"The conductor brought tea at half-past six and said we were in Gujarat. Bullocks and cows cropped grass at the edge of the line, and at one station a goat skittered on the platform. Gujarat, Gandhi's birthplace, is a hot, flat, but apparently very fertile state. There were guava orchards and fields of lentils, cotton, papaya, and tobacco stretching to the tilted palm trees at the horizon, and the irrigation ditches were cut like chevrons in these sleeves of landscape. Occasionally, a marquee of trees identified a village and dusty people could be seen washing in brown streams where the mud banks were covered with footprints like the tracks of stray birds." -- Paul Theroux, "The Great Railway Bazaar"
American novelist Paul Theroux spent four months traveling on Europe's and Asia's famous trains, winning fame as a travel writer with the account of his exotic adventure in "The Great Railway Bazaar." The romance of faraway places seen from the window of a passing train captured the public imagination, and the book was a 1975 best seller.
He followed that success with "The Old Patagonian Express" (1979), a rambling train trip from his boyhood home near Boston to southern Argentina, at the tip of South America. His most recent travel book, just released in paperback, is "The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around Great Britain," an exploration of the British coast he undertook by foot, bus and train. Much of what he saw he found depressingly bleak, and not surprisingly his account has angered the British.
Theroux, 43, has lived and traveled abroad much of his life (including a stint in Africa with the Peace Corps), and he has strong opinions on the subject of travel. He makes a clear distinction, for example, between a tourist, who is looking for vacation pleasure, and a traveler, whose journey is one of seeking to understand.
Theroux's latest fictional work, "Half Moon Street," published in October, is two short novels, one set in London and the other in Massachusetts. Both places are home for him and his wife, a producer with the British Broadcasting Corp., and their two sons. He was interviewed in New York recently by James T. Yenckel of the Travel section.
Q What is it about your background that got you traveling? Why are you a traveler and lots of people never go beyond the nearest beach for a vacation?A That's a very hard question to answer, except I think from a very early age I had a desire to go away, and I think the impulse to read, to escape . . . Let me rephrase that. From a very early age, I read very intensively. I had very intense imaginary experiences, and wanted both metaphorically and actually to be transported. So the desire to read and for me to lose myself in a book was the same desire that I had in traveling and losing myself in a country. Why it's there I don't know, but I think it comes from both a very strong sense of security, coming from a large, happy family, and also a desire to be an individual, to stake some sort of claim and to assert my own individuality. Those are all characteristics of travelers, really.Q Did you recognize it as an urge to travel when you were young?A Oh, yeah, yes, I wanted to go away. I wanted to travel very much. I didn't want to get away. I do think that it's helpful to distinguish between trying to get away from your family, let's say, which wasn't the case with me, and a more positive impulse of actually wanting to go somewhere, pursuing something rather than fleeing something. I wasn't looking for a country to settle in. I wasn't looking for another life. I wasn't looking for a place to attach myself to. You find a lot of people are expatriates or are exiles, of whom I am not one.Q And yet you live in London?A Yes, but I only live there about half the year, and I live there because my wife works there. But I live there with a very strong sense of being an American and belonging here. Foreigners are always aliens in England. No one becomes English. It's a very tribal society. I'm glad I am an American, because it is so hard to be something else. No one becomes English. No one becomes Japanese. No one becomes Nigerian. But Nigerians, Japanese and English people become Americans. But I was going to say I really was looking for unique experiences. I was looking for a way of making life interesting. I also thought that by leaving my community, by leaving Medford, Mass., that I would somehow find something out about myself, something that would be hidden if I stayed at home. Something that was hidden from me.Q Could the fact that Medford was a shipbuilding or seagoing community play into your fantasies at all?A Yes, the fact that Medford had once been a very important place in the 18th and 19th centuries, part of the triangular trade. Every person from Medford knows