Why hasn’t anyone made a reality show about a Contiki tour? It’s like Big Brother on wheels. All the elements are there – tears, laughter, bitching, bonding, binge drinking, same-sex snogging, indiscriminate shagging. And instead of a boring little house the action takes place in some of the world’s greatest cities.
It starts out just like the first episode of BB, all staggering in beneath their luggage, circling each other like nervous sharks. Over dinner you play Where Are You From And What Do You Do, with an additional round of Where Have You Traveled And How Cheaply Did You Do It. Everyone scrambles to make a good impression, to appear as funny and engaging as possible, while simultaneously making snap judgments as to who they will avoid or try to bed for the next three weeks.
It’s a loud and blurry meal. Some try to stamp their personalities all over the table; some hold back, shredding napkins with an anxious whisper, You are here because it is the most time and cost-effective way of seeing Russia and some other exciting places.
Unlike Big Brother, there’s no weekly task to create a sense of team spirit. Instead you slowly bond with activities like Interpreting Swedish Menus or How To Get To The Bus On Time With Crippling Hangover. Sitting for seven hours on a coach through the dullest of Scandinavian highways also helps people to open up. You sit beside a random person and talk and talk and talk, sifting through the minutiae of your lives until you find at least one thing in common.
Once you add alcohol to the mix, the group is tight. After two hours in an All You Can Eat And Drink smorgasbord, everyone is relaxed, all the bullshit and bravado falls away to leave some blossoming friendships. You have a history now. You have in-jokes and catchphrases and “remember when?” moments.
The descent to Planet Contiki is complete. It’s like the moment in Big Brother when you realise the contestants are completely immersed into life in the house; they have forgotten the outside world exists. What job? What girlfriend? The other people on the tour have become your family; the tour bus is your home. You fall into a cosy routine – wake up in dodgy hotel, congregate for breakfast, stumble to bus, explore a beautiful town, meet up again in the evening to compare notes and souvenirs, head to the bar, head to bed… new day, new city. It is obscenely fun and addictive.
But then come The Intruders. Just like on BB, they drop in new kids to shake things up. In our case it was 29 people in Helsinki. They had been on a longer trip through Scandinavia and now joined our wee group for the Russia part. It was awkward and terrifying, suddenly plucked from our comfort zones, the precious little worlds we’d created.
The two factions stood on opposite sides of the room and eyed each other like wary teenagers at a school disco. We were fiercely protective of our group; they were nestled happily in theirs. All the vodka in Finland couldn’t spark some genuine bonding. Our original group quietly moaned about “the good old days”, even though “the good old days” had only existed for the previous week. As the tour wore on, we mingled somewhat, but I’m sure one side would have voted out the other, if that were allowed.
In the last week, fatigue kicks in and facades begin to crack. Unlike BB you don’t have a million bucks to motivate you to be nice. Another fucking city, another fucking church, another fucking group photo. Some people genuinely thrive in an 24/7 party environment, but some people cannot fucking STAND it and want some GODDAMN SPACE and wish that girl with the voice like kittens being disemboweled would STOP singing ‘Welcome To The Jungle’ on long bus trips otherwise she is going to be whacked over the head with a bottle of black market vodka. This may well have been The Most Time And Cost Effective Means Of Seeing Russia And Some Other Exciting Places but it also the most Bloody Exhausting.
But it’s all over before you can say Ill-Advised One Night Stand. There are tearful goodbyes and promises to meet up for pints with the people you genuinely adored and hope to know for the rest of your life. There are stiff hugs and promises to meet up for a pint with the people you wanted to bitchslap.
Re-entry to the Real World is painful. You wake up and there’s no breakfast waiting for you, no itinerary, no exciting new city to explore, no 30p vodka shots, no everlasting vat of friends who know nothing about you except for your zany holiday persona. You long to go back but the world you were immersed in for the past three weeks no longer exists. You feel lost and unimportant. The only difference between you and a clapped out BB contestant is that there’s no nightclub appearances or tabloid photographers to make you feel halfway special.