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An Interview With Paul Theroux, Author Of 'The Last Train To Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari'
While other established writers might be content to spend their golden years waxing poetic on the joys of cruising the canals of Southern France or writing puff pieces on cruises or luxury resorts for P.R. flacks, Theroux returns to Africa - the setting for some of his most memorable books - for one final adventure in little known corners of South Africa, Namibia and Angola.
Theroux intended to travel overland up "the left hand side" of Africa, starting in Cape Town and heading north, as a sort of bookend to his trip up the "right hand side" of Africa chronicled in "Dark Star Safari," but after a series of tribulations including having his identity stolen, Theroux abandoned his plans in Angola, where, for the first time in his life, he found a train, heading into the country's zona verde, that he didn't want to board.
But Zona Verde isn't all doom and gloom. It's also filled with amusing anecdotes, Theroux's trademark storytelling, and some of the most prescient insights about both the pleasures and hassles of travel I have ever read. It is clearly one of his best works; a compulsive read that deserves to be recognized as one of the classics of the genre.
Zona Verde is replete with vivid descriptions of corners of Africa that rarely make the news, but it really shines thanks to the author's disarming admission of vulnerability. Theroux admits that he's getting old and shares his fear of dying in an out of the way slum, only to have people who barely know him conclude, "He died doing what he loved."
"It's only when in a hovel in the bush, or being stared down by a hostile stinking crowd (Meester! Meester!), or eating a sinister stew of black meat or a cracked plate of cold, underdone, greasy, and eye-speckled potatoes, or banging in a jalopy for nine hours down a mountain road full of potholes - with violent death as close as that dark precipice to the right - that it occurs to me that someone else should be doing this, someone younger perhaps, hungrier, stronger, more desperate, crazier."
We reached Theroux at his home on the North Shore of Oahu where he told us about how he lost four friends in Africa, encountered an untold number of busybodies and crooks, and had his identity stolen but somehow remains an Africa optimist. Theroux also assures us that he hasn't lost the "vitalizing itch" to travel but warns that "some kid who is in his parent's basement with a blog" should be the one stuck on "9 hour buses to nowhere" rather than him.
Travel writers usually complete their proposed trips, even if they are dangerous or make no sense, because they think they have to in order to sell their stories. In Zona Verde, you reached your Waterloo after a lot of trials and tribulations and said, 'I'm not getting on this train.' I didn't think you owed readers an explanation for wanting to go home, but you gave them one.
My travel books have always been faithful accounts of what happened to me, things that happened, conversations that I had and feelings that I had. I didn't feel an obligation to do anything but explain why I wasn't going further. I had the idea of going north from Angola into the Congo, and then Cameroon, Gabon, Nigeria and Mali but it's just not possible to do that and write anything other than an anatomy of melancholy. I didn't really want to be completely downbeat.
A younger traveler or someone who is interested in the sociology of cities would probably do it better than I could. As far as I was concerned, my patience was done and my trip was over. I was sort of happy too because I wasn't thinking 'Oh God, if only I could do it.' I was thinking, 'I'm relieved of this. I won't discover anything. I won't learn anything.' If you know you're not going to learn anything, it's like having a bad meal. You take a few bites, and you say, 'well that's that.'
Did I feel an obligation to go on? No, I didn't. I've never traveled with a sense of obligation. I've always traveled with a sense of purpose and, I suppose, adventure. But if I don't think in my heart there are going to be any discoveries, there is really no point in going.
At a few junctures in the book, you address a fear of dying in some backwater and having people say, "He died doing what he loved." You also wrote that when you left Cape Town you feared that you were "setting off to suffer and die." I don't recall you addressing this fear of mortality in your previous books. Am I wrong?
Maybe not, but I was younger then! There are three deaths in this book and I subsequently learned that a woman I met in a township called Khayelitsha who runs a bed-and-breakfast called Vicki's Place was killed. About eight months after I met her she was stabbed to death by her husband. She was stabbed multiple times. It was witnessed by her children.
Have you ever had this happen before, where you go on a trip and then come back to discover that someone you met died?
No. Not that I can recall. It does happen. In Africa, there was a student I had that died, but no, this is unusual and it concentrates your mind. It's not Africa necessarily. But there were people I got to know and I really liked them. These people loved being in Africa. There was an Australian, Nathan Jamieson, who loved being there with the elephants. A Portuguese guy, Rui da Camara, who was born there and Kalunga Lima who was full of energy and I was planning to go back and travel with him. So it was a shock. It makes you value what you have and question, 'Am I doing what I love or am I willing to take the risk of going further?'
