School of travel: how my education continues on the road

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There have been times in my life where I’ve struggled to find focus. As a 33-year-old TV presenter and journalist, I’m not sure yet whether I want children and I don’t live exclusively for my career, so what’s option number three? Is there a third way?

The problem had been plaguing me as I approached my 30s. “Well, what about education?” a friend replied. “Some people focus on furthering their knowledge.” 

It struck a chord with me. I thrived on learning, not necessarily in a classroom environment, but I never felt more at peace than when I was travelling the world and learning from other people. 

Thanks to globe-trotting from a young age, a teacher once remarked: Alexandra always has a story to tell, no matter what the subject is. Now, as an adult, I often look back on my travel experiences in terms of knowledge gained, rather than perceived absences back home. 

There isn’t a single place I’ve visited that I haven’t come away from without having learned something new – be that factual or a life lesson. I still might not have quite figured out where I’m headed in life, but I’m happy to be coming home full of stories to tell. And all the brighter for it.

Mental maths in Peru

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Travel has taught me a lot of crucial lessons in living in a calmer and less stressful way. As I often travel by local bus and train, which in some countries means encountering huge delays or waiting for transport that never shows up, I’ve had to learn patience – and the ability to do mental maths in minutes to problem-solve my way out of different situations. 

I try to anticipate when getting annoyed will actually be of benefit and when I need to take a more solution-oriented approach to see how I can fix the issue. 

In Peru, when attempting to travel the final 100km to Máncora, a pretty surf town in the north of the country, it became evident after a few (very long) hours that the bus wasn’t going to appear. Some quick thinking with other passengers meant six of us paid a local man with a vehicle to take us to our destination and we eventually arrived safely – albeit squashed into an overcrowded clown car. 

Natural biology in the Amazon

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In South America, particularly in the Amazon, I learned from those raised in the rainforest that every natural thing has a use. As someone incessantly bitten by mosquitoes, I was interested to find a natural repellent in termite mounds. 

When burnt, they release a slow tendril of smoke which acts like a mosquito coil. Even rubbing your hands on the mound then onto your skin offers protection from bites and stings. In Peru, coca-leaf tea is also used as an antidote to altitude sickness – perfect for summiting the sky-high peaks of the Sacred Valley.

Home economics in Vietnam and Tanzania

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I always love visiting markets and trying street food – and travel has taught me innumerable things about different cultures and their attitudes to food. In Tanzania, I learned techniques for cooking goat from the owners of a campsite outside the Indian Ocean city of Dar Es Salaam. Despite my hunger, the emphasis on slow cooking the meat on the open fire left me with incredibly tender meat that was worth the wait. 

On every trip, I try to come back with a new recipe or a new technique to try at home. In Vietnam, where I lived for a year teaching, my fellow tutors and I would go to the local bún chả street vendor in northern Hanoi every weekend. Sitting on the tiny blue plastic stools, we would feast on grilled pork and noodles. I told myself that when I got back home, I would make it for my family. 

But who needs family, when I ended up cooking the dish in a competition at Leith’s Cookery School for Masterchef’s very own John Torode. He even proclaimed me the winner – although said “it will never taste quite as good and smokey as on the grills in Vietnam”. And it’s true: sometimes, you really have to taste life first hand. But I learnt a vital new skill – and it still gives me such great pleasure to emulate these dishes at home. And, more importantly, to eat them.

Alex Outhwaite is a journalist and TV presenter whose shows are broadcast in 30 countries. Find out more about Flash Pack adventures right here.

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