Most people who write about travel know the temptation to pass off, as a description of the place they are visiting, an account of another place it reminds them of—either home or another foreign spot, rarely more than superficially similar. In The Old Patagonian Express Paul Theroux describes passing through an Indian village in Peru with a group of American tourists. Each of them sees something different in the ancient stonework—Wyoming, Maine, Indiana, Ecuador, Africa, and Florence; but not one seems to look carefully at the Inca town. Driving in the sand dunes along the Persian Gulf, Jonathan Raban confesses in Arabia: A Journey Through the Labyrinth, he half-imagines that the rusty tin cans blowing across the desert are rabbits scurrying across an English country lane.
But when Raban compares Abu Dhabi to New York, it is because in large part he has come to Arabia to observe the effects of the Western ideas and industrial technology that have been transforming the region since oil was discovered there. He is less interested in immersing himself in an exotic culture—in Bedouin customs or Islamic tradition—than in understanding the sheikhs and stateless Palestinians that he is likely to meet in London. In much the same way, Edward Hoagland explains in African Calliope that he hopes his stay in a Sudanese tribal village will help him make sense of racial tensions in America. Travel writers these days seem drawn less to centers of ancient civilization than to the underdeveloped world, where social problems, not paintings or temples, demand their attention. And yet they are not bound by the responsibilities—to be thorough or precise—of more conventional journalists. Transient and largely uninformed, a travel writer in the Third World still relies on his intuitive feelings for the place.
Paul Theroux confesses that it is the trip itself that interests him, not his destination. Indeed, from the snowy morning that he leaves home in Boston, determined to go by connecting trains to Esquel, Patagonia—a town chosen arbitrarily from a map—Theroux is at least as interested in the idea of the trip as in the hours spent in the train, the towns he passes, the people he meets. He tells us as he leaves Boston that “the going is often as fascinating as the arrival”; and when he finally arrives in Esquel, he is pleased that there is nothing there—“the perfect place,” metaphorically, to end his book. The trip itself is something suffered, much as one holds to the terms of a bet or a contrat d’honneur.
Somewhere in southern Mexico, in a hot and dusty train, he wonders, “Was there any point in this trip aside from the fact that I had been too restless to stay at my desk and endure another winter?…I was no explorer: this was supposed to be enjoyment, not a test of stamina or patience.” Like so many heroes in modern fiction, he enjoys his own ennui: often finding that he has nothing to do in the towns where he must wait for a connecting train, he prefers killing time to spending it the way most tourists do, at ruins or in a museum.
Theroux is not a curious traveler. He brags that he is more interested in the books he brought along than in the towns passing outside the window, and admits that the afternoons he spends on Latin American trains are given over largely to fantasy—dreams of making a vengeful remark, finding a new wife, becoming a surgeon or being elected the president of a banana republic. “The train, the atmosphere, my destination, my mood: it was all fantasy—ridiculous and pleasurable.”
By comparison, he finds Mexico City boring. The fastest growing city in the world, once the capital of a complex ancient civilization, a place where dying colonial manners and the exuberant brashness of the Third World appear together in dramatic relief, is for Theroux not worth more than a few hours’ stop. He changes trains without stepping outside the station. But then he finds the Mexican countryside also dreary: “Latin America is full of volcanoes and cane fields and peasants; at times, it seems there is little else to see.” “And when the train whistle squawks and you pull out, because you have seen so many departures like this, the village leaves no impression.” Occasionally you wonder why he is traveling at all.
On the train to Bogotá, Colombia, he reads Boswell and writes, “It was demeaning, after those conversations at Mrs. Thrale’s and at The Mitre, to enter into discussions with the rest of the passengers.” He tends to be scornful of those who have nothing to say, and annoyed by the ones who know more than he does about the people or the economy of the country they are in. A group of Middle Western American tourists seem wasteful; a young Frenchman contemptibly stingy; Latin Americans either foolishly patriotic or so gloomy that they madden him. Convinced that all Latin Americans “hate criticism”—all except Peruvians, who hate praise—he learns “to handle” them accordingly, flattering when appropriate, or encouraging their pessimism. When he is not overtly patronizing—as he cannot be, for example, when he interviews Borges in Buenos Aires near the end of his trip—Theroux still has the last word, the most perceptive comment, the greatest reserve.
Theroux rarely looks hard at anything, but his fleeting impressions often have immense evocative charm—much the way a garden glimpsed through a high gate can seem more beautiful than on a guided tour of the grounds.
There were fires in some of the farmyards, and enough light for me to make out the canecutters’ brick sheds in a terrace row, and far off the roofs and pillars of the owner’s mansion, and the beautiful horses standing by the fence. Then night fell on the cane fields, and the only signs of life were the yellow headlights of cars wobbling down the country roads.
