Transformative travel – learning while traveling

by Sep 9, 2018Essays

Learning while traveling can be the perfect way to get outside of your comfort zone and experience some transformative adventures. A memorable transformative travel adventure I enjoyed was attending a night photography workshop, a photography genre that was way outside of my normal. 

I arrived at my photography workshop eager and excited for learning while traveling, but also more than a bit nervous. “Why?” asked one of the instructors earlier by email when I mentioned a couple of months prior that I was a bit anxious. “We don’t bite.”

No, they don’t bite. But when you get to a workshop far away from all things familiar — your desk, your home, your food, your friends and family, your trusted surroundings, your regular schedule, perhaps even your language and culture – you are taking a courageous step outside of yourself. You are daring to be out of your comfort zone, forcing yourself to adapt and learn new skills while traveling … or you will be very unhappy.

For me, this workshop became a transformative experience. Break down, be totally vulnerable, then grasp for holds and climb back up again. And, frequently, that is what learning while traveling — especially on solo educational travel adventures — is all about.

National Parks at Night Photography workshop group on the beach.

Workshop participants spread out on Hidden Beach in Redwood National and State Parks scouting locations and setting up gear to prepare for a night of shooting.

Over the edge and back

I travel a lot and have all my life. I adapt quickly and love challenges in new environments. But participating in a night photography workshop in a new destination, to learn a genre new to me, took me to a new place, stretched my mind and my limits, and forced vulnerability that wasn’t totally comfortable at first. But if you accept that feeling and go with its flow,  you can end up painting a palette of beautiful colors.

HITT Tip: Turns out even researchers support the theory of learning from travel. In this Science Direct journal article from June 2018, they found for example that you can indeed be “changed or transformed as a result of learning during travel,” and that “travel has the potential to create dynamic situations of learning.” 

Just traveling for fun and cultural exploration – what my husband, Michael, and I do all the time – allows you to pick the place, select your style of lodging, set the pace, decide what to see and where to go, and take on educational travel adventures as you so choose. Choosing a workshop for learning new skills while traveling means you no longer have control over your day, your schedule, or any flexibility you might otherwise embrace during travel. You must give up and give in to what is happening — sink or swim, so to speak.

OK, so you often have an affinity for, or even a talent, enthusiasm and some experience in the skill you have chosen to travel somewhere to work on. It is usually something you care about and want to expand your ability in doing it. Often, the skills are right-brained artistic skills, like painting, drawing, writing poetry, or taking photographs. (Although I have most certainly parachuted into strange cities for language immersions, but you still get to choose your surroundings and can always go hide in your room if your brain is on overload!)

In this particular photography case, I was headed off for a week to find out more about the specialty of night photography on a solo educational travel adventure with a dozen or so people I didn’t know, each with varying degrees of photography skills. I had already regained many of my dusty photography chops honed in college, knew my way around camera settings well, and found my images were decent and getting better, even garnering an award or two. But night shooting? I had no idea how to do this.

So I signed up for this travel learning adventure, solo, since I didn’t want distractions or a crutch. This had to be all about me and my learning.

Breathe, you can do this

On the first day, there were introductions all around. I tried not to feel more anxious when I heard that many had done a lot of night photography before and even gone to prior workshops with this group, National Parks at Night. Then came that first intense afternoon of information overload. Numbers flying everywhere about what to do, when to do it, the setting to find, how to adjust, 6-stop rules, 400 rules, in x situation, in y situation, in z situation. My brain was going to explode.

Scouting the moon position with National Parks at Night instructors

National Parks at Night Instructors Lance Keimig, far right, and Chris Nicholson, second from right, use an app to show myself and fellow participant Mary Uva, peeking from behind, the path of the sun and moon.

We headed out after dinner to our first location and everybody fanned out on a beach and busily set up tripods and scouted scenes. Heck, not being a night photographer, I wasn’t even used to using my tripod much, so instead I scampered happily around the beach, over the rocks, on the driftwood piles, taking hand-held shots of the waves, rocks and sun as the glowing orb descended below the horizon.

And then – poof — it was dark. After I set up my tripod, I suddenly found all the work I’d done that afternoon to change settings in my camera for night seemed to have been for naught. My brain exploded in frustration. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t focus. I didn’t know what to even try to do or really even what to ask. Numbers and terms from that afternoon raced like a ticker tape in a stock exchange through my head …. 6400, 6 stops, 100, 15 seconds, 16 mm, 4.0, 4.5, 400, LENR, hyperfocal, points, trails.… EEEK, what was what and where to start? I glanced around, and everybody seemed so busy, looking, shooting, talking, click, click, laughing, busy, busy, as if they all knew what to do. Making me feel as if I were the only one feeling so lost.

