"Don’t go there,” the know-it-all, stay-at-home finger-wagger says of many a distant place—I have heard that my whole traveling life, and in almost every case it was bad advice. Yet a familiar paradox of my experience is that these maligned countries are often the most fulfilling. I am not saying they are fun. For undiluted jollification, you can bake in the sun at Waikiki with a maitai in your fist or eat lotuses on the Côte d’Azur. As for the recognition of hard travel as rewarding, the feeling is mainly retrospective, since it is only in looking back that we see how we have been enriched. At the time, the experience of being a bystander to sudden political or social change can be alarming.
Throughout history the traveler has been forced to recognize the fact that leaving home means a loss of innocence, encountering uncertainty. The wider world has typically been regarded as haunted, a place of darkness: There Be Dragons, or as Othello reported, “Cannibals that each other eat, / The Anthropophagi and men whose heads / Do grow beneath their shoulders.”
But it is the well-known world that seems particularly dire at this moment. Egypt has been upended, and I smile at the phrase “peaceful mob” as an oxymoron; all mobs contain an element of spitefulness and personal score-settlers. Tunisia before the mass demonstrations and the coup was a sunny shoreline, popular with European vacationers, where the chief annoyance to the traveler was the overzealous rug dealer. Libya is a war zone, but only the other day the Libyan tourist board was encouraging visitors with promises of Roman ruins and cuscus bil-hoot (the Berber version of couscous with fish). Baghdad may have been the Paris of the ninth century, as Richard Burton described it, but James Simmons points out in Passionate Pilgrims that it has disappointed most travelers since then as “a city of wicked dust,” “odorous, unattractive, and hot,” with an “atmosphere of squalor and poverty”—and these descriptions are from the 1930s, long before invasion, war, and suicide bombers.
Rich Afghan traditions
Yet Afghanistan in the 1960s and '70s, for all its hassles (gunslingers, scolding mullahs, ancient buses, bowelshattering cuisine), was astonishingly rich in tradition, ancient pieties, and dramatic landscape, shimmering with the still-intact Buddha sculptures in Bamiyan, and penetrated with a sense of the medieval, robes, ragged turbans, daggers, and a certain dusty romance, dark eyes peeking Shmoo-like from a burqa. Kiss that goodbye. I well remember the jolting bus ride from the border city of Meshed in Iran, the walk across the stony frontier to Islam Qala, and the small-scale magnificence of the ancient city of Herat. But it will be a long time before any farang with a backpack, or a Gucci bag, takes that bus ride again.
Few natural disasters are more upsetting, more apparently unnatural, than an earthquake. Charles Darwin, in his account in The Voyage of the Beagle of an earthquake he witnessed in Valdivia, Chile, in February 1835, described that strangest of events when the trusted firm earth begins to give way and slide in a brisk liquefaction under us. “A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid—one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced.”
This seismic alteration can also be compared with the sudden mob in Egypt, the overthrow of a long-standing government, the eruption of a volcano, and the release of radioactivity into a blue sky and cows’ milk. What then is the traveler to do except huddle and observe?
Tourists have always taken vacations in tyrannies—Tunisia and Egypt are pretty good examples. The absurdist dictatorship gives such an illusion of stability, it is often a holiday destination. Burma is a classic case of a police state that is also a seemingly well-regulated country for sightseers, providing they don’t look too closely—Burmese guides are much too terrified to confide their fears to their clients. Kenya’s twenty-four years of kleptocracy under President Moi, which ended in 2002, never discouraged safari-goers—might indeed have encouraged them to believe they were safe with so many conspicuous cops (though one of my Kenyan friends was held and tortured in Nairobi’s main police station for being an outspoken journalist in this flush safari-going period). It is only relatively recently that tourists and hunters have begun to stay away from Zimbabwe. At a time when President Mugabe was starving and jailing his opponents in the 1990s, visitors to the country were applying for licenses to shoot elephants and having a swell time in the upscale game lodges.
By contrast, the free market–inspired, somewhat democratic, unregulated country can make for a bumpy trip and a preponderance of rapacious locals. The Soviet Union, with nannying guides, controlled and protected its tourists, while the new Russia torments visitors with every scam available to rampant capitalism. But unless you are in delicate health, and desire a serious rest, none of this is a reason to stay home.
