Thoughts on travel

I’m currently reading Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, and it has gotten me thinking a lot about people’s relationships to travel, and specifically international travel. My own travel experiences strongly influenced my outlook on life, and it is a thing I find to be genuinely meaningful and yet troublesome in many of its aspects, perhaps almost sickening (not in the [insert historical figure]’s revenge sort of way).

Paul Theroux is a prolific travel writer, and calls himself a “glorified tourist.” I think I understand the mental journey that leads one to such a phrase. One sees a beautiful place filled with tourists with money, who travel thousands of miles to reach a destination and then insist on finding ways to keep everything around them as similar as possible to the place they come from, starting with language. They seem loathsome in their cluelessness, so one labels these others as “tourist,” and oneself as a “traveler,” a dirtier, poorer, more enlightened visitor in a place, seeking authenticity over the tourist’s closed and protected experience.

Drunk on moral superiority, the traveler enters a dark cave. There, in a scene plagiarized straight out of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, the traveler is confronted by an angry drunk tourist, whose face is obscured by a ridiculous Columbia brand sun hat. With a swing of his rolled-up sleeping pad, the traveler decapitates the tourist. The head rolls on the ground to face the traveler, who realizes that the lifeless face looking up at him is his own…

And so, sobered up with a powerful dose of self-consciousness, the traveler can call himself a tourist once more, embarrassed by the pretension and insincerity of rejecting that perfectly appropriate label, which happens to be a convenient word understood in almost all parts of the world.

One funny object that I saw while traveling was a suitcase being loaded into a bus I was waiting to board in Iran. The ostentatiously printed brand name on the suitcase read “JAPAN TOURIST.” I’m guessing the JAPAN TOURIST brand cleverly wishes to associate its products with the glamour of having the money to travel abroad, stay in nice hotels, and eat at nice restaurants. All brands aim to associate themselves with a sort of “idealized you,” so in this sense there is nothing weird about JAPAN TOURIST being used to sell suitcases, although the directness of it caught me a little off guard.

And yet there I was, a real life “Japan Tourist,” with a grungy backpack that was honestly more vain than practical, because I guess you’re not a backpacker without a backpack. I looked generally disheveled (a surprisingly common question I was asked: “You Afghanistan?”) I was in pursuit of a different kind of glamour. Thinking of oneself as poor is central to the backpacker creed, but how many instances of being the richest person in sight (which happens frequently in certain places) will it take before this affectation becomes untenable?

But this just goes to show that not all ideas of glamorous travel fit into the JAPAN TOURIST mold. At the beginning of that trip I opened up the in-flight magazine for British Airways, and a certain ad caught my eye. A tall, blue-eyed white man in rugged clothes, thronged by brown children. It was an ad for a water purification device. Caption: “I came here to help. I can’t afford to get sick.” Make of that what you will.

You can become a traveler in pursuit of an “idealized you.” I know I did. You could try to become a JAPAN TOURIST, or the man in the water filter ad. One ideal of travel tempts the traveler with comfort, bright lights, displays of wealth and hedonistic pursuits. The other, quite opposite ideal tempts the traveler with promises of adoration, and cool stories to tell your friends when you get back home, tinged with an element of righteousness. Irritatingly for post-college me, I see a Nietzschean master/slave morality dichotomy at play here. However, it seems to me that both of these ideals all too often result in the same thing: the intrusiveness that comes from treating others’ living spaces as a playground.

International travel exposes the traveler to severe inequities in power to a degree that you rarely see at home. You step out into the street, and you are surrounded by a foreign language that everyone understands except you, which makes you powerless. At the same time, you come bearing wealth, and depending on where you are you might find yourself to be conspicuously wealthy, and this makes you powerful. These chasms must be navigated with tact, and few people do a perfect job.

What is the point of travel? You leave home, sleep on strange beds that feel like cardboard, discover delicious food, meet angels and crooks (sometimes in the same person), get sick, get in situations that are stranger than fiction (seriously, ask me about the Russian Ice Cream Thief sometime), and then you return home, and not much has changed, except your inner life feels two sizes bigger. Your acquaintances ask if you “had a nice trip” (and for the sake of convenience you may respond, “Yes”).

