, unless someone starts a fight on board, that’s different. This asshole was trying but I wasn’t biting.

He launched into a mindless diatribe about my country, my political views, the military, none of which he knows dick about.

Most bullies I’ve known neither know dick nor do they have one. The women bullies I know, well, that’s a fucking art form. Witness the female trollers who love to body shame, for a start.

In the face of that kind of puerile behavior, I climbed up top where I could enjoy the sun, the landscape, the wide, frothy wake. I napped for the rest of my ride in Paradise in the bright sunshine and cool breezes.

By the time we got back to shore, the loudmouth had pretty much infected the entire boat. You could feel it. Especially when we all washed our gear, and people were stroppy and impatient about where to put this or that, in that way that the sentence ends with the implied (stupid).

I cleaned my gear, and my divemasters’, handed everything back over, and got my ride back to my lodge, where I took a nap to get rid of my headache. And the bad taste in my mouth.

Bullies abound these days.

My buddy Margaret Kruger is a very good diver. Good enough to be a Rescue Diver, which is saying a lot. I’m nowhere near that good, nor do I particularly care to be. However, she had a similar thing happen to her on a dive trip. A few folks wrongly decided she was a doddering old woman, and took to castigating her well within earshot as they gathered at the other end of the boat.

We are both 67. Neither of us is a “doddering old woman” in any sense of the word. Margaret is a very capable pilot, business woman and much, much more, just as I am very capable horse rider, prize-winning author and much much more. I would trust Margaret with my life in the air or in the water any day of the week.

Old(er) doesn’t mean inept or decrepit.

People like us, and many others, spend a fair bit of cash to go out on trips like this. We put ourselves through our paces before we ever show up. My primary sports are horse riding and kayaking; hers are scuba and flying. Neither of us is a rookie (although for scuba I would certainly say I am right back in that beginner camp). Still, before I boarded that boat with other experienced divers, I put myself through all the necessary reviews to ensure that not only would I be safe, but also a dependable buddy.

I’m very aware that if I’m out with other people, I have a responsibility to not interfere with or reduce the quality of their experience. That viewpoint has clearly been shrinking lately, if my experience of other travelers is any indication.

I’ve noticed a growing number of people who believe quite sincerely that none of the rules pertain to them. That certifications, experience, and qualifications are for losers (as are the rules of the road, speed limits, I could go on forever). Then they demand to be able to play at the same level as those who really do have those qualifications. I’ve gotten to the point where I will pay double to ride with a guide on my own to avoid riding with rank rookies. Or kayaking or rafting with them, for that matter. Not only are they a real danger to themselves, they can create catastrophically dangerous conditions for others.

Bullies abound in the world, and they are proliferating. They have begun to invade and infect the adventure industry. The very best outfits put a stop to it as quickly as possible.

At Offbeat Safaris, where I spent eight days riding superb horses with equally superb and very polite fellow riders, one guide told a story about a man who had not only made himself a nuisance, but was steadily eroding guest experience. He was quietly removed, given a refund and spirited home. He’s now blacklisted among fellow riding companies, for that wasn’t the only time he was a ripe asshole. Word gets around.

Good adventure companies blacklist bad people.

Those companies inform other companies. That way you and I are protected.

The problem is that, with many concessions working hard to turn over their operations to locals (and the diving equipment center here along with the divemasters is run by very able Mafia Island locals), the ability to spot that kind of behavior and stand up to it can be a bit difficult.

The fear of losing a customer, getting a bad review or other customer concern could result in their looking the other way, or trying to placate the bully in question rather than do the right thing for the other customers. Also, people at these businesses want very much to ensure our happiness. Culture plays a part in this, when confrontation with a paying customer can be difficult. If an outfit is having a less-than-banner year, it can seem suicidal to invite someone to leave the premises for the sake of other clients.

This is hardly limited to international concessions competing for the tourist dollar.

This past summer I had that happen during four very difficult weeks in the Canadian wilderness. Two trips, four bullies. Because I respect the operator, I wrote an extensive, six-page incident report. That report provided very specific examples of behavior, the dangerous situations that had presented themselves. This is part of what I do for a living, although the owner wasn’t paying me for what was priceless feedback about leadership, competence and safety issues that threatened to scuttle his operation if not addressed.

To the owner’s credit I got a respectful response acknowledging that while the feedback was hard, the truth also is that he understood my intentions. I wasn’t insulting. You can’t argue with facts, and that’s all I presented. The best businesses understand that this kind of feedback is critical to success. Often the owner/operators have no other way of finding out what may be amiss.

Nobody willingly pays thousands to be stuck in Paradise with pricks.

Some operators have told me that rich clients- those without the proper training or certification- show up and wave money in the operator’s face. They want to go out and do the high-adrenaline sport, whatever it is, but bypass the process which would not only make it safe for them to do (and which in some cases is required by law for good reason) but also make it safe for others to be around them. In many cases, this is highly illegal. An operator can get shut down if authorities find out he’s taking bribes to put folks into the air, under the water or in other situations which require highly specialized training.

