We didn’t overpower him or wrestle him to the ground. But with the help of another passenger on our tour bus, my husband and I did have to take the keys from the driver, commandeer the vehicle and find our way back to the remote French country house where we were staying. Along the way, as you might imagine, I picked up a few travel safety tips.
1. Trust Your Instincts – If Something Doesn’t Feel Right, It Probably Isn’t
We were collected at the country house by a charming and professional tour guide. He was driving a Mercedes touring van with right-hand drive. Turns out he was an English historian. He knew marvelous details about each of the places we passed and the sites we were headed to. His itinerary was carefully planned and we arrived at our first few stops exactly on time. But it was after that very first stop at a roadside museum, when I could have sworn I smelled alcohol as I passed him on the pavement. Of course that was impossible, I told myself. It was only 9:00 a.m. – and he was a professional.
After our next stop I smelled it again. I mentioned it casually to my husband, doubting myself even as I heard the words come out. By now it was 10:00 a.m. (Maybe it’s his mouthwash, or his aftershave…)
I began to analyze his behavior, trying to find any clue that might help me confirm or deny my suspicions. His speech sounded a little slurred. (Maybe he had a slight speech impediment?) He stumbled once while walking . (The fields were wildly uneven.) He repeated portions of his presentation over and over. (Who hasn’t done that?) And his driving seemed slightly erratic, as well. (But to be fair, the roads were narrow and hard to maneuver.)
After lunch, his behavior became more obvious and the smell had become overpowering. At one point he even showed us a bottle of beer he was drinking from. He insisted it was non-alcoholic beer – and he offered me one! That’s when I noticed that there were at least two six-packs of beer in the back of the van, covered by blankets. Later, I came to suspect that he had bottles of stronger stuff stashed in file boxes alongside his tour materials, too. He’d been cleverly sneaking drinks at every stop.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Take Action — But It Helps If You Have a Plan
At the next stop, I finally mentioned something to another passenger, a medical doctor. I was almost embarrassed, but to my relief that she had the same worries. She had also been trying to rationalize whether or not a professional tour operator could actually be taking this kind of risk with passengers in his van. Now, with two of us coming to same conclusion, we agreed we needed a plan.
It was already time to get on the bus again. (In retrospect, we should have taken action much sooner.) At the next stop, we agreed that we no longer felt safe with our guide driving. (He’d seemed to swerve directly toward an oncoming tractor-trailer at one point!) We knew we would have to confront him.
My husband said that he could drive the tour van.
By now the driver was holding onto a nearby gate in order to appear stable, but he was also urging us back on the bus. After a slight hesitation, I told him that none of us would get back on board unless he agreed to move to one of the passenger seats. At first, he didn’t argue. But as we tried to guide him toward the van, he belligerently stopped and opened another beer. The doctor stepped in. She asked him to pour out the beer. After some strong words and a long gulp he agreed, then she helped him into the front passenger seat.
By this time, we were about 40 miles away from the manoir we’d started from — and we’d not arrived via clearly marked highways. Many of the roads seemed more like private drives or country paths than thoroughfares. I knew for a fact that I wouldn’t be able to navigate home.
My husband was convinced he could do it. We helped him locate certain landmarks he’d remembered from the journey out. Along the way, our former leader nodded off to sleep over and over. A couple of times, he woke up and tried to convince us that we’d missed our turn, or (oddly) that we needed to go immediately to the train station.
Later, my husband told me that he’d had his own internal planning session during the drive. As we helped him look for landmarks, he’d been planning what to do if the drunk beside him suddenly tried to take the wheel during one of those half-awake moments.
And the adventure wasn’t completely over yet.
As my husband turned the van into the alleé that lead to the country house, our half-conscious guide suddenly reached over and pulled the emergency break. Angrily, he ordered us out of the van.
“Alright,” he said, “All of you. Get out. From here, you walk.”
We grabbed our belongings and began walking down the narrow road. Our instincts were on high alert as the van idled behind us.
Together, as we walked, we made a plan for what to do if the annoyed guide suddenly decided to run us down. There were small hills and trees on each side of the narrow road and we agreed that if we heard gravel crunching or a motor revving, we would each run in different directions, up a hill, and take cover behind a tree. We reasoned this would at least slow him down and cushion any impact.
The driver stayed in the van with the engine running, in the same spot where he’d evicted us. We had no idea what he was thinking or doing, but with our backs to him, we kept walking at a calm pace, not wanting to do anything that might set him off. None of us dared look back.
After several long minutes, one of the farm’s big harvesting combines pulled into the road, easing the tension, as the piece of equipment came between us and the still-idling tour van.
The last we saw of it, the tour van was being backed out of the allee to allow the tractor to pass.