‘Catholic Moslem or Protestant Moslem?’
“You’d be a fool to take that ferry,” people—both Scottish and English—said to me in the spring of 1982 when I set off at Stranraer in Scotland for Larne in Northern Ireland. I was making my way clockwise around the British coast for the trip I later recounted in The Kingdom by the Sea. At the time and for more than ten years, a particularly vicious sort of sectarian terror was general all over Ulster. It seemed from the outside to be Catholic versus Protestant, centuries old in its origins, harking back to King Billy—William of Orange—and the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, the decisive event still celebrated by marchers in silly hats every year on July 12. Ulster violence in the 1970s was pacified and then stirred by British troops, and the terror given material support by misguided enthusiasts such as U.S. Representative Peter King and Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi, bedfellows in this self-destructive nastiness.
How do I know this? I was there, keeping my head down, eating fish and chips, drinking beer, and observing the effects of this confederacy of murderous dunces, the splinter groups, grudge bearers, and criminal hell raisers of the purest ignorance. “I’m a Muslim!” a man cries out in a Belfast street, in a dark joke that was going around at the time. And his attackers demand to know, “Are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim?”
The narcissism of minor differences was never more starkly illustrated after that rainy night when I boarded the ferry from Scotland and made the short voyage into the seventeenth century, setting off to look at the rest of Northern Ireland. What I found—what I have usually found after hearing all those warnings—was that it was much more complicated and factional than it had been described to me. And there were unexpected pleasures. For one thing, the Irish of all sorts were grateful to have a listener. This is a trait of the aggrieved, and to be in the presence of talkers is a gift to a writer.
What I saw in Ulster on that trip was unforgettable. It was first of all the recognition of the utter uselessness of the conflict and its self-destructive element. But it was also the way in which, in the worst situations, life goes on. Market day was observed, even though a bomb was now and then detonated in a market square. Rituals were observed: at one such, in Enniskillen in 1987, 11 people were killed when the IRA detonated a bomb at a Remembrance Day ceremony—murdered as they were mourning their dead. Still, life continued: a cake sale, a bike race, farmers mowing their fields, the sound of a choir from a church, “Have a cup of tea?,” birds singing on country roads where I waited for a bus, the blackening rain coming down, and the exasperated good humor of humane people who were sick of it all.
It was all a revelation that has become a rich and enlightening memory. And it had been far from the only time I was warned against a place. “Don’t, whatever you do, go to the Congo,” I was told when I was a teacher in Uganda in the mid- and late 1960s. But the Congo was immense, and the parts I visited, Kivu in the east and Katanga in the south, were full of life, in the way of beleaguered places. In the mid-1970s, when I was setting off from my hotel in West Berlin for a train to East Berlin, the writer Jerzy Kosinski begged me not to go beyond the Brandenburg Gate. I might be arrested, tortured, held in solitary confinement. “What did they do to you?” he asked when he saw me reappear that evening. I told him I had had a bad meal, taken a walk, seen a museum, and generally gotten an unedited glimpse of the grim and threadbare life of East Germany.
Cambodia or Vietnam?
Not all warnings are frivolous or selfserving. Passing through Singapore in 1973, I was warned not to go to Khmer Rouge–controlled Cambodia, and that was advice I heeded. There is a difference between traveling in a country where the rule of law prevails and one in a state of anarchy. Pol Pot had made Cambodia uninhabitable. I traveled to Vietnam instead, aware of the risks: this was just after the majority of American troops had withdrawn, about eighteen months before the fall of Saigon. I had flown from Singapore, where I was warned not to go. Vietnam then was defenselessly adrift in a fatalistic limbo of whispers and guerrilla attacks. It was less a war zone than a slowly imploding region on the verge of surrender. My clearest memories were of the shattered Citadel and muddy streets of Saigon and the stinking foreshore of the Perfume River in Hue, up the coast, the terminus of the railway line. Now and then tracer fire, terror-struck people, a collapsed economy, rundown hotels, and low spirits.
