I travel to learn. I think I’ve always travelled to learn — to learn about places and about people, to learn about the past and the present, to learn about the world. For me, learning holidays and educational travel are the most enriching forms of travel. They are what motivate me to move and represent the kind of travel I most love to do.
No other sort of travel excites me more. As much as I enjoy lying in the sun, if given only one chance to do something in Cambodia or Thailand, I’ll archaeological ruins at Angkor or in the Isaan, with a good reference book in hand, over spreading a towel out on any stretch of sand. On my last day in a city you’re much more likely to find me running around a museum than a shopping mall. Favourite souvenirs of places? Books by local writers — in paper form.
Of my earliest travel memories, some of the most vivid are from aged four on a trip from Sydney to Perth with my mother to join my father who had driven there. After the flight, from which I recall only impressionistic moments, I most clearly recollect the hours I spent playing with a little Aboriginal boy whom I’d befriended in Perth. I recall rustic games involving rocks and wood chips we animated and named, pretending they were our tiny ‘friends’.
I remember his cute pudgy-cheeked face, the hours we passed content in each other’s company, and the warmth of the Western Australian sun. But what I most clearly recall as we sat at the top of the stairs is a sense of having learnt something.
While we may have looked different to each other (as the racist kids rudely pointed out), we were exactly the same. That early memory of those play-dates in a strange place far from home, on the other side of my country, taught me many things but most of all I believe it motivated me to continually seek out memorable moments in life I can learn from.
My parents often took me travelling in Australia as a small child. We enjoyed summer holidays in seaside towns on coastal New South Wales and one year we did a longer road trip from Sydney to Northern Queensland, to the Whitsundays and Great Barrier Reef. For a reason I can’t recollect my parents wanted to take extra time beyond the school holidays, so before we left home my mum met my teachers to get additional schoolwork so I wouldn’t fall behind.
I was so excited to have fresh new exercise books with clean lined pages, a new sketchbook and scrapbook, a boxed set of coloured pencils, and rubbers in their plastic wrappings. It was as if I was starting a new school year two months before the other kids. I was so delighted I began working on the lessons in the car, reading, writing and drawing until I made myself car sick.
My parents had always taken me to zoos and wildlife parks but on that Queensland trip there was the added bonus of big bananas and big pineapples, and, best of all, underwater aquariums and glass bottom boats that glided us over sea beds blanketed in multicoloured coral. It was all so magical.
During the day we’d gaze in awe at schools of incandescent fish with bulbous eyes and striped and spotted skin in the craziest colour combinations. Then at night I’d sit at the caravan dining table with my parents learning all about these curious things. Dad, with a cold beer in hand, would thumb through the glossy plastic-covered books we’d borrowed from the library reading out interesting titbits. A keen fisherman, he would tease me about how good the fish would taste grilled on the barbie and I’d get annoyed.
My Mum, a talented pen and ink artist, would help me draw the fish we’d seen in my exercise book. Okay, she’d draw the outlines and I’d carefully colour them in. As a kid, travelling, seeing cool stuff, and learning with the two people I loved most in the world was fun and fantastic. Far better than learning in a classroom.
Back at school I’d never been so eager to get up in front of my class for Show and Tell to present my shoe box full of sand, shells and coral I’d collected, my colourful postcards of the sea-life we’d seen, and (probably an unfortunate decision on my parents’ part) a plastic Tupperware container housing a family of pretty blue soldier crabs I’d collected on a beach — and had named. I remember prattling to my attentive classmates about how the crabs lived deep in holes beneath the wet sand and how they’d walked sideways as they scurried down the beach. Little did I know then, but I would quickly learn how and why they died.
A few years later, this time with my toddler-aged sister, my family was setting off again in a much bigger caravan and shiny new four-wheel drive on a one-year road trip around Australia that would turn into five. For that epic journey, my parents enrolled me in correspondence school. Initially established as the School of the Air for the kids of farmers on remote rural properties, lessons were originally conducted via radio. My experience was more fun.
My mother would send the school the address of the post office at our next destination and every fortnight my teachers would send a massive package of assignments, textbooks, library books, and cassette tapes. It was as if Christmas came every two weeks.
I relished untying the string and carefully unwrapping the brown paper to see what lessons were in store for me and what books the librarian had selected. French classes were the best. I loved listening to the exotic accent of my French professor on cassette tape then recording myself on a tape, which I’d return to him for feedback. I especially liked listening to him tell me I sounded like a native speaker. Ah, to be eleven again and be able to learn languages with such ease!
It’s no wonder then that years later I’d end up doing a Masters degree in International Studies that included a year studying abroad. I’d majored in filmmaking, screen studies and writing for my undergraduate degree, and after Terence and I travelled to Mexico (our first trip overseas) and Cuba (our second), I’d developed a passion for Latin America cinema. One year later, having learnt Spanish for twelve months and taken subjects like Modernisation and Globalisation and The Making of the Third World, I was South America-bound with a RTW ticket that took me via London and Madrid to Sao Paolo, an itinerary crafted around film festivals, and a backpack full of books.
