Talking travel with Paul Theroux (Part 2)

In Part 1 of Gadling’s conversation with novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux, the author of the recent Ghost Train to the Eastern Star talked about growing older and the importance of the return journey.

In Part 2, America’s most famous travel writer takes on India, China, Russia and Georgia, considers his past work and gives his own assessment on the impact of his seminal travel book, The Great Railway Bazaar.

Your earlier travel books, like Railway Bazaar and The Old Patagonia Express, were continuous trips, taken from point A to point B, and I think the narratives reflect that. But your Pillars of Hercules trip was taken in two parts. Dark Star Safari had some elements of a second trip to Africa in there. Ghost Train is not a continuous trip. Does that change the way you travel, not going continuously? Does it make it hard seeing a trip as a whole journey?

I think of it as a whole journey. But try to stay away from home for more than three months. It’s really hard. First, bills start piling up. Things go wrong. You’re needed. You can’t be out of touch for more than three months. That’s about the limit. After three months you have a lot of people screaming.

Earlier in my life I did. I’ve been away for as much as four or five months at a time. To be alone, to be away from a family or away from the responsibilities of life, the bills and whatever — it was very difficult.

With Ghost Train, I broke it up. When I got to Vietnam, I went to China and from China to Tokyo. Tokyo is quite near Honolulu, believe it or not. So I flew home to Honolulu. I actually had a colonoscopy appointment and did all those things. A little time past and I returned to Japan and resumed the trip. That actually seemed to work out quite well. I hadn’t gone very far, I was still sort of on my trip [in Hawaii], and then I went and finished the trip. I could have done it the way I did before, but I actually spent more time on this trip. With the Railway Bazaar I was gone about 3 1/2 months. This was more like six months of travel.

India was major section in The Great Railway Bazaar, and it’s a major section in Ghost Train. You were confronted with ostensibly a much different India this time around, but I got the sense that you feel the truth of India has remained relatively unchanged.

I think so. My sense is that in India, the rituals, the pieties, the religion, the beliefs of the people, which are deeply held in most cases, are the things that make India itself, and at the same time prevents it from becoming something else.

In China, it’s different. I can only talk about India by comparing it to China because China has been transformed. China has been able to modernize but at the expense of losing its soul and many of its traditions. But there is something in Indian life that is perpetually backward looking, and as modern as a place that they are trying to make India, it has this link with the past. It’s as though China has severed its link to the past.

Take foot binding. If foot binding had been an Indian tradition instead of Chinese, they’d still be binding feet in India. But binding has been abandoned in China. A lot of traditional things that are good, bad and indifferent are still practiced in India, some more widely than others. But they’ve abandoned those things in China. I think this is why India is such a fascinating place to visit. When you are looking at India, a lot of it is still the old India. A lot of old China is disappearing.

A lot of people who go to India miss that, it seems. They talk about India in terms of either quick healing devotion or IT. You juxtaposed that during your visit to Bangalore: one minute you’re in an ashram and another you’re in a massive call center. That seems to be the two kind of ways people see India.

That’s true. But it depends on who you’re talking to. If you were talking to an Indian peasant he wouldn’t be that upbeat about the “Indian Miracle.” But there are plenty of millionaires and billionaires in India who would say you can outsource here and they will just talk about the miracle, because they represent the miracle side of it.

I think India is a very multilayered society. As I think I mention in the book, an Indian can talk about hedge funds and the stock market and still consult soothsayers about things like the prospects for his son or daughter in marriage! In a lot of cases, you can’t get married in India if certain stars are not aligned. You wonder how that squares with hedge funds. It’s bizarre to an outsider like myself. It’s comic and weird and worth writing about.

Bangalore, of course, is the capital of Thomas Friedman’s flat earth theory.

Well, he maintains that the world is flat and I maintain that the world is round. Of course maybe you can fly from New York to Bangalore — though I don’t think you can — so you can say, yeah we can go and outsource something. But not many miles from Bangalore you are in traditional India, which has no contact to Bangalore. There are villages without electricity or villages that have serious food and water shortages.

Friedman is all about globalization. You’ve been traveling for more than 45 years. What’s your take on globalization?

Once upon a time someone said it was the end of history — was that Francis Fukuyama? Something like the Soviet Union has ended so now we live on one big happy planet. It’s obvious that that’s not the case. Georgia has proved that Russia is an empire, or at least with imperial ambitions. Putin is like a czar! Nothing really has changed.

