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As seen in the Transitions Abroad 2014 Latin America Webzine Issue
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Educating Your Five Senses Via Travel

Ethiopian sound, vision and taste educational travel
Learning new forms of sound and vision from a traditional music group while enjoying new tastes at a dining club in Ethiopia.

Would you like to have a travel experience like no other? One that will exhilarate, entrance, and stay with you? It’s a different way to look at travel (and life, actually), and one that can change the way you travel. What is it? Well, I call it 5 senses travel. I’m always teaching my students to include all 5 senses in their writings, to make it more vibrant. But it goes much deeper than that. When you include educating the senses in your own travels, you not only have a more memorable journey, but one that will stick with you far longer than other travels. How? Take a look…

Sight

The photographer in me rejoices at travel that educates my sight. While I’m always (always!) taking photos, and the ease of cell phone photography has made global photographers out of most of us, I’m talking about something else: photography that goes beyond chronicling what you’re seeing, and delves into LEARNING about what you’re seeing. It could be something as simple as choosing a photography tour, where you improve your photography skills by learning alongside a professional in a new location. Or, it could be as involved as volunteering your photographic skills to an NGO, which can truly introduce you to the intricacies of a culture, through your camera. If you go into that with an open mind (banishing any ethnocentrism), you can use your photography skills to experience a destination — and people — in a way that you never would have had access to before. In both of these suggestions, remember that photography is an exchange, one where you genuinely interact with people and cultures, and learn something from them, in exchange. This type of learning? For the price of a camera and travel, these connections, made through the sense of Sight, are extraordinary.

Exchanging photos in Columbia
Karen Schulman, the author of Travel Portraits: Master the Art of Taking People Pictures, used a Polaroid camera to photograph these Columbian girls, and then she gave them each a photo.

Hearing

One of the joys of travel is the different sounds we hear, whether traffic, languages, music, or even the crash of waves on the shore. How would you educate your hearing sense? Oh, let me count the ways. You could take language classes on your travels, and then practice your new skills.

Take a music class! Did you know that many places offer workshops on drumming, bodhran, or other musical instruments? Imagine learning from global musicians — and not only musical technique, but the music and essence of a culture. Incredible! If you can’t find a class, follow your ears. One traveler learned both culture and music in The Gambia, by discovering Kora sounds from the Griot Compounds.

Attend musical festivals — there are always music festivals going on, both big or small. If you’re in a different culture, it’s a good way to educate your ears and brain as to how cultures perceive music and sound. Bhutan’s Paro festival is not only a treat for your ears, but your other senses, as well. Discover music festivals by doing research, of course, but you can also ask locals what’s going on. They might not think their music festival is “tourist-worthy” — but those are the best kinds of experiences, where locals share their talents and celebrations.

Other ways to educate your hearing sense include listening to music from other countries (both at home and on your travels), and asking questions. If you’re in an Islamic country, respectfully ask about the sounds of the calls to prayer. If you’re at a concert, especially a small one, talk with the musicians afterward about their passion for music , their training, their lives. One writer discovered the music and rhythm of the Cuban spirit, while learning a great deal about the culture and people of Cuba.

Sound has much more context than just hearing — it is interspersed with everything in daily life, all around the world.

Pa Bobo Jobarteh playing Kora
Pa Bobo Jobarteh with his Kora. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk from Korea Sounds from the Griot Compounds: The Gambia.

Taste

As a foodie, I have to admit — this is my favorite part of travel. And what better way to educate your tastebuds than culinary travel? Whether you view culinary travel as taking classes to learn how to make local foods, or exploring the best foods of a region, this is definitely an education for the senses. There is no better way to get to know a culture deeply than through its food. You can shop local markets, as I did in Kenmare, Ireland (and got an amazing recipe for fish chowder from the fishmonger!). Taking a food tour will introduce you to foods — and customs — that most travelers will never discover. Often, these half-day or day-long tours will jumpstart your quest for learning about local foods. You might go back, again and again, to a certain farm or restaurant, to try all the offerings they have. You might converse with a local farmer, and gain an appreciation for their hard work - and delicious products. There are plenty of home-based cooking classes (or live in!), all around the world, which not only give you a glimpse into a very personal aspect of a culture, but also teach you recipes that you can share with loved ones at home, thus extending your culinary travels far beyond any borders.

An antipasto plate food from Friuli, Venice
Photo Wikimedia Commons: Joadl, adapted by TransitionsAbroad.com.

