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It's Not Just a Job: Portrait of a Travel Guide

By  Brendan Sainsbury June 22, 2009

Travel guiding is not a profession known for its six-figure salaries or pension benefits. In fact, sticking with it requires a certain passion. Pro guide Andy has it—and he's changing lives.

It's one of those cool and ethereal Moroccan evenings in early autumn and tour guide Andy McKee—accompanied by a group of fifteen tired but inquisitive travellers—is hiking the precipitous trail up to the village of Tijhza. They wind through a landscape of dusty browns and copper reds, the square flat-roofed houses stacked up like cardboard boxes on the hillside.

Goats bleat from distant mountain crags and the wail of a muezzin drifts plaintively over the fields below.

The party rounds a corner and enters a smaller valley of green irrigated pastures punctuated by a red-hued minaret and a scattering of humble abodes. Somewhere in the near distance lays a dusty and sloping soccer pitch and beside it a group of children have gathered as if awaiting the group's impending arrival.

"Andy! Andy! Ça va? Andy!" they all yell in unison as the travellers approach, sprinting towards them like a herd of stampeding cattle. The two parties converge and out of the throng steps a ringleader, a mischievous ten-year old with a scratched and pockmarked piece of plastic tucked under his arm that may once, in some previous life, have been a soccer ball.

"Hey Andy", he says innocently, "You wanna play football?"

An old stalwart in a profession not renowned for its longevity, Andy McKee first cut his teeth as a tour guide here in Morocco. In the five years since, he's led groups of travellers in more than fifteen other countries but the memories of his first magical posting in North Africa have proved hard to dislodge.

"One of the most frequent questions I am asked is: what is your favourite place?" Andy tells me recently during a brief rendezvous in Vancouver. "For me the answer is simple and instant: the little Berber settlement of Tijhza in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco."

And after making so many trips to that part of the world, he says he's made a lot of friends amongst the Berber villagers. "Most of them were under 15," he remembers fondly, "and the reason was pure and simple: soccer."

I was able to see Andy's influence firsthand for a brief period in the summer of 2002, when I had the dubious honour of replacing him as a travel guide in Morocco's rugged south. The task wasn't exactly easy. Andy's "Bend it like Beckham" prowess on the soccer field had earned him cult status amongst the local children. To them there was no substitute—Andy was simply irreplaceable.

Always a great leveler, the game of soccer has a way of cutting through barriers of language, politics, economic poverty, and opening doors to the cultural riches that lie beyond.

"What started out as a kick around with Yousef, the boy next door quickly blossomed into a regular full-scale match between the travellers and the local schoolteachers and senior pupils," Andy recalls. "The school has consequently become an important part of the village tour and many a client has been persuaded to part with their dirhams to buy pens, books, and toothbrushes for the school kids."

"The beauty of being a tour leader over a traveller or a tourist is that you really get under a skin of a country and make genuine friends with the locals," says Andy with obvious passion. "Often I find that I enjoy a country much more on the third or fourth visit. I get to understand what makes it tick whilst forming relationships with the local people."

It's these special relationships that have come to shape Andy's tours. For people like him the role of travel guide goes much deeper than just pointing out the architectural details on Marrakech's Koutoubia Mosque or commentating through a microphone during a city coach tour of Casablanca. It is about understanding the country right down to its vibrant pulsating heart.

"Travelling for me is the greatest educational tool", he reflects thoughtfully, "Particularly at the moment with all the emphasis on debt relief and environmental issues—you get to see things first hand and experience the nitty-gritty."

From Andy's experience, he's convinced that taking groups to developing countries really can help the local people. He points to a trust that develops over time between him and the community that goes a long way toward breaking down barriers.

"The sense of responsibility [toward the community] that you carry with you inevitably rubs off on the clients," he adds.

Andy's career as a guide has taken him cycling through Cuba and hiking through Spain. He's followed the legendary Silk Road through Asia to Beijing, led a river safari in Zambia and travelled the famous Trans Siberian Railway. But of all the places in the world he's travelled to, his heart still belongs to Morocco.

In September 2004, Andy's chance to return came when he persuaded his employers to hand over their most challenging task to date: a two week tour through the mountains of Southern Morocco, This time his clients—all fifteen of them—were visually impaired.

"The visually impaired trip reinvigorated my career somewhat as, from a selfish point of view; it gave me a different angle," he confesses. "Of all the trips I have done in the last five years, the clients I had on the Moroccan venture were the most enjoyable and rewarding. Their attitude to travelling was incredible - they were determined to take everything at face value and treat each different place as they found it. They even taught me how to read Braille."

In retrospect, the task wasn't as difficult as it first appeared. Morocco, as regular aficionados will know, is a full-on sensory experience; a riotous cocktail of pungent market aromas and ancient desert Kasbahs, hot with a whiff of Moorish mystery. Whilst Andy may have acted as the group's indispensable sighted aid, the tastes, smells and sounds that permeate the spice-laden streets of Islamic Africa's bustling heart can have an intoxicating effect on first-time visitors—visually impaired or not.

After the unqualified success of that trip, Andy went on to take a group of disabled youngsters to Egypt on a trip called the "Desert Sinai Adventure". On paper it was a hugely ambitious project that involved everything from snorkeling excursions to horse riding, but Andy managed to adapt the itinerary as he went along and fell back on the greatest weapon in any tour leader's armoury: spontaneity.

"There were some challenges. For example, when it came to the snorkelling, hardly any of the youngsters could swim so we had to book a glass bottomed boat instead. But ultimately, the disabled kids have such a lovely attitude to travelling, that all you have to do is keep them smiling—it doesn't really matter how."

Asked if he runs these trips differently than ones he's led in the past, Andy replies that, aside from some minor differences, the itinerary is the same and the clients like to be treated just like any other group.

"They don't mind you making silly mistakes like 'As you can see' or 'Look over there' as they are used to that. Consequently all you need to do is relax and do your normal job."

He says that guiding the group of disabled youngsters was slightly more challenging for him.

"Without getting too protective, you have to take a more relaxed approach and try not to be too rigid. Obstacles are inevitable, but the kids are used to this and tend to be very patient. It's more a case of planning ahead and being realistic about what you can achieve every day."

"Tourists," the travel writer, Paul Theroux once wrote, "never know where they've been; travellers never know where they are going." And there's a certain rationale in these wise words. You journey, you experience, but do you ever really arrive?

Andy's not so sure, but there's one thing that he is certain of. His future direction is fashioned by two considerations: the positive rewards of being able to make a difference, and the prospect of developing more ventures for travellers with special needs.

He has already kick-started things with the initiation of a latrine-building project in the Moroccan village of Tijhza and the charities involved in Andy's trips for travellers with special needs have been quick to recognize his skill as both a planner and host. His services are in ever greater demand. So much so, he has even started to design his own tours.

Already in the pipeline is a trip through Sri Lanka's famous tea trails on tandem bikes with a group of visually impaired travellers. After that, he's back to Morocco with a group of disabled youngsters on a trip organized through UK-based charity, Vitalise.

"You'll be going to Tijhza?" I ask

"Of course."

"And the soccer matches?"

Andy laughs and reverts quickly back to his legendary spontaneity.

"Let's just say: we'll throw a round plastic object up into the air and see what happens."

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Published in Work Abroad

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