I’m now going to admit something scandalous: I hate Paul Theroux. Not the man himself–I’ve never met him; he might be lovely in person. I hate Paul Theroux’s writing. Yes, that pretty much revokes my membership to all travel writing guilds. Theroux is the golden boy of post-20th century travel writing. With his overblown verbiage, highfalutin literary references, and eye-crossing self-indulgence, Theroux’s work embodies everything I despise about travel writing as a literary endeavor.
In his recent essay for the New York Times, “Why We Travel,” Theroux makes his ever-present case for backpacking across war-torn deserts, climbing ugly mountain ranges, and strolling through criminal-infested cities. He spends a full page using half his Roget’s to describe the “joys” of visiting Baghdad, Russia, and Pakistan (among others). Then he says, and I quote: “But unless you are in delicate health and desire a serious rest, none of this is a reason to stay home.”
Well fuck you and the stinky flea-bitten camel you rode in on, Mr. Theroux.
I bet it’s never once occurred to Paul Theroux that there are, quite literally tens of millions of travelers out there who are in delicate health, as he so snarkily puts it. I certainly am. Physically weak, in constant pain, and prone to unpleasant bacterial infections in personal places, I don’t need to travel to Somalia or Tibet to overcome adversity. I overcome adversity every time I travel to the supermarket around the corner.
My fiancé suggested that we might bottle up some tap water from Mexico City and let Theroux drink it on a nonstop plane trip from Mexico to Taiwan. He would get to overcome a whole bunch of travel adversity! His trip would look, smell, and feel remarkably like that which my friend Andrew, who suffers from severe Crohn’s Disease, gets to experience every single day of his life. Perhaps Paul might gain a new perspective, as he spent hour after miserable hour locked in an aluminum tube with his bowels roiling uncontrollably. He might learn what it’s like to actually be in delicate health while traveling, and he’d stop sneering at those of us laboring along inside of imperfect bodies.
Yet…examining Scott Rains’ opinion of Theroux’s recent discussion of travel writing, I realized that in a strange way, I actually agree with the pompous jerk. (It’s not just our mutual adoration of polysyllabic verbiage.) Adversity is not a good reason to huddle at home. In fact, everything I write here aims to help readers overcome adversity both in order to travel and while traveling, so as to enjoy adversity-free vacations and successful business trips. I make no guarantees for travelers to high school reunions and family holidays. If you insist on undertaking serious high-risk travel, my tips may not help you.
Every trip I take has its troubles. As a travel writer, I turn common difficulties into “10 tips” articles, while the weirder ordeals evolve into humor essays. (Though said weird ordeals rarely have anything to do with chronic pain or illness. Fishing and in-laws, on the other hand…) It turns out that I’m all about overcoming adversity through travel.
Where I break from Theroux is on the ground, at my destination. (Also in my writing, wherein I have a sense of humor.) I do not seek out adversity, court unnecessary risks, or clamber around in search of pain when I travel. If I want adversity, I can go to the doctor and ask for a cure for my condition and listen to the endlessly frustrating non-answers. For risk, perhaps I’ll get to endure yet another surgical procedure. If I need intense pain I’ll stand in a TSA line for a few minutes.
When I travel, I seek joy.
I love looking out over the tropical sea from the lanai of a luxury condo. Floating in warm salt water eases my pain; swimming after colorful fish brings me a sense of wonder and happiness. Wandering through the historic district of an old European city marveling at centuries-0ld architecture engages my brain, and sitting in the gallery of a great museum, absorbing the beauty of great art lightens my heart. Sleeping on a memory foam mattress made up with 800-thread-count sheets rests my weary bones, and soaking in an oversized tub laced with lavender-scented bubbles relaxes my racked-up muscles.
Okay, fine. I’m jealous of Paul Theroux. He’s got so many more options than I do when he chooses destinations and activities for his trips. He goes places without worrying for a moment about pain flares, medication transportation, or whether he’ll be able to find a clean public bathroom. He has a limitless supply of spoons.
On the other hand, I’ve got an awareness that this lauded bestselling author couldn’t dream of. In fact, in a strange way, all of Theroux’s unpleasant trips to terrifying places might be viewed (by an insanely jealous twit ) as attempts to observe what we who travel with pain and illness and disability experience every day. We live real life. He just watches it from the outside. Poor Theroux. Don’t you wish you were me?
I don’t know what’s up with all the Shakespearean tragedy quotes, though. Yeesh–pretentious much?
I know in a way Theroux won’t until his own health craps out on him what a truly amazing thing it is to board a plane and fly across an ocean. I understand the value of warm sand trickling through my fingers as other tourists kick over my sand castles. The sights and smells and sounds inside the hallowed halls of the Louvre mean more to me than Theroux could ever comprehend. So does having the energy to leave the Louvre to find a decent croissant.
Theroux can keep his misery and pain and his endless search for so-called authentic experience when traveling.I suppose somebody’s got to go examine the famine, poverty, and destruction in places like the Sudan, Uzbekistan, and the Democratic Republic of Rape…er, the Congo. Rather him than me. Really.
But I’ll remain aggravated by his opinion that other travel writers must lock-step with him across minefields both literal and figurative. I expect I’ll find plenty of problems to overcome and then write about, even square in the middle of the beaten path.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to travel and write for the best and most important reason of all.