Travel’s Learning Curve
WEEKENDER | Thu, 12/23/2010 12:33 PM |
The young Korean woman in front of me takes a last sip of coffee and springs from her chair into a rather unnatural posture, which she holds for a few seconds. A tall man approaches her in a series of light movements, lifts her right hand onto his shoulder, places a palm her hip and off they go, painting the floor with the soles of their shoes as they dance, he blithely and she awkwardly, to the upbeat Caribbean tunes.
The woman, as I would later find out, is enjoying a short holiday in Bali. One of her main activities during her short vacation is taking salsa lessons.
Learning a Latin American dance in Southeast Asia? For some, I know, this proposition has a rather odd ring to it. But she is definitely not the only one subscribing to it. I imagine if someone asked her why, she would reply, in a slightly perplexed mien: “Why not?”
One of the coolest things we can do while traveling is to learn something – anything. Sure, if you go to Sydney, you probably wouldn’t want to miss visiting the Opera House, or at least taking a picture of yourself with the building as the backdrop. It may in fact be the sole objective of some tourists as they alight from their tour buses: to create a visual artifact to laud over everyone who hasn’t had the chance to do so, as instant proof that they have reached a destination and fulfilled a dream.
Learning, on the other hand, is not an instant process, be it at home or elsewhere. Learning takes time. The number of opportunities to learn almost anything – from cross-stitch to yoga to winemaking – is stupefying, with classes offered in every city or town around the globe. A near-extinct language, an unusual musical instrument, a popular dance piece, even business administration: There’s no limit to what you can learn on the road.
Some ask a small fortune (yachting comes to mind); others come virtually for free. Even if no formal classes are on offer, you can always ask someone, wherever you are, to teach you skills of value or simply things that pique your interest.
Obviously not all tourists (travelers, if you will) are willing to invest their hard-earned vacation time in taking lessons. Most of us do not have the luxury of extended time – a very enviable commodity – at our disposal to really master something. Even of those few who do, only a fraction travel with the specific intention to learn.
So how can you master, say, a cooking style, while going on a one-week journey with so many other activities to pursue, so many sights to see?
I have had countless conversations with all sorts of people on the road, and I find I delight as much in, say, a chat with a scholarly figure (a professor in crowd psychology, for example) as with some street-smart fellow that is, to quote a guy I recently met, “educated in the University of Life”. I can say with confidence that they all hold the common view that learning something does not necessarily entail the obligation of mastering it. To learn something, at least for me, is essentially to enrich my life with the understanding it conveys – to immerse myself in novel experiences that had previously been alien and unperceived.
Certain local wisdoms are passed down only through very restricted avenues that otherwise would not be attainable. Staying open to learning while on a trip, no matter how short, is one such avenue. Here are two more apparent examples.
Learning to cook your destination’s local cuisine is one of the surest ways to gain an interesting insight into the minds of the natives, with information passed down from generation to generation. How do they collect, grade and preserve certain natural ingredients? How do they adapt their cooking to the seasonality of their basic produce?
So is learning the local vernacular – which I am particularly fond of doing. Being able to speak in the local dialect, especially if you’re a foreigner, has immense benefits for the smoothness of your journey. As you can easily see, it helps you pick up important details that would otherwise be lost in translation, and also makes you more resistant to bamboozlement by malicious or mischievous locals. On a less pragmatic level, that dialect may soon disappear, or may no longer be transmitted in written form. Now wouldn’t it be just priceless to be among the few that know (let alone master) that language?
Sure, not all of us can be as thoroughly dedicated – and as gloriously successful – in learning on the road as those intellectual colossi who have delved deep into the darkness that is a new place, learned a lot of things from there and returned to grace humanity with greater understanding about a certain blob in the vast pool of knowledge. Consider Margaret Mead. Or Charles Darwin. Or Jane Goodall (who had had no formal training in primatology before researching the chimpanzees of Gombe, Africa).
But we don’t have to be like them (not that we shouldn’t try if that is our dream) to make our travels more valuable than just mere photo shoots. Some people I know decided to learn something on a whim for a day or two during their trips and, becoming quickly enamored with whatever they were studying, ended up staying, learning even more and eventually becoming experts in their respective fields.
So, as the dancing Korean lady might say, “Why not?” There’s no reason we shouldn’t learn new things, illuminate our minds, sharpen our acuity, hone our skills, train our hands, at every opportunity. All the more so when we are away from home. And if you don’t have time then, when will you? + Chriswan Sungkono