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When You Travel, Go Learn Something!

(Note, the following appears in my regular budget travel column in Transitions Abroad magazine.)

College graduates who have traveled for extended times will tell you they learned far more on the road than they ever did at the university. Politics, history, geography, religion, architecture, and even marine biology present themselves in everyday case studies. Plus with all those long bus and train rides, you finally have some time to read some literature, not just the Cliff Notes.

You can also take advantage of local learning opportunities you never could at home. There are plenty of formal options for studying abroad, of course, but also many short-term options meant for just the sheer joy of learning.

During our first around the world trip we stumbled upon a batik workshop in Yogyakarta, Indonesia that offered classes several times per week. On one overcast, drizzly day, we learned the basics of how to create a batik painting and walked away with our own crude works of art. After hours of going through the multiple steps required to create them, we gained a great appreciation for the paintings and hand-made craft items we found in markets and museums from then on.

On the same trip, my wife Donna took a 1-day Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand. For about $20, students learn about all the key ingredients in Thai cooking, how basic dishes are prepared, and a hands-on introduction to exotic fruits that show up regularly in local markets. At lunch everyone ate what the class had prepared. Donna still uses the photocopied recipe booklet to make an occasional Pad Thai or coconut curry for dinner.

While these introductory day courses are fun, many travelers opt for more immersion, or even formal certification. We met plenty of people studying massage, getting a scuba certification, learning Chinese calligraphy, or working toward a higher skill level in yoga or Buddhist meditation.

If you have the good fortune of being in one place for a while, take advantage of the learning opportunities. When I taught English as a second language in Korea, quite a few teachers attended tae kwon do classes. Some English teachers in Japan learn intricate origami or how to conduct a tea ceremony.

Taking language classes in a foreign country is a popular and useful learning experience (see Transitions Abroad May/June 2004). In most of Latin America, it is easy to find a Spanish immersion course for $200 to $500 per week, room and board included. But why not combine it with something that gets you out of your seat? Learn the tango in Argentina, the merengue in the Dominican Republic, or the samba in Brazil. In most cases the additional cost will be minimal and it will add a another dimension to your language learning.

Think of all the short, inexpensive adult classes offered in the city where you live now. There is probably a similar long list where you’re going—just take a look around and start asking questions.

Beyond all the fun and games, international learning experiences can be one of the best ways to give a possible career choice a trial run. Through a short-term volunteer program, you can be “in the trenches” and see if what sounded interesting and fulfilling in theory actually is in real life. The book Volunteer Vacations, for example, has a categorized index in the back for different types of opportunities. Some of these include archeology, conservation, preservation and restoration, marine research, medical work, and even train maintenance. Some programs are obviously meant more for wealthy people trying to do a little good on a break, but many others cost a minimal amount to register and will cover your room and board.

Recommended books for learning abroad:

*Volunteer Vacations (Chicago Review Press)

*The Back-Door Guide to Short-term Job Adventures (Ten Speed Press)

*International Directory of Volunteer Work (Vacation Work)

*How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas (Penguin USA)

*Alternative Travel Directory (Transitions Abroad)