The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari
By Paul Theroux
Paul Theroux has been writing classic travel books for the past four decades. His most recent account of a grueling journey through Southern Africa is no less dyspeptic than his earlier books, though perhaps with more justification. On his journey from South African townships to the failed state of Angola via Namibia and Botswana, he endures makeshift accommodation and fly-blown meals, meets with hostility and disorder, and has his credit card cloned by someone who racks up a bill of a cool $48,000.
Yet Theroux (now over 70) sets off with the usual traveler's anticipation of new sights and new insights. The tone is a little elegiac when he revisits himself as a newly arrived Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi in the 1960s. Even now he starts with a mental image of the "heroic pagan world" of tribal Africa, meanwhile knowing this to be an illusion. Names from primary school geography lessons like Pygmy, Hottentot, Bantu and Bushmen—now discredited as derogatory—still have the power to tempt him away from the shallow prattlers and boredom he wants to escape at home. The extensive research he has done on the Ju/'hoansi or "Real People" (formerly Bushmen) is fascinating.
The book opens with a bush hunt accompanied by some Ju/'hoansi women, an experience that brings on a rare mood of happiness which lingers on even though he knows it is all a charade. These people haven't been hunter-gatherers since the 1970s. After his bus breaks down in Angola, he chances upon what he thinks is a female initiation ritual or Efundula, reassuring evidence that some of the ethnographic practices of the past survive.
But these are the only two bright spots in a 3,500 mile journey of soul-destroying dereliction. He vividly evokes the cruelties of colonization, past and present, from the German settlers who tried to eradicate the gentle Herero people of Namibia in 1904 to the modern domination of nihilistic rap music and fashion all but obliterating traditional culture. This unsentimental description of a settlement in northern Namibia is not the kind of travel writing which has you racing to the travel agent to book a flight:
"Beyond the wire was the more familiar Africa of skinny, hungry-looking children wincing in sunlight, of men drinking beer under trees, of straggling villages and frantic chickens and cattle wandering on the roads, of blowing paper and flimsy plastic bags snagged on trees, of piles of cast-off rags and trampled beer cans, the improvised, slapped-together Africa of tumbled fences and cooking fires, of mud and thatch."
After describing a stack of dead cows bloated from putrefaction by the wayside in Angola and scattered twists of excrement everywhere, it seems that the vocabulary of squalor has been exhausted.
His growing disaffection with what Africa has become (bearing in mind that the generalization "Africa" is meaningless) and also with the act of traveling makes for a depressing read. Angola is depicted as a hellish dystopia. Even the laughter of the streets conveys to him no joy but rather "frantic hysteria, a death rattle". The country's vast wealth from oil and diamonds is squandered by its corrupt rulers. At this point Theroux abandons his intended journey on to Timbuktu via Congo and Nigeria. His message is clear: once you've seen one decrepit hellhole of an African city you've seen them all. This may be Theroux's last travel book but I am not persuaded that it is the last word on southwest Africa. I might give Daniel Metcalfe's recent Blue Dahlia, Black Gold: A Journey into Angola a whirl to temper Theroux's legendary negativity.
Meander: East to West along a Turkish River
By Jeremy Seal
Here we embark on another journey which fails to deliver a hoped-for idyll. The accomplished travel writer Jeremy Seal fits Theroux's description of what fuels the traveler's fantasy, the need to be "at large in an exotic setting, to be far away, to act out a narrative of discovery and risk.. ." Seal's plan is to explore the winding river which bequeaths the English language with the word "meander". He imagines a lazy paddle in a rugged collapsible boat from the Plain of the Buffaloes in western Anatolia to the Mediterranean Sea near the resort of Kusadasi. The reality is (of course) very different. When he mentions his plan to the local people to follow the river, they assume he must be an expert in irrigation or hydroelectricity because, as he learns to his cost, the Meander River is not like the Thames that provided a gentle backdrop for Three Men in a Boat.
