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

Friday, August 26, 2011

Paul Theroux’s ‘The Tao of Travel’, Part II


In his book Theroux quotes or cites a number of other travel writers, and I found these interesting in their own right and interesting because they were Theroux’s choices.

Ibn Battuta, along with Marco Polo, is considered one of the first travel writers.  In twenty-three years (1325-1354) he went on the haj to Mecca and kept going in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  He was known as the only known medieval traveller who visited the countries of every Muslim ruler of this time, as well as such infidel  places s Constantinople, Ceylon, and China.  Called the greatest traveller the world has ever seen, Ibn Battuta’s journeying has been estimated at 75,000 miles.

Richard Burton is my particular hero (more to come) because not only did he travel under the most difficult conditions, but could speak 20 languages, was so fluent in culture that he could pass for natives, was totally intrepid, suffering the most horrible diseases (almost went blind and deaf while searching for the source of the Nile) and never quit.  He even visited Salt Lake City because he wanted to study the polygamy of the Mormons.  He went on to be an ambassador.  His wife, in a fit of pique, destroyed many of his notes, writings, and files. 

Paul Du Chaillu, set off to West Africa in 1855, when he was 20 years old. “I travelled”, he wrote, “always on foot, and unaccompanied by other white men – about 8000 miles.  I shot, stuffed, and brought home over 2000 birds…and I killed upwards of 1000 quadrupeds….I suffered fifty attacks of the African fever…Of famine, continued exposers to the heavy tropical rains, and attacks of ferocious ants and venomous flies, it is not worthwhile to speak.

Theroux does not mention Mungo Park who preceded Du Chaillu by about 70 years, and his accounts are even more amazing.  He was commissioned to find the source of the Nile, made many trips, and had the most harrowing experiences – robbed, taken as a slave for barter, near death from wounds and disease.

C.M. Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta) travelled in 1878 through the most desolate and harshest landscape on earth. Along with Wilfred Theisiger (The Empty Quarter), he describes the beauty, solitude, and sheer fortitude and will it took to travel in this area.  Both writers captured the culture and incredible perceptions of the Arab Nomads, and the accounts are compelling.

Of all my travels, the one I remember most was that in the Sahara desert in Mauritania.  Riding on barely-visible tracks, dipping down like boat on a big wave into the dunes to find traction to keep going, rattling over Mars-scapes of red dirt and rock, sitting under a full moon on the terrace of the prefet in a small oasis, the dunes shadowed by the moon and the black sky filled with stars was stunning.  I had no doubt then about the power of the desert and felt there was a good reason that religions had sprung up from them.

T.E. Lawrence, travelling in Arabia.

His The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Burton’s account of his penetration into the holiest of holies in Mecca were two amazing works of ethnography.  So detailed in fact, that I had to skim much of them; but still, seminal works of ethnography and travel.

Geoffrey Moorhouse: The Fearful Void (1974).  No one had ever crossed the Sahara from west to east, an almost 4000 mile journey from the Atlantic to the Nile.  Moorhouse decided to do it, less to be the first person to achieve it than to examine “the bases of fear, to explore the extremity of human experience”

“I was a man who had lived with fear for nearly forty years.”  Fear of the unknown, of emptiness, of death. And he wants to conquer it.  “The Sahara fulfilled the required conditions perfectly.  Not only did the hazards of the desert represent ultimate forms of my fears, but I was almost a stranger to it.”

He makes 2000 miles, then abandons the trip in Mali because he ran out of water.  Dying of thirst, he luckily finds a group of nomads.  He was given a pot of liquid to drink. “There was all manner of filth floating on top of the water…strands of hair from the waterbag, fragments of dung from the bottom of some well; but the water itself was clear…..It was the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in my life”

I have the greatest respect for Moorhouse, for I suffer from the same fears, but have never challenged them, just read about others’ experience.  I have read Shackleton many times, read the accounts of Dougal Robertson and others who have survived months on rafts afloat in the ocean, or the accounts of Thesiger and Doughty and their travels in uncharted deserts, or the tales of Joshua Slocum and his travels around the world, or modern sailors like Chichester, fighting their way around Cape Horn alone, and have only been amazed at their will and courage.

Theroux adds a quote from Albert Camus from his Notebooks (1935-42):

What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that, a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel.  At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.  We come across a cascade of light and there is eternity.  This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in travelling.

Bruce Chatwin and my hero, Werner Herzog, had become friends, and Chatwin’s biographer wrote:

“When they first met in Melbourne in 1984…their talks had begun with a discussion on the restorative powers of walking.  ‘He had an almost immediate rapport with me’, said Herzog, ‘when I explained to him that tourism is a mortal sin, but walking on foot is a virtue….

Theroux recounts an interview with Herzog:

Herzog’s belief in solvitur ambulando is unshakeable.  ‘I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in life on foot.  If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it clear to you that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose,. For these things travel by car or airplane, is not the right thing’.

Here is what V.S. Naipaul wrote about India in 1963:

“So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to all the refusal to act; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to poverty; goodbye to caste and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men….It is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.  Probably all has to change.  Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments; all those saris and lungis; all that squatting on the floor to eat, to write, to serve in a shop, to piss”

I was in India in 1968-73, and I have to admit that I shared most of Naipaul’s thoughts.  I did not at all agree with his conclusion about a ‘frightening, sad country’.  I loved India for all its less attractive elements.  Taken as a whole – which Naipaul did not, at least in this letter – it was a remarkable place; and guess what?  India has changed.  The caste system is slowly being dismantled; Western dress has replaced the sari and lungi, squatting is only done in the rural areas.

Again, to be honest, I was on a World Bank mission to India to explore the possibilities of promoting low cost latrines – relatively simple affairs which would eliminate the need for sweepers to take away headloads of shit, and the infamous “dry latrines” which were no more than a corner of a courtyard where everybody shat.  My Indian colleague told me that we were going to inspect dry latrines and when we arrived at one compound, he said, “See…Dry latrine”.  Of course I saw nothing, then was pointed to the defecation corner where 10 squatting men were shitting. 

I thought of the expression “Don’t shit where you eat”, and yet here it was.  At that moment after years of accepting cultural relativism at face value, I said to myself: “Wrong.  No cultural relativism here.  Disgusting.  Period”.

This is a great book for anyone who has travelled; and I really recommend all Theroux’s travel books which, like all great travel writers, is more personal memoir and autobiography than travelogue.

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