15 January 2009

Why We Travel

Here's my latest Words on Books radio script...

WORDS ON BOOKS by Tony Miksak for KZYX&Z-FM, 90.7 Philo CA
Airs Sunday, January 18, 2009 at 10:55 am & Wednesday, Jan 21 at 1 pm

(MUSIC UP) This is Tony Miksak with a few Words on Books.

I found a copy of "Dark Star Safari" on a friend's bookshelf. She had returned from safari in Africa and read the book before departing.

We were about to safari to a completely different place, but "Dark Star" turned out to be the perfect book to read while sailing the blue Caribbean.

Author of more than a dozen books of travel, the highly intelligent Paul Theroux has earned a reputation as foul-tempered and cranky. He is drawn to dangerous and smelly places. In "Dark Star Safari" he sets out to travel overland across Africa, Cairo to Cape Town.

"All news out of Africa is bad," he begins. "It made me want to go there."

Writing in 2003, a year after completing the trip, he explained his journey as "a lesson in self-preservation," in being out of touch. "The greatest justification for travel is not self-improvement but rather performing a vanishing act, disappearing without a trace. As Huck put it, lighting out for the territory."

Theroux set off in his best traveling mood: "Hoping for the picturesque, expecting misery, braced for the appalling. Happiness was unthinkable, for although happiness is desirable, it is a banal subject for travel."

Traveling by foot, by rickety train, overcrowded bus and overcrowded pickup, by lake steamer and dugout canoe, the overland progress took him many months, and sure enough, he was "delayed, shot at, howled at and robbed" but not disappointed. He revisited people and places he knew from the Peace Corps decades earlier. He met displaced white farmers and black politicians, arrogant aid workers and barely subsisting villagers. The reader who travels with Theroux learns a lot about the world, and is deeply entertained.

A number of writers have ruminated about the very idea of travel. Eric Newby, late author of the delightful "A Small Place in Italy" "A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush" and "Love and War in the Apennines" told an interviewer, "One of the most terrifying things about being a travel writer is that moment when, as you trundle into Belgrade or wherever, you suddenly realise that you've got to write about this place - and as if you've known about it for years."

A friend of mine in Texas, married to an Italian, wrote an essay called "Why We Travel." He says, "We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves."

Myself, I'm one of those endowed with a burning urge to travel, and I really don't understand why I crave faraway places. I'm perfectly happy where I live. Where I live the full moon sets early in the pine trees. The back yard is graced by the occasional hawk. People are interesting, the environment is gorgeous. The air is clean, beaches unpopulated.

Still, I travel to the Caribbean at the first sign of a deep discount, scheme for months to enable a few weeks in Europe, happily drive two hours for lunch or five hours for Fiesta.

Why do we travel? My Texan friend writes, "We travel... to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more."

He quotes George Santayana: "We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life..."

In Uganda Theroux "was just an anonymous man in old clothes on a corner seat in a chicken bus, reading about (post-election violence) in the local newspaper... I did not want to be the classic bore, the reminiscing geezer, yet I now knew: the old are not as frail as you think... in our hearts we are youthful, and we are insulted to be treated as old men and burdens, for we have come to know that the years have made us more powerful and streetwise. Years are not an affliction."

(MUSIC UP) Take that, whippersnappers.


(Eric Newby) Although it amused him and sated his curiosity, he found the job had its difficulties: "It's what Cyril Connolly called the angoisse de gare."


My Texan friend is Ermanno Genovase, and you can read his travel essay on Facebook.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Tony! Good work! Our book club read Dark Star Safari last year, and I found it rather depressing. It sounded as though he had expected to have the programs from his Peace Corps days still in place, and pretty much nothing was, by the time he visited. My ex-aunt-in-law (how's that for a relative...) recently wrote a book of the letters she sent home from Malawi at about the same time. It details the daily existence and the adjustments they had to make as an ordinary American family living there for a few years. DSS was a good background to her much more personal account, which she calls
To Africa With Spatula by Jane Lotter. It is sweet and humorous, but she does admit much of the same lack of continuity and progress when they returned years later. See you soon--Marcia

Anonymous said...

Your friend, Ermanno, plagiarized. "We travel... to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more." was written by Pico Iyer in an essay for Salon.

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