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Today's quote:

Friday, September 11, 2020

Theroux needs no more than three or four brush strokes of his pen to complete the most vivid of pictures


Dollar for dollar, hour per hour, a travel book is the cheapest and easiest way to transport you from the world you know into one you don't. I had already read Paul Theroux's "The Great Railway Bazaar", but while that was just another travel tome, the absorbing and beautifully written follow-up "Ghost Train to the Eastern Star" gave me this sudden "epiphany", this profound moment of recognition, when my own experience of thirty-eight years ago - thirty-three years for Paul Theroux - was reflected back at me.

"... I had just finished a book," writes Paul Theroux, "and was out of ideas. I had no income ... I had to go. Sailors went to sea, soldiers went to war, fishermen went fishing, I told her. Writers sometimes had to leave home. 'I'll be back as soon as I can.'"

And so it was with me: I had just finished another consulting assigment in Papua New Guinea, and was back in what was then my hometown, Townsville, without an income, and I had to go when the offer came in for a new assigment in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. "I'll get you to join me as soon as possible," I told her.

"It was the age of aerograms and postcards and big black unreliable telephones," writes Paul Theroux. "I wrote home often. But I succeeded in making only two phone calls ... I was homesick the whole way - four and half months of it - and wondered if I was being missed ... I felt insane when I got home. I had not been missed. I had been replaced."

By the time I returned to Australia eight months later, clutching her visa and ticket to take her back to Saudi Arabia with me, I also went almost insane. I also had not been missed and, I guessed, had been replaced.

Paul Theroux writes, "Instead of killing anyone, or threatening it anymore, I sat in my room and wrote in a fury, abusing my typewriter, trying to lose myself in the book ... it was written in an agony of suffering, with the regret that in taking the trip I had lost what I valued most ... I was cured of misery by more work."

After my return to Saudi Arabia, I, too, threw myself back into my work. I regretted that, in accepting this job, I had lost what I valued most. I couldn't eat, I couldn't sleep, I just worked and worked. Weeks later I woke up in the intensive care unit of a Jeddah hospital with a drip in my arm and a breathing mask over my face, realising what it must be like to be dead: people might miss you, but their lives go on without you.

And when Paul Theroux writes, "Some betrayals are forgivable, but others you never quite recover from," he makes me relive, with just a few brush strokes of his pen, much of the pain I thought I'd forgotten.

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P.S. And here are more travel books by Paul Theroux:

Travelling the World : the Illustrated Travels of Paul Theroux
To the Ends of the Earth : the Selected Travels of Paul Theroux
Dark Star Safari : Overland from Cairo to Cape Town
The Happy Isles of Oceania : Paddling the Pacific
The Great Railway Bazaar : by Train through Asia
Fresh-Air Fiend : Travel Writings 1985-2000
Riding the Iron Rooster : by Train through China
The Kingdom by the Sea : a Journey around Great Britain
Down the Yangtze
The old Patagonian Express : by Train through the Americas
Sailing through China
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star
The Pillars of Hercules : a Grand Tour of the Mediterranean
Sunrise with Seamonsters
The Imperial Way : By Rail from Peshawar to Chittagong
Sir Vidia's Shadow : a Friendship across five Continents
My Other Life