Sunday, August 24, 2014

Book: Paul Theroux's "The Last Train To Zona Verde"

My latest book returns to one of my favorite non-fiction genres, the travelogue.  Paul Theroux is a popular travelogue writer, as well as author of fiction and novellas, who has been traveling and writing about his travels since the late 1960s.  The latest of his travelogues, covering his travels in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Angola when he was 71 years old, was my latest read.  "The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari" is an interesting but somewhat sad telling of an older traveler.

Theroux is very familiar with travel, including traveling and working in Africa.  He starts this trip in Capetown, South Africa with the plan to travel up the west coast of Africa.  His ultimate destination, as we discover rather late in the book, is the almost legendary city of Timbuktu.  Unfortunately he does not make it.  His trip is cut short in Angola but along the way he discovers that the Africa of legend and lore, the one we have all fantasized at least once in our lives, no longer exists.

The Africa of our dreams, a place of small tribal villages full of people living like they've lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years has changed.  It has become a land of gorged cities surrounded by rings of poverty and squalor.  A land of have-everythings and have-less-than-nothings.  Lands where one form of slavery has been replaced my a more insidious economic servitude.  A place where our dreams are just theater.

He recounts entering a village full of people in their native dress doing things like their ancestors, and their ancestors before, had done.  He leaves on a bush walk just to return to the village to see everyone has changed out of their native costume into western shorts and t-shirts.  It was all a facade for the tourist. Theroux was heartbroken.  I know how he feels.  In Kenya and Tanzania we saw a lot of things that were probably just theater for our benefit.  A way to earn a few bucks from the rich foreigners.

The book felt like it was written by a tired old man which, I think, is what Theroux was on this trip.  He sounded tired.  He sounded disillusioned with what he saw.  I can't blame him.  If I were 71 traveling alone in some of the most desolate and poor areas of the world (Angola has oil, diamond, and gold money but it apparently goes straight into the foreign bank accounts of corrupt individuals) I would feel tired too.  Add in the fact that three of the people he meets along the way die before the book is done and I would become a bit depressed too.

Despite the rather depressing tone of the book I enjoyed it.  His feelings somewhat match mine.  The world is changing.  The places of our fantasies are rapidly being transformed by the shrinking of the world and the changes are not all to the better.  My empathy with Theroux made this a worthwhile read for me.

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