Lots of people like to travel in their favorite armchair. Me? I prefer my cozy bed. Every night before turning off my bedside light, I like to read for an hour or so, in order that my chosen book will take me, in Emily Dickinson’s words, “lands away” before I float off to Dreamland.
Lately I’ve been doing such traveling with a guy named Paul. Last week we went on a four-month journey east, from Britain all the way through to Southeast Asia, half a world away, mainly on trains, because we both love train travel above all. As he puts it, “railways are irresistible bazaars, snaking along perfectly level no matter what the landscape, improving your mood with speed, and never upsetting your drink.”
Paul likes to travel relatively slowly, crossing national frontiers on the ground — “a grand tour’s succession of memorable images across a curved earth,” he says so well — rather than zipping over oceans and borders in planes. Slower train travel is the best way, he maintains, “of being reminded that there’s a relationship between Here and There, and that a travel narrative is the story of There and Back.”
What a traveling companion he was on that eastward trip last week! Sometimes his comments and observations took my breath away. He’s so smart and sharp-eyed, and, unlike me, sociable. I admired the way he could strike up a conversation with just about anyone anywhere along the line and then make an amusing story out of it. Like the man named Harris in India who suffered from constipation. “Constipated! In India!” Paul writes disbelievingly. Harris became a laughingstock.
I’d been to Great Britain and Europe many times before, but never to Asia. So now, thanks to Paul (whose last name, by the way, is Theroux, and whose 1975 travel narrative this was is The Great Railway Bazaar), I can say I’ve seen for the first time some of the Far East’s fascinating cities and lush countryside and met many memorable people on our journey.
Oh, and what a writer Paul is! No wonder he’s so famous. Here, to give only one small sampling, is the opening sentence to Chapter 17, “The Mandalay Express”:
“At sundown in Rangoon, the crows that have been blackening the sky all day soar to their roosts as the shrill bats waken and flap in hectic circles around the pagoda-style towers of the railway station.”
So this week, because I wasn’t ready to kiss Paul goodbye, I chose to go on another journey with him, this time back to Africa (he had been a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in Africa many years ago, and so had I) in his 2002 book Dark Star Safari, an account of his trip due south, from Cairo, Egypt, to Cape Town, South Africa, via trains, buses, cars, and armed convoy.
I’m continuing to swoon over his acerbic wit, clipped observations, and travel musings, such as these thoughts while in Egypt:
“Some countries are perfect for tourists. Italy is. So are Mexico and Spain. Turkey, too. Egypt, of course. Pretty big. Not too dirty. Nice food. Courteous people. Sunshine. Lots of masterpieces. Ruins all over the place. Names that ring a bell. Long, vague history.”
Last night I accompanied him on his travels through Sudan. He (we?) slept outdoors on sand dunes under starry (and occasionally rainy) skies, near the ruins of pyramids there. But he describes it so much better than I:
“We camped by pyramids, and I felt as those old travelers must have – lucky, humbled, uplifted by being alone in this sacred place, a solitary meditation among marvels.”
Paul and I have a long way to go before we reach Cape Town. (The book is nearly 500 pages thick.) I’m especially looking forward to seeing Zimbabwe through his eyes. I’d lived there for three years in my mid-twenties, when it was still Rhodesia, and I returned for a brief visit when I was in my early fifties. Part of my heart is still there.
At one point Paul quotes Flaubert, one of the many authors he’s reading on this trip: “Traveling makes one modest – you see what a tiny place you occupy in the world.” Last time I checked, there are 7.9 billion people inhabiting this big blue ball called Earth. Seeing more of this planet and its people puts things into perspective, I feel: Each of us is just a speck of dust.
Now that the COVID pandemic restrictions are slowly being lifted, people who are able to do so are gleefully making long-distance travel plans. For those of us who are not able to travel distances, due to health, economic, or other reasons, there are always books. Beautiful, uplifting, transporting books. Again, I’ll quote my favorite poem by my favorite poet, Emily Dickinson:
There is no frigate like a book
To take us lands away
Nor any coursers like a page
Of prancing poetry –
This traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of toll –
How frugal is the chariot
That bears the human soul.
Now I must get back to Paul before I turn off my bedside light.