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July 23-24, 2008 L-grup muadrn

BerberVille is being visited by some American high school students. They’re here as part of a month-long trip through Morocco. I don’t know why more groups don’t stop here – as the coolest spot in the country, it’s really the only part of Morocco that makes sense to visit in July. The kids’ previous stop was in the Sahara. Camel riding = fun. Camel riding in 140* beating sun = mostly miserable.

But now they’re here. BerberVille, brace yourself…

I’ve gotten to chat with several of the students, and have been largely impressed with them. They’re bright, eager, and genuinely interested in the culture of Morocco.

I’m less impressed with the organization that brought them here. It’s built on a constructivist model, which is educational jargon meaning that the students are responsible for “creating their own experience,” ie nothing but a sketchy itinerary is prepared in advance; everything else is determined by the collective will of 12 high school juniors and seniors. In other words, whatever they choose is what happens.

Constructivist learning* works fantastically well in many circumstances; the school where I spent my final year teaching was a big believer in it, and led to some amazing projects from the students. For that matter, my Peace Corps service is essentially constructivist: I’m finding the intersection of my skills with the needs of my community and creating projects where I can make a difference. However, international travel is not a good place to let teenagers grope their own way forwards. There are just too many logistical details that need to be considered in order to have a successful venture. Because those logistics are left to the whims of high schoolers, things get … overlooked.

My family has taken to calling this group l-grup muadrn, which means “The group of crazy people.”

For example: Mountain guides. The group leaders had talked to Baba about taking them out to meet some nomads in the mountains around Berberville. He was willing – as a certified guide, he not only speaks half a dozen languages and has memorized every trail within a 30 mile radius, he also keeps tabs on the nomad population as well as migrating birds and wildlife. But when l-grup muadrn got here, the students talked to several other people claiming to be guides, and ended up choosing a different person to lead them on their expedition. The man they chose is not a certified guide, doesn’t know where the nomads are, and really doesn’t know the mountain all that well. He promised to help the students “search for” the nomads; I don’t know how their search turned out, led as they were by an unskilled and possibly incompetent guide, but I hope everyone got back safe.

Another example: Lodgings. “Fatima”, my fellow BerberVille PCV, had made reservations for l-grup muadrn at a hotel in town. There are several hotels, and this is the cheaper of the two nicer ones, so Peace Corps Volunteers have used it on a number of occasions, both to house visiting family members and for work-related reasons. Over the years, PCVs have built up a relationship with the buhotel, the owner/manager. Fatima had to lean heavily on that relationship, because every time we’ve heard from l-grup muadrn in the past month, they’ve changed what they wanted. First they wanted hotel rooms. Then they wanted to rent out the big salon and all sleep in that shared space. So Fatima apologized profusely for the confusion and change in plans, and got the buhotel to agree to rent out the salon, even though it’s not generally available. Then they wanted to shift the reservation by a night, because they’d been delayed in their travel by rampant illness. So Fatima goes back to the hotel, apologizes again, and changes the reservation. Then they arrive in town…and choose a different hotel. Where they’re in hotel rooms, not a salon. So Fatima has to apologize profusely to the buhotel one last time, for canceling the reservation altogether, and hope that he doesn’t bear a grudge.

Oh, and before they chose their hotel, they had to evaluate all the options, which meant that not only did they go to every hotel in town and ask for room prices, they also knocked on random doors and asked housewives how much they would charge to have a group of Americans sleep on their floor.

Maybe that works in bigger cities, but here in the bled, it’s utterly unacceptable. The law of hospitality decrees that shelter and food be provided to anyone who asks – but you don’t charge for it, except in unusual circumstances, and you virtually always know the person who is asking for it. People *still* talk about the Volunteer from five or six years ago who went around, knocking on doors and introducing herself to families in town. And she lived here.

And don’t even get me started on the way they treated the lovely woman who had agreed to make them lunch in her home. But I will say that they ended up paying her barely 2/3 of the agreed-upon price, after she’d gone so far above and beyond what they’d expected that I’d thought they’d give her a bonus.

After talking with the kids, I’m convinced that they don’t have any idea how much their whim-driven choices are affecting the people they meet. They think that they are “travelers”, not “tourists”, because they’re savoring the “experience” and not just checking items off of a must-see list.

But after witnessing the fallout from their visit, on transit drivers, hotel owners, shop keepers, mountain guides, restaurant owners, co-op members, and housewives, I’ve developed a new definition for “tourist”: someone who feels entitled to have their every whim fulfilled by foreign nationals. Tourists feel entitled. Travelers respect the people and cultures they encounter.

I don’t blame the students. They made mistakes out of ignorance. I’ve certainly made my share of those here, too. But I do blame the group leaders (one Moroccan, one former Peace Corps Volunteer, and one mountaineer). They should know better. Letting kids blunder around and learn from their mistakes is one thing; letting young people inconvenience and offend dozens of strangers is quite another.

* The secret to successful constructivist learning is Building Background Knowledge. When I was teaching, I spent a lot of time learning how to Build the Background Knowledge of my students so that they were set up to succeed in their self-directed learning. These poor high school students aren’t given enough Background Knowledge to be able to succeed at planning their trip. And they also don’t know how to speak the languages of Morocco, so I can’t imagine how they’re supposed to learn what they need to, here. (A few had studied Classical Arabic in the US, but that only works with highly educated people, of which there are very few out here in the bled.) Among other things, the kids were tasked with arranging transportation between BerberVille and The Big Apple. When I heard that, I took pity on them and spelled out what they need to do. Did I cheat and “give them” the answers they were supposed to construct? Yeah, probably. But there are four different legs to the journey between here and there, and there’s no directory anywhere that publishes the list of waystations. There’s not even a transportation building here in BerberVille where they could expect to find someone who would know. What were they supposed to do, wander around town hoping that they’d bump into someone who knew how to get to The Big Apple and could explain it to them in language they could understand?? I’d learned the route from PCVs who had been here longer, and I shared the fruits of my learning with the kids. I also told them how much they should expect to pay for each part of the trip, so they wouldn’t get ripped off by unscrupulous drivers. Another example: the kids had to choose what food – and how much – to get for a three day, two night hike. I’ve been living on my own for about a decade, and I still don’t know exactly how much I’ll eat in three days. I buy food and then buy more when I run out. How are these students supposed to know how many tomatoes, loaves of bread, etc to purchase for a group of hungry teenagers? Especially when they’ll be carrying it all on their backs? I’m hardly the most organized person around, but I still think that this group is dangerously unstructured.

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Think local. Act global. Learn more about the Peace Corps