As a former teacher and tour guide/tour manager, I take both students and adults across Europe (and formerly India and North Africa). When I taught History in a secondary school in London, the History department had never taken the students out, even into London. Why? Because of the level of paperwork and health and safety assessments and the threat of what might happen should anything go wrong. I was the first to take the students out. I am also a proud aunt to two fabulous little girls, so I have some sense of what it feels like from the parents’ point of view. I write this not to criticise, but to provoke a conversation about how blame culture is preventing the next generations from really living.
Living not existing
Today I watched a TED talk https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kidwSFte8-E (one of my guilty pleasures, up there with Snickers ice creams, but better as it develops my mind rather than my waistline) by the youngest person to have travelled to every single country in the world, Lexie Alford; a twenty-one year old American girl who is truly impressive. She spoke about getting out of her comfort zone and how we should all do the same. Leave the routine behind and embrace our fears. She said that in all the time she spent travelling there was only one occasion she felt in fear for her life, whilst in the Yemen. And this was because she mistook the gunfire from a wedding party for an act of aggression, so it was a cultural misunderstanding rather than a need for fear. In short, she encompasses how I feel about travel.
Similarly, today I spoke to a friend of mine working with American students who come to Barcelona (where I live) for a semester or so and she said that she was taking the students out to Sitges, a resort town nearby where people go to enjoy the lovely beaches and sea. However, the students were not allowed in the sea. Why? Because of the heat wave. Because if they were ‘kept under the sun’ then that could be construed as the fault of the company and they might be sued. Never mind that these were not three year olds, but college age students who were presumably capable of mentioning if they felt they had spent too much time in the sun. Never mind that part of becoming an adult is about assessing risk for yourself and being a responsible adult means looking after yourself.
This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario in travel. A focus on existing rather than living. Yes, at the end of it no lives are lost, but then again, no lives were lived either. It is representative of a larger problem and one I have written about before. Fear. Fear is used to control. It’s used to sell and most of all it’s there to prevent. It prevents you from doing, from being, from living. If the purpose of our lives is to eliminate risk entirely, we also run the risk of eliminating living entirely. And yet, in the travel world, unfortunately far too many school boards and their teachers, for (a very rational) fear of being sued, prevent students from really being able to experience life when they travel. Clearly there is no need for unnecessary risk, but if we are at the stage whereby students are prevented from activities, particularly like going in the water on a hot day, then perhaps it’s time to reflect upon why we encourage young people to travel. If we impose boundaries and limits on the way in which they can explore and live, how much ‘travelling’ are they really doing?
Students themselves often turn up fearful. I ask them to actually detail their fears and they rarely can. They just feel scared at the unknown, believing the world to be a big, bad place. The absolute opposite is true. The problem is the twenty-four hour rolling news cycle which people perceive as ‘reality TV’ and the crimes reported on as a common occurrence.
Parents are understandably worried about their children. My mother still doesn’t like my going hiking alone, at the grand old age of 42, and I can understand her fear. But I have experienced the very best in human nature precisely because of being alone. The moment I reached the top of a Greek mountain without water because I forgot it at the bottom. By the time I realised it was too late to go back and retrieve it but a kind German who gave me almost his entire supply. As well as being my Insta boyfriend for half an hour 😉 Or the group of guys I met who guided me through the slot canyons that I would definitely not have found nor been able to navigate alone (they had to haul me through various parts) and who then helped me with my flat tyre in one of America’s national parks in Utah.