Me in Vladivostok in 1995: Theroux hated this "clammy-cold harbor city": We found it clean and the people friendly.
I would have loved to have been a roach climbing along the wall of Paul Theroux's cabin as he traveled by train across the world's third-world. I would have been privy to a balding, past-middle-age American man as he ate his rice and beans from a tin cup and scribbled in his notebooks occasionally looking out the window at the passing corruption and endless poverty. He probably had not changed his clothes or shaved or showered in a couple of days and the tropical heat must have rendered him full ripe by then. It is, of course, the only authentic way to travel or to be a travel writer: fully ripened.
I've spent the past twenty-five years traveling around the United States, around Asia, around Europe, and then in one memorable summer, around the world via the Trans-Siberian railroad, that most storied of rail lines. So when Theroux took the time to put together what amounts to a primer on the travel writing experience, it was the first book I read on my new Nook.
I say "primer" because during my pleasant and nostalgic passage through The Tao of Travel it became obvious that that is what one may consider this book to be. It's a how-to book, it's inspirational, and, maybe most helpful, it provides a list of great/famous/infamous travel writers along with not only a sample of their writing, but the low down on their often strange and/or wonderful personality quirks.
Theroux likes those travel writers who do it the hard way. Like Sir Richard Burton, the 18th century skeptic and hard-core traveler/explorer who was obsessed enough with experiencing Mecca first hand that he had himself circumcised, learned Arabic, and boned up on the Koran so he could pass himself off as a real Muslim. Finally, when faced with the great stone monolith that is the heart of Islam and the milling throngs of pilgrims, Burton had a life-changing, mystical experience that he lived to tell about--the only non-Muslim to do so. For Theroux, this is the ultimate tao of travel--travel as hard-won, heartbreaking epiphany.
Sometimes, when Theroux and I have been to the same place, we disagree on its merits or drawbacks. Take Vladivostok, that forbidding, far-eastern outpost of Mother Russia. Theroux warns against going there, describing it as a "clammy-cold harbor city of vandalized buildings, scrawled-upon walls, underpaid sailors, and confrontational drunks and skinheads."
It may well be as he describes it, if you look for it. But when my wife and spent three days there prior to boarding the Trans-Siberian, it was June and the weather bright, sunny, and cool. The sailors were there, certainly, but they were mostly interested in ogling the bikini-clad young women who were sunning themselves near the harbor than in causing trouble.
We walked, unmolested, throughout the town, along the attractive shopping area, ate well at local restaurants, and observed the rusting Russian Pacific fleet tied up in the harbor. We happened to arrive on the weekend they were celebrating the Russian fishing fleet and there was music and dancing and feasting with families strolling about enjoying the sunshine.
We did encounter young men who could be described as skinheads, but even they were in fine, non-aggressive moods. Better than that and just as indicative of the sense of the place, we saw lots of young women strutting their stuff in super high heels, short skirts, and stockings, apparently the fashion statement of the year.
On the down side, and to give Theroux his due, we flew in from Korea in a decrepit Russian airliner with graffiti scrawled on the back of the seats, arriving on a cloudy day and the Stalin-era buildings on the outskirts of the city were grim and oppressive. In fact, we learned later that there had been no hot water in the city all winter. We stayed in a gray and forbidding looking hotel but, in true Russian form, our room was on a floor that was reserved for foreign tourists, military officers, and high ranking government officials and so was sexed up with new plumbing and carpeting and had a good bar/restaurant. The other floors of the hotel were off limits and we were not allowed to explore.
My wife with our lunch of blinis with caviar in Vladivostok: No roaches on the walls.
In any event, it's not just foreign places that Theroux advises avoiding. He points out that certain cities in the United States hardly qualify as safe and delightful travel destinations. He describes East St. Louis, Illinois as one of the most "menacing-looking" cities in the U.S. and adds Newark and Camden, N.J. to that list of awful places to be avoided because they are among the most dangerous places in the world.
So, back to our train ride with Mr. Theroux: In the form of a roach, Kafka like, I crawl up to Mr. Theroux's tin cup and nosh on a piece of leftover rice while he nods off, his head down on his open notebook. I'd love to read a bit of what he has written but I'm a roach and so, of course, I can't. Instead I eat and listen to his steady, light snoring and watch out the window as the third world passes and our writer dreams perhaps of hot showers, cold beer, a good clean shirt, and that elusive goal of all great travelers: the epiphany around which one can write a book.