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Traveling with Mister Thorax

Paul Theroux in 2015

The photograph shows the office of the ultimate travel writer. His first book was The Great Railway Bazaar in 1975. Not coincidentally, that was the first year when the travel bug got me. Its bite was long lasting: I am still suffering from the effects of it. His next travel book was The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas (1979). This was the book that set me to thinking about South America, though it was to be almost a quarter century later that I felt I was able to follow in his footsteps.

It was in his 1992 The Happy Isles of Oceania that he was mistakenly called Mr. Thorax by a hotel employee in Australia or New Zealand. I rather like the name.

Below are some of his observations on travel taken from a 2015 Wall Street Journal interview. (Much better, if you can get a copy, is his 2011 book The Tao of Travel.) My own comments on travel are appended in indented text..

I never splurge on: comfort or luxury when I’m traveling alone. I eat in simple restaurants, wandering like a dog rather than taking taxis. Traveling through the Deep South I often stayed at inexpensive chain motels, the ones that serve a free breakfast of weak coffee, Kool Aid and Froot Loops in a Styrofoam bowl.

I’m with Paul—except you won’t find me sharing his breakfast of weak coffee, Kool Aid and Froot Loops.

The difference between travel and tourism: is the difference between walking in the hot sun to meet an angry person who is going to insult me and then tell me his amazing story, and lying in the sun sipping a cool drink and reading, say, “Death in Venice.” The first is more profitable; the second more pleasant. Both are enlightening.

My idea of travel is a combination of the two. During the day, I will be out in the hot sun, ready for anything. At night, I usually read. A lot. Mostly from my Amazon Kindle.

The greatest advantage to being an older traveler: is being invisible, unregarded, ignored. This allows one to eavesdrop and to see much more of a place or a people. There is a detachment, too, in being older: You’re not looking for a new life, not easily tempted. So you see a place clearly. Perfect for writing.

There’s a lot of truth to this. To be in your seventies is to be quite invisible. I would prefer to be totally invisible when confronted by chatty American tourists. (I have been known to answer their questions in Hungarian.)

I am a nightmare to travel with: when I am reporting a book, which is why I always take such trips alone. I seldom think, “Where am I going to eat?” or “Where am I going to sleep?” The true traveler has very little idea of what is coming next.

Here’s where I differ from Paul. Some of the best trips I have taken have been with Martine (Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Argentina) and my brother Dan (Mexico and Ecuador). I would prefer to travel with someone who is compatible, and I am willing to compromise on destinations providing that I am not absolutely opposed to visiting them.

I never take photographs because: people who take pictures lose their capacity for close observation. Without a camera, you study a thing more carefully and remember it better. Taking a picture is a way of forgetting.

Unlike Paul, I take a lot of pictures, though no selfies and damn few posed pictures in front of famous tourist destinations. I prefer to use my own pictures of the places I visit, though I am not averse to hijacking some off the Internet if I don’t have what I want for my blog postings.