"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Great Travel Writing–The Observed, The Abstract, And The Personal

One of the best travel writers of any generation is Paul Theroux, who combines the observed, the abstract, and the personal in all of his writing. Dark Star Safari is a book in which Theroux at 60 retraces the steps he first took down  the east coast of Africa by land when he was a young man. Sudan and Ethiopia had become dangerous, banging in the back of a pickup truck was now tedious and tiring, sexual adventures were less promising and seldom fulfilled, and the landscape familiar and uninspiring. It was no fun getting old, Theroux mused, but used this growing anxiety as fuel for his journey.  Seeing the same places with the same eyes but with the perspective of age was the only way to understand the changes that had gone on within him and by extension what happens to us all as we age.

In a follow-up book, Last Train to Zona Verde, which describes his trip up the west coast of Africa, could well be Theroux’s last. He was near seventy when he wrote it, and recounts telling feelings when he is at some remote, empty hotel or at a difficult border crossing.  “Why am I here?”, he asks. Why, in other words, has he – at seventy - chosen to be in difficult, dangerous, and uninteresting places? What was the point?  As a much younger man he found even the uninspiring inspiring because he had fresh eyes and was trying to figure out what made countries, societies, and people tick.  A remote village, unchanged for centuries – chickens, dogs lying in the dust, unrelenting heat, scrub corn and millet – was important because of its tenacity, or durability, or marginalization from the mainstream.  Now it was simply hot, dirty, malarial, and uncomfortable.

One of Theroux’s best travel books, although it is a novel, is Lower River, a story about a seventy-something ex-Peace Corps Volunteer who travels back to his village. His years as a Volunteer had always been among his happiest, and he remembered the simple, generous, and happy life of the countryside with nostalgia and since leaving had a permanent desire to return to Malawi.

The village had changed when the Theroux character, Hock returns. It had regressed since his early post-colonial days and was now poor and desperate.  His friends had gotten old, and the younger villagers saw him as a mark – a rich, idealistic American, nose open, and ripe for the taking.  His odyssey of captivity and escape is a page-turner, but the reader cannot ignore the more profound, familiar message – you can’t go back.

Theroux understood the romance, excitement, and danger of foreign travel very early in his life.  He lived an idyllic existence in his Peace Corps and teaching days in East Africa (read My Secret History and My Other Life), he understood that he was a privileged outsider, forgiven for cultural faux pas, accepted as part of an accepting and accommodating African tribal culture, and able to pick and choose his friends, lovers, and adventures. In one of his earlier novels, however – Mosquito Coast – he writes of a similar American energy, idealism, and enterprise that has no place in the remote Miskito Coast of Honduras. The jungle, its natives, exploiters, and bandits are too much for him; and he becomes deranged, mad, and murderous.

Theroux’s travel writing is among the best because he understands his Americanness, his own sense of adventure and curiosity, and the promises and lies of foreign places.

I have always considered Theroux a kindred soul because my travel trajectory was much the same as his although I have written far less about it.  For over forty years I traveled throughout Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe.  I lived and travelled throughout India, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Bolivia.  In my early days I was as curious and as intrepid as Theroux, anxious to get to the remotest parts of the Deccan, the Amazon, or the Gangetic Plain.  I travelled by boat down the Napo, a major tributary of the Amazon to take ayahuasca and see the Angel of Death. I have been stranded in the Sahara, car-jacked in Luanda, marooned in the Comoros, survived bloody coups in Burkina Faso, Haiti, and Ivory Coast.  All were part of my youthful grand adventure.

I ate Capitaine au Poivre Vert by Lake Tanganyika prepared by a Belgian ex-colonialist.  I made love in hotel in Moroni run by a stateless Italian, in a cabana on Macaya Beach on the South Coast of Haiti, in a spacious apartment on Calea Victoriei in Bucharest, in a crumbling spa in the Carpathians, and in the Murree Hills of Pakistan.

Near the end of my career when I was well into my sixties, I visited many of the same places; but, like Theroux, found them – and me – changed almost beyond recognition.  Luanda had become chaotic, crime-ridden, and lawless.  Pakistan was a failed state. Haiti was like Somalia in its frightening lack of civil authority.

Romania had changed for the better in many ways, and since joining the EU had become a modernizing if not modern nation.  But what I found romantic and appealing – its crumbling Old World neighborhoods, its spartan ex-Soviet era spas and resorts, and its trios playing Schubert in chandeliered ballrooms – was gone or disappearing.

