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Alumni profile - Peter Selman

Many people dream about being paid to travel the world and to share their passion for somewhere they love. Warwick Connect spoke to Peter Selman (BA Comparative American Studies 2000-04) who does just this. Peter has been working in Latin America for the last seven years and won the Wanderlust World Guide of Year award in 2010

What are your memories of Warwick?

Drinking too much alcohol and listening to far too much cheesy music in my first year. Continuing that in my second year and then in my final year (after an exchange year in Santiago de Chile) knuckling down and working much harder and really enjoying the academic side of university life.

Did you enjoy your time at the University?

A great deal. I made some excellent friends and I had some inspiring teachers. Anyone who has studied with Professor John King considers him both a legend and a genius, and he’s a close friend and translator of last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature, Mario Vargas Llosa. Having Vargas Llosa at our graduation ceremony, receiving an honorary degree from Warwick, meant a lot to all those who’d studied his novels along the way.

Johnny King invited MVL to our graduation reception afterwards, and my final memory of Warwick is chatting about football with one of the greatest writers alive. I also had a fantastic Spanish teacher, Salvador Ortiz-Carboneres, who was the first person to receive the university’s lifetime achievement award. Thoroughly deserved, and I hope John King gets one too.

How did you go from studying Comparative American Studies at Warwick to becoming the 2010 Wanderlust World Guide of Year?

By accident. A course mate of mine from Warwick became a guide with Journey Latin America soon after we graduated, described his job as ‘being paid to eat and drink his way around South America’, so I sent my CV the same evening, got accepted, ditched plans to study a Masters, and I’ve been guiding ever since. The award was nice recognition, and a bit of a surprise.

You specialise in Latin America, what draws you back to the region? Where does your passion for it come from?

I’d wanted to visit Machu Picchu and the Mayan temples since, as an impressionable four year old I’d seen a cartoon series on the BBC called the Mysterious Cities of Gold about the Spanish conquistadors in Latin America during the conquest.

A lot of my degree was focused on Latin American history, politics, literature, and cinema, and I studied both Spanish and Portuguese. I travelled a lot during my exchange year in Chile, so in terms of using the knowledge I acquired during my degree, guiding was about the perfect job.

I’m drawn back there because being paid to travel is wonderfully addictive, and once you’ve got the wanderlust in your veins, it doesn’t go away. You could never bore of visiting places like the Iguazu Falls, the glaciers in Patagonia, the Aztec pyramids, drinking mojitos and daiquiris and dancing salsa in Havana, seeing fireworks light up the sky during carnival in Rio, hiking the Inca Trail, visiting Chilean vineyards, sailing down the Amazon, flying over the Nazca lines, seeing condors soaring in the Andes, snorkeling in the Caribbean - the list could fill several books.

The food and drink isn’t bad too, and I’ve made some great friends out there. In short, I think Latin America is the most exciting continent in the world, and that keeps me coming back for more.

What have been the highlights of your tours through Latin America?

The unexpected – like the time we saw a puma hiding in the undergrowth in Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. Seeing a wild cat in Latin America is almost impossible – I know guides who’ve worked in the area for 20 years and have never seen one. I was delighted to get a good sighting.

I also remember seeing the great writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez browsing book stalls in Havana’s main square, and that was the day after seeing Raul Castro address hundreds of thousands in the Plaza de la Revolucion.

Seeing a meteor shower with a rum and coke in my hand as I sat on a Nicaraguan beach with my feet in the sea was pretty special.

Devouring the most tender steak in the world in a Buenos Aires diner and washing it down with a bottle of fine malbec, after the waiter had cut my meat with a spoon to prove how tender it was inside, was a culinary fantasy.

Holy Week in Antigua, named the most beautiful city in the world by Wanderlust magazine in 2009, is an incredible experience. The city’s idyllic cobblestoned streets are laid with colourful carpets made of flowers and huge processions carrying giant floats representing the Stations of the Cross parade down the streets, blessing the carpets, while chanting Latin litanies and with incense perfuming the air, all within the stunning backdrop of Central America’s finest example of colonial architecture with three towering volcanoes surrounding the city.

