The Tao of Travel

Reviewed by Raana Haider
Thursday, July 6th, 2017


Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

Paul Theroux

Penguin, London, 2011


Where does one begin with one of the most prolific of today’s elite genre of travel writers? Theroux’s travel accounts are cornerstones of travel literature. ‘The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train through Asia’ and ‘The Old Patagonian Express’ remain contemporary classics. The highs and the lows of travel find berth in this inspirationally titled book. A potpourri of literary ponderings by legions of legendary travellers is Theroux’s compiled and compelling undertaking. This compendium of quotations transfers from the traveller’s account to the immersion and wonder of the reader, the wishful armchair traveller or the next trotter. Walter Kirn in a review of Paul Theroux’s book ‘The Elephanta Suite’ (a work of fiction of three novellas) writes: “Paul Theroux is the thinking person’s James Michener, a globe-hopping chronicler of distant lands whose stories, some reported, some invented, aim to inform and broaden, not merely engage, and permit the armchair voyager to stamps new visas in his intellectual passport.”


In the opening chapter ‘Travel in Brief’ Theroux quotes the otherworldly significance of travel: ‘Travel is a state of mind. It has nothing to do with existence or the exotic. It is almost entirely an inner experience.’ I see this category of conscious movement approaching one of being on a pilgrimage. The notion that it is the journey and not the destination – is the sublime consciousness phrased beautifully by Doris Lessing in ‘Under My Skin’ (1994).’ “Once I was making a mental list of all the places I had lived in, having moved about so much, and soon concluded that the common-sense or factual approach leads to nothing but error. You may live in a place for months, even years, and it does not touch you, But a weekend or a night in another, and you feel as of your whole being has being sprayed with an equivalent of a cosmic wind.”  Who cannot commiserate with the declaration? ‘It is almost axiomatic that as soon as a place gets a reputation for being paradise it goes to hell.’ Certainly, bears reflection. We all seek the pristine landscape as travellers. In close proximity, Bhutan may deserve such a mention. To the contrary once discovered by the masses, no one wants to be rubbing shoulders with the umpteenth tourist.


Then again in a delightful chapter on ‘Travellers on their Own Books,’ David Livingstone wrote: “As to those literary qualifications which are acquired by habits of writing, and which are so important to an author, my African life has not been favourable to the growth of such accomplishments but quite the reverse; it has made the composition irksome and laborious. I think I would rather cross the African continent again than write another book. It is far easier to travel than to write about it’ in ‘Africa (1857) – from the original Introduction to Missionary Travels in South Africa (1857)’.


What is the ‘Golden Time Rule’ for a traveller to justify a literary account? This is a virulent notion. Theroux offers us a challenging chapter on the debate – ‘How Long did the Traveller Spend Travelling?’ Some notable sojourns, from the longest to the shortest include: Sir John Mandeville: “Thirty-four years (1322-1356) travelling in Europe, Asia and Africa. But Mandeville may not have existed, or if he did exist, as an English knight, he probably never left England. Although his travel account ‘is full of incident and amazing sights, it is undoubtedly a massive example of literary cannibalism from the work of others: plagiarism, invention legends, boasts, and tall tales culled from the works of travelers, borrowers, romancers, and other plagiarists.’ On that incredulous note, one’s license to fantasize – onto pen and paper then is less likely now; due to a digital world that offers Google and Wikipedia.


Ibn Battuta at twenty-nine years of travel altogether (1325-1354); the knowledgeable author acknowledges Ibn Battuta as the ‘greatest traveller the world has ever seen. Ibn Battuta’s journeying has been estimated at about 75,000 miles.’ On the other spectrum, Stephen Crane spent a day and a half in 1897, off the Florida coast and wrote: ‘The Open Boat.’ Rudyard Kipling never went to Mandalay but was hours in Rangoon, yet achieved literary travel fame for his poem ‘Mandalay’ written in 1890.


Literary lions in the chapter ‘Writers and the Places They Never Visited’ include Edgar Rice Burroughs who declared ‘I can write better about places I’ve never seen.’ The American writer who created the character Tarzan – never set foot in Africa. He declared: “…the character helped him escape from the humdrum life he was leading. My mind, in relaxation, preferred to roam in scenes and situations I’d never known.” Time is an agent of forgotten facts and many tales ascribed to fact remain literary fiction. Yet how many of us know that? And to some degree – does it really matter?


Why wanderlust? Myriads of justification include ‘Fears, Neuroses and Other Conditions’ as one chapter heading inform us. One can only deeply sympathize with Henry James, the American    novelist. According to Theroux it was ‘An almost permanent state of constipation, which drove him from spa to spa in Europe in search of relief throughout his adult life.” For many of the movers, their accounts document life-changing travel experiences. Often opting for solitude and blissfully alone, their accounts remain insightful. Paul Bowles (1910-1999) wrote in ‘Their Heads are Green and Their Hands are Blue (1963), Why Go? The answer is that when a man has been there and undergone the baptism of solitude he can’t help himself. Once he has been under the spell of the vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite strong enough for him, no other surroundings can provide the supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of something that is absolute. He will go back, whatever the cost in comfort and money, for the absolute has no price.”  This is Bowles on the Sahara.


Justifiably, there are just as many high points in a voyager’s movements as dissatisfaction and disillusionment. Plenty have vociferously delineated their travel mishaps. By no means was all simple sailing. The tastes, treats and travails of exploration find multiple entries in ‘The Tao of Travel.’ The notion that travel has to be challenging – both physically and psychologically is common-place. They deride the notion of ‘tea-trekking or worse ‘tea-travel.’ Thus, a chapter ‘Travel As An Ordeal.’ Extreme challenges include death-defying even deadly ventures. Jon Krakauer in ‘Into Thin Air (1999) declares: ‘With enough determination, any bloody idiot can get up this hill,” (the ‘hill’ being Mount Everest); Rob Hall, one of the guides, had told his clients early on. “The trick is to get back down alive.” Struggling to save a faltering client, Hall died on the mountain, and so did the client, and ten others.” As recent as 20th May 2016, three men died on their descent after having reached the Everest summit – the peak that has lured mountaineers for generations.


It is said that curiosity is a traveller’s biggest resource and asset. And it is the planned exploration, the singular experience and perhaps the unplanned discovery that provides the thrill of travel for us plebian movers. The shakers’ movements tend to veer – more off the beaten track – and a slew of such patrician travellers have earned an entry in Theroux’s book. ‘The Tao of Travel’ should find space in every voyager’s luggage. Just when you are about to brag: ‘Been there and done that’ – ponder over Paul Theroux’s annotations of practicality, philosophy and the pleasures, pains and perils of travel. The art of travel is etched on every page of this essential literary companion.


Raana Haider is a literary travel writer

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