Why do we travel? Why do we leave the comfort and familiarity of home to experience life in a different culture, climate or time zone? In this digital age where the simple click of a button instantly opens windows all over the world, what makes travel relevant?
Teachers are now able to travel around the globe with their students without needing a valid passport, up to date shots or worrying about lost luggage. The magic of virtual reality headsets allows us to walk the Great Wall of China or climb the Eiffel Tower and still be back in time for lunch. While virtual field trips help to pique a student’s interest in the world that lays beyond their doorstep, in order to really experience a culture they need to lace up their shoes, pack their bags and set foot in a foreign land.
Over my sixteen years of teaching I have lead multiple trips to Europe, as well as various states all over the USA. I have toured with students who could help a stranger find their way in a foreign city all the while remaining in the target language, while others have struggled with asking how to find the toilet. At the end of the trip, when their souvenirs are safely packed away and we are headed home, nearly all of my students; regardless of language abilities, will say that they have had a life changing experience. Travel has the ability to transform us if we are open to it.
But in order to have a life changing experience you first need to get to your destination. I have handled the logistics on some of my trips and relied upon tour companies for others, especially the international ones. I find it a bit daunting to organize the nuances that come with student travel; planning the flights, hotels, restaurants and ground transportation, all the while staying afloat with being a full time teacher and mom seems impossible.
So, like many other educators, I rely on travel companies to take care of the behind the scenes work that is vital to the success of any trip. For my trip this past June I traveled with EF Educational Tours.
We landed in Paris without much hassle, hopped on another plane to Nice, waited in long lines to go through customs, had a brief Nick Jonas sighting which then sparked a long debate as to if it really was him, walked around Nice and finally arrived at our hotel. After a long first day of traveling and touring, I wanted nothing more than to finish bed checks, shower and sleep. Luck however, was not on my side. Before even reaching my door I heard my name being called. “Madame? My roommate is stuck in our room.” I approached the door and saw the handle stuck in downward position. After instructing the student to try it from his side, it was apparent that I would need to get another key and try it from my side.
But the door wouldn’t budge, not for me, nor the front desk clerk, nor a fellow chaperone. It was stuck, the lock broken. Time marched slowly on and all thoughts of an early bedtime were erased from my mind as we waited in intermittent darkness for the building manager to show up. I had tried calling my tour guide, but to no avail. When the manager did arrive he looked at the door and sighed, “Le 214, encore! C’est la troisième fois ce mois.” (Room 214 again! This is the third time this month.) Turns out this hotel had an issue with the locks on the doors breaking; this was the second door that he was going to have to break down in a month.
The building manager picked up a sledgehammer and I told my student to go to the opposite side of his bed and sit down to avoid any debris that might come in. It was nearly midnight when my student was finally released from his room. I was proud of how well he handled the situation, not letting his fear or his frustration take hold; he was even able to smile about it as he rolled his suitcase past the remains of the door. It was a long first day.
No one else got stuck in a hotel room for the rest of the trip, but our resiliency was put to the test during the height of a French heat wave.
The bus company that EF had hired to transport us around France kept their prices low by running faulty busses. While we were told that we would be traveling throughout the country on a ‘comfortable motor-coach’ with air conditioning our reality was a far cry from the smiling pictures that filled the brochures.
When we climbed on the bus for an eight-hour transfer day the heat was already starting to shimmer off the blacktop. As the numbers climbed on the thermometer outside, the temp inside the bus was exacerbated by the lack of air movement. No air was blowing through the vents and it was impossible to open the windows. Any air conditioning that we had felt the first few days was long gone. We pointed out the lack of air movement to our tour guide and he was adamant that there was a breeze coming out of the vents, but after a few hours of sweat dripping down his face and back, he admitted that it wasn’t working and called the bus company. When our driver talked to his boss he said that we were overreacting, because according to his instruments it was in the low 80’s on the bus.
It was not. As the temp outside hit close to 100 it continued to rise on the bus, due in a large part to our inability to open any windows whatsoever. New to Snapchat, and slightly obsessed with the filters, I took a selfie showing the outside temp, a scorching 98 degrees Fahrenheit, inside it was at least ten degrees warmer.
I began to worry about my students’ health in the heat, they all looked exhausted and sweaty. When it was apparent nothing was going to change I called EF’s emergency number. A polite woman answered the phone and told me she would look into what was going on. When she called back she informed me that there was nothing EF could do about the bus because there was not another one we could rent in the entire country. We would just have to drink more water and stop more often to use the bathrooms since the toilet on the bus was locked shut.
So we stopped, rested, ate ice cream and drank cold water, adding another two hours of travel onto our already long day. I kept a close eye on my students who were dealing with heat exhaustion and when we finally arrived at our hotel we were excited to shower off the day’s heat and sweat and partake in the annual Festival of Music. As I hopped off the sticky, and by now, very smelly bus I couldn’t wait for the cold chill, or even slightly cool air to envelope me in the hotel lobby. But our hotel had no air conditioning either.
As we lugged our bags up the stairs I heard cheers from students’ rooms when they saw fans and began calling out who got to stand in front of it first. I opened my door, thrilled at the thought of sitting in front of some moving air, but was instead met with a wall of heat, for only those whose rooms were at the very top of the hotel got fans, the rest of us got nothing but heat producing lights.
After a quick bath in ice cold water I felt a little better and realized how famished I had become. When I entered the dining room I made sure to snag a spot next to one of two very coveted fans and waited for dinner to be served. To my surprise this hotel ended up having one of the best meals we ate during our time in France.
The regional salmon dish that graced our plates helped relieve some of the misery we had endured from the bus trip and was a refreshing change of pace from the multiple meals of chicken and fries we had been served up to this point. Part of what makes traveling an all-encompassing culture experience is the ability to try local foods. Regional cuisine marries the language to the culture and makes everything come alive. This is why it is so important for our students to try as much local fare as they can and why it was such a disappointment that the majority of meals that EF arranged were all about get in, shove food down, and get out.
Since our dinners were lack luster my students used their free time to explore local cuisine during their lunch breaks. It was not uncommon for me to see them in a restaurant asking what the daily specials were, all phones in a pile on the table in front of them so they could focus on food and conversation.
When all is said and done, all bags are packed, all reviews are finalized; it comes down to this: did my students experience more with their feet on the ground than they ever could have with their eyes through a headset? The answer is quite simply yes, for nothing in the virtual world can hold a candle to the fire that is displayed in a student’s eye when describing a life changing moment during their trip. It is this fire that rekindles my own desire to venture across borders, meet new people, and learn new things.
Will I take another group of students to France? Will they discover new things about themselves and the world around them? Yes. Will there be air conditioning and regional food? Well I certainly hope so! If not I’ve got a mini travel fan and an affinity for trying daily lunch specials, but I think I’ll leave my crowbar at home.