Vicarious and literate travel
Last week I had the dubious opportunity of travelling again with Paul Theroux, this time overland from Cairo to Cape Town . As always, I’m now depressed and ambivalent; or is that “conflicted”? But nonetheless, when it all comes out in the wash, I am enlightened. No pain, no gain?
I like to travel with Paul whenever I can, although I must admit that I follow him begrudgingly and with a considerable degree of skepticism and reluctance on his intricate, back-to-basics journeys. To tell you the truth, the guy frequently pisses me off. And it would appear that I am not alone in reacting to him in this way.
When his book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town came out four years ago, I somehow missed reading it; I think I was feeling rather world weary that year. However, after a recent congress in Egypt, I decided to have a look at Paul’s take on Cairo and points south. I was not disappointed, in the sense that once again his sweeping, in-your-face, and outrageous statements about Africa in general made for an uncomfortable trip. For example:
“Like the person so poor and downtrodden he loses self-respect and any sense of shame, African cities did not even pretend to be anything except large slums. Once, each city had a distinct look: Nairobi had a stucco and tile-roof style of architecture, Kampala had its harmonious hills, Dar es Salaam was coastal colonial, with thick-walled buildings designed to be cool in the heat. Such particularities gave a city atmosphere and an appearance of order in which hope was not wholly absent. Now, one city was much like another, because a slum is a slum.”
Does that make you want to read on boys and girls? Go to Africa? No? But aren’t travel writers supposed to make people want to go to the destinations they write about? Isn’t that why we go on all those media trips? Are we not supposed to return home invigorated, refreshed, and with a much larger perspective on life on the Blue Planet?
As most Theroux camp followers well know, if you embark on a journey with Paul, you are in for a down and dirty experience, rudimentary (at best) accommodation, scary food, and rough and tumble transportation; all in all a minimalist mode of travel. In short, you are in for one helluva trip (as we used to say in the 60s).
And in Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town, Theroux does not disappoint his fellow travelers who choose to accompany him through his mind’s eye. But as those of us who have traveled with Paul know only too well, along the way he will deconstruct our perceived realities.
“The human side of Africa is an afternoon visit to a colorful village. This is why, of all sorts of travel available in Africa, the easiest to find and the most misleading is the Hemingway experience. In some respects the feed-the-people obsession that fuels some charities [he refers to them more than once as "agents of virtue"] is related to this, for I seldom saw relief workers who did not in some way remind me of people herding animals and throwing food to them, much as rangers did to the animals in drought-stricken game parks.”
By the way, he also refers to the agents of virtue as a “maintenance crew on a power trip.” See what I mean? Is this Theroux as travel-journalist-agent provocateur or what? Curmudgeon? Political commentator? Moralist?
However, he does make a number of personal comments along the way that give us a hint of where he himself is coming from, so to speak.
“I had never wanted to be a tourist. I wished to be far away, as remote as possible, among people I could talk to. What I loved most about Africa was that it seemed unfinished, and was still somewhat unknown and undiscovered, lying mostly mute but imposing, like the giant obelisk in the quarry at Aswan”
Now, I don’t know about you, but when the guy writes a sentence like that, I cannot help but admire his writing skills; and I will even go out on a limb and say that I rarely see that kind of prose in the Saturday travel section of the local newspaper, nor in any major glossy airline magazines that, more often than not, are really just airborne vehicles for selling chi chi stuff.
I too recently gazed down on that unfinished obelisk in Aswan and got some understanding of how the ancient Egyptians did what they did; but I never thought to personify it as “mute but imposing.”
But damn it; it was! It was a piece of unfinished business that embodied the incredible sense of timelessness you get throughout Egypt.
Theroux does have the advantage of time, and its consequent perspective, in that he was a Peace Corps volunteer and later a teacher in Africa during his salad days. So in many ways this continental trek was a coming home experience for him.
“Some trips mean so much to us that we rehearse them over and over in our heads, not to prepare ourselves but in anticipation, for the delicious foretaste. I had been imagining this return trip down the narrow track to Soche Hill [the private school where he taught] for many years. It was a homecoming in a more profound sense than my going back to Medford, Massachusetts, where I had grown up. In Medford, I was one of many people struggling to leave, to start my life; but in Malawi, at Soche Hill School, I was alone, making my life.” Damn. He did it again. He’s got me identifying, malgré moi. It resonates.
Even though Paul travels from Cairo to Cape Town at the most basic levels, hitchhiking; in local and very dangerous buses; in decrepit oft-delayed trains, and sleeps and eats like a native (how’s that for ethnocentrism . mine I mean?); and gets shot at by bandits, he does do the “tourist” thing to some extent, because I suppose he also has to see that side of Africa too.
Occasionally he travels in style, meets famous people (Nadine Gordimer), and even looks at wildlife even though he snidely decries those who view “dangerous animals from the comfort and safety of a Land Rover, wearing a silly hat and carrying a scorecard.”
And he does despair of tourism and mocks “the voyeurism that amounted to pestering animals in the bush,” but relates to the animals “in their awkwardness, for they looked like loners in the bush, and all of them were more or less fleeing. The gazelles had fled with sharply lifted knees as in a steeplechase.”
Now, just between you and me, in my opinion the book also has a element of metaphysical crisis in it — the issue of aging — because somewhere in his Heart of Darkness trek (yes he references Conrad frequently), Paul also appears to be in transit in the sense that he is coming to terms with his own mortality because a certain significant birthday is drawing nigh.
Hands up all those who can relate.
Alright, I admit it. I liked the book. It was a really good read. I was totally engaged. He even taught me stuff I never knew I needed to know. He clarified just a tad more the conundrum of travel writing; trying to communicate the essence of a destination without being simplistic, or worse, indulging in Pollyanna-ish “glad gaming,” that is, writing what the tourists and the editors who have to sell ads want to hear.
Theroux does manage to penetrate the seeming chaos of “Africa” and show how the natural order of things is shaped and invaded by human culture.
Like all his books, Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town challenges the reader – but especially the travel writer – to somehow get beyond the picture postcard. His experiences, his interpretations of them, his style, and his ultimately open-ended “dialogue” with the reader does make us (well me anyway) revisit our doubts about the nature, motives, and truthfulness of travel writing.
While scaring the pants off you, Theroux also enchants.
Resonance and relating
Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a very intense media trip in the Mississippi Delta; I now realize that in many ways it was a very stripped down, microtourism experience. And in the past week, as I watched the hurricanes do what hurricanes do along the Gulf Coast, I realized again why we need to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.