PAUL THEROUX was born and raised in Medford, Massachusetts, where he attended public schools (and was a classmate of Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York City; both were Eagle Scouts). He graduated from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst with a science major and intended to pursue a career in medicine, but his desire to travel and his passion to write derailed plans for a future Dr. Theroux.
Before Theroux became a professional writer he taught in various countries. His first joband his best as a salaried employeewas as a lecturer in English at the University of Urbino in Italy. The university was housed in a duke's palace, and all of his students were young Italian women. This was in the summer of 1963. Six months later he was a Peace Corps teacher at a school in central Africa and was living in the bush. In 1965 Theroux was "terminated early" from the Peace Corps in Malawi for "engaging in politics." In reality, what he did was drive a friend's car from Malawi to Ugandaunfortunately, that friend had been forced to leave the country for siding with the opposition. For the next four years Theroux was a lecturer in English at Makerere University, in Kampala, Uganda, where he met and married his first wife. In 1968 he moved to Singapore and joined the English Department at the University of Singapore.
In 1967 Theroux's first novel, Waldo, was published. Late in 1971 he gave up teaching to write full time and moved to England, where he lived off and on for the next seventeen years.
Theroux virtually reinvented the genre of travel writing, beginning with The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia, published in 1975 by Houghton Mifflin. Since then he has dazzled critics and readers alike with books about his trips through China (Riding the Iron Rooster, Sailing Through China), Great Britain (The Kingdom by the Sea), India (The Imperial Way), Latin America (The Old Patagonian Express), the Pacific islands (The Happy Isles of Oceania), and the Mediterranean (The Pillars of Hercules).
In addition to his fourteen works of nonfiction and criticism, Theroux is the author of twenty-four novels, including Hotel Honolulu, Kowloon Tong, My Other Life, and Millroy the Magician. His novels Saint Jack, The Mosquito Coast, and Half Moon Street have been made into successful feature films, and he has won the prestigious Whitbread Prize for Picture Palace and the James Tait Black Award for The Mosquito Coast.
During his travels in the Pacific, Theroux came to love Hawaii. He is now married to a Hawaiian woman and they live in the woods on the North Shore of Oahu, among many birds and geese and bees, which form his apiaryTheroux is also a beekeeper. He spends summers on Cape Cod, not far from where he grew up.
Theroux is the father of four boys and is currently working on a book of fiction, entitled The Stranger at the Palazzo d'Oro, which will be published in early 2004.
A Conversation with Paul Theroux
Q) You taught in Africa in the early 1960s. Why did you decide to return after almost forty years?
A) Since leaving Africa in October 1968, I thought of the places I had worked, the people I had known, and the hope we all had. I constantly thought: What happened? I longed to return, and I thought I would do it in the year I turned sixty. My book represents one man's road. Another person could take the same trip and would have different experiences. That's a truism, of course. This trip was special to mebecause the road was in part Memory Laneand because I loved the challenges. There is nothing in the world more vitalizing to me that traveling in the African bush.
It is wonderful for a teacher to meet a former student and see that he or she is gainfully employed, perhaps as a teacher, and is a responsible parent and homeowner. This happened to me in Malawi and Ugandawonderful memories. My old friend Apolo Nsibambiwe used to drink and argue in the sixtiesis now prime minister of Uganda. I loved seeing him after thirty years. The passage of time is more dramatic in Africaamazing to witness its effects, for I first set foot there in 1963, which was another age altogether.
Q) You traveled from Cairo to Cape Town by train, bus, taxi, canoe, and often by foot. Why didn't you fly?
A) Flying from one capital city to another is not travel to me. Travel, especially in Africa, must be overland and must involve the crossing of bordersnegotiating on land, usually on foot, the national frontier. That experience teaches a great deal about the state of the country. Of course, it's sometimes dangerous and always time-consuming.
Anyone who has traveled in Africa and not crossed a national frontier has truly missed the necessary misery and splendor of the journey. Crossing an African frontier alone suggests why any sort of development is so difficult. I do not recommend this to the faint of hearteven traveling by road from South Africa to Mozambique is no picnic; but going from Ethiopia to Kenya, Kenya to Uganda, Tanzania to Malawi, and Malawi into Mozambique (the customs post is under a mango tree on the Shire River), you learn a great deal.
Also, I don't fit in. I am a traveler, a stranger, an eavesdropper. I have no status and do not want any. I have an aversion to being an official visitor. I had to borrow a necktie in order to see the U.S. ambassador in Kampala. I hate official visitsbeing an honored guest at factories and schools. I often feel like the king or prince in an Elizabethan drama who puts on a cloak and wanders anonymously in the marketplaces of his kingdom to find out what people really think.
Q) Kenya was in a horrible state when you visited, with widespread government corruption under Daniel arap Moi and a dejected populace affected by years of corruption and terror. Do you see hope for Kenya following the election in December 2002 and the defeat of Kenyatta, Moi's handpicked successor?
A) Kenya's government has been deeply corrupt. Moi's men tortured friends of mine. Everyone knew it was horribly governed. I heard the other day that an official in Moi's government had stolen "hundreds of millions of dollars." Imagine that amount of money and the thief who took it. So, now that Mwai Kibaki has won the election and is in power, do we say, "Well, all that money was stolen and squirreled awaylooks like we'll have to give you some more"? I don't think so. My solution would be to forgive the debts of these countries and then, after a suitable period of time, make them account for every penny they are given.