Theroux claims that he has no interest in politics—“a hideous subject”—but he reacts to the poverty and hopelessness that he finds in Latin America with an indignation that recurs throughout the book. He casts himself as a concerned traveler of great moral seriousness, and decries the “class warfare” that is eroding the cities he passes through. But here again he tends to rely largely on quick impressions, rarely thinking about the particular circumstances that have created the misery he notices, or why it is different from the Asian poverty he frequently compares it with. We are not told that the people he glimpses from the window of the train belong to the large proportion of Latin Americans who live outside the money economy, speak only Indian languages, take no part in state politics, and receive few if any state welfare benefits. He finds that “after the starving children of Colombia and the decrepitude of Peru, which were observable facts, it was hard to become exercised about press censorship in Argentina, which was ambiguous and arguable and mainly an idea.” Mainly an idea for him perhaps, surely not for many Argentinians. Theroux says, “It is not possible to see everything from a train,” but often one feels that no comment at all might be preferable to his self-righteous remarks.
Jonathan Raban is a writer with an impressionistic eye and, in any spot, a quick opinion. He went to Arabia to investigate its “headlong plunge into modernity”—the cultural, political, and economic shifts that began when oil was first discovered in the region in the late 1930s. Arriving from London in the Gulf state of Bahrain, he immediately saw “two cultures in crisp silhouette”—quaint, shapely dhows moored next to a modern fleet of gawky dredgers and cranes. And indeed throughout the trip he seems determined to find symbolic images of the changes taking place in Arabia. He wanders from the labyrinth of the Bahraini souk out onto modern avenues lined with high-rise office buildings. In Qatar, he visits the museum and observes Bedouin women in traditional robes, staring at wax figures dressed exactly like themselves. The Qataris still cling to traditional folklore, as if they could resist the tide. In the city of Abu Dhabi, which at first seems sparkling and heady, the change is further along; but the town turns out to be gaudy and impromptu, and already seedy. In Yemen, Raban suggests, people only dream of discovering oil as their neighbors have, in the meantime living largely on remittances sent home by the Yemenis who have gone to work in the Gulf.
Everywhere in Arabia he observes the influence of the Saudis, known for their Islamic piety and discipline. When a group of Saudi businessmen appear in a Yemeni restaurant, the wine list disappears from the table and Raban is told he must drink water. The nightclubs and go-go joints on the “Strip” between Cairo and Giza are filled with Saudis, dressed in robes and headdresses, drinking Scotch and smoking British cigarettes. But at the end of the evening when the stripping and songs are over, they all stand up and join a loud chorus of the Saudi national anthem. Throughout his book Raban tends to rely on broad ironies to show up the opportunities and inequality and largely unseen political tensions that change has created.
The Palestinian intellectuals and businessmen that he meets in the Gulf states and in Lebanon are described as the Jews of the Arab world. Dispersed in exile, often shrewder and more talented than the people they live among, they are inevitably resented. They “look terribly like the potential scapegoats of some unspecified future of hard times.” The Israelis themselves hardly figure in the book, except as an assumed enemy offstage. At the Dead Sea,
Taking a glass of beer at the Beach Club was a political action—one which called on very considerable reserves of both pride and good humor. The holiday makers were putting on a spirited piece of theater. The line of Israeli command posts stretched just half a mile away across the marsh. Our Friday, though, wasn’t going to be affected by that.
As Raban recognizes, there is much that is missing from his account. He does not go to Saudi Arabia; rarely mentions the PLO; says little about the Moslem religious hierarchy or legal code. He tries to read the Koran, and quotes at length from a lecture given by an Egyptian professor in Qatar. But, he admits, “the imaginative force of Islam still seemed remote and theoretical”—as indeed it does throughout the book. He is determined to describe only what he happens to see, and to make no moral judgments. How closely can this haphazard, transient foreigner hope to pursue the deep resentments and loyalties of Middle Eastern politics?
Recalling an article he has read about investing oil revenues and the importance of industrial “diversification,” he adds,
Not understanding economics, I found the practical logic of the process quite baffling; what I did understand was the pure bravura of the enterprise, the simple excitement of watching all those girders and sheets of glass and prestressed concrete miraculously assembling themselves against a dazzling sky.
Raban seems to have a special sympathy for the gaudiness and metaphoric overstatement that he discovers in the Arabic language and in the way oil revenues are being spent. Seedy bars and gimcrack buildings, desert landscapes littered with rusting cars, glittering wealth and its seamy underside—this is his Arabia, presented in garish color. He chats with a Jordanian entrepreneur, ruined because he bribed the wrong people, and with a jittery English exporter drinking vodka in a tacky Abu Dhabi bar, waiting for a telephone call worth thousands of pounds. He encounters a Bedouin family with two television sets—one for the women and one for the men. For all its pointed stories and symbolic interpretations, the book seems strongest when Raban admits, for example, that he cannot fathom the extreme distress of a Palestinian hearing about an Israeli raid. It is this bewilderment that gives the clearest sense of the “brute differences” separating Europe from Arabia, no matter how modern and Westernized it seems. What saves Raban’s book is that he knows that Arabia, whether the old or the new, is “much, much more foreign than it looks.”
