The Tao of Travel

Quito, Ecuador

One of my favorite travel books is Paul Theroux’s The Tao of Travel. When my favorite travel writer writes on the subject of travel literature, the result is nothing less than armchair satori. Take the following quote from his The Old Patagonia Express (1979), my first introduction to South America:

Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be alone and unencumbered. Other people can mislead you: they crowd your meandering impressions with their own; if they are companionable they obstruct your view, and if they are boring they corrupt the silence with non sequiturs, shattering your concentration with, “Oh, look, it’s raining” and “You see a lot of trees here.

It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people. What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.

Theroux’s book is full of such gems, such as this one from Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad (1869):

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness and many of our people need it sorely on those accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

Here is a poetic contribution from Rudyard Kipling (“The Winners”:

Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne,
He travels the fastest who travels alone.


In Virginibus Puerisque, Robert Louis Stevenson imparts this wisdom:

Little do ye know your own blessedness; for to travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive, and the true success is to labor.

As I return to this book, which I do often, I just want to set out for somewhere, anywhere. Well, maybe not Cleveland. Been there, done that!

Did Balzac Ever Go to Java?

Cover of a French Edition of the Voyage

Well, not exactly. But he is known to have drunk approximately fifty cups of Java each day. No doubt that helped inspire him to write this hilarious spoof of voyages to exotic locales. It is not until the last couple of pages that Honoré de Balzac writes:

In truth, soon I will be losing no time in taking the stagecoach once again, travelling back to Paris across the fields of Touraine and Poitou that I thought I should never see again. During my first days back in Paris I had a lot of trouble persuading myself that I had not indeed been to Java, so much had that traveller [M. Grand-Besançon] struck my imagination with his tales.

So in the end it is a delightful hoax. Balzac tells a series of tall tales redolent of earlier (unsubstantiatable) journeys full of tall tales about the flora, fauna, and women of the Far East. Not all of it consists of tall tales, such as this realistic warning to travelers to be alert at all times:

Go inside a shop selling precious cloths; bargain, buy some cashmere or a length of tamava … if you turn your back for a moment while the merchant is rolling up your purchase on the counter, wrapping it and tying it with string, the package flies to the back of the shop and is replaced by another containing inferior goods, that an apprentice has been preparing in the corner of the shop to look exactly like the one you were buying. With no explanation for this miraculous metamorphosis, you return to the shop furious at having been duped by the Chinese everybody had warned you about; but his only response is to laugh at you.

I have read virtually all of Balzac as translated into English, but this is by far the funniest of his works. An English edition entitled My Journey from Paris to Java (Singapore: Editions Didier Millet, 2010) is available.