Always wanted to speak Portuguese, dance salsa or ID animal droppings? These travellers did just that. Sign up for a learning trip, and you can too...
Went pro after a photographic course in Turkey with Wanderlust Journeys
"I’ve always done a lot of travelling and taken a lot of photos. I even took a year out to do photography and PR for volunteer company Raleigh in Central America and had been considering going pro for a while.
I’d been living in London and New York doing a consultant job, but the more consulting I did, the unhappier I became. I was getting so much wonderful feedback on my images that I felt I had to do something that would help me get to the next level. That’s when I decided to go on the Wanderlust Journeys Istanbul Travel Photography Weekend.
I wanted to meet people in the industry, to work out whether there was a future in it for me – or whether I was dreaming! And I’d always wanted to visit Istanbul. It was a nice chance to nail two birds with one stone.
It wasn’t a great start. I fractured my coccyx falling down the hotel stairs. About two hours before the first class was about to start I was rushed to hospital. I rejoined the group later but was in a huge amount of pain. I just had to battle on.
The course was based around location shots: in the morning we’d head out into the city; in the afternoons we’d regroup and review our images. It was a good mix of theory versus practical. Professional photographer Steve Watkins would talk about technical aspects of the industry and give practical advice on composition. It was really valuable and definitely took my photography up a step.
The biggest thing I got out of it was the confidence building. I remember when the course leaders reviewed my portfolio and said, “These five images are world class.” I just burst into tears – although that was probably a combination of the pain and painkillers making me really emotional! I walked out and thought, OK, I can really take this on.
Last year, one of the images I took during that weekend was a runner-up in the Wanderlust Travel Photo of the Year competition. I’ve also won the Weekend Australian People Photographer of the Year, and make money from doing corporate photography. I’ve gone pro and started my business about six months ago.
You can’t just go on a learning holiday and turn pro. I’ve invested money and time, too, going out and shooting in really remote places and challenging environments. The trip is not the only thing, but was one element that helped."
If you’re travelling on your own, there’s nothing worse than being so busy thinking, ‘where do I go next?’, that you don’t have time to connect with people. I spent six months travelling Latin America and – because I like to dance and I like to be with people – at the end of the trip, I booked a two-week How To Salsa course in Santiago de Cuba with Caledonia – Languages, Culture, Adventure.
Before I got to Santiago, I spent a week in Havana. Caledonia put me in touch with one of its Havana contacts and so I stayed at a homestay with people who were learning to salsa dance in the capital. I went to one of their lessons to see how the classes worked and inquire about a few private lessons, to get a bit of practise in before I got to Santiago.
I was partnered with an English-speaking instructor. The front of his house was a barber shop; there was a doorway screened off by bin-liners where the instructor stayed with his family. We had to push the table back and practise in their hall; after a few days, he was grabbing people off the street so he could see how I danced with other partners!
When I got to Santiago I joined my Caledonia group. We had nine days of Cuban dance tuition. Lessons, held in a beautiful dance studio, started about 9am and lasted until lunch. We’d be allocated a partner and would learn the moves until we got them right, then do some freestyling. Afternoons were ours, to explore.
Because you’re with people who are there for the same reasons, you’ve got something in common straight away. In the evenings we’d all meet up together and go off to the Carnival and dance until 6am. It was a riot!
I got to understand a bit more about Cuba. The owner of one of my homestays was a doctor – fully qualified, very professional – but he could make as much money renting out a room as working. Another time, we were coming back from the Carnival and the police stopped us because we were with our Cuban dance instructors; they gave the guys a bit of a hard time. It’s not until you see those things that you realise that we can take our freedoms for granted.
I found a real sense of achievement in connecting with people when I was on my own. It gives you the confidence to do it again. Sometimes you find all your mates have got married and had kids and can’t do the holidays you used to – so what do you do? Go out and give it a go! If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, do you? It’s that simple. And when you come back you’re fired with enthusiasm. Maybe try a different dance? I’m now doing ballroom!"
How to do it: Dance classes are available for all levels. Caledonia – Languages, Culture, Adventure arrange many courses, from tango in Argentina to bachata in Dominican Republic, as well as other learning journeys.
Learned Indian cooking with wife Jane in Goa, with tour company On the Menu
"You don’t enter competitions expecting to win them. But after entering a draw for an On The Menu cookery course in Goa at the BBC Good Food Show, some months later we were told we were the lucky people.
Jane and I do tend to cook from scratch but we’d never thought of going on a cooking course. However, it seemed like a good reason to visit India.
There were only three of us on the course because we travelled off season. The days were busy: at the start, our teacher Judy would explain what we were cooking that day. Then we’d cook for about three hours, trying various dishes. At the end, we’d sit out on the terrace overlooking the river and enjoy our meal, watching the boats sailing by – it was an idyllic location.
By the time we got back to the hotel, we’d have a few hours before the sun went down to think about what to do that evening. Food wasn’t high on the agenda because we’d eaten so well at lunchtime!
Judy was outgoing, friendly and fun. The course wasn’t serious or rigidly structured – it was enjoyable and informal. But it was very informative, with lots of hints and advice – not least the importance of cooking onions properly!
