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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: Blinding Light
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The pieces were not received well. One editor said, “You don't seem to have had a very good time. All you talk about is the bad driving and the dangerous roads.”

Steadman was not discouraged. He quoted his line in
Trespassing—Travel at its most enlightening is not about having a good time—
and continued to go on press trips. But when they received his pieces the editors said, “This needs a little work,” or “This wasn't exactly what we wanted,” and would explain in vague, insulting terms how he ought to rewrite the piece—“Tweak it,” they said—to make it publishable.

Steadman endured a terrible time on a press trip to Trinidad. The place was crime-ridden and dirty. It was noisy. Steadman hated the music. The Trinidadians he met were rapacious. He used the words “risible” and “jungly” and “sweaty” and “cacophonous,” and all of them were crossed out by a subeditor. So was the word “stink.” He had looked into the island's racial politics. The piece was rejected. “It was supposed to be for our ‘Island in the Sun' slot. You didn't even mention the raw bar at the Intercontinental.”

Steadman sent the editor a signed copy of

Sour or carping pieces were instantly rejected, irony was discouraged for its ambiguity, humor was unwelcome for its belittling, satire for its subversion, and any mention of ugliness or ruin was forbidden. In all such writing a note of fawning gratitude was mingled with submissive bonhomie. The theme of each excursion was pleasure: How lucky I am to be in this lovely place, eating this delicious meal, and you will love it too!

“It isn't travel. It isn't even writing,” Steadman said. “This is advertising copy. I am expected to be an adjunct to the public relations industry.” The magazines demanded pretty pictures and gusto and undiluted praise, in order to encourage advertisers and build income. It was how they prospered.

Real travel was risky, uncertain, difficult, and not very comfortable. What these magazines called travel were in fact beach holidays. For the upscale magazines it was the fake sophistication of gourmandising or the indolence of a luxury cruise—self-indulgent, undemanding, pleasurable, lots of sunshine, swimming, moonlight. Steadman had been hired because he was a real writer with a reputation, the author of a travel classic; but he realized that as an open-minded and wealthy traveler he was feared by the hosts, whose pretensions he would ridicule, and disliked by the magazines, which felt he would drive away advertisers. It took almost two years for Steadman to understand that he had no future in this business. He returned to struggling with his novel: work in stoppage.

And later, with the reading of Burroughs's
Yage Letters,
he yearned to take a trip to Ecuador—to visit a shaman; to experiment with
which was also known as ayahuasca, “vine of the soul”; to revisit the drug that Burroughs had praised in his obscure book; to rediscover a true story and perhaps find the inspiration to go on with his novel. He needed fuel. He read the other recommended books—the ethnobotanical work of Richard Schultes and the more mystical Reichel-Dolmatoff. The drug literature was respectful, more about spirit and ritual and cultural roots than about thrills. But all the botanists mentioned the risks.

He had not guessed that this, too, had become part of the tourist industry, but now he knew that the people in the van, on this trip—Sabra, Wood, Hack, Janey, and Manfred—were like the people who were looking for the perfect mai tai on Maui, or the best snorkeling spot on the Great Barrier Reef, or the greatest nude beach on St. Barts. He knew now that they had trekked to see gorillas and gone bird watching in Botswana, been to Cambodia and Bhutan and Thailand, across the Patagonian pampas, down the Zambezi, up the Sepik. “I've got a Bontoc head ax. There's drops of blood on it.” Scuba diving off Palau, they had been surrounded by sharks. Easter Island. The Andamans. Gauchos. Mudmen. Ifugao. Pygmies. Sea Dayaks. “Headhunters.”

“India sucked except for the Ayurvedic massage in Kerala.”

Trophies, all of them. And this—the trip to Oriente, the visit to a shaman in a jungle village, the search for a true
and the trance-drink itself—was another trophy for these romantic voyeurists.

“What are you planning to do here?” Ava had asked the others at breakfast.

“Same thing as you guys.”

