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Paul Theroux: "See things as they are"

When the travel bug gnaws on me, I usually find solace in the books by travel writer Paul Theroux. He gave a talk at the Singapore Writers Festival in 2014 and I like his thoughts on why it is that we travel:

When I first came to Singapore, I was 27 years old. […] And I was looking for I role – I suppose – to play in life. (link)

I didn’t really know, at that point, what my subject was. (link)

So the interesting thing that Erikson is different from Freud is that even in old age – you know, my age – I think, “What am I doing? Am I giving anything to anyone? […] Have I made my life count? […] What I’m trying to explain to you is: Why would a person travel? Why would you leave home? (link)

You don’t develop, you don’t find anything about yourself, unless you leave home. When you leave home, when you go away and you’re on your own, you find out, who you are and you find out things about yourself that you can’t find out when you’re at home. (link)

It seemed to me, what I needed to do – and I suppose the insight that I had in Singapore was that – I needed to see things as they are. […] I decided that, my mission – as a writer – was to see things as they are, to describe things as they are; not as I wanted them to be; not as people told me that they were, but I needed to see things as they are. And that would make me free, and would also – telling the truth, writing about what I saw – would be enough of a mission in life. (link)

A lot of people in fiction describe things as they wish they were or as they want them to be. (link)

It was an assertion. […] But it was a way of asserting what I was doing, who I was and what I was doing. And I was asserting my view of things. And, I suppose, it was my way of “seeing things as they were”, was my way of disagreement. That instead of seeing the world the way the authority figures wanted me to see it. […] It’s a very liberating thing. (link)

It’s a mode of inquiry – I guess you could say – travel is. Writing fiction you sit at home and you ponder. It’s like a kind of prayer. (link)

People go to England and they look for Charles Dickens’ England, or Henry James’ England, or Jane Austen’s Bath, or whatever. They look for elements of the past. That’s a kind of nostalgia. […] But Dickens’ London doesn’t exist. What exists in London in much different place from the one that you read about in books. Much more interesting and complex. (link)

I think that gets at one of the fundamental issues of travel. We have certain clichés in mind of what we expect places to be like. And when we then travel there, we actively try to confirm these prejudices.

That exotic market in Myanmar shows you how mystical Asia is and women in colorful saris in India must prove the cheerfulness of Indians.

And we don’t start to really engage with people and places until we’ve fulfilled that longing. Listening to live music in Bangkok is probably more fun than eating insects there. But it’s unexpected and so we might opt for the thing that yields the better picture to post on Facebook.

We try to tick certain boxes and until we’ve ticked them our conversations with other travelers often revert back to that one topic: “What? You haven’t been to the Taj Mahal, yet?”

I’ve never found a satisfying way of escaping that urge. But I these points help me to deal with that lust for the expected exotic:

  • Tick the boxes at the beginning of the journey. First thing in India, visit the Taj Mahal. When I was there, I traveled through to Amritsar, Kashmir and Ladakh during the first month. But in the back of my mind was, “I haven’t seen the Taj Mahal, yet.” How unnecessary! The time in the mountains was much more impressive than visiting the Taj.

  • Many clichés are true. So don’t feel guilty to enjoy ticking your boxes. Everybody likes clichés that are fulfilled. Japanese tourists will enjoy to see people dressed in Lederhosen eating Schweinshaxe in the Hofbräuhaus, just as I enjoy to see Russians drink Vodka on the Trans-Siberian Railway. When you see clichés fulfilled, be happy and then move on and find the things you didn’t expect to see.

Theroux then goes on:

I’m not interested in architecture. I’m not interested in – I go to museums, I go to churches, events, and so forth – but I don’t write about them. I write about people and I try to find out, what people’s stories are like. (link)

This reminds me of how William Zinsser recommends travel writers to restrain themselves:

The dismal truth is that it’s very hard. It must be hard, because it’s in this area [travel writing] that most writers – professional and amateur – produce not only their worst work but work that is just plain terrible. […] Nobody turns to so quickly into a bore as a traveler home from his travels. He enjoyed his trip so much that he wants to tell us all about it – and “all” is what we don’t want to hear. We only want to hear some. (p117, “On Writing Well”)