Last month, author Paul Theroux published his latest book “The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road.” Over the course of nearly five decades, Theroux has written some 45 works of fiction and nonfiction. Since his seminal “The Great Railway Bazaar” (1975),Theroux has written and edited 15 travel books, resulting in him being referred to as a travel writer, though he prefers to think of himself as a writer who travels.
Moving about the world by
sail, rail, pedal, paddle, and most every other conveyance known to man, Theroux has taken readers from London to Singapore and back (twice) by train, overland along the spine of Africa from Cairo to Cape Town, from Boston to Patagonia, around Great Britain, the Mediterranean, China and the vast island-dotted world of Oceania.
Theroux's own earliest journeys were literary – exploring the world through the written word as a child – and that voracious appetite for others' books has guided him throughout his travels and career. A steadfast solo traveler, whose most important travel provisions include a journal notebook, maps, paperback books (“more important than clothes”) and a short-wave radio, Theroux has spent much of life with his nose in a book far from home.
As much as any other traveler or writer alive today, Theroux has cultivated an intimate knowledge of the travel writing genre from the most well-known, even banal storytellers, to the least recognized and largely forgotten wayfarers. In “The Tao of Travel,” Theroux examines the wisdom of other travelers, exploring lives in motion through a collection of travel vignettes, moments of reflection, happenings on the road, some poignant, others peculiar or perverse, but all revealing of what makes a trip good (or bad). In 27 short themes, Theroux remarks and reflects on subjects as varied as the navel of the world, travel on foot, imaginary people, edible curiosities, evocative names of disappointing places and travelers who never went alone.
Theroux, who lived in England for much of his early career, pays special attention to British travelers: Henry Fielding, Samuel Johnson, Sir Francis Galton, Robert Lewis Stevenson, Freya Stark, Jan Morris, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, V.S. Pritchett, Bruce Chatwin, T.E. Lawrence, and others are featured throughout “Tao” with one brief section titled “English Travelers on Escaping England.”
Speaking from his home in rural Hawaii shortly before his 70th birthday, Theroux discussed travel experiences that have shaped him, places he has never visited (and why), what “The Tao of Travel” means to him and why he wrote the book.
What Is “The Tao of Travel”?: “It's an expression I've used most of my travelling life – tao of travel. It's a kind of rules of the road. I didn't design this book to be read consecutively. It's really a book for dipping into. I would skip around if I were reading it. “The Tao of Travel” is based on a lot of reading, in some cases rare or hard to find books. I must have a bibliography of around 300 books I read [or reread]. They're listed in the book – the date, the name, there are enough details there [for readers] to search online or go to a library.
“I realized there are a lot of books of travel that no one has read. Books I've read and loved but they're not known and I was thinking I wish this were not the case. I wish they were either in print or people knew about them. I thought, wouldn't it be a great idea to putdown my favorite travel quotes, facts, stuff that is interesting to me and no one has put all in one book. But this is not an almanac or handbook of how to travel. It's a literary guide. It's for people who love to travel and love to read.”
Leaving Home: “In an age of great dislocation and economic uncertainty, young people ask, 'what should I do?' I say leave. Leave home, do something useful in the world. Join the Peace Corps, learn a language, but go away. Africa, South America, Southeast Asia or the Pacific would be ideal. Learn another language, learn a kind of humility and learn about another culture.
“I came from a humble home and didn't have the means to travel. Joining the Peace Corps [in 1963] allowed me to get 10,000 miles from home and learn how other people lived. I learned an African language, gained a skill as a teacher and learned much more than I taught.
“Today resembles the sixties in many ways. We had a war, they weren't great times economically, there wasn't a lot of money sloshing around and it wasn't that easy to get a job. I think that my going away made a big difference to my life. It was one of the best things I ever did and I recommend it to people all the time. But the idea that someone should take two years and go away doesn't always catch fire. They think, 'well if I go away for two years, what will I come back to? I'll have to start all over again.' To that I say you'll come back with a great advantage of knowing another country, another language and another culture and you will have seen the world in a different way.”
Going by Land: “I walked into Mexico and I walked out and no one frisked me. I have traveled in a lot of African countries from one end to the other and no one frisked me. I just walked from Ethiopia into Kenya. I walked from Kenya into Uganda. I've walked into Tanzania, into Malawi and I didn't go through a scanner. The same would happen in South America. So there's one argument for taking the bus.”
