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

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Missing The Train To Timbuktu–The Past Offers Fewer Insights Than We Might Like To Think

Paul Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and The Last Train to Zona Verde, accounts of his travels down the east coast of Africa and up the west; both journeys of rediscovery.  Theroux had taken these same routes as a young man and wanted to see how they and more importantly he had changed over time.

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Of course both had changed.  Theroux was sixty when he travelled from Cairo to Cape Town and well over that when he made his journey from South Africa to Angola.  It was no surprise that the overland trips which had so excited him in his 30s had become difficult and dangerous.  Sudan and Ethiopia were in the midst of perennial civil strife and ethnic conflict, border crossings had become impossibly corrupt and inefficient, and transport unreliable.  Whereas risking his life as a young man may have seen life-affirming, it now seemed unreasonable, pointless, and silly.
Despite his feelings of frustration, surprising loneliness, and a lack of the positive energy he had in earlier years, he could still reflect on the revelatory nature of difficult travel.
Suffering has no value, but you have to suffer in order to know that. I never found it easy to travel, yet the difficulty in it made it satisfying because it seemed in that way to resemble the act of writing - groping around in the dark, wandering into the unknown, coming to understand the condition of strangeness.
Yet his vision of Africa was almost unremittingly harsh as was his depressing realization that he had lost the ability to consider it without judgment.
I walked for an hour and then returned by a different route to wait out the weekend. It was one of those empty interludes in travel, an airless unrewarding delay, when nothing occurs except a rising sense of loneliness and uncertainty, a darkening of prospects, the condition of being an outsider with all of a stranger's suspicions…
A sense of hopelessness had weighed me down like a fever since I’d stepped across the border weeks before. And with this fever came a vision that had sharpened, coming into greater focus, as if inviting me to look closer. My first reaction was a laugh of disgust at the ugliness around me, like the reek of a latrine that makes you howl or at the sight of a dirty bucket of chicken pieces covered with flies. After the moment of helpless hilarity passed, what remained was the vow that I never wanted to see another place like this (Last Train to Zona Verde)
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In his The Tao of Travel, a compilation of reflections of the earliest travelers like Ibn Battuta to Nabakov, Naipaul, Peter Mathiessen, and Bruce Chatwin.  All had recorded loneliness, fear, and uncertainty; but all wrote of the exhilaration of new places and most importantly of the profound personal insights of solo travel.  Travelling to strange places is necessarily disorienting and disturbing; but travelling alone means no comforting familiarity – no travelling companions, no one to trust or to rely upon.  No one to talk to, to reminisce, to recreate enough of a well-known space to ally fear and concern.  There are no protective perimeters, no safe zones, no one who understands.
The solo traveler must quickly disassociate unreasonable fear from legitimate concern, generosity from scam, potential from disaster; and in so doing becomes stronger, more confident, more realistic about his abilities, his character, and his principles.

Theroux knew all that and wrote about it; and yet as an older man had had enough.  Africa held no more personal insights, no more cultural revelations, nor more historical insights; and he was no longer interested in pursuing them.  He had reached a limit of the tolerance necessary for learning about strange people and strange places, for having the empathy required to listen, and the patience to ignore the heat, the dust, the miserable, often dehumanizing conditions of travel.

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The Last Train to Zona Verde was not just Theroux’s last trip up the west coast of Africa, nor his last in Africa itself; but most likely the end of a particular type of travel – one that had characterized his writing for decades.  Personal, involved, and engaged, Theroux offered no easy travelogues but only harsh reactions – to others, to the climate, to the nature of cities, and most importantly to his own impulses whether commendable or worrisome.

The book was a likely end not because the countries had changed, which they certainly had, but his gumption for dealing with an even more perplexing and hostile world was gone.

The Africa that Theroux had first seen in the 60s was indeed a peaceful and many ways idyllic place. He wrote that not only was he happy then, but that he knew it was to be the happiest time of his life, an uncomplicated, innocent, and harmonious existence.

In The Lower River Theroux writes about a fictional character who visits the African village where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer in the 60s.  He finds quickly that not only had the decades after independence resulted in poverty and disease, but the people had changed.  The memories of his youth were little more than illusions of idyll, a wealthy  expatriate’s privileged view of a world which showed its best side to a foreigner but which was anything but idyllic.  In fact, Theroux’s character is threatened, robbed, imprisoned, and almost killed by the children of the men and women he had loved.

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Thomas Wolfe in You Can’t Go Home Again wrote of a similar desire to explore, the natural tendency to question, to ponder, and hopefully to understand why things are the way they are. 

Even at his most elegiac, however, Wolfe senses a great human paradox – the incessant need to explore but the inability to comprehend.  Yet he will die defeated but unapologetic and defiant.
There came to him an image of man’s whole life upon the earth. It seemed to him that all man’s life was like a tiny spurt of flame that blazed out briefly in an illimitable and terrifying darkness, and that all man’s grandeur, tragic dignity, his heroic glory, came from the brevity and smallness of this flame. He knew his life was little and would be extinguished, and that only darkness was immense and everlasting. And he knew that he would die with defiance on his lips, and that the shout of his denial would ring with the last pulsing of his heart into the maw of all-engulfing night.
Wolfe however understood the unexplained but ineluctable pull of home.  No matter how defiant the search for new things and deeper understanding of the unknown, man would always long for the familiar. 
But why had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter, and if this little town, and the immortal hills around it, was not the only home he had on earth? He did not know. All that he knew was that the years flow by like water, and that one day men come home again.
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Theroux has none of Wolfe’s philosophical insights.  At times he is mean-spirited and nasty; but few modern travel writers have been so personally engaged with the places they visit.  He writes of an adult maturity, accepting the fact that the life he once loved was actually unlovable.  The unlovable parts were simply hidden from him as a youth.

Paul Theroux decided simply to hang ‘em up.  What’s done is done.  Better to quit when you’re ahead, when you see that the next trip will be far worse than this one and nothing at all like those of the past.

Travel is a matter of a simple calculus.  When the costs of travel outweigh the benefits, it is time to quit.  Most travelers, especially to troubled or troubling places know this.  Once the miseries of getting to the romance, adventure, excitement, and allure of exotic places outweigh them, they resign, turn to something else, and never look back.

Now that Africa’s love affairs are things of the past and now that we have come though abandonment, coups, hijackings, and terrorism, have we really changed?  Are we more courageous, more likely to take risks, more confident?  Was there really any of the benefit that Theroux, Battuta, and Nabokov spoke of? Haven’t we forgotten all about the past except its anecdotes?

Wolfe in the end was right.  There is an essential, compelling, and unavoidable need to return to the predictable, the familiar, and the comforting.  Self-knowledge is not all it’s cracked up to be.

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