or How to Make Learning 3-D

I have spent nearly my entire life in some form of education. At least 25-years of my life were devoted to elementary school, high school, college, grad school, and post-grad schools. When not formally learning, I have taught the remaining years. I have taught all sorts of liberal arts classes like philosophy, world religions, art history, psychology, and sociology classes.

In every class, I emphasize the critical importance to overseas travel. I don't expect my students to spend 2-years overseas as I have during my life, but I do expect them to go overseas at least once for a couple of weeks. During any semester, my students will benefit from what I learned from having visited and/or studied in 4-dozen countries all around the world. They will get educational material not found in a textbook.

Here are just a couple of differences between the textbooks and reality. In any history of WWII, the Burma Railway, also known as the Railway of Death, was built by the Japanese who used their POWs. The Japanese constructed the 258-mile railroad, which went from Rangoon, Burma to Bangkok, Thailand. The railroad was used to supply the Japanese war efforts in Indochina. Over 100,000 POWs and locals died as a result of beatings and sickness while building the Railway of Death. Near Bangkok, they actually built two bridges...one of bamboo and the other of steel. I was born 2-weeks before the bamboo one was completed, and the steel one was finished 2-months after that. The bridges were damaged by bombing raids by the Americans and British in the first half of 1945.

The history of the bridges were fleshed out inaccurately in the 1957 film, The Bridge over the River Kwai. At least viewers of the movie knew something about one of the 2-bridges damaged about the time when I toddling around as a two-year old on the other side of the world in Merchantville, NJ.

Railways of Death
Before going to see the remaining steel bridge in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, I did a great deal of research regarding the Railway of Death and the bridge over the River Kwai, I had thoroughly researched it before going there. I knew more about those bridges and the Railway of Death than 99% of all Americans.
We went to Indochina for a month several years ago. My wife and I went to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and finally Thailand. I was in the north of Thailand at Chiang Mai. While there, I got deathly ill due to food poisoning at a local restaurant. Without going into the details, I was very sick for 4-5 hours and finally went to a hospital in Chiang Mai. Ironically, the doctor in the emergency room told me that I had food poisoning, but that I had purged it from my system. He gave me some pills and told me that I'd live.

The next day, we went to Kanchanaburi near Bangkok in the south. I finally got to see the bridge over the River Kwai.

River Kwai

Standing there on the bridge, I recalled what I felt like 24-hours before. Then I know the history better than most people in the entire world. I knew in 3-D something of what everyone of the POWs felt like building those bridges over the river...deathly ill. Feeling worse than I did, they were beaten all the time to complete the railroad on schedule while suffering from dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, and the list goes on. Their pain and suffering lasted for months...even years. There I stood on the steel bridge over the River Kwai. I'll never forget what I learned on the bridge that day.

Al on the River Kwai

I took a college class to China and Tibet. I had been to Tibet a handful of years prior to this trip. This time, I had written the course and taught part of it online before going to China. Each student had to give a mini-lecture while there to the rest of their classmates. Before arriving and often while in country, I would caution them never to mention the 3-Ts about which the Chinese authorities are ultra-sensitive: Tibet, Taiwan, and Tiananmen Square.

One of our stops on our 3-week itinerary was Beijing. A student presented her mini-lecture one morning in our hotel's restaurant. It was large restaurant and no one other than our class was there. I assume that the student thought it was okay to talk about Tiananmen Square since there was no one around other than us. The student accurately reported what was common knowledge to the entire world.

I was surprised that the student would have done that especially after repeated warnings, but since no one was around, I didn't say anything. However, I carefully watched to make sure no one happened to come into the restaurant. As the student summed up the presentation, I happened to notice that Bing, our Chinese tour guide and minder, came out from behind a pillar which divided the rest of the restaurant from where we were holding our private classroom. He looked at me with a great deal of dissatisfaction with my student's comment.

To punish me for what one of my students did and to warn me not to let a similar episode occur in the future, I was looked at suspiciously for the next couple of weeks whenever I saw him. Whenever we flew from city to city, my wife and I weren't able to fly next to each other. I literally had a seat in the back of the plane while she sat a couple dozen rows ahead of me.

