A Traveler’s Question: What do they know that I don’t?

I am immensely fortunate to serve on West Texas A&M University’s Study Abroad Committee. It’s so much fun being involved in WT’s efforts to provide students and faculty with educational opportunities outside of the United States.

A couple of weeks ago, our Study Abroad coordinator asked if I would write a short essay for the Featured Traveler section of this month’s newsletter. She didn’t have to ask twice. I wrote about the questions that travelers try to answer for themselves and how sometimes the answers lead to more questions.

You’ll find the fancy version of it on page 3 of the November 2014 Buffs Abroad newsletter (do check out the entire publication), and I’m including a text copy of it below, too. I’d be curious to know of any major (or minor) questions you’ve answered during your travels, so please share some comments if you’re inclined to do so!

Buffs Abroad

I was sitting in a train car on the Trans-Mongolian Railway in late May, about to begin a 32-hour train ride from Irkutsk, Russia to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. I had already been traveling nearly two weeks on a journey that began in Amarillo and included stops in the United Kingdom, Armenia, and Russia’s Siberia region.

As I was watching two of my bunk mates – total strangers – unpack their belongings for the trip, one of them pulled out a roll of toilet tissue and placed it on a shelf. “I don’t have any toilet paper,” I thought to myself. “What does he know that I don’t?”

Travelers ask themselves this question all of the time: What do they know that I don’t?

Sometimes, the question is expansive. We might seek to discover cultural practices, foods – even a friendly face at the neighborhood coffee house – that can give us a better understanding of life in this new (to us) place. What is a typical daily routine here? Why is this particular food culturally relevant? Where should I go that isn’t on the tourist map?

At other times, that question focuses on much more narrow circumstances. It’s almost four o’clock in the afternoon in Taipei, and there’s a large crowd gathering on the other side of the Buddhist temple. What’s going on over there? The line at a particular stall in Singapore’s Maxwell Food Centre is by far the longest one. What kind of food are they serving? A train is departing Siberia for Mongolia. Why did that guy pack toilet paper?

A humbling component of travel is that it always raises more questions than it answers. As soon as I learn one thing, that experience or new piece of knowledge leads to four or five additional questions. I can’t possibly discover all of the things I want to know in the amount of time I have, no matter where I go.

Another humbling aspect of travel is the constant awareness that we are almost completely beyond our experiential knowledge. I don’t speak the local language. I have no idea where the closest grocery store is. How do I get back to my apartment from here?

Travel allows us to ask questions, both big and small, and then seek the answers to those questions. In that sense, it is akin to higher education. Travel enables us to acquire knowledge through our experiences. It helps us challenge our assumptions and reexamine our core beliefs. It gives us a better understanding of our place in this world.

On a train track somewhere in Siberia, I learned that my bunk mates were traveling back home to Mongolia. They spoke very little English, and I spoke no Mongolian, but based on their passport stamps, I learned they had traveled this route numerous times as they went back and forth to Russia for continuing education classes. They had experiential knowledge that I didn’t have.

I learned the answer to my toilet paper question soon enough. The bathrooms on the train car didn’t have any.

And that, of course, led to a new set of questions.

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