Class trip to Sicily a learning experience for editor


Carribbean editor Gay Nagle Myers traveled far from turquoise waters for this story. She visited Sicily, which is now her new favorite island, and college students are her traveling companions of choice. Here is her report:

Sea urchins on sales.TAORMINA, Sicily -- After 30 years in this business, I thought I knew a lot about travel. On a recent trip to Sicily, I learned a lot about travelers, especially young adults. And I learned it from the travelers themselves.

The destination, although spectacular in every way, was secondary to the group with whom I traveled for nine days through Sicily's countryside, villages and ruins.

My "teachers" were 20-year-old college students -- 30 of them on a spring break research project as part of a photography/travel writing course at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I'd been invited along as a "distinguished guest," there to impart pearls of wisdom gleaned from my years in the biz.

Guess what? These kids taught me far more about the excitement of travel, energy levels, enthusiasm, opinions, powers of observation, risk taking, sleep deprivation, beer drinking and how to alleviate motorcoach monotony than I passed on to them about note taking and interview techniques.

The genesis of the trip was my daughter Jenn, a freshman at nearby Hampshire College, also in Amherst, who took the course at neighboring UMass. An off-hand comment to her professor that "my mom is a travel writer" mushroomed into an e-mail correspondence between the professor and me, and the invitation to join the group.

I was following in intimidating footsteps. Last year's distinguished guest was Betsy Wade, who writes for the New York Times travel section.

The students spent the first part of the spring semester studying camera techniques and the art of travel writing. Their assignment on the Sicily trip was to translate what they had learned in the classroom into photos and journals worthy of inclusion in the likes of National Geographic.

My assignment, which was open to interpretation from the outset, was to accompany this high-energy troupe, armed with my notebook and camera, and do show-and-tell along the way. My role evolved as we traveled.

A lot of the kids had never traveled outside the U.S. The trip, booked by Durgan Travel Service in Stoneham, Mass., covered air, hotel, daily breakfasts, a tour guide and sightseeing fees. It did not include the cost of beer, ice cream, Italian shoes and T-shirts. "What happened to all my lira?" was a wail heard frequently.

We encountered obstacles along the way that might have sent even seasoned travelers into near panic -- but not these kids. For example, a couple of misplaced passports, broken cameras, lost tripods, insufficient funds, ATMs that ate their credit cards, an expired green card and a train robbery of two of the students failed to dampen spirits.

A coed came down with a vicious viral infection that necessitated two in-room visits from the attractive male Sicilian doctor on call at our hotel. This triggered a flood of imagined maladies when the other girls set eyes on Dr. Right.

A specific problem, for which my counsel was sought, had to do with the confusion among some of the girls that arose regarding time zone changes. ("When do I take my [birth control] pill?") Other issues dealt with the discovery of chocolate condoms in a souvenir store ("Can I bring them back into the U.S.?") and how to handle the Sicilian males who whistled, hissed and whispered in their presence.

But then there were the cultural questions that peppered all conversations from both the guys and the girls. Questions like: "How come we can't take pictures of the old women?" "How did Mount Etna gets its name?" "Why is gas so expensive?" "How did the Greeks build all this without tools?" "How come there are so many artichokes here?" "Why can't we rent a motorcycle?"

This was an unconventional tour with unplanned stops. The kids cheered the frequent "bus-offs" (encounters with large motorcoaches approaching each other from opposite directions on narrow roads with heart-stopping S-turns). They decided unanimously that the sound of bus horns rounding curves is the sound of Sicily.

Rick Newton, the UMass journalism teacher who led the group, came up with a one-time-use-only "Stop the Bus" pass for each student. (The adults did not get a pass, which led to begging, bartering, bribing and groveling by the grown-ups in the group.)

The coveted pass was used only at an opportune moment, not on the itinerary. A voice from the back of the bus would call out, "I want to use my pass." Unless we were on a major highway, Valentino, the driver, had to play by the rules and pull over. The kids tumbled out of the bus to jump wooden fences and follow sheep or scale stone bridges for camera angles or sprawl at a sidewalk cafe for espressos and timeouts.

Laundry in Sicily.Their eyes opened mine to photo ops, such as Mamma Mia's floured hands deep in focaccia dough in her bakery, calico cats chewing on fish entrails at the market and laundry drying on sun-streaked balconies.

They spoke to everyone, even though most of them knew just a few words of Italian. Improvised sign and body language broke all barriers. They had few inhibitions and preconceptions. Prejudice was limited to pigeons ("They're disgusting, and they mess up statues") and certain professors back home ("He's clueless. That's what happens when you teach too long.")

They spouted opinions whether asked or not: "Amherst's pizza is much better than this stuff"; "Rosa [our tour guide] is cool. She divorced her husband because he wouldn't let her work."

They didn't waste time, but they could kick back and savor the moment. They listened to their Walkmans during long stretches of bus boredom, but they sketched the countryside or wrote in their journals at the same time.

By Day Three, I knew that although my spirit was willing, my body was tired. I matched them stride for stride through the ruins of Siracusa; the hills of the village of Taormina overlooking the Ionian Sea, our home base during the trip; the vineyards of Milo, and the lava trails on Mount Etna.

It was the dancing and the karaoke into the early hours at the local bars that wore me out. The economy of Taormina must have dipped sharply upon our group's departure. I'd forgotten the beer-drinking capacities of college students; yet everyone was on time for the 8 a.m. bus departure the following morning.

These students reminded me continually by their examples, their attitudes, their openness and their delight in being in a place they had never been before of something that Mark Twain wrote and that I'd forgotten -- that travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Another lesson learned.

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