Thirty-three years later, I returned to Vietnam on my Ghost Train to the Eastern Star journey, which was a revisiting of my Great Railway Bazaar. I went back to the royal city of Hue and saw that there can be life, even happiness, after war, and, almost unimaginably, there can be forgiveness. Had I not seen the hellhole of Hue in wartime, I would never have understood its achievement in a time of peace. Seven million tons of bombs had not destroyed Vietnam; if anything they had unified it. And Hanoi, which had suffered severe aerial bombardment over the many years of the war, looked to me wondrous in its postwar prosperity, with boulevards and villas, ponds and pagodas, as glorious as it had been when it was the capital of Indochina, certainly one of the most successful and loveliest architectural restorations of any city in the world.
Just a few years ago Sri Lanka emerged from a civil war, but even as the Tamil north was embattled and fighting a rearguard action, there were tourists sunning themselves on the southern coast and touring the Buddhist stupas in Kandy. Now the war is over, and Sri Lanka can claim to be peaceful, except for the crowing of its government over the vanquishing of the Tamils. Tourists have returned in even greater numbers, for the serenity and the small population. There are more people in greater Mumbai than in the whole of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka was on the might-be-yourlast-trip list of the traveler Robert Young Pelton. He has made a career of clucking about hazards, descriptions of which fill his books, notably The World’s Most Dangerous Places. But on the one occasion when we met—on a TV show that was taped in New Jersey—he came across as a genial if torpid Canadian, except when he was talking about the horrors of Sri Lanka, the Philippines, and Colombia. I had made pleasurable trips to all three, I said. And I was compelled to point out to him that we were just a few miles from what a local newspaper called “America’s homicide capital”—Camden, New Jersey.
It’s only a Google map
Many people think of global travel as though presented on a menu, one of those dense, slightly sticky volumes that resemble the Book of Kells. It is a changing menu, the places of shifting importance, often a Place of the Day, and some deleted. Iran was on the menu once; Albania was not. I found it impossible to get a simple tourist visa to Iran a few years ago, but had no trouble going to Albania in 1995. After decades of being closed to the world, Albania opened up and was a mere overnight ferry ride from Bari, Italy (“Si prega di non andare!” my friends had said, begging me not to go); it was and remains one the weirdest places I have ever been, as I tried to show in my Pillars of Hercules. Not risky, but a tumble through the looking-glass.
The earth is often perceived as a foolproof Google map, not very large, easily accessible, and knowable by any geek drumming his fingers on a computer. In some respects this is true. Distance is no longer a problem. You can nip over to Hong Kong, or spend a weekend in Dubai or Rio. But as some countries open up, others shut down. Some have yet to earn their place on the traveler’s map, such as Turkmenistan and Sudan, but I’ve been to both not long ago, and although I was the only sightseer, I found hospitality, marvels, and a sense of discovery. The stupendous Greco-Buddhist ruins of Gandharan monasteries in and around Taxila, not far from Peshawar, in Pakistan, are unvisited except by jihadis, and even then, their only mission is to deface them.
The Kingdom of Sikkim, in northeastern India, is open for business, but when I was there late last year the hotels were empty, and they were not much fuller in Darjeeling, where I’d driven from. For that matter, the coast of Maine is pretty much unvisited in the winter months, but it is just as friendly, and as lovely, as in other seasons. In my own Tao of Travel, the fact that a place is out of season doesn’t make it less interesting, just more itself, and a visit perhaps more of a challenge. In the same way, while weighing the risks and being judicious, travel in an uncertain world, in a time of change, has never seemed to me more essential, of greater importance, or more enlightening.
Written by Paul Theroux, who began teaching English at Soche Hill Secondary School in Limbe, Southern Nyasaland as a Peace Corps Volunteer in December 1963. Soon after the nation’s transition to independence as Malawi, Prime Minister Hastings Banda accused Theroux of collaborating in a plot with Banda’s opponents to overthrow the government. Theroux was expelled from Malawi and was terminated from the Peace Corps in Oct. 1965, at which point he became a lecturer at Makerere University in Uganda. He is the author of 31 books of fiction and 18 travel books including The Great Railway Bazaar, Riding the Iron Rooster, and Dark Star Safari. This essay, titled "Traveling Beyond Google," is in a new collection of essays, Figures in a Landscape, by Paul Theroux. Copyright©2018 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved. This story was published in WorldView magazine's Winter 2018 issue.