One day, Judy took us to the market in Panaji, the Goan capital, where she showed us all the fish, fruit, vegetables and condiments. Afterwards she took us to a spice plantation to see some of the old colonial Portuguese churches. It was interesting sightseeing – they were places we wouldn’t have visited if we’d been on a beach holiday.
Our skills did improve – the course taught us to take care in preparing food; you can’t rush things. We also learned that dishes such as biryani aren’t so difficult.
The course was aimed at people who like to cook for enjoyment rather than as a profession, and it certainly gave us a taste for Goa. It’s a place we had never considered going to before, but our decision to go back again the following year was a no brainer. We were so busy the first time that we didn’t get a chance to appreciate the restaurants – we’d eaten so well at lunchtimes. But we addressed that on the second trip!"
How to do it: Cookery courses are great ways of immersing yourself in local culture; no experience is necessary. On The Menu runs foodie trips to Goa, as well as Vietnam, Spain, Ireland and beyond.
Learned Portuguese in Brazil with Cactus Language
"Brazil was on my list of top ten places to visit. I’d always had a fascination with the culture and had met very nice Brazilian people in the dance classes I went to in London – the teachers were so happy, energetic and enthusiastic; they were always smiling, laughing and joking.
I had some time off before starting a new job and wanted to do something different but also stimulating – I didn’t want to just lie on a beach. I decided on a language holiday as I thought learning Brazilian Portuguese would allow me to enjoy the culture more.
I found Cactus Language online. I talked to them on the phone and tried out a weekend course. I was happy with the way it was organised so decided to go with them.
In Rio I was welcomed by the family I would be staying with. I expected the stereotype of ‘very warm Brazilians’ and I wasn’t let down! The lady of the house was charming; she talked with me every morning and evening, and took me out at weekends – to the local restaurant and to the beach on Sundays, which is what the whole of Rio seems to do. I really felt part of the life there, it was wonderful.
The classes started at 8.30am so I had to face rush-hour traffic, which felt very Brazilian. On the first day of school we took an exam, which placed us at the right level. The next day, the lessons got serious!
At first, there were only two of us in our class so it was very intensive. We’d be chatting in Portuguese the whole time – complete immersion. We changed teachers every day to experience different accents and different methods. If you signed up for an extra lesson, you’d come back after lunch for two hours of teaching or an excursion – to the American football stadium, to museums, to the Corcovado. Because the people in our group were quite good at the grammar, we were able to do more interesting stuff such as reading articles from magazines and talking about current events; in one lesson we talked about literature, music and film. It was really good fun and tailored to your needs. Everybody in that class really wanted to learn Portuguese, especially because people don’t speak English in Brazil so it’s really the only way to communicate with the locals.
That was the highlight – just being able to interact; to go to the beach and talk and exchange ideas, crossing the culture barrier and explaining how we do things in Europe. I learned enough to be able to have a conversation, it was so great.
It may sound weird but I loved just taking the bus with a sense of freedom. I’d talk to the driver and ask where he was going, and if he could drop me off somewhere. Rio is really compact; I would go into the city with a map and just get off wherever I fancied.
If I thought I loved Brazil before, now I love it more – I just fell completely in love with Rio. I would not think twice if I was ever offered an opportunity there. It’s safer than it’s made out to be – people are really helpful – but the only way you can access that is through language.
I’m trying to maintain my Portuguese by reading it and watching programmes on the internet. The language is just so beautiful. I feel richer culturally – it was such a wonderful experience."
How to do it: Learning a language in situ is the best way to pick it up, especially if you live with a local family and converse with them throughout your stay. Cactus Language offers courses in everything from Arabic to Russian.
Learned bushcraft in South Africa with wife Cheryll and Steppes Discovery
"When we saw Steppes Discovery’s South Africa Bush Skills Safari on a TV show, it was a eureka moment. We looked at each other across the sofa and said, we’ve got to go on that! This was a chance to learn bush tracking from the experts.
We spent the initial five days at a sort of pre-school, walking with Les Brett, our guide. We’d stop at flora and fauna, pick up on tracks, look at droppings. It was literally getting your hands dirty and it was great. It wasn’t just about looking at the obvious – lions, cheetahs, elephants – but the ecosystem as a whole.
After lunch, we’d get out the exercise books. It was very informal but we did have a test at the end, which ensured we listened to what we were told. We stayed at a comfortable camp and had some brilliant social evenings around the fire, telling stories. The guests cooked for everybody else. One night we had to butcher an impala; my wife got stuck in, removing all the guts and innards – the more you got involved, the more you got out of it. That’s how we approached it really.
After the first few days we moved out to a place within the Timbavati Reserve. There’s no fences, so the animals had a lot of freedom. We were out of the vehicles much of the time, walking in a line between our guides. We’d trip over something and they’d say, let’s talk about this, and we’d all gather around for ten minutes.
We spent one night out under the stars, taking it in turns to keep watch for animals and make sure the fire stayed lit. It’s going to stay with me all my life, looking over the fire, seeing a hyena on other side and thinking, at what point do I wake up Les?
It really fed our appetite for safaris with a difference; we’ve done several since. We now want to walk around in the bush and get hands-on. We want to be involved."
How to do it: Steppes Discovery’s ten-day Bush Skills Safari includes tuition on wildlife ecology, animal behaviour, tracking, bush survival, bird identification and more. Trips costs from £1,795 pp, excl flights.