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The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari - Paul Theroux

”Angolans lived among garbage heaps---plastic bottles, soda cans, torn bags, broken chairs, dead dogs, rotting food, indefinable slop, their own scattered twists of excrement--and in one town a stack of dead cows, bloated from putrefaction, looking like a forgotten freight load of discarded Victorian furniture, with the sort of straight stiffened legs you see fixed to old uncomfortable chairs. This blight was not ‘darkness,’ the demeaning African epithet, but a gleaming vacancy, the hollow of abandonment it by the pitiless tropical sun, appalling in its naked detail. Nothing is sadder than squalor in daylight.”

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”What am I doing here?”

Yes that is the quivering question that keeps coming to the forefront of Paul Theroux’s thoughts as he travels through South Africa, Namibia and Angola. He is 70 years old and in Africa he is feeling every creaking bone and discovering a different understanding for being older.

”Someone who seems doddery is perhaps not doddery at all but only an older person absorbed in squinting concentration, as though on an ultimate trip, memorizing a scene, grateful for being alive to see it. Knowing that a return to Africa for me was probably out of the question--how much more can these bones take?--made me want to be scrupulously truthful. None of it was trivial, all of it was meaningful; everything I saw mattered much more.”

I read that paragraph and it just hit me right between the eyes. I think about how many times I’ve been irritated by befuddled older people in my way when I’ve travelled. (lashes many lashes of atonement). The other part of that paragraph punched me in the gut. I have been traveling with Paul Theroux since I first discovered his books in the mid-1980s. I started with The Great Railway Bazaar and worked my way through his traveling adventures and a good bit of his fiction as well. Even the possibility of him slowing down or Zeus forbid stop writing traveling books all together is...well...sad.

Theroux is grumpier in this book, for those that have read his other books you might find that hard to believe. He is certainly more cynical. He thinks about the billions of dollars of aid that has been sent to Africa with few successes. In Angola, oil and diamond rich, only a few are becoming wealthy and the rest live in absolute squalor.

”I ask the political economists and the moralists if they have ever calculated the number of individuals who must be condemned to misery, overwork, demoralization, childhood, rank ignorance, overwhelming misfortune and utter penury in order to produce one rich man.”

Theroux talks about the trophy hunters that pay exorbitant amounts of money to be carefully packaged into a Range Rover driven out to the animal of their choice and then allowed to gun the animal down for the obligatory BIG GAME pictures (Teddy Roosevelt knock-offs) with the fallen animal. The heads of the animals are mounted and shipped back to them in the States where they can lie to their friends about this dangerous safari they were on shooting “wild” game.

Theroux also stops by for a couple of days at an elephant safari camp where rich people can fly in and ride elephants at $4000 a day. This is the type of place that gives Theroux facial ticks, but he does enjoy the sushi and the cold beer. He is there simply because a friend of his runs the place and the program is meant to save elephants that have been hurt, orphaned, or abandoned by a zoo. He does meet a woman from New York who says something about how wonderful Africa is (from the confines of this expensive summer camp where even bugs don’t dare to fly). Paul and I snicker together because hey I’ve already been with him through Namibia so I know the people there riding those elephants are not experiencing Africa.

I always end up with a list of books, that I now must read, that Theroux likes to sprinkle through his texts. He is a writer, but he is a real reader too.

”I went to Dubbo because there’s a character in a novel with that name, Alf Dubbo, in Riders in the Chariot. I love that novel and I really like Alf Dubbo, the aboriginal painter.”
An airless awkward silence descended on us, the embarrassment of intelligent people when a book is mentioned that no one has read, as though you’ve suddenly lapsed into a foreign language. I never know in such circumstances whether to describe the book with an exhortation to read it or simply shut up.”

I’ve experienced that awkward silence more than a few times myself with books and also with historical trivia. It always irritates me when someone says how do you know that?

Because I bloody read!!!

A few of the books Theroux mentions:

THE ASIATICS BY FREDERIC PROKOSCH He was a hoax writer, but a very good one. His evocative travel books were written from the comfort of his New Haven home. Normally I wouldn’t be interested in a book like this, but it sounds like the writing is really good.

”What a deplorable existence I lead in this absurd climate and under what frightful conditions! How boring! How stupid life is! What am I doing here?” Arthur Rimbaud from Aden in 1884

Poverty Porn has become a big business in Africa. Europeans and Americans pay a few coins to be able to tour through the shanty towns, through the desolation, so they can gape at poor people and the conditions they are forced to live in. It is similar to how people slow down on the roadways to peer at the unfortunates that have just been in a car accident hoping to see some blood or mangled metal so they can have something interesting to relate around the water cooler. It would be different if they were there to help.

Poverty is real. It isn’t a movie. I can’t even begin to explain the many reasons why it is wrong to use it for entertainment.

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Paul Theroux looking dapper for the dust jacket.

Paul Theroux first came to Africa as a Peace Corp volunteer when he was 22 years old. He fell in love with the culture and the people and spent a good part of his life seeing as much of Africa as he possibly could. He has ridden the trains, the buses, the rattle trap cars, and walked many a dusty mile to see Africa and meet a wide selection of Africans of the multitude of tribes that make up that continent. There is cynicism in this book, but softened by some wonderful observations and a humbleness not normally found in a Paul Theroux travel book.

”Like the Athenians, the Angolans of the musseque acted as if doomsday was upon them: a shrieking, chaotic, reckless society on the brink of extinction. Not people in despair, but people dancing--doing the kidkuru and kizomba. The city was thick with prostitutes, many of them refugees from the Congo, snatching at men at the Pub Royal and the Zanzibar. Most people were giggling crazily because they knew their number was up. That was how the Angolan laughter sounded to me--insane and chattering and agonic, like an amplified death rattle.

Kalunga (Paul Theroux's friend) climbed on his motorcycle, but he didn’t start it. He sat and stared at the city and said. ‘This is what the world will look like when it ends.’

My review of Paul Theroux's The Lower River