This is a guest post written by Javier Parrilla Guix, an ACIS Tour Manager based in Barcelona, Spain.
Months have gone by since the world suddenly stopped and we don’t even know when it is going to start again. And yet, in these uncertain days, with all trips put on hold and stranded inside our homes, I have had the unique chance to reflect on what really makes being an educational tour manager such an incredible job.
As were so many of my colleagues, I was waiting for the winter to melt and the season to kick off. I was ready and so was everything. Barcelona’s Gothic quarter and Berlin’s Reichstag. The winding streets of Madrid, Toledo, Granada and Ronda. A myriad names of hotels, museums and monuments in distant, beautiful cities written on my calendar were awaiting me and my groups. On a list, more names of the groups coming and of their participants, names which did not tell me much yet, but I would become so familiar with in just a couple of days. Used to plan two or three month ahead, my agenda was busy all the way through until mid-June. That is, until time stopped and plans changed. Time to go with the flow.
As everyone knows, in Barcelona we are barely allowed to go out. So, one day, I decided to go up, that is, upstairs. All the way up to the rooftop terrace of my building, which I did not even know existed when I moved in a few months ago. I couldn’t believe that seven stories above my apartment a privileged view of my home town was waiting for me. There, in front of this quintessential Mediterranean tapestry of colorful rooftop terraces and balconies, facing the stopped cranes of Sagrada Familia basilica, the memories of the trips I have guided since I first started working as a tour manager crossed my mind.
“What makes traveling so special?” I asked to myself. “Why does it change our lives?”
If travel changes lives, I reckon it’s because it makes each and everyone of us embrace the unexpected. This is what I have seen in the eyes of the students meeting me for the first time at the airport to start our journey. They might have some sort of idea about the places we will be going to, but they will only get to know them once we get there.
Compared with a school term, setting off for a new country for 8 or 10 days may not seem such a long time. But the truth is that when you travel, time expands and learning becomes real.
Whether it is ordering in Spanish a chocolate con churros in Madrid’s centenary Chocolatería San Ginés, or being dazzled by the unreal light inside Cordoba’s Mosque-Cathedral, outside of their comfort zone students need to be creative and think outside the box. They are making a leap into the unknown.
Pedagogues like to use a specific term for this hands-on learning. They call it meaningful learning. It’s not a picture in a book. It’s not a text telling you what happened. You are there and it is talking to you.
Since I first guided an educational trip, I have come to realize that connecting with emotions and thus learning through experience works as if we were completing little by little a jigsaw: the pieces naturally start to match and the complete picture makes sense.
Immersed in this situation, learning happens constantly. Last April, I remember looking for the right spot to meet the group after a 30-minute break in the alleys of Barcelona’s old town. The Picasso museum happened to be too busy, and I finally pointed out an old wooden pharmacy sign nearby. Suddenly, I heard a student thinking out loud: “This pharmacy is twice as old as our country.” I smiled. The historic heritage of the old world and the contrast with America epitomized in a simple shop sign. I couldn’t have found a better way to phrase it.
What about these incredible moments when kids discover their passion for cities they barely knew they existed one week ago?
When they happen to connect with the passionate rhythms of flamenco dancers and singers, as if their tapping and voices were talking straight to them? Suddenly, magic happens. These are revealing moments, as if they had some sort of epiphany they wouldn’t have had, had they not crossed the pond.
A short while ago, I received an Instagram message on my phone from another student: “So I was watching Jeopardy and one of the questions was about Gothic architecture and I knew the answers thanks to you.” “Yes!” I said to myself. Messages like this mean the world to us. I am convinced she knew the answer because Gothic architecture was no longer something abstract for her, given the emotions she felt when she admired the magnificent Cathedrals of both Toledo and Seville.
The places we discover and experience will eventually start ticking inside us. Because of that, some will decide to study abroad in Heidelberg or London, others will find in the Romans and their aqueducts an interest in engineering, and a few more will eventually be impressed about the smaller size of the streets or about the food. There is no doubt, though, that all of them will go back home with a broader view of the world.
And not just that. I loved my first trips as a teenager, because –I thought– I was getting to know the world. And indeed, I was. Only some years after I came round to realize that by getting to know the world, though, I was actually getting to know myself better. Different parts of who I was. And as Saint Augustin once wrote: “No one at all loves things unknown”. Only those who know will end up loving.
Scanning Barcelona’s horizon from my privileged viewpoint, staying safe at home, waiting for the tide to turn, I know now that this is why I feel traveling is life-changing. I am convinced that once these difficult times will be finally over, we will go back to doing what we love most: embracing the unexpected, being a sort of bridge for students to have an amazing time and creating the circumstances for them to discover the world and themselves, no matter if in Barcelona, Berlin or Paris: wherever we go.
That, I feel, is what makes this such an amazing job.