that; that rum and clipper ships were associated with Medford. But that's part of the oral tradition. Everyone gets that. It didn't make me want to run away to the sea, but it made me think, "Yes, maybe Medford is a part of the world." That's good for your morale.Q Have you tired of traveling?A No, I haven't. I live for it, actually. My idea of hell is having to stay in one place for a long time. You see, the thing is I would travel even if I wasn't a writer. A lot of people might think that I write directly out of traveling, or that I travel in order to write, but I don't. I'm not looking for material. No one falls in love to get material, really. So why should a person travel to get material. I would, I think, be very happy, in a sense be happier traveling and not having to write about it. You have to sort of sum the place up or assess it, reach some conclusions about it. And that's not always easy to do.Q Do you do much traveling about which you don't write?A I try to. I try to, because I think that writing about traveling is a strain. I try to travel and just let it sort of seep in, and I don't think about it. Mexico is one of those places that I like traveling in and thinking about without writing about it. There are various countries that are sort of loosely organized and it takes a long time to discover. I didn't write about England -- Britain, let's say -- for 11 years, until I wrote "The Kingdom by the Sea." It was a place I used to walk around, think about, live in, think about it more, and just wonder how I would go about writing about it. I mean, in a sense "The Kingdom by the Sea" is a book about traveling over an 11-year period. Now I've lived there 13 years. It got an extremely bad review in The Washington Post.Q The critic said you did not seem like you had much fun while you were traveling. Should one have fun while one is traveling?A No, I don't think that's a prerequisite. I think the best travel books arise out of the opposite of fun, let's say. Not necessarily misery, but certainly any travel book worth the name is written out of an understanding of a place . . . not necessarily a love for it. I think it's very suspect, actually, when you have this sort of valentine in the form of a travel book. So if you take a book like "Arabian Sands" by Wilfred Thesiger or "The Worst Journey in the World" Antarctic, 1910-13 , by Apsley Cherry-Garrard, or, for goodness sake, "Kon-Tiki" Thor Heyerdahl or something like that. Or "The Lawless Roads," Graham Greene's book about Mexico. Or "Journey Without Maps," his book about Liberia. Or Anthony Trollope's "West Indies and the Spanish Main." Or "Brazilian Adventure," the Peter Fleming book. There's so many of them. They're not celebrating the place; there is a sort of rough edge. And I'm really interested in a book when the going is hard, not when the going is easy.
How do you solve the problem of a country? A country poses a problem when you arrive. How do you come to terms with it? Understand it? Not necessarily like it. Who could like Japan? Like is such a foolish way of dealing with Japan. You can't deal with it as a problem of liking and disliking. It's a problem in understanding. Of reaching some sort of tentative conclusions.
Then there's the physical problem of travel, which is traveling in Africa or South America. It's very hard to get from A to B. Even air journeys in South America are difficult. No one will let you in a country unless you have an onward ticket. You have to buy the ticket in that currency. All that sort of thing. Just the boredom of air travel, which is not just boredom but sometimes a harrowing ordeal. No one writes about it. In a way, it's too horrible to write about. Waiting in line. Waiting at the airport. People pretend that flying somehow doesn't have anything to do with travel. It has everything to do with travel; I mean Delhi airport is really like a 19th-century Dickensian sink of people screaming, yelling, pulling, pushing, fighting. And you think, "Well, when I get out of this, then we'll see the Taj Mahal." But that's part of it. I actually think that there are aspects of travel that aren't written about, and that it's really not a question of liking.
And that is why if you write truthfully about a place, and it's a kind of direct response, you can't fail. You'll be describing the place. You're not on vacation; you're traveling. Vacation is something else; vacation is being in, presumably, Palm Springs. And you must enjoy yourself. You've only got a week or two. Why should you waste that time in some sort of ordeal of understanding? You don't want that. You want a horizontal or sedentary holiday. But travel is something else, something else. It is a kind of discovery, and it has nothing to do with fun. It has very little to do with immediate pleasure.