Edward Hoagland’s previous travel writings—about his treks through the wilderness of British Columbia, for instance, and a visit to what he thought to be the northernmost farm in Canada—were cast as journal entries and reflective essays.* He has written about mountain lions and “The Courage of Turtles” and about exploring the woods on his land in northern Vermont, subjects that led him to consider, often within the same short piece, his memories of the death of his father and the reasons why people like him get divorced. He has also written about New York, observing a group of drug peddlers on a street corner or a crowd basking in the sun on a city pier with much the same bemused curiosity that he watches twenty grizzly bears promenading by the Krispiox River in northern Canada.
African Calliope is set in the Sudan, where roughly one third of the population is Arab, one third tribal African, and there is a long history of hatred between them. Traditional backcountry village life continues as it always has not far from the sites of vast development projects where foreigners are helping to build a sugar refinery or introduce more mechanized agriculture in an area of 300,000 acres. In this book Hoagland observes the Sudanese trying to deal with bewildering changes and the violence of their recent history. He is informative about the long civil war between northerners and southerners that began in 1955 and did not end until 1962. “Something like fifteen coup attempts” have challenged President Nimeiri’s government since he assumed power in 1969.
And for all the warring, the way that the life of the African continent chews up even the bitterest memories is characteristic too. It seethes over them like surf sweeping a beach in what by outside perspective might be only an instant or two. There is a velocity to history, new generations rapping on the door. Nearly sixty percent of the Sudanese are under twenty years old.
As the facts accumulate, in a seemingly haphazard way, the disorder and “underdevelopment” in the Sudan emerge with terrifying clarity.
Against this history, Hoagland sets his own deft observations of the Sudanese and their manners, avoiding sweeping judgments, or easy references to European literature. He watches a group from the Dinka tribe dancing outside at sunset and notices the signals that a young woman uses to indicate that she is not indifferent to a suitor. At one of the larger development projects he sees “$300,000 worth of equipment—five sizes of caterpillar tractor—parked next to a grass hut, and yet no small tool that you might use to fix something, no wrench or scrap of rope or ax or hoe.”
In the early chapters set in the tribal villages where he lived for some time, it is Hoagland’s often embarrassed personal reactions—his sheepish attraction to a young Acholi woman, and his insecurity about being able to keep up with a group of tribesmen when he goes on a hunt in the jungle—that bring us closest to Sudanese life. In these villages Hoagland reveals his subtle sense of unexpressed political feelings. He is struck by the villagers’ envy of his boots and eyeglasses, and by the irony of his having spent “so much money getting to a place so poor that its people could have spent ten years living on the air fare itself.”
African Calliope is “not a book of history,” as Hoagland says, and he thinks less of causes and consequences than of flux. He takes a clue about current affairs from the face of one of Nimeiri’s ministers: “the world as it should be, beaming in the fellow’s smile; the world as it is, clouding and creeping up behind his eyes.” It occurs to him that in a floundering, chaotic country like the Sudan, Nimeiri’s benign dictatorship might be more effective than democracy; but he can’t help noticing that the president’s special police extort bribes from truckdrivers “under the pretext of a security check.” Writing about the war in Eritrea, Hoagland is as interested in the personalities of the soldiers he meets and the journalists he travels with as in the issues being fought about or the progress at the front. He is haunted by thoughts of the young Marxist Eritreans facing not only Soviet MIG planes but also a force of Cuban guerrillas who have come to help the Ethiopians put down the Eritrean fight for self-rule.
Hoagland often describes himself with irony—as a hopelessly naïve American, stuttering and lonely, “a virginal white man” who has taken on more than he can handle, and who finds himself reflected in the other travelers and expatriates he meets: temporary technical advisers, missionaries with “haunted and tentative faces…each dealing in only oddly circumscribed patterns with the surrounding ocean of need.” By the end of his trip he is homesick and preoccupied with his own failing health:
I was weary of the whole African calliope—that nagging pulsing musical din that has been reverberating strongly without letup for thousands of years before you arrive and will be continuing without any respite for sickness or fatigue long after you have left the earth.
As the trip proceeds Hoagland’s account becomes increasingly rueful. But for all his fatigue, he continues to look closely at what he sees as he drives across the desert. He can give weight to the smallest detail, chronicling even the shifting color of the desert sand and the sound of a stalled motor in the distance.
The motives that bring a traveler to leave home are probably never as simple as he thinks. For Hoagland and Raban and Theroux, the change taking place somewhere else in the world is, they admit, only part of the reason. Theroux was between novels, and bored with the New England winter; Hoagland was looking for a new kind of experience to write about. It is as if their imaginative sympathy with a culture or geography as different as possible from their own will help them to find in themselves a range of feeling they had not touched before.
And when they come to the limits of that outward interest, they turn back, with an empty feeling—as if they have spent themselves, not gathered experience. Perhaps all travel books end in disappointment. Without a moral conclusion or dénouement the last pages unravel sadly to an anticlimax. As Hoagland remarks, whatever sense the traveler made of the country he visited, history will soon undo it. What matters for the traveler is his effort to measure the distance between his own way of seeing things and that of the people he traveled among, or perhaps between his hasty first impressions and the baffling complexity of places he will never fully know.
April 17, 1980