It seems like an idyllic job, is it really as good as people might imagine?

The pros of the job are many, but there are plenty of cons. You travel all the time, which is great, but it is a strain on a relationship. You rarely see your loved ones, so it can be a bit lonely at times. Moving around so much, and often very quickly (rarely more than two nights in the same town while on tour), makes the job tiring. Most clients are fine, some even become good friends, but every so often you get someone who will make your life hell for the duration of the tour.

If they haven’t been to Latin America before, is there one place that everyone should see before they die?

The obvious answer is the ancient Incan citadel of Machu Picchu in Peru, but I rate Patagonia (the south of Chile and Argentina), with its jagged mountains, opal-coloured lakes, huge glaciers and outstanding hiking opportunities, more highly. Visit both places!

Do you have a tip for an undiscovered gem that people should visit?

I love Nicaragua, which still undeservedly has a bad name due to Contra War in the 80s. The beautiful colonial architecture of Granada and Leon, the spectacular chain of volcanoes that hugs the Pacific coastline, the region’s largest lakes, and most importantly, the warmest and most likeable of all Latin American people I’ve come across, combine to make it a real gem for the adventurous traveller.

Not too many travellers go to Belize either, which has the second largest reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef and therefore world class snorkeling and diving (in one day I snorkeled with manatees, sharks, rays, turtles, eels and lost count of the different species of fish we saw). Belize also has some of the best archaeological sites in the Mayan world, which are far less visited than their counterparts in Mexico and Guatemala.

What makes a good tour guide?

Having a lot of patience with difficult clients is absolutely essential. Understanding that you can’t please everybody all the time and not letting that upset you when things go wrong. Trying to go that extra mile and make the unexpected things happen. The two key ingredients to a successful trip are excellent weather and a nice group of tourists. Without either of these two elements the guide will struggle.

When things are in your favour, a good guide stands out because they thrown in hidden surprises – a restaurant where the locals eat that isn’t in the guide books, getting tickets for the cup final in the Maracana or the Azteca, stopping off at a Inca site no-one had heard of and wasn’t in the itinerary, producing stockings on Christmas morning on top of a Mayan pyramid or a bottle of wine at the end of a long hike – the little touches that are the icing on top of the cake. That’s what people remember their guides for, and how you can exceed people’s expectations.

What makes a good tourist?

Realising that things go wrong, and not complaining about them too much when they do. Trains and planes are often late in the UK, and more luggage goes missing in Heathrow than in any other major airport in the world, so when the same things happen in Latin America a client who takes the rough with the smooth is infinitely easier to deal with than someone who complains incessantly.

Things will go wrong – for example in Chile recently there’s been a massive volcanic eruption that’s cancelled hundreds of flights in the region, and last year the country was hit by one of the strongest earthquakes ever recorded, yet some clients will complain to their guides about things that are often completely out of our control. I had a group last year who missed Machu Picchu due to landslides, yet they didn’t complain at all, and said they’d had a great trip afterwards. They were good tourists.

Do you have any advice for other Warwick graduates looking to follow in your footsteps?

For someone who studied Comparative American Studies, especially with a slant on Latin America, it is a great way to continue your passion for the region and to explore more of the places you loved so much during your exchange year. I had planned to do a Masters course at Cambridge before a friend pointed out that I’d learn more about Latin America by being in Latin America than I would do by being in Cambridge.

For a Spanish graduate, it’s a fantastic way to travel and use your language skills.

It’s a job with plenty of transferable skills – group management and leadership, translating and interpreting, organizational skills, people skills, and you become tremendously confident and independent.

Most importantly, it’s a job that all of my colleagues love doing, which is incredibly addictive, and makes all your friends green with envy.

Peter Selman

“My final memory of Warwick is chatting about football with one of the greatest writers alive”