And I think all the pleasures of travel are retrospective. It's things recollected; ideas recollected in tranquility of how you got through it, how you cracked it, how you solved it and how you discovered something about yourself. Because it's so difficult to penetrate the private life of a country.Q How do you go about attempting to understand a country?A I think first you have to speak the language . . . Q Is that essential?A I think it helps a lot, but you really have to let it get to you. You have to be receptive, and if you are receptive and nothing is happening, I think you have to take the initiative and buttonhole people, talk to people. You have to study it as a problem, and try to solve it as a problem. You can't be passive. It's a very active sort of life any traveler leads.Q You have been quoted as saying Americans aren't really very intrepid tourists.A Intrepid travelers? Because I think Americans are really pretty intrepid tourists. In fact, you see very elderly people on the Yangtze, in Africa, in South America. People crippled with arthritis at Machu Picchu. I think "God bless them." I think there is a difference between now and the '60s. The people just out of high school and college really wanted to get out to travel, to see things. There was an outward-looking sense that people had even into the '70s that was replaced by a much cannier and more practical, and I think less hopeful, view of the world.Q Where would you send people to travel today?A I would send them two places: to the underdeveloped world and to the underdeveloped parts of the United States. I mean the really underdeveloped parts. Of course it's hard to send a New Yorker to a part of New York that's underdeveloped, let's say; it's very hard to travel in your own city. But someone from New York would do well by looking at the underdeveloped parts of Los Angeles or the South -- Mississippi, Alabama -- and seeing how closely they resemble the underdeveloped parts of the world, of the third-world countries. First you have to gain an understanding of the differences in places, and how much your own country resembles the world, how there is a sort of microcosm in the United States of the whole world.
But I think it would be very helpful and give a lot of insight to anyone to travel in third-world countries, for example, Central America. It would be so useful if people understood how much of the misery, political misery in Central America, is due to people being totally disenchanted by the democratic process. Having nothing to eat, being overworked and just seeing that the only hope is escape, getting out. Most of the third-world countries that I've been in have large sections of the population who see the only salvation as getting to the United States. It would help to understand the nature of that problem.
You see, when I talk about travel, I really do think it will reveal a great deal about the way we live and the way we're going to live. It's bound up with the idea of time and hope and has little or nothing to do with a good meal, or a round of golf. You can always get that; there will always be places where that's possible.
When I was traveling around Britain I wasn't going to museums, cathedrals, ruins and having tea at quaintly named places, because that's been done. Everyone knows you can do those things. I wanted to go to Northern Ireland. Anyone who goes to Britain and doesn't go to Northern Ireland doesn't understand Britain. But very few English people ever go to Northern Ireland. I had never met anyone who had gone there. Or to go to the old parts of Scotland, not only the prosperous places or the places on the beaten track, but the ones off the beaten track. So without laboring the point, I feel that my book is truthful. And I think that it represents my attitude toward travel.
I'm not saying travel is bound up in death and destruction or famine. I'm just saying that you can't predict what you are going to find but you have to be intrepid about looking. You have to look everywhere.Q In "The Kingdom by the Sea" you do a lot of walking. Is that a preferred method of travel?A Yes, I do like walking. You were saying, "How do you understand a country?" I think walking is a tremendously good way of doing it. It's very slow progress, but you see there's certain countries you can only understand by walking around. Some you can understand by taking a bus. The closer to the ground you get, really, the more you see. I did do a lot of walking in Britain. And the British themselves are great walkers. It's somehow easier to meet people walking than seeing them on a train or a bus.Q You travel by yourself when you are writing.A Yes, by choice. I think it's because travel is so time-consuming and so demanding that if you travel with someone else, it's very unfair to the other person. And I also think that the perceptions that you get from other people are not helpful, that you have to make your own mind up. You don't profit by having someone near you, saying "Oh look, it's raining" or "Isn't that an interesting rock formation." They are things you have to see for yourself. But only if you're writing about it. When I'm not writing, I do like to have company.Q Where do you go on a holiday?A Oddly enough, I don't take holidays. My idea of a holiday is going home.Q Home being?A Well, the Cape Cape Cod . I have a house on the Cape. If someone ever said to me, as you just did, where do I go for vacation, that's where I go. I think travelers tend to; instead of going to another place for a vacation, you go home because mentally and physically you are away so much of the time. I suppose I spend two or three months a year there, and the rest of the time roundabout.Q Do you have any apprehensions when you are setting out on something like your walk around Britain or your train rides in Asia and South America?A Full of apprehensions. But, I think travelers are optimists. You have to be optimistic. I said so in my book. All travelers are, at bottom, optimistic and thinking, "I'm going to be all right. I'm not going to fall off the cliff. I'm going to find a place to eat. I'm going to find a place to sleep." It's wonderful, really, leaving a hotel in the morning, the birds twittering, and there's a footpath and you can go 20 miles. It is the most wonderful feeling in the world. I don't think anything can compare with it. Of not having to be at a place at a particular time, and knowing that you're not going to be retracing your steps. But of course you have a nagging anxiety that something could go wrong. I think the difference with tourism is that a tourist knows that he's going to be all right; and the traveler hopes that he's going to be all right.Q Have you ever felt physically in danger?A Well, I was traveling in Vietnam during the so-called ceasefire, and there was quite a lot of firing. That was in 1973. I felt in physical danger in South America in a number of places, from rabid dogs and hungry, rather violent-looking people. And then there's a lot of mugging in places like Bogota. I think of Bogota being a very unsafe city. Parts of Venezuela, extremely unsafe. Peru. I suppose that's it really.