What Steadman believed he had elaborately devised as an original trip, using obscure anthropological texts and the works of ethnobotanists—a trip he hoped would help make his reputation as a traveler in search of enlightenment—had become nothing more than the highest-priced package vacation, a drug tour. Without her having said a word, he knew that Ava was also dismayed by the presence of the others on the tour. What he had hoped would be an adventure seemed no more than a school outing.

Yet he was determined to see it through. The trip had just begun; the others might panic and bail out. It happened—luxury cruise ship passengers got seasick, a woman on a press trip in Mexico was raped in her hotel room, and on the Trinidad junket a male travel writer from New York handed a woman travel writer from Seattle an envelope full of clumsy Polaroids he had shot of himself, nude, in a full-length mirror. And then the man had threatened her when she said she would turn them over to the police. Drama was still possible on this trip, but Steadman doubted that it would serve him. At times, being with Ava in this state of detachment was like being alone, for she had insisted on being a stranger, and that was an unexpected help to him, even a thrill, for her pretense and her manner of seduction.

He hoped the trip might result in a book, and perhaps he could make it one, part of the novel he had planned, an in-search-of book, exaggerating the dangers, profiling the people, attributing the sexual experiences he had already unexpectedly enjoyed, masked and blindfolded in the Quito hotel, to someone else, who perhaps he could say had bared his soul to him—or, coming completely clean, using his relationship with Ava. This travel-book-as-fiction would include food, drugs, sex, exotic landscapes, remoteness—snowcapped peaks rising above the green heat; the jungle in the shadow of Cotopaxi; romantic failure, disillusionment, disappointment; a breakup book, more about trespassing than
had been.

All this he reflected on during the long silent trip to Papallacta. The only words that had been spoken since breakfast were Manfred's “Weber!
Die Freischutz!”
Everyone but Steadman and Manfred had fallen asleep.

Just before Papallacta the van wobbled and swerved: a flat tire. They had no jack and had to flag down a car for help. The hour it took to fix it, and then get the spare repatched, put them behind. Lunch was late—just peeled fruit and warm beer in a parking lot near the hot springs at Papallacta.

“Aguas calientes
Nestor said.

Steadman watched Hernán approach a tall bush in bloom at the edge of the parking lot, just outside a low wall. He smiled and stroked the large white flowers.

“You know this tree?” Nestor asked.

Ava said, “It's pretty.”

“Maybe you call it angel's trumpet?” Nestor said.

“I don't call it anything.”

“We call it
There are many kinds. Brugmansia. Some we have down the river,” he said, and tapped his head. “They are nice.”

“And you know that because you're an ethnobotanist?”

“I am a
Nestor said. “I am not a
but I know this

Steadman said, “It opens your eyes, is that it?”

Nestor said with slushy sibilance, and goggled at him with a comic stare, then winced in exaggeration. “Is a light. Open eyes, close them, give you eyes like a
yana puma
he added, and spoke rapidly to Hernán, who laughed.

Ava hated it when people like this shared a secret in another language while laughing in her face. She believed they intended her to feel insecure and out of her depth, and she was insulted.

Insistently, she said, “What did you just say to him?”

“I speak in Quechua. You don't speak Quechua? I say,
‘Toé—nino amaru'
It is the fire boa.”

Manfred fingered the leaves of the bush and said, “This is Datura Brugmansia. Is a separate genus now. A strong hallucinogen. Maybe containing the entheogen
You call this

“Some people do.”

“Is a solanaceous genus,” Manfred said, hobbling his plant book, clawing at the tissuey pages with his sticky fingers.

Steadman was listening closely, fascinated by Manfred's dirty fingernails and his erudition; but Ava had turned away. “Why did we stop here?” she asked.

“Lunch. Then
Use the hot springs, then we go,” Nestor said.

The hot springs' enclosure lay on a hillside, where there were terraces and stone steps, a shed that served as a changing room, and a shelter where an old leathery-faced woman in braids dispensed clean towels. The succession of pools set into the slope were linked by troughs and sluices down which steaming water ran. The pools at the top, near the source of the hot springs, were very hot—bubbling, perhaps boiling—and all of them were empty. Steadman put his hand into one and scalded his fingers. The larger, lukewarm pools were just below, surrounded by reeds, the water tumbling into them over a moss-covered spillway.

