Good News: Travel Is Not Dead
Paul Theroux explains (while offering up four epic adventure ideas)
Paul Theroux has been to a lot of places, on a lot of adventures. A quick glance at his intimidatingly long CV—which includes writing 49 books, more than a dozen of them travel narratives—reveals involvement in a failed coup of Malawi’s dictatorship, an overland trip across the whole of Africa, a frightening run-in with an angry mob in Uganda and, of course, a rail journey across Asia (recounted in the book that first won him notoriety—The Great Railway Bazaar). There’s good news from this itinerant scribe, written last year upon the release of his book The Tao of Travel and published in the Financial Times in an essay called “The Places in Between”: Travel is not dead.
“The world is not as small as Google Earth depicts it. I think of the Lower River district in Malawi, the hinterland of Angola, the unwritten-about north of Burma and its border with Nagaland. Nearer home, the urban areas of Europe and the United States. I do not know of a book that recounts the daily life in a ghetto in, say, Chicago; the secret life of a slum, or for that matter, the anthropology of Muslims on a depressed 'sink estate' in the British Midlands.
“The world is full of jolly places but these do not interest me at all. I hate vacations and luxurious hotels are no fun to read about. I want to read about the miserable, or difficult, or inhospitable places; the forbidden cities and the back roads: as long as they exist the travel book will have value.”
That’s encouraging to hear. We all read—and make reference to—the idea that the world is shrinking. Metaphorically speaking, anyway. The internet and social media pipe the world—with all of its wild beauty and absurd diversity—directly into our computers 24/7, so who needs to venture forth and experience it in person?
But travel is a huge part of adventure, and vice versa. Sure, there may be jagged peaks surrounding your mountain town, a nice break at the local beach or a cool, shady trail nearby that you run every weekend. But there’s something awesome (in the literal sense of the word) and indescribable about going out and doing what you do in a new place—where the terrain is unfamiliar, the quality of light different and, who knows, maybe the people speak a foreign language.
If Theroux is to be believed, there’s still a lot more out there for the adventurous traveler to discover. Not only that, but he also offers up four famous adventures that beg repeating, and documenting (we presume it will be captured on a GoPro, not written up in a book, as Theroux wishes):
Repeat Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s The Worst Journey in the World, in which he walked for six weeks through the dark, freezing Antarctic winter to observe the emperor penguins’ rookery and snatch a few eggs.
Follow in the footsteps of Henry Morton Stanley’s three-year trip down the Congo River that was immortalized in his 1878 book Through the Dark Continent. Author Tim Butcher attempted a repeat a few years back, but failed. As Theroux notes, “The river is as dangerous as ever, and though there are many friendly Congolese, the hostile ones are better armed than in Stanley’s time and more rapacious.”
Disguise yourself as a devout believer and make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a la Sir Richard Burton’s 1853 journey or Arthur John Byng Wavell’s A Modern Pilgrim in Mecca (1912). It’s not been done by a curious outsider—and written about, at any rate—for over a century.
- Escape from a prisoner-of-war camp (tricky, I know) and do something—anything—heroic. Heinrich Harrer befriended the Dalai Lama and documented Tibet’s unique customs and traditions just prior to its 1950 takeover by Communist Chinese in Seven Years in Tibet (1952). Felice Bennuzi escaped a British POW camp in Kenya and climbed Mount Kenya before turning himself in, an adventure he wrote about in No Picnic on Mount Kenya.
Miserable, difficult, inhospitable? Sure. But exciting and brimming with the promise of adventure, discovery and a lifetime of epic travel tales? Hell yes.