Tag Archives: Paul Theroux

What Does Travel Teach? Existentialism


In last week’s Travel Tuesdays department I broached the subject of what traveling teaches. Writers from Herodotus to Paul Theroux have tried to encapsulate this vast topic. No finite terms exist, just as in existential questions or ontological notions. Here, as promised, are a few things travel has taught me.

Traveling together grants lifelong memories for two. This is me and "Tofu", the man who got away, in Costa Rica.

I’ve been practicing patience since studying Buddhism with monks in a Chicago suburb in the late 90s. While self-employment as a freelance writer has deepened my reserves of patience’s nectar, living abroad forces its implementation. For instance, having traveled to and/or lived in six countries other than my own, I feel credible in saying that punctuality is a term best served with patience. Five o’clock means 4:55 in the US, it means 4:30 to 5:27 in China and Hong Kong. It means 8:00 in India. It means 5:30 or próximo (perhaps three days later) in Costa Rica and Peru. Patience is perfect; she always wins. She’s perfect because she’s constantly practicing. Therefore I occasionally remind myself of her virtue.

India bridges the gap to the gods. At least that's how I felt when exploring the Hindu temples of Chennai.

I’ve come to look at cheap like this: if you’re on the lookout to find something less expensive, no matter what the price already is and no matter what the product is, then you’re cheap. It’s just that simple.

In China being cheap means restaurants add an inch or more of oil to compensate for the lack of substantial (and savory) ingredients. It’s so common, in fact, that one Chinese person said, “Oh, that man must like you; he give you more oil.” It also means they create automobiles that even Peruvians laugh at. “Those are bad cabs. Don’t get in them. I don’t know why anyone would buy a car that just falls apart in a year. Then you just have to go buy another one,” one Peruvian friend told me.

Indians have a different method of it. Being cheap in India means you’re Gujarati, according to the locals, who literally refer to Gujaratis as the Jews of India. It means a school buys accreditation materials for its students at 50 rupees each, charging the parents 78 rupees and getting reimbursed from the government for 123 rupees per student.
I’ve learned through these experiences that frugal doesn’t equal cheap.


Cultural anthropology has its benefits. I was exploring some of them here at a cafe in Lima, Peru.

Having circumnavigated the planet, the wonders of humanity’s evolution and its diversity have awed me like a child watching her first Jane Goodall doc. Arriving at the airport in Peru filled me with fascination as people of East Indian of European descent spoke their native Castellano (Peruvian Spanish). The molasses brown skin tone and almost Cubist bone structure of the indÍgenas further leaves me silent and observant. Seeing my first Tibetans and people from southeast China surely turned me into a momentary Chinese, what with my staring in curious amazement at the unique features that surely revealed a blending of peoples throughout history. Eating bread made by Uygurs (pronounced wee-gerz) in way West China made me wonder why the heck Uygur restaurants aren’t everywhere throughout Western countries. Simply walking through customs between Shenzhen, China and Hong Kong dumbfounded me as to how Mainlanders and Hong Kongese can be so exceptionally different in temperment, determination, and sophistication. These differences, these nuances that only reveal themselves to travelers, might make even an atheist reconsider his position. Upon leaving the States in February 2009, only a handful of countries appealed to me. Today, I’d rack up frequent flier miles like Ryan Bingham in Up in the Air if I went to the places my heart has opened to.

By no means would I say non-travelers are incapable of learning. Various life events ensure its continuity. For expats, however, no such thing exists as the end of learning. Positive and negative traits reveal themselves without the cloak of one’s common terrain. Others manifest when we didn’t realize we had them. I’ll share some of my own not-to-prideful characteristics next week in the Travel Tuesdays department.