When the operator, justifiably, says no, those people may well storm off and write horrible reviews. You can’t win. This is far more common than you may think. Bullying has been validated by our administration, and it has cascaded down.

It was bad before, but with our Bully-in-Chief using his bully pulpit to push his example, I’ve seen a proliferation, and so have people who are doing their best to protect not only their profits, but their precious reputation for safety.

You and I have every right to an epic time, a safe epic time doing what we love. While there are inevitable bad days, or bad moments, or even in some instances a bad trip due to weather, none of us needs to be endangered by a bad actor.

What you can do:

  1. If the bullying doesn’t endanger you and you can handle it, shrug it off for the time being…but please also:
  2. Report it to the guide, and the owner. Identify the offender(s) and use specific examples. Better yet, videotape or at the least, take detailed notes. Keep your emotions out of it. The facts are enough. If something comes up later, they may need your records to justify banning this person or people from the concession. This is no different from recording behaviors to make a case for firing a problem employee. If the bully in question threatens to sue (and they sometimes do), detailed reports and/videos/recordings of their behavior can stop the discussion on the spot. For those of you not familiar with an incident report, here’s the short version: Don’t just call someone an asshole. Do say you witnessed this person loosening the girth of another rider just before a ride, right after the guide checked it. Tuesday morning, September 8th, at 8:23 am. (That’s a very dangerous prank that can lead to a serious accident. A loose saddle can slip under the horse and you with it, with your body and head possibly hit by flying hooves, or you come off at speed in front of another galloping horse). I’ve had it happen. You don’t want to. Nor is it a joke with a group of people of mixed abilities.
  3. If the person’s behavior creates a dangerous situation for you or others in your group, again, report it immediately to the guide. Please don’t let it continue, for no response to dangerous behavior is implicit permission for it to continue. If at all possible remove yourself from the situation and require the guide to take action to ensure your safety and of any others.
  4. Provide specific feedback to the concession. Let them know what you experienced. If possible, provide names, dates, times, places. This kind of specificity underscores the veracity of your report, and makes all the difference between a personality conflict and a serious safety breach. You may not wish to but please consider this: my Medium peep Margaret Kruger told me, quite correctly, that if you were that concession’s owner, you would probably want to know if you had an issue. You can do it kindly, and without rancor. If they don’t want to know, then you don’t want to go back to them. Good operators are committed to client safety. Negative feedback is tough, but imagine how you’d feel if you went bankrupt and found out later that previous clients knew about but didn’t choose to tell you about the serious issues that were affecting your operation.
  5. I have made notes of certain names of people which, should they turn up on the list of folks I might have to share a ride with, I will write a detailed email to the operator. I will include any reports I may have written about their behavior elsewhere, and require one of two things: that either they be removed from the ride for the safety of others, or that I get a refund and can book another ride at another time. I will not subject myself a second time to bullying and reckless endangerment. Nor should you. I will also forward those emails to other concessions that I frequent as a precaution so that they can be apprised of someone who needs to be kept off their horses and away from competent clients.
  6. If the problem is the guide, then you really do have an issue. You can deal with that person directly, which would depend on a great many factors, including whether or not there are others who had the same issue and if there are other guides on your trip (including a senior guide) to whom you can go for help. Afterwards you really do have to report it. Toxic guides are truly dangerous. I’ve experienced them. I won’t tolerate them any more. You and I spend way too much dime to do some of these sports to have to put up with a professional prick who happens to have the authority to run the show.
  7. Finally, and thank to Medium peep DrFields for this reminder, always write a detailed review of a positive experience. Please don’t just say GREAT. That is utterly useless to those who really need details. Because that’s precisely what a paid shill whose English is terrible is going to write. Good reviews, just like the negative ones, go into detail. To wit: The guide took the time to take us off the beaten track to show us parts of the area where most people aren’t willing to go because it’s a longer hike, and harder. We spent an additional three hours exploring, which gave us plenty of opportunities to see and photograph animals and scenery that most people never see. Because he took the time to ask us, he knew we’d be willing to make the extra effort.

This goes for hiking, climbing, kayaking, scuba, skydiving, bungee jumping, river rafting- doesn’t matter. With more folks heading out, by virtue of sheer numbers, that means more bullies will be, too, and on occasion, an operator has hired a jerk who has no business on the boat, in the saddle or in the bush.

The Adventure Travel and Trade Association is the world’s biggest organization of adventure concessions. They are committed to professionalism and sustainable travel. If the company you went out with is a member and they have lax safety procedures, I’d report it directly to ATTA. While they are not a governing body, letting ATTA know that they have a problem member is important. They don’t want their reputation tarnished through questionable operators. And, the growing problem of irresponsible adventure travelers with money or poorly trained guides touches all of them even more than us, because one serious accident and they can be out of business forever.

The world may well be your playground. It is mine. Because of that, and because I have strong feelings about ensuring that people enjoy that playground, I will not tolerate bullies no matter how rich, or whether they happen to be the guide. Bullying is dangerous. It’s a community problem, a growing one, and we all have a piece in keeping our adventures safe and enjoyable.

Photo by Rune Haugseng on Unsplash