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Authors: Paul Theroux

Fresh Air Fiend

BOOK: Fresh Air Fiend
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Table of Contents

Title Page

Table of Contents



Introduction: Being a Stranger

Part One

Memory and Creation: The View from Fifty

The Object of Desire

At the Sharp End: Being in the Peace Corps

Five Travel Epiphanies

Travel Writing: The Point of It

Part Two

Fresh Air Fiend

The Awkward Question

The Moving Target

Dead Reckoning to Nantucket

Paddling to Plymouth

Fever Chart: Parasites I Have Known

Part Three

Diaries of Two Cities: Amsterdam and London

Farewell to Britain: Look Thy Last on All Things Lovely

Gravy Train: A Private Railway Car

The Maine Woods: Camping in the Snow

Trespassing in Florida

Down the Zambezi

The True Size of Cape Cod

German Humor

Part Four

Down the Yangtze

Chinese Miracles

Ghost Stories: A Letter from Hong Kong on the Eve of the Hand-over

Part Five


Connected in Palau

Tasting the Pacific

Palawan: Up and Down the Creek

Christmas Island: Bombs and Birds

Part Six

My Own

The Black House

The Great Railway Bazaar

The Old Patagonian Express

The Making of The Mosquito Coast

Kowloon Tong

Other People's

Thoreau's Cape Cod

The Secret Agent: A Dangerous Londoner

The Worst Journey in the World

Racers to the Pole


Looking for a Ship

Part Seven

Chatwin Revisited


V. S. Pritchett: The Foreigner as Traveler

William Simpson: Artist and Traveler

Rajat Neogy: An Indian in Uganda

The Exile Moritz Thomsen

Part Eight

Unspeakable Rituals and Outlandish Beliefs

Gilstrap, the Homesick Explorer

The Return of Bingo Humpage




First Mariner Books edition 2001

Copyright © 2000 by Paul Theroux
All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003.

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Theroux, Paul.
Fresh air fiend : travel writings, 1985–2000 / Paul Theroux.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references (p. ).
0-618-12693-7 (pbk.)
1. Theroux, Paul—Journeys. 2. Voyages and travels.
I. Title

74 2000
818'.5403—dc21 99-058521

Printed in the United States of America

Book design by Robert Overholtzer

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

The author is grateful for permission to reprint "The View" from
Collected Poems
by Philip Larkin. Copyright © 1988, 1989 by the Estate of Philip Larkin. Reprinted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.

A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.

—Jorge Luis Borges, Epilogue,
The Maker

Introduction: Being a Stranger

of my life, living in places where I did not belong, I have been a perfect stranger. I asked myself whether my sense of otherness was the human condition. It certainly was my condition. As with most people, my outer life did not in the least resemble my inner life, but exotic places and circumstances intensified this difference. Sometimes my being a stranger was like the evocation of a dream state, at other times like a form of madness, and now and then it was just inconvenient. I might have gone home, except that a return home would have made me feel like a failure. I was not only far away, I was also out of touch. It sounds as though I am describing a metaphysical problem to which there was no solution—but no, all of this was a form of salvation.

I was an outsider before I was a traveler; I was a traveler before I was a writer; I think one led to the other. I don't think I was ever a scholar or a student in the formal sense. When I mentioned this notion of being a stranger to my friend Oliver Sacks, he said, "In the Kabala the first act in the creation of the universe is exile." That makes sense to me.

Exile is a large concept for which a smaller version, the one I chose, is expatriation. I simply went away. Raised in a large, talkative, teasing family of seven children, I yearned for space of my own. One of my pleasures was reading; reading was a refuge and an indulgence. But my greatest pleasure lay in leaving my crowded house and going for all-day hikes. In time these hikes turned into camping trips. Fortunately our house was at the edge of town, so I could go out the front door and after half a mile of walking be in the woods, attractively named the Mystic Fells. On my own, I had a clearer sense of who I was, and I had a serious curiosity about what I found in the woods. The taxonomy of the trees and flowers and birds was a new language I learned in this new world.

When I went to Africa, a young man and unpublished, I became a
or white man, but the Chichewa word also implies a spirit, a ghost figure, almost a goblin, a being so marginal as to be barely human. I did not find it at all hard to accept this definition; I had always felt fairly marginal, with something to prove. So, speaking about myself as a traveler is the most logical way of speaking about myself as a writer.

As for my apprenticeship as a writer, I am sure that my single-mind-edness was helped by my being out of touch. Both ideas—being a stranger, being out of touch—seem to me to be related. I believed myself a stranger wherever I was—even when I was younger and among my family at home—and for much of my life I have felt disconnected. You think of a writer as in touch and at the center of things, but I have found the opposite to be the case.