I summoned up the courage to call over an instructor and say, help, I seriously all of a sudden don’t know where to start, my brain is frozen. When he asked me to do a few things, I couldn’t even find what I needed on the camera. “That’s what this afternoon was for, to get familiar with your camera,” he said, which sounded more accusatory than I’m sure it was meant, but it cut to my core. “I did! And I thought I had everything taken care of!” And then my eyes began to feel kind hot and droplets of water squeezed out and started to roll down the side of my nose.

In this case, thank goodness for the darkness of night! I turned my head and pretended to fiddle with something, but tears most certainly don’t help you focus a camera either! I said, OK, let me try the things you just suggested – partly so he would just leave me alone with my self-pity party.

Solo travel adventures, for better or for worse

I was on my own. I had nobody to feel sorry for me and nobody to whine to. And that was in fact a good thing. I had to figure this out myself. I stood in the dark, feeling the cool ocean breeze on my hot tears. I took a moment to inhale and then exhale deeply and just looked up at the stars and the trees silhouetted by the moon rising behind them, just to appreciate the beauty of where I was. Just to step out of myself for a moment enjoy the setting.

I finished the night’s shoot and walked out with a group going home a bit earlier, silently listening to their chatter about the trail and the moon and the shots they took. In the dark, I didn’t have to pretend to smile or even participate. Once back at our lodging, I forced a cheery, good-night chirp, and raced back to my room. There, I dropped my bags on a chair, sat on the floor and cried for a moment. As I got ready for bed, I wondered how I could make it through the week.

Being in the dark, together

Of course, I don’t give up easily, and leaving was not really an option for me. That’s not who I am. The next morning, once we all got together, the instructors asked how it went – and suddenly the dark cloud hovering over me started to lift because, well, misery loves company. That night prior, all I saw were people busily shooting and clicking. What I heard this morning was all the frustration – my frustration — echoed multi-fold.

I brightened, this was going to be OK, I could learn with the others.  I just had to trust. I had to let go and lose control, to build back up and learn new skills.

Therese Iknoian learning while traveling by shooting at night in Redwoods

Several of us decided to leave the beaches, stars, Redwood trees and serious stuff late on our last night to get a bit goofy shooing gigantic Paul Bunyan and Babe statues. I am lining up a possible shot across Paul’s boot.

And suddenly my week of learning while traveling gained new perspective. And at the end of it, I knew I had learned a lot, had fun, made new friends and felt thrilled. Did I master everything? Oh goodness, no. I still had so much to learn, ridiculous amounts to learn, which made me think of the Einstein quote I have cited since I was in college: “As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.” The more you learn, the more there is left for you to learn.

I drove in silence much of the way home as I was heading out at the end of the week, thinking about my learning adventure. It had been an experience that changed how I thought about my photography. Why? I had to adapt to be able to move to a different level, I had to transform myself to be able to take those steps. I had to let go, experience the terror of a little free-falling, and then regain footing and keep trekking ahead. Like any travel learning adventure should be.

I felt so excited about how much I learned that I signed up for another workshop with the same group, this one in a faraway land. Transformation v2.0, I’m coming for you!

Learning while traveling – my recommendations

  • Go solo (at least the first time), or at least not with a spouse or partner or even a best friend.
  • Be uncomfortable.
  • Choose a place you do not know.
  • Be open to failure.
  • Be open to learning from that failure.
  • Trust you can succeed.
  • Enjoy your transformative experience.
  • Repeat.


Note about the cover photograph: I took this photo on the third night of my workshop with National Parks At Night utilizing a technique called “Light Painting.” In doing this, you use a long exposure and literally walk around in the frame using various flashlights to “paint” and highlight scenery. The camera doesn’t see you in the frame since you keep moving (and wear black). To “ghost” myself in front of the tree, I then stood still for about 10 seconds and shined the light on myself. The photo was awarded 2nd place in the photography competition at the 2018 Nevada County Fair.

More travel essays by Therese Iknoian

If you liked this travel essay by Therese, you may enjoy reading some of her other essays inspired by travel.

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.