There is a famous Chinese proverb: “It is better to travel 10,000 miles than to read 10,000 books.”
Now, I’m certainly not knocking reading, which goes nicely with traveling – in fact, it’s one of my favorite activities during downtime on the road— but there are more ways than one to acquire an education.
Travel breaks down barriers and expands horizons, bringing you out of your comfort zone to learn head-on. And there’s something to be said for “experiential” learning, where discoveries come from doing, seeing, and experiencing the world out there on your own.
But, how do you get the most out of every opportunity?
One of the most fascinating aspects of any culture is what UNESCO – the cultural division of the United Nations – defines as “intangible heritage.”
This refers to the living traditions that cultures pass on from generation to generation. In Italy, pizza-making is a UNESCO-recognized tradition! Sure, you’re not going to find a thin-crust on display at any of the Vatican museums, but pizza is still an important part of Italy’s gastronomical arts.
Sadly, artisanship is in decline in many places around the world, and traditional livelihoods have fallen way behind. But hey, there’s good news.
Tourism is a very important way to bolster waning art forms. In studying these traditions, the traveler, in turn, experiences one of the most unique and unforgettable entry-points into a culture. It’s a win-win!
When you take time to study a certain tradition or art form, you are rewarded a far deeper experience of the culture than you would on a whistle-stop tour.
Most first-time visitors to Nepal spend only a few days in Kathmandu, then rush off on a trek.
Me? I lived for over a month in the hectic capital, dodging traffic every day as I made my way to a small studio in the old city, where I studied the ancient, meditative art of thangka painting.
Believe me, it tested my patience. I spent over a week dutifully tracing a single leaf, which my teacher – a professional thangka artist with a take-no-prisoners style of instruction – made me redo until it was perfect.
But the memories of that month will last a lifetime. I was grateful to be able to play a small role in sustaining one of Nepal’s living traditions. Rather than just consuming a culture, you can become part of its preservation.
If you’re not feeling artistically-inclined, then the most valuable thing you can learn far from home is another language. Take it from me. I’ve studied Hindi in the Himalayas, Mandarin in Shanghai, Spanish in Guatemala, Arabic in Ramallah, and Italian in Rome – oh yeah, and in between painting lessons, I made time for a Nepali tutor in Kathmandu.
Nomad Raquel Correira makes an effort to learn something new in every country she visits: “tango in Argentina, samba in Brazil, copywriting in Australia, diving in Indonesia, vipassana meditation in Myanmar. You name it. I can and will talk about it.”
Terry Ward’s top tip is to do it now. “Don't worry that you'll be behind in the career hunt or the college path. During your gap year, you will learn so much about yourself and the world – much more than you can learn in a classroom. And when you do go back for Uni, you'll have a much better idea of what you want to do with your life. Ignore the naysayers, and do it now.”
Even remembering a few basic pleasantries will go a long way in distinguishing yourself from most other travelers. After that, the best way to learn is just to listen.
When we asked our online community if traveling can teach more than a university degree ever could, there were some mixed opinions:
"I took a gap year and became a flight attendant. The biggest lesson I learnt was problem-solving and working under pressure.
My gap year turned into 8 years of working abroad with lots of travel. All the skills I gained travelling and meeting different people. I learnt a lot more in my travels than my time at uni. But, you have to take into consideration that my first "real" job was travelling." – Chrissy Nicole (@kwisssy_), via Twitter
"I think a university degree followed by traveling is a great thing to do – although I might be biased. Uni taught me how to be independent and how to work harder than I've ever worked before. It taught me commitment and determination in work." – @Flipflopnextstop, via Twitter
"Traveling will teach you more than a university degree – for sure! After traveling in India, you'll never be the same person again. Different views, and different lives touch you." – J Charpentier (@MrsJCha), via Twitter
"Travelling teaches you about being a human being, and how we are all similar in some way – despite our appearances. It's the ultimate learning." – Chatlaksh Mi (@chatlaksh_mi), via Twitter
"A nursing degree will teach you skills that can take you anywhere in the world, you can also use that degree to save someone's life in Paris." – @Threefavouritethings, via Twitter
"Travelling with an open mind and heart teaches you a lot of important life lessons, including cultural sensitivity, acceptance of others, and self-awareness." – Karen Rollins, via Twitter
"I think maybe not as a substitute, but more as a complement. Both are really important and useful as means of learning." – Pamela Sandoval (@pamela_sl), via Twitter
"Uni can provide fuel for your passion, and traveling afterwards is a chance to live that passion and maybe blow off some steam." – Jesse James (@jesse_idst), via Twitter
"No, because they offer different exercises and talent development. Arts degrees give you lots of time to write, and get feedback. But that doesn't mean you'll be a good travel writer." – Steven Sirski (@stevensirski), via Twitter
"I wouldn't say just "travelling" but definitely living in multiple cultures can teach you – especially if you need to survive there." – Cameron Hepple (@CameronHepple), via Twitter
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