Walking Across National Frontiers: “Borders are often a natural feature – a mountain range, a river or a dry river bed. If you actually walk across a country's border, you will realize that it has a border. A classic for me is Nogales, Arizona, south of Tucson. It's a little town, very nice place. It's got a gas station, a school, a fire department,7-Eleven and it's got a main street. But the main street, if you follow, it stops at a big, high fence, forty, maybe thirty feet high and you can't see on the other side.
“So it's a town with a fence running through it. You go to a little door in the fence, it's a check point of the national frontier and you say, 'I'm going through.' There's a turnstile you walk through, then go through a door. And when you pass through that door you step into Mexico. It's Nogales, Mexico and it doesn't resemble in the least Nogales, Arizona. Still, it's got people, a main street, a railway line. But you are instantly in Mexico – the signs, the bars, funky hotels and people selling souvenirs. There's a kind of desperation on people's faces. It's the clearest example of one minute being in this country and the next, literally it would take thirty seconds to go from one to the other and it's an astonishing difference.”
My First Big Trip: Theroux describes his own first big journey in 1963 when he flew from New York to Rome, Benghazi, Nairobi, Salisbury and eventually Malawi. He recalls arriving on the continent where he was to stay for five years.
“Benghazi was my first glimpse of Africa. The plane stopped and I remember I walked away to the edge of the airport, it was the middle of the night. The plane was going from Rome, it was refueling in Benghazi. I walked and I just realized that I was at the edge of a big, dark place, that Africa was all to the south of me. I was really excited though I couldn't see anything. It was just one of those mystical feelings you get when you are young – that you are in a new place. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere but I was definitely going to a place that was testing me – an adventure.”
Where I Haven't Been and Why: Theroux is often asked, “Is there any place you haven't been to?” Yes, plenty. Theroux has yet to set foot in Alaska; he's never ventured to Scandinavia, nor to South Korea (“I can't say why not, I just haven't”). Ditto for North Korea: “It strikes me as impenetrable, cold and difficult to travel in. But in a sense, I suppose you could say a place to go would be a place that doesn't want to give you a visa. There's a good reason for going: they don't want you, they're trying to hide.”
In “The Great Railway Bazaar” Theroux traveled by train through Iran, but several years ago, when he attempted to get an Iranian visa, he was turned down. “They would only let me go if I were with a tour group which I didn't want to do. Iran isn't a place people are fighting to get into. I would like to see it and am mildly curious I haven't gone to a lot of trouble to get in.”
Looking at North Africa today, Theroux recalls being encouraged to visit Libya several years ago. “I was offered a trip to Libya when it opened up. An American PR firm was fixing up people so they could go there, see the Roman ruins, but I though I really don't want to go because I really despise Gaddafi. I wanted nothing to do with this guy. I was wondering how long people will put up with him. Well, now we have the answer.”
Do You Find the So-Called “Arab Spring” a Surprise?: “It was a big surprise to me because I knew just the most superficial things about these places. The amazing thing to me is that it is a surprise to the State Department, the people who are the experts. That's the big surprise…. But you know, I don't travel politically. I suppose that's the key. If you get too interested in politics, you miss a lot … I mean, unless it is a complete tyranny as in Azerbaijan or Turkmenistan. I haven't really written about politics. One of the things that happens in travel is that you find that people are kind of sick of politics in general and they're getting on with their lives.”
Are Travel's Best Days Behind Us?: “I sometimes think that. Certainly it seems that way but it's really not that way. Travel has always been a hassle. It's never been fun to get to a place. Before it was people going to France on a horse or in a stage coach or on a old, rickety train. But then travel is, that's just the necessary inconvenience. Then you get there and you see the Coliseum or you make a friend or even on the way something happens.
“Most people don't remember when actually you could show up at an airport with a ticket and probably not get frisked but you would have an American Airlines ticket and there would be a Delta flight going and you'd say 'can I get on this flight?' and they'd say, 'yeah, if you run.' Using one ticket for another – a ticket was like money. It was like you were jumping on a bus but that's totally in the past now. But it's not that far in the past.
“Travel has changed radically, but it's never been easy to travel. That's the point. So to say, 'oh, it's hard to travel now,' you're not really saying anything because it's always been hard.
“Travel, if we're talking about its ideal form, is self-revelation. It's never been simple.”