Travel to Learn


By Jess Goulart

Photo courtesy of 16:9clue.

“I got a job at The New Yorker right after college, accidentally. I’d been interning for them and they offered me this dream gig and I thought ‘I would love to do that… but I kind of bought these tickets to go traveling…’” World famous travel writer and keynote speaker Doug Lansky laughs, recounting to BTR how he became a professional backpacker in his early twenties.

Lansky asked The New Yorker if he could return for the job after six months of traveling. They agreed, but he never ended up going back. “Six months went by in a heartbeat and I just kind of kept on going.”

Twenty years later, his portfolio is even more impressive than his origin story. He has lived in or traveled to over 120 countries, authored 10 books for publishers such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guides, spoken in universities all over the world, hosted a show on The Travel Channel, and contributed to the likes of National Geographic Traveler, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, Men’s Journal, The Guardian, National Geographic Adventure, World Hum, and Huffington Post.

Is your life seeming a bit dull right about now? That’s understandable, but you don’t have to be a professional traveler to enjoy the kinds of experiences Lansky made a career out of documenting. In fact, he says at the time when he was a nationally syndicated writer for The Chicago Tribune he was making only $11,000 per year, all of which he put toward further travel. For pesky daily needs (like food, water, and booze, obviously) he borrowed money from his parents.

“I stayed in youth hostels or slept on the beach,” Lansky continues. “I’d show up to do a story completely disheveled because I’d been sleeping on the beach at night and they’d be like, ‘you’re the columnist?!’ and I’d say ‘yup!’”

Lansky was a frontrunner to a type of travel that has since blossomed: immersion. Rather than booking a tour or going to see monuments, immersion travel means putting yourself out into the community around you, making friends, and living life the way locals do.

For Millennials in particular, immersion is privileged over commercial travel, with the WYSE Travel Confederation reporting their average trip length to be 46 days.

But what’s one of the best means of immersing oneself? Taking a class in whatever place you’re visiting.

People often don’t realize how many options for local classes there are in the world. If you can think it, you can probably find a class on it. Be discerning and pick one that is culturally significant but also suits your interests. You’ll have the advantage of learning about your surroundings while enjoying a social atmosphere that organically fosters new friendships.

For example, Norma Hawthorne is a “cultural navigator” that runs speciality classes out of Oaxaca, Mexico. Hawthorne has 30 years of experience working in university administration and started her career at Indiana University creating non-credit programs, many of which were award-winning. She says the ones that she enjoyed most were programs where she took people out into communities in northern Indiana to learn more about the Amish.

“When I retired, I decided I really wanted to keep doing that kind of work, so I began organizing textile workshops in the village of Oaxaca, Mexico,” she says.

She offers a variety of classes on culturally and historically significant arts, like painting, weaving, and cooking, as well as niche retreats, like her recent Women’s Yoga and Creative Writing trips. Her organization was featured in The New York Times’ “36 Hours: Oaxaca, Mexico.”

“Travel is a funny thing,” says Hawthorne. “You can go wide or you can go deep.” For her, just like Lansky, going deep is more rewarding.

Part of the satisfaction comes from the traveler’s own experience learning something new and different, as well as teaching the locals about their culture in return. Students in a class like Hawthorne’s will both learn about a separate culture and educate on the culture in which they were raised.

“Take a language course, instrument lessons, a cooking class, do something,” Lansky says. “Because that’s the meat on the bone with travel.”