By the time Steadman and Ava had changed, the Hacklers and the Wilmutts were already sitting in the largest pool, up to their chins in the water, their heads wreathed in vapor.

“Plenty of room for you guys,” Wood said.

“Ain't half hot!” Janey called out.

Steadman and Ava stepped into the steaming water and slipped down, seating themselves on the stone shelf, until only their heads were visible in the vapor. Four other heads watched them from the far side of the pool. A sulfurous odor hung in the mist over the bubbly gray water.

“Where's our German friend and his big book?” Hack said.

Janey cursed her phone and tapped the keypad irritably.

“I was promised roaming here.”

Steadman noticed that a copy of
it had to have been Sabra's, she carried it everywhere—lay on the wall next to the pool.

“How sweet it is,” Wood said, thrashing like a child.

“The man of leisure,” Hack said.

“I wish,” Wood said. “I want to do another book.”

“You're really a writer?” Ava said. She hadn't meant to say anything, but she was so surprised by “I want to do another book,” it slipped out. She became self-conscious. “You mentioned your company?”

“One of my companies.”

“He buys companies,” Hack said.

“Writer, book packager, pretty much the same thing.”

Steadman just stared at the man who was stirring the tip of his stubbly chin in the steaming water.

“The Heights of Fame—
that's mine,” Wood said. “One of mine.” “Full disclosure, the only one,” Hack said.

“One of those is all you need,” Wood said.

Ava smiled in surprise, for she had actually heard of the book—was it a book? Ava remembered it as a chart. She wondered if perhaps someone had given them a copy as a present—for a long time it was a gift item. It was regarded as a publishing phenomenon, widely publicized, reprinted many times, and unexpectedly and hugely profitable.

Wood said, “It was a great idea, but the worst part for me was its simplicity. So everyone copied it.”

The idea had occurred to him, he said, while he had been reading a biography of Joseph Conrad. Conrad's height was given as just five feet.

“I had thought of Conrad as a giant—bearded, broad-shouldered, a big Polack sea captain. He was tiny!”

Wood read more biographies, he said, looking for the one fact. Diminutive writers seemed to be the rule. Alexander Pope had been four six; Lawrence Durrell gave his height as five four, but in fact he was just a little over five feet tall. Wood searched further. Keats had been five feet tall, Balzac five one, T. E. Lawrence five five—the same height as Marilyn Monroe. Dylan Thomas was five six, Thoreau five seven, and Robert Louis Stevenson five ten.

Wood said, “Melville was a munchkin! Henry James was a dwarf! Faulkner was a peewee! Melville was just over five feet. You think of him as a powerful whaler, wielding a harpoon, but no, he was a borderline midget, like most other writers.”

Ava said, “Thomas Wolfe wasn't a midget.”

“He's on the chart. He was six four.”

Now she remembered: a foldout chart was included in the book. It was in the form of an enhanced tape measure, giving the name and height of each writer mentioned. This was to be tacked to a wall, and there was room on the elongated chart for you to write your own names on it. So your mother might be as tall as Conrad, your child the size of Alexander Pope, your basketball-playing nephew the physical equal of Thomas Wolfe.

“Graham Greene and George Orwell were both way over six feet,” Wood said.

“Listen, want to hear something totally awesome?” Hack said to the others. Then he spoke to Wood in the tone of a quizmaster: “Edgar Allan Poe?”

“Five eight,” Wood said.

“Marquis de Sade?”

“Five three.”

Ava said, “William Burroughs.”

“Five foot eleven and a half.”

“Just your size,” Ava said to Steadman, and Steadman smiled, for she knew that it was Burroughs's book that had started him thinking about this journey.

“Ever read
The Yage Letters
?” Ava asked Wood.

“Never heard of it. Who wrote it?”

“A man who came here once,” Ava said.

As she spoke, Nestor appeared. He said, “He didn't come here. He was in Colombia, on the Putumayo. But it was still Amazonia and the quest was the same. Not a tour, though. Now we go.”

BOOK: Blinding Light
3.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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