Telling What a Trip Is Really Like
Travel writer and novelist Paul Theroux conveys the sometimes raw details of a journey
WASHINGTON — ONE critic recently called him a "dyspeptic grump." Yet Paul Theroux, of all people, has been paddling through the popular picture of paradise - the islands of the South Pacific.
A best-selling travel writer and novelist, Mr. Theroux's special gift lies in conveying, tellingly and sometimes without mercy, what the journey was really like.
There are probably more expert travelers roaming the world, expert in the practical details of where to stay and how to get there, but few more skilled purveyors of the actual experience of foreign places and people.
Travel, after all, is not just about foreign settings. It is also about the traveler. Most people see travel as an escape from the self and its daily preoccupations, Theroux says. He believes otherwise: "When you travel you are more yourself," he says.
He travels out of restlessness and curiosity. He is not a tourist. Tourists seek the familiar, to feel at home, he explains. Travelers seek the strange and foreign.
"Tourists don't know where they've been," he writes, after sitting next to one on a plane over the Pacific. "Travelers don't know where they're going."
For his most recent trip, he went to the dream setting of the Western imagination - the balmy, carefree islands of sand and palm and easy fish to catch and about as far as anywhere from traffic and briefcases. He canvassed the lagoons and markets from New Zealand to Easter Island to Hawaii. He flew from place to place but carried a folding sea kayak for local explorations and camping.
For Theroux, the dream was probably formed "45 years ago when I had a library book and I was sitting in Bedford, Mass., wearing heavy clothes." It was the ideal of a South Pacific paradise under sunshine and fruit trees, he says, that early European explorers brought home centuries ago.
So what did he find?
Arriving in Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands, inspires this passage:
"My first impression was of a place so ramshackle, so poor, so scary, so unexpect- edly filthy, that I began to understand the theory behind culture shock...."
He toured the harbor: "Garbage and raw sewage sloshed against the shore, and what I had first taken to be a beach toy was the gray corpse of a pig, swollen in death and bobbing on the dirty water and seemingly on the point of bursting. Watching that dead pig impassively were three fat Melanesian boys in torn shorts sharing a bag of Cheez Doodles."
Observations and details like this one are larded through Theroux's new book about his trip, "The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific" (Putnam, $24.95). Some reviewers suggest the title can only be taken as sarcasm. One suggests that the only thing that saves Theroux's scathing observations from racism is that he is equally merciless to nearly all races and nationalities he encounters.
Theroux himself does not see it that way. For all that was miserable in many of the islands, he says, he was not disappointed. "There were so many places that I got to that were better than I had imagined they would be - simpler, prettier, better fed, without severe problems. Places that really seemed to be off the map.
"This is one of the best trips I've ever taken, in many ways one of the most pleasant, rewarding, even simplest."
Certainly, in person, Theroux is no grump. He has a soft-spoken air of literary refinement but never quite puffs into arrogance or preciousness. He is a thoughtful and open conversationalist.
He is a New Englander who has spent most of the past 20 years in London. His speech is now thoroughly British in accent and usage.
He is hip. In Washington recently to speak at the Smithsonian, he wore a seersucker suit, cut fashionably baggy, and a cartoon-bright tie with fish. He wears round, tortoise-shell glasses. Three decades after his stint in the Peace Corps, of seeing the world, of producing nearly a book a year, he has fresh-faced, Gentleman's Quarterly-style good looks.
The grump charge, he says, comes because he has the temerity to notice the details one is supposed to overlook. In fact, he carries a tiny, hardbound notebook with him for scribbling observations. On the day of the Smithsonian speech, he had taken down a Biblical citation that caught his interest in a Washington Post. When he is traveling for a book, he transfers each day's notes into a more narrative form in a larger notebook each evening.
He has been criticized, he says, for describing in an earlier book how the Chinese constantly spit and smoked in close company - "a lot of things I thought rather inconvenient, obnoxious, antisocial, unhealthy."
"True, that's a kind of judgment on them," he admits. "But I did notice. It's a very oral country. People are always eating, smoking, stuffing things in their mouth. I was faulted for that."
In the Pacific, he notices how some islanders have developed a preference for Spam over their own fresh fish; how violent, Rambo-type videos are corrupting the innocence of islands where generators are only used for running VCRs. He notices what he considers Australian rudeness and drunkenness and the prim drabness of New Zealand.
But noticing is not the whole story of why Theroux's paradise is not always pretty. Bad times make better stories, he explains.
"Writing about good times is just boasting, and anyway, who wants to hear about them? People want to hear about the other things that happened. They want to hear about the hitches."
Theroux is working on a novel now. ("Mosquito Coast," later a movie starring Harrison Ford, is his best-known work.) He expects to finish in about eight months. Then perhaps he will hit the road again.
In an age where increasing numbers of people go forth and see the world for themselves, Theroux sees no threat to the future of travel writing. Tourists stay too close to well-trodden turf.
The average tourist at Waikiki Beach could take a 20-minute bus ride and see another world very similar to small-town, mainland America, he says.
But the average tourist stays close to the Waikiki strip and thinks that is Hawaii, says Theroux, "which it most certainly isn't."