Of Travel Writing and Travel by Train

It was Good Friday. I was, of course, following the advice of the coronavirus experts to stay at home. I had been doing that for a couple of weeks. Although I had no immediate work to get on with, I was feeling guilty that I wasn’t at my laptop and editing a colleague’s report or writing yet another consultancy proposal. Someone once told me that I am a workaholic. I suppose I am.

So I decided to get on with my most pleasurable work task – thinking about Going Places. To write about going places without actually going places I had already written about opportunities for cyber travel, so why not focus on reading about travel?

There were so many travel writers to choose from: Graham Greene, for example, with his elegant style, Bill Bryson with his raunchy humour, or a lesser known Peter Biddlecombe, who has written a hilarious ‘French Lessons in Africa: Travels with my briefcase through French Africa’. I chose Paul Theroux, but not because, back in the late 1960s, we knew each other, as he was my counterpart at Makerere University in Kampala when I was a lecturer in adult education at Nairobi University. I chose him because he is one of the best – and different.

Along with novels, such as ‘The Mosquito Coast’ and ‘The Lower River’, he has written numerous travel books. His first, ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, published back in 1975, has become a classic of travel writing. In the 2008 edition Paul Theroux has an interesting and typically challenging Preface. He says he used to think that travel books were a bore. He had himself done enough travelling to know that half of travel was delay or nuisance – buses breaking down, hotel clerks being rude, market pedlars being rapacious. But in most travel writing this doesn’t come through. The writers choose not to tell about the time they screamed at a taxi driver, found the food uneatable or the toilets too filthy. And he reckoned that most travel writing in newspapers is the result of a connivance between the pleasure-seeking journalist and a public relations person – ‘to put a hotel or restaurant in the news by praising its luxuries’.

That certainly can’t be said of ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’. In 1973 Paul Theroux took off from the Victoria Station in London for an epic four months journey by trains around Asia. It was a journey that took him through France and Italy and on to Turkey; across Iran and Afghanistan to Pakistan and India; down to Sri Lanka and up to Burma; through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and all the way to Japan; then through Russia back to Europe and to home in London.

And look at the romantic names of the trains he took: the Orient Express to Istanbul, the Khyber Pass Local, the Delhi Mail from Jaipur, the Golden Arrow to Kuala Lumpur, the Hikari Super Express to Kyoto and, finally, the Trans-Siberian Express. But as he said himself, he sought trains and found people.

I have just re-read the book. Again, what I take away from it are not descriptions of places but the stories about the amazing mix of people he met and his encounters with them. In my own encounters with Paul Theroux when we were both young, I learnt to appreciate his bravado – like the time he persuaded me to join him in getting a phalanx of Chinese surveyors billeted at Dar es Salam University to at least recognise us as we said “Hi” to them as they marched past with eyes fixed only ahead. I recognised his ability to probe and provoke. I also learnt to be wary of his caustic wit. All three of those qualities are there in abundance in The Great Railway Bazaar.

Published in Kenya’s Sunday Nation