Friedman’s point is that the world has changed, the world has been transformed. I don’t buy it. If you’ve seen people melt down, and I have in a lot of places — take Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe was once a highly educated, viable place with great infrastructure: roads, schools, hospitals, everything. They made things for themselves. Now it’s really one of the poorest countries on Earth. Everything has gone wrong there.

There are too many people losing out. There are too many people who are not flat Earthers. They live in valleys. They live on mountainsides. They live in remote places. They are not a part of this. I agree that there are places that are connected to New York and London. Yes, there are avenues of development. But that doesn’t mean everybody is profiting. If that was the case there would be no point in traveling. You’d just say, “what’s the point?” It’s easy to get from here to there.

During your trip for Riding the Iron Rooster, you saw a lot of things that foreshadowed events to come in China. In Ghost Train you spend time in Georgia, and refer to its breakaway provinces. Did you see or hear anything that suggested the events of last month?

I didn’t see any Russian incursions or anything, but you know the thing is that Russia is constantly on the mind of Georgians. I was there two years ago and the Russians weren’t doing anything except leaning on the Georgians a little bit. They had cut off power at one point. Whenever you talked to a Georgian, they talked about Russia in terms of their own independence, or their own smallness. You know, it’s like how the average American never thinks about Canada. But if you go to Canada, Canadians talk about the U.S. all the time, because we’re overshadowing them. And Georgia feels very overshadowed by Russia. I mentioned Abkahzia. I went through Gori. I
didn’t mention South Ossetia, but people talked about it.

My point is that if you go to a place and have a completely open mind, which I do, and you listen to people and you write down what they say, you don’t always have to understand what they’re saying, but if you accurately report their fears, their anxieties and hopes and so forth, later on when something bad happens you can say, Oh yeah, that’s related to something I wrote down.

When I was in China, I was writing a lot about oppression. Government oppression, and even about demonstrations, in the winter of ’86 and ’87. When my book came out it got very bad review. It was the usual things that people say about me, that I’m sour, I’m grumpy. But I was writing about the way the government was behaving, and that was before Tiananmen Square. I felt vindicated by that.

I want to get you on a point you make early in Ghost Train. You take travel writers to task for their habit of making quick generalizations. But travelers are moving. You don’t stay in places long — how do you try to avoid being flip and breezy about a place?

It’s very hard. But my mission is to be truthful about my experience. I’m not writing a geography book. I’m writing about my trip. It can’t be taken as anything but a journey I’ve taken, and a report on my experiences. Part of that is making generalizations, inevitably, the way you might on a weekend in Washington, D.C. That’s kind of a normal thing for a traveler to do. I try to avoid snap judgments, but if people keep repeating things to me, then it seems fair to make a generalization.

A lot of people credit The Great Railway Bazaar with reinventing the travel writing genre. Do you think it did?

I don’t really know. I only know that it was a phase in what I was doing. It was very important to me to write that book. The trip was a real test of mental strength, and then the book too, for reasons I’ve said, the crisis in my marriage. It was an important thing for me. But I moved on from it, and I think I wrote better travel books after it.

I think it’s nice that people allude to it. I’m glad that it’s had the influence that it’s had. But I’ve moved on. I don’t reread my earlier work. I can say that I didn’t even reread the Railway Bazaar for this book. I started to reread it but then I thought that I spent so much time working on that book that I know it, I know every word of that book. So I don’t go back, even to my novels. I haven’t reread Blinding Light, or The Mosquito Coast. I don’t know whether other writers do. I don’t. It just gets you nowhere. I want to do something new.

I’ve read that you’re planning on traveling in the Northern Hemisphere for your next book.

For my next travel book I’m going to go to places I’ve never been before. So it’s going to be the opposite of Ghost Train. But I’m working on a novel at the moment, set in India. So my next published book will be this one. It’s about a crime in Calcutta.

What about a serious journey through America? It’s been a long time since William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways.

You know, he had a very good idea. You need a mode of travel. You need a way of meeting people, and he had that. It’s very difficult. He figured it out. Travels with Charlie kind of figured it out. A writer I admire a lot is Barbara Ehrenreich. Nickle and Dimed. It’s travel, the economy. I liked that. I liked the idea of going and getting a job in a fast food place, and then moving to another place and working at another fast food place. I would have liked to write that book. But I’m too old for that.

Read Part 1 of Gadling’s conversation with Paul Theroux.