I thought that it was a petty attitude, but I lived with it even after questioning seating arrangements. It wasn't good PR for the travel agency and for the Chinese government. Nevertheless, we finally returned to Beijing from which we would return to the States. He went with the group to the airport and said good bye to the group and wished us well.

The group stood in several check-in lines and presented their tickets. Finally, our turn came, and I presented our tickets to the ticket agent. She looked at the tickets and her computer. She looked shocked and concerned and quietly went to speak with her supervisor. The supervisor came to the counter and asked whether I had problems boarding planes while in China. I told him we had over a half dozen flights within China without a problem. The supervisor told us that we were on a blocked list and couldn't board until that issue was resolved. I was told to go upstairs and speak with the inspector, his supervisor.

I followed his instructions and spent a couple of hours with an inspector who checked various lists on his computer. Finally, he told me that he would have to call the Department of Homeland Security regarding my blocked status. That seemed strange that he would be calling Homeland Security while we were in China. If I were on some no-fly list, I couldn't have flown out of the States and all over China, but I said nothing knowing that Bing was behind this. The inspector left and went into another office while he supposedly contacted Washington.

While waiting, I thought about ways that I could get my wife out of China by saying that I was guilty of whatever charge they had, but my wife was innocent and unaware of this problem. While sitting there, I was rehearsing what I would say. Basically, I was the terrorist, but she was not. After spending about 3-hours being investigated, we were released to return to the US. They had decided that we posed no risk to anyone. Finally, we were free to fly again. For more details and information about our trouble with Bing and our detention in China, you can click on this article, which I wrote upon our return.

Here again, I had known about China and their problems in general with freedom for their people and possible foreign travelers. That was the reason for telling my students not to mention the 3-Ts while in China. I now knew better than most Americans about China. I knew it in 3-D.

A far more pleasant learning also occurred in China while touring part of the Great Wall of China, which measures nearly 4,000 miles across the country. We only visited several very hilly miles of it. However, every history book mentions the reason for the wall...to keep foreign armies from invading. What they don't mention is that whenever a foreign invader wanted in, they just had to bribe the guards at the various gates along the Great Wall. That again is learning in 3-D.

Great Wall of China

I am not the first to see the value of overseas travel. The British in the 19th century would have their male college grads travel after graduation. They would most often travel to Europe but at least it was out of England. On occasions, some would travel to places throughout the world provided they had the money to do so.

My wife and I don't have the money, but we can't afford not to travel...What travel does is to add to what we have learned in textbooks. Travel provides things that can't be learned-the real texture, smell, feeling, ambiance, and sitz im leben of faraway places.

We were planning a trip to Burma during Christmas break this year. I was all set to go in a couple of months but couldn't get hotel rooms in Burma/Myanmar. That country has been closed to tourists for nearly a half century. Finally, they have opened their borders, but the infrastructure necessary to deal with tourists...like hotels are scarce. While I want to interview Aung San Suu Kyi, I will impatiently wait until next year. Her interview and that of others that I hope to obtain will benefit my students.

One of the learning experience games that I play whenever traveling overseas is to write down what it will be like being in a country faraway. I like to imagine what Thailand, Mali, Tahiti, Turkey, or Tibet was like before I set foot in the country. Let me assure you what you think and what it is like over there is like night and day.

You have an education already if you are reading this article. Let me also assure you that your overseas travel to Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, or the many islands in the Pacific will give your learning a dimensionality that is not possible without visiting overseas. It will give you a 3-dimenional perception. What you presently know about some country without being there will seem like a post-it note when you return for even a couple of weeks in that country. After your travel overseas, you will have a far fuller picture that can't be realized by merely reading words without the added dimensionally of travel.

For a selection of my travel photos, visit the travel section of this site. Here is the photo album from our trip to Kanchanaburi. To read more about the importance of world travel, read my article Plato and the Grand Tour.

Burma flag

Burmese independence flag

Visit the Burma Independence page to read more about this topic.