Sir Richard Burton said, 'What am I doing in a canoe going up a river perhaps never to come back?' He said, 'Why do it? The devil drives.' There is no explanation for it. When he wrote that he was 42 years old. I mentioned in the book, I was once 42 and willing to take any risk. I had just written "The Mosquito Coast" at that age. I was game for anything. I was in South America. I was in Africa. And I was doing fairly risky things. Not to the Richard Burton level but when you're 42, you can make it. Even more when you're 32.
I just turned 40 and I'm probably more risk averse now than I was when I was 30 because now I have a wife and two kids.
When you have small children and responsibilities you feel like, 'I owe it to them to keep them happy and to keep myself alive.' I was more willing to take risks then. Burton didn't get to my age. He died at 69, I think, in Trieste. When he was in his 60s he was in Trieste doing consular business and he was writing and translating erotica. He had a big library and a great life in his 60s but a very sedentary and scholarly one. There must be travelers my age who take risks but I don't know any of them.
Dervla Murphy! She's 81 and is about to release a book about her travels in the Gaza Strip.
Oh yes. She's older than me. She's very game. She's a candidate.
You wrote that when you're staying in a really pleasant place, it's easy to imagine you can keep traveling no matter how old you are. But it seems as though you still have that "vitalizing itch" to take these really difficult overland trips through developing countries?
I do, yes. I think I do. If there is something to find out, I'm up for it. But if there is nothing to learn, no. If you're talking about physically being up to it, yes, I am. And even being psyched up for it. But the longer you live, if you have any sense at all, and you are somewhat forward looking, you create a home for yourself. You have a painting you like. You have a library with good books. A chair you really like. A lovely bed. Maybe you are married and you love your wife. You have all the things that create happiness.
When I was younger, I was more nomadic. What is the ideal place to live? What's a picture that I really like? What are the books in my library that I want to keep or donate to the library? You make a plan. And I think you have more of a home in your later life than you do in your early life. That's a great reason for staying home. Being happy. Having a place to live.
I'm speaking to you from Hawaii. I grow bamboo. I have geese running around. I have beehives. I live on seven acres. I'm about five minutes from a beach. I'm up on a hill and I can go down to the beach. Sometimes people will say, 'Come to our writers' conference, it's lovely,' and they name a place like Key West. Well, I'm in Hawaii, so I'll say, 'Tempt me, but you're going to have to do better than we have a wonderful beach.' I'm in Hawaii!
I imagine that might explain why you've never been to Niagara Falls, my hometown. I read in the Times that that is one of many places you'd like to visit sometime.
I do want to go to Niagara Falls. I mentioned several places I haven't been to but would like to visit. Montana, Niagara Falls, Idaho, a lot of Canada, Scandinavia. There are a lot of places I haven't been to.
You could live to be 300 and not see it all.
You can't. The world is so big. And it's also staying longer in a place and going deeper. But since I wrote that piece, I've traveled in the American South for a piece I'm writing for Smithsonian magazine. The rural south is a place well worth visiting. Full of surprises and strangeness, so I'm up for that.
Coming back to Zona Verde, you wrote that you always considered yourself a fortunate traveler but on this trip you had your identity stolen and someone made $48,000 worth of purchases on your credit card. You wrote in the book that you believe someone at the Protea Hotel Ondangwa in Namibia may be the culprit. Did you make a formal complaint against them with the police?
That was pretty dismal. I made a complaint. I called the American Embassy and they put me in touch with the police. I gave them the names of all the places my credit card had been used. In some places, it was used to buy $4,000 worth of furniture. Getting windows tinted. Some of the charges were just getting a $2 ham sandwich at a gas station but others were very big expenses like computers.
It was $48,000. I think if someone bought $4,000 worth of furniture from you, you'd remember them, wouldn't you? And also, the furniture has to be delivered somewhere doesn't it? I got a couple emails from the police and then nothing happened. I think someone made a copy of the card at the hotel where I stayed but I don't have proof of that. I just feel it.
Did the credit card company hold you liable to pay the entire bill?
It took months to sort it out but no, I didn't have to pay. The card had been used without any I.D.