For most of its length the Menderes (the Turkish word) is a ruined river—drained, choked, dammed, polluted, impassable—forcing our adventurer to dismantle and stow his boat while he continues on foot on many occasions. At times his self-appointed mission to paddle the Meander seems as pointless as those gimmicky journeys up Everest on a bicycle or hitching round Ireland with a fridge. The world described can seem almost as offputting as Theroux's Southwest Africa, especially when Seal resorts to scatological imagery: "The river now looped like a bowel, carrying its foul load, and me, towards evacuation", which recalls Theroux's Côte d'Ordure.
Seal is such a likeable and learned guide to Turkey, however, that we can overlook that his project may be a misguided one. As a Turkish speaker, he can gain illuminating insights over the endlessly proferred cups of tea. He uses his journey as a means to explore the metaphor that even today defines Turkey—that it is where east meets west. Like Theroux, this author ably captures the erosion of traditions, of Turkey in transition, sometimes in a single image. In one clever description of locals dancing at a village wedding to Turkish pop music, "their movements were traditional above the midriff but strikingly modern below the waist, as if the scarves that guarded their heads against undue influences could do nothing to stop them getting in through their feet."
He traces the tensions between east and west on a broad historical canvas as well. From the mythical past of the contest between the Greek god Apollo and the local rival Marsyas to the present time in which Western secularists square up to Eastern Islamicists, the reader is exposed to the comings and goings of conquerors and potentates in Asia Minor. Perhaps I am an intellectual featherweight because I found my mind sometimes drifting during the historical expositions, however clearly presented. But I was fully attentive during his encounters, many of them humorous, with local people like a hyperactive lawyer called Mehmet and a diabetic hotelier, Turgay Darkeye, who subsists on a diet of parsley.
Detailed maps of Turkey are next to impossible to obtain, and so Seal struggles to chart his course using three maps, inadequate in different ways. The most unreliable is the tourist map which shows a buxom blonde waterskier on a stretch of water where no blondes have ever waterskied. Someone (whose acknowledgment is buried at the back of the book) has drawn clear and attractive maps throughout, so it is easy to follow the meanders of the Meander.
Sightlines: A Conversation with the Natural World
By Kathleen Jamie
After two books by authors grappling with what Theroux calls "why-bother junctures", this book by a Scottish poet transports the reader to a revelatory plane that transcends every-day discomforts. The book consists of 14 meditations on separate journeys to distant northern islands of Scotland, to a whale museum in Bergen, to caves with Paleolithic drawings in Andalucia, among others. The cold on Greenland is punishing in her first essay Aurora but she does not complain. Although Kathleen Jamie does not resort to mystical abstractions, her writing manages to offer up glimpses of deep cold, deep silence, deep time, in the Old English sense of the word deop meaning "profound, awful, mysterious..."
Here is a writer who would never sleep through the Northern Lights (as I once did) or watch the inflight movie when she could be studying the clouds. Sightlines is a hymn to looking and seeing. Jamie is drawn to naturalists and archaeologists whose work requires huge patience.
Her words and expressions are never lazy or clichéd, always original and precise. After two weeks in high summer on the North Atlantic island of Rona (so remote it is often omitted from maps of the United Kingdom), she feels "lighter inside, as if my bones were turning to flutes".
Alas, the admirable precision is not matched by the typography which is riddled with mistakes, most of them minor but some egregious, such as "discrete" for "discreet" (p38) and "battledoor" for "battledore", the ancient ball game (p86).
Susan Griffith is a Canadian travel writer and editor based in Cambridge England, who writes books and articles for adventurous working travelers. Starting with the classic Work Your Way Around the World (personally updated by her over its 16 editions) and Teaching English Abroad, she has recently turned her attention to gap years and has written definitive guides for the young and the not-so-young: Your Gap Year and Gap Years for Grown-ups. She also contributes to the travel pages of the Independent, a British daily newspaper.