Touch

One of the most colorful parts of travel can be found in the textiles of a culture. I love shopping local markets, running my hands over knubbly wool sweaters or thin, silky scarves. But there’s more to touch than just shopping. I remember talking with a Hmong woman at a market in Minneapolis about her vividly-colored, incredibly detailed embroidery. She whipped out something she was working on and taught me a few stitches, which I practiced on a thick black piece of fabric she pulled from a bulging scrap bag. I not only bought a beautifully embroidered pillow, but also got a lesson in technique (and culture).

Did you know that you can take entire trips based around textiles? One such tour to India visits Bangalore, where a wholesale market showcases textiles from all over South India, including locally-produced silk. Or, you might delve into local textile production on your travels, such as this traveler did in Turkmenistan, getting an education in carpet textiles, as well as a meal and introduction to family life there.

Many cultures have location-specific textiles, such as the indigenous tribes in Guatemala, Scottish plaids, and the stories in each textile created in Laos, or even build their homes from textiles, such as Mongolian and Kyrgyz Yurts.

Digging in deeply, asking questions, touring museums and markets, and learning about the cultural implications of what people wear and decorate their homes with is a fascinating glimpse into a culture, one touch at a time. Textiles are also amazing gifts to bring back home! Once I received a traditional Kyrgyz hat from a visiting scholar at the university where I was working. It was made from thick, cream-colored felt with dark embroidery, and was very tall. I had no idea where I’d wear it, until a blizzard hit and that hat came to the rescue. It’s now my go-to winter hat, and keeps me as warm as my Kyrgyz friend intended.

Travel to see textiles in India
Photo Wikimedia Commons: Fabrics for Freedom, adapted by TransitionsAbroad.com.

Smell

We could crack jokes here about the aroma of humanity in any hot crowded train in Asia, or the smells of cooking over small fires in enclosed spaces around the world. But I’m talking about educating your nose, not holding it shut. And while the sense of smell, for me, often relates to food (I do travel for good food!), it doesn’t have to. What smells do you love? If you are in France, follow the Paris Perfume Trail, where you can learn about scents and how they mingle together to create olfactory magic.

Love flowers? Visit arboretums or flower gardens when you travel - and take a class or guided tour, if available. If the smell of coffee in the morning gets you going, maybe you’d like to explore the Coffee Trails in India. Or, visit Grenada, known as the Spice of the Caribbean. Here, you can learn from and visit museums and establishments that produce spices, chocolate, and even rum!

Some volunteers dig deeply (both literally and figuratively) into local culture, food, and smells by helping with agricultural efforts. In Zambia , you could help a banana farming village dig reservoirs to improve their farming. Smell the rich orange dirt as you dig, and the freshness of the water as it flows into the irrigation channels. Later, sniff the strong fragrance of banana flowers, known as the heart of the banana. Globally, you can volunteer with WWOOF, World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. Working on a farm may have you chatting with local farmers as together you harvest musky-smelling grapes, tread grassy fields and pine-scented forests as you scythe a path, chase errant sheep, or enjoy a savory meal together, inhaling the goodness that arises from good company and a job well done.

The smells while visiting the many castle grounds of the Loire Valley with the abundant flowers, greenery, peacocks, deer, and other wandering animals are unique and a joy for children (as for former kings and queens, and tourists alike). Photo ©Gregory Hubbs.

By educating your senses when you travel, you open yourself up to a broad range of cultural interactions — and memories. Instead of being grumpy at being cooped up in the house on a rainy day in Ireland (and all days are rainy, in Ireland, it’s just a matter of degree of wetness), revel in it. Take out some freshly caught fish from the local market, and prepare Irish fish chowder . While your hands are busy chopping local carrots, onions, and fish, hear the rain hitting the slate roof over your head, gaze out the window at the seals basking on the rocks (blatantly ignoring said rain), smell the peat fire burning in the hearth, and watch your kids make a labyrinth on the table from the shells they’ve collected on the beach.

While none of these things individually are large educational moments, together they can add up to quite a punch. You’ve learned to dig peat at an Irish heritage center, gotten a family recipe from a fishmonger, gathered shells with Irish friends who taught you the facts of each one (and laughed when they uncovered a small nest of eels and you screamed and ran), and spent hours watching the rhythm both the tides and of a seal colony’s daily life. As the rain drips down the many-paned window, take a moment to stop and enjoy what you’ve learned, with all of your senses.

Fish soup. Co Kerry, Ireland.
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