My credit card company frequently denies charges I make overseas if I forget to call and alert them that I'm going to be out of the country. I'm amazed that someone could make nearly $50,000 worth of purchases before the fraud department at your credit card company got wind of what was going on.
Exactly. Why would I buy $4,000 worth of furniture in Namibia? The fraud department said this happens all the time but very rarely that large an amount.
I loved the "Three Pieces of Chicken" chapter in Zona Verde where you were so hungry that you found yourself trying to decide which piece of fly bitten chicken in a dirty bucket was fit to eat. That's the kind of decision every serious traveler faces at some point, right?
That's one of my favorite chapters in the book. It's an object lesson in travel. You see a meal, it looks disgusting, but you think, 'I'm hungry and there's nothing else to eat.' So you eat it and there's only two pieces of chicken left but the same number of flies. And then, you eat the second one and there are a lot of flies and only one piece of chicken left. Things happened in that chapter. I lucked out. There were girls getting their efundula, this rite of passage ceremony. That's traveler's bliss. You arrive in a place, you don't know what's happening, and then you discover that something interesting is going on.
You wrote, "Most people come to Africa to see large or outlandish animals in the wild while some others make the visit to Africa to tell Africans how to improve their lives. And many people do both, animal watching in the morning, busybodying in the afternoon." You also wrote that Africa was a "continent plagued by foreign advisors." Can you elaborate on some of these "busybodies" you met?
What I was suggesting is that people go to a country, they see a situation and say, 'This is a nice place. I like the weather. I like the food. I think I'm going to help these people.' Someone from say, Alabama, goes to Zambia and says, 'Gee, these people are having a tough time,' not noticing that Alabama has many of the same problems that Zambia has. A high infant mortality rate, AIDS, hunger, poor housing. But busybodying in your own country isn't romantic enough.
There was a piece in the New York Times about how the Gates Foundation and a lot of health agencies have completely undermined the health system in Sierra Leone by corrupting officials there. That's a form of busybodying I suppose. They think they're solving a health crisis but all they're doing is creating a mess in the government. You were in the Foreign Service so none of this is news to you. Where were you?
Macedonia, Trinidad and Hungary. And I was once the desk officer for Chad and the Central African Republic.
Trinidad is pretty interesting, isn't it?
It is but there are good reasons why V.S. Naipaul wanted to get out. It's one of those places that is better to visit than to live in. Port of Spain is not the Caribbean paradise people dream about.
I haven't seen much of the Caribbean, but I know Naipaul hated Trinidad. You know I wrote a book about him.
Sir Vidia's Shadow. Great book.
Thanks! I've never been there and I used to tell him I wanted to go and he'd say, 'Why would you want to go there? It's a dot on the map, it's corrupt, it's horrible.' He also felt that Indians were discriminated against there by Afro-Trinidadians.
In Zona Verde, you spent some time with a USAID Foreign Service Officer and you questioned why American taxpayers should help promote tourism in Namibia, rather than say, Maine. That kind of critique can get you in trouble though, can't it?
Yes, but I was friendly with this guy, Oliver Pierson. I've heard from him since. I wrote a piece in Playboy about aid to Africa and he saw it and thought it was fair. You make some enemies but I thought I accurately reported what he was doing. The Millennium Challenge Corporation is actually well run and well monitored. It's much better than USAID building some endless project.
I've been traveling in the South. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi but I got really interested in it. A lot of projects in this region are run on a shoestring. If they had more money, they could make a huge difference in the rural South, but that's the way it is. Tanzania and Ghana are places that get hundreds of millions in aid. 600 or 700 million dollars. That's a lot of money for countries that are basically not badly off. Ghana isn't badly off.
But for some reason, the romance of building a school in Africa is greater than the obligation we have to build a school in rural Alabama. And there are some very bad schools there. There are parts of South Carolina that look like Zimbabwe. Allendale, which is a town south of Columbia, where I spent some time recently, is one. There's no employment. Everything is closed. Local industry has been outsourced.
I don't like to be the person who is negative about aid. I'm not for cutting off aid. In a humanitarian crisis, I'm all for giving aid, but accounting for the money is very important as well. For example, that piece (in the Times) on Sierra Leone is a perfect example. You have some very smart people who have gone there and been completely bamboozled by the government in Sierra Leone.
