Like most lines we feed children, the schoolroom-poster slogan that promises reading will transport them to other worlds requires qualification when they’re old enough to know what “qualify” means. When people read, they remain solidly in the parts of the world they inhabit, in their same bodies, clothes, debt, and neuroses. If their realities change shape or temperature, that change arises from their response to writers’ accounts of physical places, or possible ones fashioned out of familiar stuff. Travel writing’s appeal is unusual, since we deride people in our own circles who could lead lives crowded with curiosity but choose to live vicariously through others.
People who say they’ve “experienced” a travelogue, or that a travel book is “experiential,” mean that the author has arranged an account so readers can place their selves within the recorded experience and undergo, to some degree, an emotional journey similar to the author’s while picturing environments as the author describes them. “Travel,” says Paul Theroux, “becomes meaningful only in retrospect,” which is why, for example, most basic-cable travel programming (especially E!’s) is a thinly-veiled advertisement for homogenous luxuries or (if you think about it) gratification of homogenized appetites. Even if people can “travel” without traveling, pictures—visual or lingual—can only resonate if people connect them to their own realities (instead of fantasies).
In The Great Railway Bazaar, Theroux finds 1975 Yugoslavia somewhat different than a train conductor had promised:
Herdsmen were not simply herdsmen; they were sentries, guarding little flocks from marauders: four cows watched by a woman, three gray pigs driven by a man with a truncheon, scrawny chickens watched by scrawny children. Freedom, women, and drinking was Nikolai’s definition; and there was a woman in a field pausing to tip a water bottle to her mouth; she swallowed and bent from the waist to continue tying up cornstalks.
He was told what men tell other men about foreign places: the amount of booze to be had, the kind of woman who lives there, and how much trouble you’ll invite if you blindly pursue either (=“freedom”). His own experience exposed the obvious bullshit these statements contain, which he then wrote about and I, 3.5 decades later, read and agreed with. Yugoslavia, however, remains a foreign country to me, the reader—I’ve never traveled nor have any experiences there, even though I have read about it here and elsewhere. (I’ve even seen it on TV.)
When I heard last month that Theroux would open the BPL’s 2009-2010 Lowell Lecture Series, and having been better-acquainted with the famous acrimony between Theroux and V. S. Naipaul than with Theroux’s own writing, I decided to attend. (I had only read portions of The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari, and once watched Peter Weir’s Mosquito Coast adaptation at 3 a.m. Ebert profiles him here.) At six o’clock on 20 October, some woman—I didn’t write her name down—carrying a plastic water bottle and a binder entered the Rabb Lecture Hall stage from a side door, approached the podium, and began to speak. She drew on the LLS’s press release to propose we “travel the world without leaving Boston,” and explained that the recession has precluded travel for many people, but seemed to propose that Theroux’s lecture, and the series, could be substitutes. “Travel,” I guess, is sometimes defined loosely in conversation, but “at length” and “typically abroad” plague most standard definitions of the word.
When she’d finished, she handed the water bottle to Theroux, who had been sitting in the front row all along. He led off with an entreaty to support libraries during hard times, and a droll account of his first BPL experience. (He grew up in Medford.) He described his solitude during that first trip, the observations that belonged to only him, and the rate at which he afterward expanded his own horizons. Several times, he spent a few seconds grasping at words, but when he had found them, he’d quote Kipling, or explain what had inspired him to write Ghost Train to the Eastern Star or Dark Star Safari, or describe how much the world had changed since his journey in 1975. It behooves one in certain African nations to hitch rides on cattle trucks, because bandits probably won’t shoot at a truck if bovines are aboard—cattle are more valuable than people. The Vietnamese haven’t forgotten our war there, but they do accept the money our business brings. In 1975, Western travelers through Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq were more frequently waylaid by opium than by anything that resembled the Taliban. The ex-Soviet satellite nations lead east, too, if you’re heading that way and want to avoid the conflict that has rocked the Cradle. India is rather great and trains are also great.
During the Q&A that followed, he elaborated on his distaste for celebrity humanitarianism and facile international aid, and told a vague story about the unsavory acquaintances whose company he bought with a dishonorable discharge from the Peace Corps. An hour and a half later, I washed a burger down with a couple beers at the Pour House, having taken notes but not traveled anywhere, and not because Theroux can’t write or speak well: he can. He recommended stories to us, answered an undergrad’s question about how to write a novel, tolerated an inarticulate outburst from the back that sounded like an undentured octogenarian’s gumming a howl. But I can’t lie and describe it magically—it was a lecture, not a trip. You travel by traveling. Your imagination doesn’t travel—it induces a parallel world into existence from a possibility discovered in this one and populates it with the guts of your own life. When you arrive at the place you’ve read about, it’s often better, or worse, than you’d imagined, but only with disappointment would you discover it exactly as someone had described it to you. That’s hard to fit on a poster.
The next Lowell Lecture Series event will feature Rick Steves, author and PBS-program host, who will speak at 6:00 p.m. on 3 December in Rabb Lecture Hall.
When I’d read this, it called to mind snow-smothered Michigan winters and my lining up the dining room chairs for some imaginairplane, but I thought for sure I’d never hear the sentiment articulated seriously.
 Here are some international work-exchange or volunteer organizations to check out if you want to travel at length abroad, but lack a contact or a bed in an unfamiliar place:
International Exchange of North America (State Dept.-designated for J-1 sponsorship.)
Volunteer South America (I’ve linked you to the FAQ, because it seems important that you read it first.)
World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming (If you’ve ever heard me talk about my dream of guarding sea turtles in Costa Rica, this is where I found that job listing.)
WYSE World Youth Student & Educational Work Abroad members
Theroux, Paul. The Great Railway Bazaar. New York: Mariner, 2006. 27.