I thought like the older Theroux many times. “I am too old for this”, I said as I waited for my luggage in yet another mosquito-ridden, airless, and threatening African arrivals hall, camped out in an apartment in one of Luanda’s worst neighborhoods, locked behind a three-bolt door, or kicked out of the only decent hotel in town by Texas oilmen who had paid off the management.  The calculus had changed.  The  dismal, unsettling airports; the shakedowns, delays, lost-and-never-found luggage; the indifferent hotels and lawless streets now vastly outweighed the few rewards and pleasures I had once settled in.  It simply wasn’t worth it anymore.

I knew when to quit, as Theroux did; and a relatively early retirement preserved my good memories before the nastiness eroded them.  I haven’t set foot on an international flight since my last trip to Angola over six years ago, and I doubt I ever will.

I am always asked if I miss the travel.  My friends and acquaintances had only heard about my fantastic adventures, and were surprised that I would give up so willingly what they had always dreamed about.  However I have never looked back.

Theroux also wrote a book about travel.  Not his travel, but that of others.  The Tao of Travel is a collection of writings from early travelers like Ibn Battuta, Mungo Park, and Paul du Chaillu, and more modern ones like Jean-Paul Sartre, Pico Iyer, and Emily Dickenson.  Following is an excerpt from Theroux’s introduction which captures the sentiments of all those cited in the book:

You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.

Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.

Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.

The best travel books are about all this – perspective, change, nostalgia, loneliness, and vision.  Early writers like Mungo Park (1771-1806) who were sponsored by geographical societies to find something – in Park’s case the direct of flow of the Niger – were less philosophical and more anthropological.  Sir Richard Francis Burton was an explorer like no other, and thanks to his ability to speak many languages fluently and to adopt the mannerisms and comportment of foreigners, was able to penetrate the most closed and remote places, like Mecca.  His accounts are meticulous and even boring in their detail, but reading between the lines – necessary in his non-confessional age – one can see the same curiosity, intrepidness, and eager enthusiasm found in all travel writers.

Travel writers come in many forms.  There are those who recount sailing alone around Cape Horn (Francis Chichester, Joshua Slocum), travelling through The Empty Quarter (Charles Doughty), or fighting the Turks in Arabia (T.E. Lawrence). 

There are hundreds of accounts of journeys up the Amazon, down the Nile, and across Lake Baikal.  The journals of Lewis and Clark are by no means inspiring writing, but a chronicle of life in the far reaches of the new Republic.  Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard chronicled the climb of George Schaller, a mammalogist and mountaineer; and Matthiessen, a writer and naturalist.  Schaller want to see the legendary snow leopard who was reported to live in the high Himalaya, and Matthiessen wanted to record the journey.  Trip for Matthiessen, however, turned into one of spiritual discovery and revelation, and the high mountains affected him as profoundly as they did Wordsworth (Mont Blanc).

The need for cultural perspective and understanding has not left me entirely, and I now travel extensively in the United States.  The Deep South is the region that fascinates me most, perhaps because it the most unlike that of my own upbringing – New England – but also because it is where the Civil War was fought, where the seeds of rebellion were sown, and where millions of slaved labored.  Without understanding Southern history, it is said, one cannot understand America.

The older I get the less interested I am in seeing things.  I want to reflect on what I already know and read others’ reflections on the puzzles I have not solved.  Were people, societies, cultures more alike or more different from each other? Why did all social groupings whether family, community, or nation always seem to act in the same predictable ways?  Shakespeare had the best reply.  History, he said, is nothing more than a perpetual motion mechanism fueled by an aggressive, acquisitive, and self-interested human nature.  The fascination is only in the details.

In the course of my travels I visited countries in which millions had died because of civil conflict and state repression – India’s Partition, the civil war in Angola, the genocide in Rwanda, the brutal struggles for independence in Algeria and Mozambique, the chaotic violence in Haiti, the gulags of Russia -  but I had never reflected on my own death.  Can there possibly be any cultural perspective to that?  So I turned to Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Chekhov.  The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of the most powerful, chilling, and personal accounts of the months and minutes before death ever written.

I have come full circle, it seems, from outward to inward.  I have no regrets and none but great memories of all my travels.  The mind as a way of erasing the nasty bits and embellishing the tasty ones, so my nostalgia is always a pleasant trip.  I am no longer interested in telling tales of past adventures but in sharing insights from books.  This is a phase of consolidation, not exploration; and that is as it should be.

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