Most of the book is a pretty bleak assessment of the poverty and corruption you experienced in Africa, but near the end of the book you wrote that you are still optimistic about the continent's future. I was a little puzzled by that because it seemed like you encountered very little on this trip that would make one hopeful about Africa's future.
That's a fair question. I think I'm hopeful because it's unfinished. So much of what is there, buildings, governments, infrastructure is so fragile and could just fall down. When a place is almost built on sand, my hope would lie in people's indignation or in their being rebels against governments that are cheating them. Aid prevents them, to some extent, from showing this indignation. The government is throwing them crumbs and other countries are running their education and health services or what have you. But if they knew how deeply they were being cheated, and they do on some level, then you overthrow the government.
Things are thrown together with duct tape and no one is there for the long term, at least in terms of helping. It's a house of cards and it can be rebuilt. But it's also still a huge, green, empty continent. The majority of Africans live in cities. The bush is depopulated so that's still full of possibility.
A few months ago I interviewed a legendary German traveler named Gunther Holtorf, who has been to some 200 countries and one of his favorite places is what he called "Virgin Africa." The bush - not the cities.
I can relate to that. And there's still a lot of it too. There may be more of it now than before, because people are leaving villages for the cities. The Eastern Cape in South Africa has nothing. There is no industry. They're not growing food as they once were. People are streaming out of the Eastern Cape and going to the cities. The middle of Angola is pretty empty, but Luanda is full of people. The cities are full of people who are thinking, 'Well, something will happen to me here.' On some level, people feel safer in cities and insecure in the bush.
As a reader, I'm torn between wanting to see you return to places you've already been, like to the places in the Pacific you wrote about in "The Happy Isles of Oceania," for example, or reading your take on places you've never been to. Would you prefer to return to places you found interesting to see how they've changed or go somewhere new?
That's an excellent question, but it's the same impulse. You know that if you go back to the place you were in before, 10, 15, 20 years later, in the case of the Pacific, I was there in 1990 and 1991, a lot has happened in those islands since I was there. So there would be a lot of discoveries to make. And then in a new place, I know I would also make discoveries. So the reason for travel is not to reassure yourself and enjoy a mai tai at sunset, as nice as that may be.
It's nice to find out something new. There ought to be an intellectual experience, making a discovery. Both are impulses so the answer is both. If you go to a new place, you'll see something new. In the Pacific, it's been a slippery slope, because they've had more fast food and more Internet. Going to an island that didn't have TV and now has Internet, I don't know how much of a thrill that would be, but there's something to write about. Whenever something bad happens, you have something to write about. That's what you want. Not the predictable.
Was this your last trip to Africa?
I will probably go back to Africa but as far as writing a book like this, I doubt it. I would have to be really tempted and be sure I wasn't wasting my time. I have a lot of friends in Africa but I haven't been back since I finished this book. I can speak Swahili. I can speak the language I learned in the Peace Corps, Chichewa. The idea of being in a place where you can speak the language, a place you know - I've known it for 50 years - is a great temptation. But the idea of getting on another nine-hour bus on a trip to nowhere – no I'm not willing to do it.
Some kid who is in his parent's basement with a blog, that's what he or she should do. Go find out what the real world is like. I did it. If I were younger or if I liked cities more or understood them better, I might be up for it. You read the piece in The New York Times about where I want go. Those places - that's where I'd rather go. Niagara Falls. I'd like to do that.
You wrote in the book, "Reading and restlessness - dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere - made me a traveler. If the Internet was everything it was cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before: to look closer, to dig deeper, to sort the authentic from the fake, to verify, to smell, to touch, to hear and sometimes - importantly - to suffer the effects of this curiosity." We're always signing the praises of travel, but having that restless itch can also ruin people's lives can't it?
Yes it can. And impatient people who are used to the Internet will find that travel is slow and full of nuisance and delay - that there's no instant gratification. Or that there's only one bus or train a week and you might get stuck. They haven't got the patience for it but that's what travel teaches you. Temperamentally, people are less suited to travel than ever because the Internet is so quick in offering answers, but they're not always the right answers. So there is more reason than ever to travel but there are fewer people willing to put up with the nuisance of it these days.
[Photo credits: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Peter Cleghorn, Jeremy Holden,Justin Ornellas, JMerelo,JMazzolaa, Aftab, Rui Ornelas, and Zokete on Flickr]