What am I doing here? Who hasn’t asked him – or herself this question in some forlorn, neglected part of the world? This theme runs through the latest Paul Theroux book, Last Train to Zona Verde, a narrative of his travels from Cape Town to – ideally – Timbuktu. Only, after enduring a wretched border crossing between Namibia and Angola, and an even worse bus trip to Luanda, he decides to abandon the entire trip. Wow! This was an immediate must read for me. Since I share a similar preference for long, solitary, overland travel on public transportation, how others (especially a famous travel writer) cope psychologically to keep going or get the heck outta there is always intriguing. But even more than describing the reality of African travel, Theroux constantly comments on how Africa has changed in the last forty years and how the nature of travel has changed as well. Any of us can appreciate this universal theme no matter in what style we choose to travel. Forty years ago, who among us could have imagined strolling around Hanoi or Phnom Penh, or Pyongyang of all places? Remember Albania? In the 1970s, Iran and Afghanistan were easy to travel through, but looking north over the mountains, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan seemed like something to leave only to the imagination. And who among us once took the train through Hong Kong’s then rural New Territories to climb the platform and peer anxiously over into forbidden China?
Ironically, I write this “president’s message” from an idyllic and charming island, among profusions of brilliant alamandras, hibiscuses, and flamboyant trees, and luscious mangos that literally fall in my hands. But across the valley and over the hill are the gray, ash-covered apocalyptic ruins of Plymouth, the once bustling capital of Montserrat, now renamed the “modern-day Pompeii” after its destruction in 1995 by a volcano that reawakened in hell’s fury. Which island could be next? Dominica with its nine active volcanoes?
And to those among us over the age of ten, technology has changed our travel world at a fraction of warp speed. What a primitive world we lived in when we had to place a trunk call from India to the U.S. or stand in line at the American Express office to collect a month’s worth of mail from home. And a traveler’s check? What’s that?
So, we can remember what once was as a lesson of what’s to come. Our world will clearly change in political, natural, and technological ways that we cannot even imagine. Somalia could come to its senses, while Tuvalu submerges into the ocean. Who knows? See it now before it changes or wait out the impossible, for it too can never stay the same. And perhaps that is the answer to What am I doing here? To make a record of what once was for the upcoming generations of travelers to better understand their world.
Many thanks to those of you who sent me your immensely entertaining white-knuckle stories. Better than excerpting them in this column, I’ve taken the liberty of posting them in our online members only area of the TCC website. Scroll to the bottom of the Info Files area and look for “White Knuckle Stories” under Special Topics. Check it out!