Hidden Treasures: Traveling with Paul Theroux
When I left for a fourteen-month journey across Asia late in 2003, one of the books I carried in my pack was Paul Theroux’s Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings, an eclectic collection of essays he had penned in the 1980s and 90s.
I began reading the book in China and underlined what stood out, occasionally scribbling notes in the margins when my own thoughts churned. The book ranges wildly in theme and thought, and this is part of what I loved about it, why I even felt a sort of kinship with the author. In undertaking an overland journey across the world’s largest continent as I was now, one’s mood and mental meanderings were anything but in neat outline form.
Several months later while passing through Bangkok (with more than half my journey still ahead), I mailed the book back to the States to lighten my load. But before sending it off I jotted down in a notebook the passages I wanted to continue reflecting on. Here’s one example: “A landscape looks different when you know the name of things—and, conversely, can look exceedingly inhospitable and alien when it seems nameless. But there is a point where, when a place looks very strange, it is not an indication of its remoteness but simply a mark of your ignorance.”
Much of what I wrote in the notebook wasn’t particularly revelatory, but I liked how it was phrased, or I knew my own writing would benefit from considering these lines further. It is helpful, for instance, to let it soak into your brain that when you’re feeling far from the center of the world (e.g., when you’re stranded alone in a remote Tibetan village, feeling like a four-year-old whose been separated from his mom in a mall), you’re not actually on the edge of the world but are instead smack in the middle of the world (it just happens to be a middle in which you’re truly foreign). Sometimes just learning another person’s name—and having him or her learn yours—can release some of the pressure that builds when you feel utterly alone and alien in a place.
On the Chinese side of the Red River, looking toward Vietnam
Here are several more book excerpts, with my brief commentary in italics:
• “The loneliness of a long-distance writer concerns me, because writing a book is a daunting task requiring time, silence, and space.” I loved this. I was in Asia to write a book, and Theroux, who was a complete stranger, knew what I was going through. Thus the kinship.
• “Connection has made people arrogant, impatient, hasty, and presumptuous….In many ways connection has been disastrous. We have confused information (of which there is too much) with ideas (of which there are too few). I found out much more about the world and myself by being unconnected.” Ah, something I’m still pondering today—what actually is “connection”?
• “There are New Yorkers who think nothing of traveling to Tierra del Fuego but who would not set foot in certain parts of New York City.” An irony of travel: many of us venture to far flung venues but avoid certain places close to home.
• “Another thing I did not know at the time was that every trip has a historical dimension. Not long after I traveled through these countries, they underwent political changes.” True. Since my trip ended in late 2004, a tsunami devastated part of Sumatra and hastened the end of a civil war; two hotels I visited in Pakistan were hit by suicide bombers, and the Swat Valley, where I saw persimmons grow, became a battleground between Taliban and Pakistani troops; Russia and Georgia fought a war and jets bombed buildings near the coffee shop where I ate lunch. And so on. One of the clearest things I took away from my fourteen months in Asia was that, when a person travels, he travels not just through a place but also through a fleeting period in time.
Coffee Shop in Gori, Georgia
Joel Carillet, chief editor of Wandering Educators, is a freelance writer and photographer based in Tennessee. He is the author of 30 Reasons to Travel: Photographs and Reflections from Southeast Asia. To learn more about him, or to follow his weekly photoblog, visit www.joelcarillet.com.