In many ways, that year away represents my ideal way of travelling — travelling with a purpose, with a good foundation of knowledge of the history, politics, economics, and culture of the places, some solid language skills, and some learning objectives. Like a detective, I spent my time there tracking down experts, digging up stories, unravelling mysteries, and making connections.
The knowledge I’d developed before I went informed every experience I had each day in Latin America, as I made my way from Brazil via Paraguay and Uruguay to Argentina, from Chile to Peru and Bolivia, and eventually onto Mexico and Cuba. I was learning, always learning. Even when I took breaks between festivals and meeting filmmakers to backpack around, my everyday experiences were richer and imbued with meaning because I’d read about or seen the places I was visiting on the big screen.
Continually stimulated by each new insight, experience, idea, nugget of information, and connection made, I felt empty when I returned to Sydney. Which explains why less than a year later Terence and I were living in the United Arab Emirates where I’d secured a job teaching film, writing and media studies at a women’s university. The first thing we did was fill our shelves with books on Arabia, Middle East history and politics and Islam, and we learnt as we lived each day. During our time there I did a second Masters degree, Terence did one too, and I started a PhD — on, well, film and travel.
Sadly, we’re both much too busy travelling and writing and shooting photos to study now. I’m too busy to even read as much as we’d like — which is why, whenever we travel, we seek out learning experiences, like the Context walks we do around the world, on everything from history and multiculturalism to urban planning and architecture and art, with docents who usually have doctorates in their fields.
Disappointingly, there are too few companies running educational tours with guides possessing such depth of knowledge. Which explains why I was so excited when I recently received an email about a new travel company called The Traveler’s Course, which provides study abroad experiences for adults. As travel writers, we get emails about new travel start-ups and invitations to test out tours every day. I delete most.
But after reading about these one- and two-week trips to Spain, to Madrid and Santiago de Compostela, bunking down in home-stays, getting language tutoring, and learning about the places and their history, society and culture on the way, I was responding to Savannah Sullivan to find out if she offered anything similar in Asia.
Disappointingly, she doesn’t right now, but she said The Traveler’s Course will slowly expand and she’ll soon be rolling out web-based pre-departure language courses with online tutoring, and adding trips to Uruguay and Ecuador. It turns out Savannah is currently doing a PhD in Spanish Literature in Florida in the USA, where she teaches a course on my favourite Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar.
Savannah was also bitten by the travel bug as a child, after travelling overseas at age eight with her parents to Ireland. But it was a post-eighth grade summer school trip to Italy that really inspired her. “We’d been studying the Renaissance that year and found a youth travel service that would allow us to see in person what we’d been reading about in books,” she told me by email.
“What that trip did for me was help me understand that history is living, and that culture isn’t a subject one can learn in books; it’s experiential,” she wrote. “That trip is the one that helped me see that travel is actually more enjoyable when you’re learning something.”
An undergraduate study abroad experience at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain reinforced that thinking. “I studied language, but my professor would also invite me and other students to cultural events, like museums and performances,” Savannah told me. “After a while, I was insatiable when it came to Spanish culture.”
“During my graduate studies, I’ve been able to travel for research and pleasure; it’s become such a part of my life that I want to share it with others,” Savannah explained. “Since my most fulfilling experiences abroad have been ones where I’ve gained an intimate look at the culture, and since I know that many people don’t have the personal connections to do that kind of trip on their own, I established The Traveler’s Course to facilitate it for them.” I’ve bookmarked the website.
My conversation with Savannah had me wondering why there aren’t more companies specialising in educational travel, offering similar in-country learning holidays for adults who don’t necessarily want to do a degree or continuing education course. There are countless travel sites that arrange post-school and university study abroad opportunities but there seems to be few that offer shorter-term learning holidays.
And I’m not referring to things like photography workshops or writing retreats (which we’ll be running this year, incidentally), but learning holidays that provide opportunities to develop knowledge in areas of interest while learning some language, enabling travellers to more fully immerse themselves in a place, and in turn, to better know the world.
I asked Savannah why she loved learning holidays. “I’ll be honest, I enjoy a mojito at a beach resort as much as the next person,” she admitted. “But when it comes down to it, it’s not a unique experience. Taking a trip with a focus on learning — whether it’s history, culinary arts, or language — offers an adventure that truly can’t be repeated. What’s more, the souvenirs you bring back from an educational trip are way more valuable than a refrigerator magnet.”
I couldn’t resist asking Savannah what her dream learning holiday might be. “I’d love to go to India and study yoga,” she told me. “Someday, I want to spend time in the Amazon learning about medicinal plants. Mainly though, anywhere I go, it’s just a dream to be invited into a local’s home to see the interior of their culture.” We are definitely meeting up one day.
Pictured: A young Cambodian student in a class at a school here that we visited with the Shinta Mani Foundation. We’ve never seen students as eager to learn as we have in Cambodia. More on that in another post.
Have you been on a learning holiday? Can you recommend other travel companies that offer them? If not, would you like to go on one? And if so, what’s your idea of an educational dream trip?