Is traveling good? Traveling is polluting for the earth, intrusive for others, and embarrassing for you. It also enriches the soul, and promotes world peace. Traveling and being in a strange place makes me feel more alive. I am forced to do things that I would otherwise shy away from. Things are quicker, more condensed, more saturated. More life happens while traveling, so I guess traveling, like life, is good and bad. And maybe, like life, it’s best not to think about it too much.

How to make a tiny cup of powerful coffee

A cool thing about capitalism is that you can choose from many different kinds of a given commodity. I remember going to the store recently to buy flour, and feeling overwhelmed by the many different options available to me. These various choices all contained ground up seeds from the same species of plant, so they were all basically the same thing, but it was a mildly fun experience nonetheless.

One of my favorite things that I saw in Russia was a drab gray delivery truck that was simply stenciled with the word “ХЛЕВ” (bread). The purpose of the writing on this truck was to simply state: “This is bread.” There was absolutely no branding nor any effort to distinguish the product at hand. I was struck by how acapitalistic this was. In America, the bread might be branded as a “disruptive wheat platform leveraging crowdsourced consumption to fill the hunger niche.”

Which is to say, or perhaps not to say, that cool things generally come in many kinds, like beer, wine, cars, or coffee.

However, out of these, coffee is the coolest of all, because it allows you to double-dip and be twice as bourgeois: once you are finished choosing what kind of coffee to get, you can then choose a method of brewing it.

Basically, all you have to do is make ground coffee enter and then exit some hot water, but it’s amazing how many different ways of doing this have been invented. There’s your old standby, the Mr. Coffee (as well as the more pretentious models Dr. Coffee and Coffee, JD) the Freedom Press (formerly known as the French Press), as well as a bunch of others that don’t lend themselves as well to jokes.

I seem to have many tools for making coffee in my kitchen. As I mentioned, they all pretty much do the same thing. But in my Sisyphean pursuit of coffee chic, I decided to get yet another tool.


This is a Vietnamese coffee filter dripping into my mini Moomin mug. Moomin is a Finn. This little filter is called a “phin.” I took this as a strong sign that these two objects were meant to be paired. I got this mug as a promotion from Mister Donut in Japan (as they were facing stiff competition at the time from Doctor Donut and Donut, JD.)

How it works is that you put ground coffee into the phin, and then pour hot water over it. The water comes back out of the phin, but the ground coffee stays inside. Does this sound familiar?

Perhaps a little non-standard is the resulting brew volume, which I would describe as “Euro.” Hence the mini Moomin mug. The brew is also very muscular, being darker than the depths of Dick Cheney’s soul. The resulting brew is pretty much interchangeable with a moka pot brew in my mind, but the phin is much less fussy, and much quicker. You do not have to watch the process with an eagle eye, as you do with the moka pot. Since the phin came to my kitchen, my moka pot has been relegated to shelf-warmer status.

The “proper” way to enjoy this brew is to pour it over ice and mix with sweetened condensed milk, which is delicious, but I think it is good black as well.

The best part is that one of these filters will only set you back around $5 at your local Asian grocery store. This is how you know that you are on the leading edge of hipness. Watch out when you see one for sale for $20 in a trendy café somewhere next to some Moleskine journals. Then you will know that it is time to seek the next challenge. Ceremony means nothing to us. The coffee is all.

Taking away

After typing up 1300 words, I remembered the wise words of Antoine de Saint Exupéry: “perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away…”

After taking this advice to heart, eventually I found myself staring at a blank page. Perfection is sadder than you might think.

It’s good to explore all approaches to writing, though. I just might go Full Creed for my next post.

Blog days

Thanks for stopping by my blog. No longer content with simply being a Millennial, I have decided to become a Millennial Blogger. This is because I was informed by Your Uncle that the US economy will be largely blog-based by the year 2030.

I will mostly write about things I am interested in, such as food, books, auto repair, music, and places that are far away. Do any of those topics interest you? I hope to keep things fun and enjoyable as opposed to serious and worthwhile.

More than anything, I hope to get better at writing by posting on a semi-regular schedule. But who knows if that will happen. (Ambiguous!)

Skeptically yours,