Q) You encounter foreign aid workers throughout your journey, yet the typical African lives you describe are plagued by what has become routine desperation. What has been the benefit of forty years of foreign aid?
A) Not muchwhich is why the whole issue needs rethinking. My answer about begging (see below) has larger implications in the aid industry, which is a begging-and-donating mechanism. I would distinguish between emergency aid (flood in Mozambique, famine in Zambia, earthquake in Rwanda) and the routine dumping-food-in-the-trough that many agencies practice. Such organizations have taken over the care and welfare of people from governments. Malawi is an example. Foreign agencies run hospitals, schools, and orphanages while the politicians pretend to govern. I am in favor of making people responsible for their own problems. You have floods because you cut down all your trees. You have a famine because the minister sold the grain stocks and stole the money. Unprotected sex causes AIDS. Pointing out the obvious, perhaps, but not many people do it.
Q) As a white man and an obvious traveler you were constantly approachedeven harassedby beggars. You write about the many times you fled them or turned a blind eye. How did you do it?
A) I am not intolerant of beggars, but maybe a little skeptical sometimes. Even here at home I say to panhandlers, "Why are you asking me for money for nothing? You want fifty cents? If you wash my car I will give you twenty dollars." The offer of work usually drives them away. Obviously there are many deserving destitutes. But for many others begging is a career. In all cases, handing money over is not a solution.
Q) When you were in Africa in the 1960s many countries, including Kenya and Mozambique, were forming their own governments after centuries of colonial rule. As a traveling observer, how do you think those countries have fared since the end of colonialism?
A) They have fared badly, because of poor leadership, lack of resources, the colonial hangover, the subversion of foreign institutions. In Malawi and Zimbabwe Africans told me that when they tried to start a businesslike a shop or a farm or a barat the first sign of success their relatives showed up and cadged from them, or implored them to pay their relatives' school fees. That's a common tale of woe. But I noticed something else as well. In the past, people tried to make things work and struggled in hard timesin Asia, in Latin America, in Africa. In the past fifteen years people have given up struggling at home and tried to emigrate. During my trip I heard many stories of emigration. People failing in rural Tanzania do not think of making a new life elsewhere in East Africa. They head for South Africa and the promise of work, or else apply for a visa to Britain or the United States. I met many people who wanted a ticket outso economic failure could be tied to people being disgusted with their prospects and wanting to leave. In Africa my traveling companions were often Africans heading elsewhere. Often I said to them, "Why don't you stay home and fix the problem?" They said: Let someone else do it. And I said: It's not going to be me.
Q) Africa is known to be a dangerous place, particularly at the border crossingsalmost all of which you crossed by foot. Did you ever really think that your life was in danger?
A) I was certain my life was in danger when bandits opened fire on a cattle truck I was riding in from the Ethiopian border through the northern Kenyan desert. I was assured by a man ducking next to me, "They do not want your life, bwana. They want your shoes." I also felt my life was in jeopardy in every "chicken bus" and old car I rode inat great speed, on bad roads, with a young, reckless driver at the wheel.
Traveling in Africa, I had to learn patience, humility, survival skills, and to keep reminding myself that I was "prey." To most people, I represented Money on Two Legs. I am as risk averse as anyone elseand aren't I also a wealthy, middle-aged, semi-well-known American writer who doesn't need to put up with this crap? The answer is yes and no. I did need to put up with this crap, or else there's no insight and no book.
Q) You describe cities in South Africa and even Harare, Zimbabwe, as relatively orderly places with reliable public transportation and a working class. Why such a big difference between the cities in the south and those farther north like Addis Ababa, Nairobi, Kampala, and Mbeya?
A) All African cities I have seen are a horror. I tried to avoid them by traveling in the bush. Africa is a separate place. Traveling in it, I seemed to be on another planet. I liked this feelingbecause the world has shrunk and you often meet people in South America and Asia who regard themselves as living in a suburb or satellite city of the United States.
By having been largely ignored and neglected, Africa has remained itself. Who would want to visit China now that it has an overheated consumer economy and is full of greedy materialists? Pacific islands have remained culturally interesting by being so far away and neglected. Whatever was hoped for Africa in the 1960sthat it would become materially better off, better educated, and healthierhas not come about. But whose hopes were these?
What impresses me about the many African countries that I traveled through from Cairo to Cape Town was how people have survived tyrannical governments, food shortages, disease, and poor or no infrastructurebad roads, no phones, and so on. Of course, the governments need the people to be poor and to look distressed in order to get donor money. Malawi is a great example of that. Nothing positive has happened to Malawi since I left there in 1965. Yet in the villages and by the lakeshore and in the bush, the people go on.
Q) What part of your trip filled you with the greatest hope for Africa's future?
A) The knowledge that African friends of mine who were educated, with good jobs in education or health, were encouraging their children (in some cases, American educated) to remain in Uganda, Kenya, or Malawi, to work "to be part of the process," as one mother said to mewithout relying on the Peace Corps or USAID or other foreign donors.
Q) Was there a pivotal moment when you felt utter despair for the African situation?
A) I don't feel despair. But it sometimes seems that Africa exists in a sort of shadow cast by the outer world. But Africa is not darker or crueler or harder than other places. Prisoners are tortured by the Israeli government. China interferes with people's private lives. Women are treated like a separate and inferior species in Saudi Arabia. There is starvation in North Korea. Brazil's slums are worse than anything in the world. Until recently you could not buy condoms or get a divorce or an abortion in Irelandmaybe still true? There are plenty of barbarities in the world that make Africa seem serene and civilized.