I feel a sense of anxiety with vast numbers of people, say in mobs in Calcutta, mobs that I've been in in Africa, that I've just been overwhelmed by. I find the mob is an extremely frightening thing.Q Are you a patient traveler? Or do you get irked by missed schedules?A I think a traveler has to be patient, but, no, I'm not particularly patient, at least when things are going wrong.
China is a place which is famous for uncertainties and delay. You might be at an airport where no one will give you an explanation. In most totalitarian countries, which is, say, 95 percent of the world, a traveler is not owed an explanation. No one has to tell you how long you're going to be here waiting, because "you people" have been here for centuries, for millennia waiting, "so why should we tell you the plane's going to be three hours late."
So an American traveler, or a person from western Europe, is sometimes shocked how no one really pays attention, no one is really trying to please you. I think that sort of thing, if I don't know how long I'm going to be stuck in a place, I find that a little unsettling. It's like being jailed for an indefinite length of time. But you can't get too upset; you can't get rattled, and yet I think that's a part of travel that's been overlooked. I emphasize that even in the best of times, even for a tourist who should be looked after, it's hell. It really is hell.
I have just taken a shuttle from Boston. I thought, "It's not a hell exactly, but it's really a pain in the neck." The delay, the uncertainty, arriving, the chaos, you know. And that's probably as good as travel can be. But still, it poses problems, and so air travel in a place like India or South America is a nightmare. That's why I've often been glad traveling in India, for example, going by train. Because everyone takes the train, and they know how to take trains. When people are doing unfamiliar things, like writing out air tickets or ticketing baggage or refueling planes, that's when things go wrong. But everyone knows how to throw coal into a steam engine and punch a ticket and give you an upper berth or a lower berth.Q Are there any places where you haven't been that you would like to go?A Lots of them. It's not so much places as ways of traveling. I would like to walk more in the underdeveloped world. It would be interesting to just walk through the subcontinent from Pakistan to Malaysia. You'd probably have to sneak through places like Burma, Laos, but it would be interesting nonetheless to do a tremendously long hike that way.
I've never been to the Pacific. I've never been to the Philippines. I'm aware of the fact that it is in a rather chaotic condition.Q Would that stop you?A No, that's an encouragement. That gives me incentive. When they say, "You shouldn't go there. It's off season. It's a mess." I think, "Ah, that's the place for me."
I've never been to Australia, Polynesia, Micronesia, to any of them, and I would like to go. Twenty years ago I was in Africa, and I haven't been back, so I think it would be interesting to travel in Africa again and see what it's like.Q When British author Jonathan Raban was in the United States promoting his travel book, "Old Glory," about his motorboat trip down the Mississippi River, he made the point that travel literature can be equal to any other form of fine literary effort.A I thought he was making an even greater claim. I've heard him say that he thought that the travel book was somehow supplanting the novel as a literary form. If you had said that to me, I would have said, "Baloney." Can the travel book be literature? Yes, because there are so many examples of the travel book as literature -- I think the books I mentioned. I read one recently, "The Worst Journey in the World," by Apsley Cherry-Garrard 1922 . That's great literature. Courageous travel. It's real exploration. That book has everything.
But I would not make that claim for myself. I take my travel writing very seriously, because I know that if I deal with it in a book I know that I'm never going to get the chance to write about it again. I feel as if I've done it, and I only have that one chance. I try to write as well as I can. I also think that I try to bring novelistic techniques into building a scene -- and dialogue. From the beginning, I've always tried to write travel with a tremendous amount of dialogue so that one hears people, hears the voice, hears the characteristic way the people speak.
So it's not a bold thing to say that a travel book can be literature, but I think the form itself has fatal insufficiencies. And one of them is, 'Why this country? Why that time? Why you? Why now? What is the occasion for this thing you are writing?' A novel is formed by an imaginative impulse, and it usually justifies itself in every line.