18 Jan Learning through Travel
Learning through Travel
I believe every moment is an opportunity to learn. It isn’t about classrooms or travel if you consider every step you take is a form of travel and any environment is a classroom. That being said, some of my coolest learning experiences have been traveling, most often when official classes weren’t involved (but books undoubtedly were) and my ah-ha moments were about culture and how we can understand ourselves through an encounter with something absolutely foreign.
When I was fourteen, my parents sent me in an exchange program to Pontoise, France where I lived with a local family and attended a boarding school outside Paris. To be honest, I remember little about the lessons I was supposed to learn and a lot about the lessons I wasn’t. I learned not to trust French boys, that skipping class is easier than one might think and that wine is …well …awesome.
On the cultural side, I discovered the basic components of the French diet and the starkly different schedule that they eat on. I learned that not everyone buys their food at a supermarket and walked store to store choosing everything from cheese to bread and meat to vegetables in a specialty shop. And most excitingly of all, I began dreaming in French.
The times I’ve learned the most haven’t been when I set out to learn but when knowledge fell into my lap. Studying the structure of the Ghanaian school system, for example, left me unsure of many things that teaching in a Ghanaian school set straight; just like reading about the Inca Trail in anthropology didn’t compare to hiking it myself; and discussing the socio-political implications of a Romanian orphanage seemed slight in comparison to working in one.
However, I do believe that the intention to learn and even books specifically play a huge role in the transfer of information. To me my “learning experiences” have been the kinetic moments where I have put my acquired knowledge to the test by physically interacting with it, but without the foundation of understanding the action would only serve as a reference to other experiences in your life. There is no independent story for it to follow. That is to say that you discover more when you pertain a basic understanding of a thing and then test your own knowledge against the thing itself – in the flesh. Not just learning, but insight. It’s taking learning to the next-level by living the thing you’ve studied.
During my time in Ghana I was also studying the traditional religion of the Ewe in the Volta region. I had read so much about it by the time that I went that I was devastated to find out that it was completely clandestine. It had become taboo to practice and though much of the community still did, nobody talked about it. When I finally got a teenager to help me gain access, I wondered if I would have the same experiences I had read about.
Seeing as I was an outsider, sneaking into a sacred cultural ritual, how much would they really allow me to view? To my surprise I was welcomed by most and I even think some things were exaggerated for my benefit. In the end, I felt that while I disagreed with some of printed material, much of the things I’d seen were the pages of my books coming to life – the precision of the rituals and even my sense of wonder in experiencing them first-hand.