A variation of this concept was once a great topic in colleges. When I was a student it was the obsessive subject—the alienated hero or anti-hero, the drifter, epitomized by the figure of the casual and detached murderer Meursault in Camus's
or Raskolnikov in
Crime and Punishment,
or the trapped and ineffectual Josef K. in Kafka's
The Trial,
who is a total stranger to the process that is for no apparent reason blaming and victimizing him. There seemed to me something freakish about these men and something formulaic about their predicament. I found these characters and this discussion less persuasive because the characters seemed like stock figures in a morality play. I could not identify with


I, a stranger and afraid
In a world I nevermade.


I have been much more affected when an apparently whole, rounded character described a sense of loss or deep isolation. It is no surprise when the hero of a postwar French novel is said to be alienated, but how much more powerful when the anguish is that of someone instantly recognizable, like Nicole Diver in Fitzgerald's
Tender Is the Night,
or Peyton Loftis in William Styron's
Lie Down in Darkness,
or the "whiskey priest" in Greene's
The Power and the Glory.
It is almost a shock when one of the great serene masters of the novel speaks of alienation, as these three men have done—Fitzgerald on alcohol in
The Crack-Up,
Greene on manic-depression in
A Sort of Life,
and Styron on suicidal depression in
Darkness Visible.
Even Henry James, the intensely sociable and inexhaustible dinner guest, experienced several breakdowns and many depressions. Jorge Luis Borges wrote, "I speak in a poem of the ancient food of heroes: humiliation, unhappiness, discord. Those things are given to us to transform, so that we may make from the miserable circumstances of our lives things that are eternal, or aspire to be so."

There are few more explicit descriptions of the pain of isolation than that confided by James in a letter to a friend, who had asked mildly, using a travel metaphor, what had been his point of departure—what "port" had he set out from to become a writer. James replied: "The port from which I set out was, I think, that of the essential loneliness of my life—and it seems to be the port also, in sooth, to which my course again finally directs itself! This loneliness (since I mention it!)—what is it still but the deepest thing about one? Deeper, about me, at any rate, than anything else; deeper than my 'genius,' deeper than my 'discipline,' deeper than my pride, deeper, above all, than the deep counterminings of art."

The English writer V. S. Pritchett spoke about this condition of otherness in his autobiography, how it was not until he began to travel far from his home in south London that he began to understand himself and his literary vocation. He said that he found distant places so congenial that he became an outsider at home. Travel had transformed him into a stranger. He wrote, "I became a foreigner. For myself, that is what a writer is—a man living on the other side of a frontier."

For various reasons, it is now not so easy to be a foreigner (I am using the word in a general sense). Yet it was very easy for me less than forty years ago, when I was an impressionable teenager and amateur emigrant. Then, a person could simply disappear by traveling; even a trip to Europe involved a sort of obscurity. A trip to Africa or South America could be a vanishing into silence and darkness.

The idea of disappearance appealed to me. For about ten years, the whole decade of my twenties, I was utterly out of touch. I went to central Africa in 1963 and stayed for five years, and then instead of heading home I went to Singapore, from which I emerged late in 1971. At that point I buried myself and my family in the depths of the English countryside, nowhere near a village. During this entire period, living frugally, I did not own a telephone, and the few calls I made were all in the nature of emergencies—reporting births and deaths, summoning doctors, all on borrowed phones. This decade of being off the phone, which is the most extreme condition of being cut off, was formative for me, one of the best things that could have happened in my passage to becoming a writer, because it forced on me a narrow sort of life from which there was no turning back. I was isolated and enlightened. I learned to cope, I read more, I wrote more, I had no TV, I thought in a more concentrated way, I lived in one place, and I studied patience.

"Connected" is the triumphant cry these days. Connection has made people arrogant, impatient, hasty, and presumptuous. I am old enough to have witnessed the rise of the telephone, the apotheosis of TV and the videocassette, the cellular phone, the pager, the fax machine, and email. I don't doubt that instant communication has been good for business, even for the publishing business, but it has done nothing for literature, and might even have harmed it. In many ways connection has been disastrous. We have confused information (of which there is too much) with ideas (of which there are too few). I found out much more about the world and myself by being unconnected.

And what does connection really mean? What can the archivist—relishing detail, boasting of the information age—possibly do about all those private phone calls, e-mails, and electronic messages. Lost! A president is impeached, and in spite of all the phone calls and all the investigations, almost the only evidence that exists of his assignations are a few cheap gifts, a signed photograph, and obscure stains. So much for the age of information. My detractors may say, "You can print e-mails," but who commits that yackety-yak to paper?

As for the video revolution, the eminent Pacific archaeologist Yoshihiko Sinoto told me that the most rapid deterioration he had ever seen in human culture took place when videocassette players, powered by generators, became available in the outlying islands of the Cook group in the Pacific. Now villagers were watching Rambo movies and pornography, with disastrous results to the fragile society. Last year I was in Brazil. A woman in Rio mentioned that she was flying to Manaus, on the Amazon, to meet her husband, who worked there. She was eager to go, she said, because
was showing at an Amazonian theater. Four months later I was in Palawan, a somewhat remote island in the Philippines, and walking along a beach I heard a Filipino boy humming the
theme, "My Heart Will Go On."

BOOK: Fresh Air Fiend
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