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Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Q&A with Paul Theroux by Don Wallace: A Traveling Light

A Traveling Light

A writer talks trust, foreign aid and the shield law.


We were out at Tongg’s surf break when the world’s best-traveled writer paddled past in a kayak. I said, “Paul Theroux?” Mindy nodded. Indeed, Theroux was using Hawaii as the staging area for 1992’s superb The Happy Isles of Oceania: Paddling the Pacific. To us, the celebrated author seemed out of place. How wrong we were.
You first went to Africa when you were in the Peace Corps in 1963. Why go back now?

My intention was to revisit places in Capetown that I had visited in 2002 and to write an extension of Dark Star [the book about that trip]. Then I just wanted to go until I got to the end of the road. One way or the other.

You basically headed north into some very non-tourist places: the bush of South Africa, Namibia, Angola.

The way that I travel, I don’t have any contingencies. I didn’t know whether I’d actually make it. I was just hoping. In ’63, I learned Chichewa and [I] speak Swahili; that’s the way to get to know a place very well instead of just parachuting in. I travel alone. Just a very small bag that I can carry. And that’s it. I have money. When I first started traveling, I didn’t have any money. That’s a change.

You’ve done this in Patagonia, Siberia and China, among other places. Always alone. Unlike the reality shows such as Man vs. Wild, there’s nobody to save your ass. Except your fellow man, usually a complete stranger. Thoughts on trust and travel?

You need to trust. To a certain extent, you have to be very wary. But if you’re not somewhat trusting, you won’t go anywhere. I just need to keep my wits about me. Avoid circumstances that will sink you. You cannot walk around at night in big cities in Africa. You’re easy. You’re alone. You’re conspicuous. You’re a haole. You take a taxi to go two blocks to a restaurant, if someone local warns you not to walk. You listen.

In the bush: no taxis, it’s a very humble place. You have to listen to people. I’ve got an old watch, a $20 watch, a $30 pair of sunglasses. When I meet someone, I immediately ask myself, “Are there points of communication?” You need to be a kind of interior detective, look for certain signals. I find that even if you’re in a bad situation, you can make a friend, just by talking to the person.

It’s harder for women. An older guy–leave out the white–is invisible in some places. No matter what age, a woman is always visible. A woman alone has high visibility and will be followed.

You are less than charitable about foreign aid.

I don’t want to be the person who says no foreign aid. I would like people to be accountable. So much money has been poured into a rathole, and nothing has happened. The first thing to understand is, a lot of the countries we’re trying to help are wealthy countries. Yet we give them aid. South Africa? It’s full of multimillionaires. It has loads of resources. Yet purely from ego Oprah Winfrey builds a school. South Africa is completely able to build a school. There are agencies such as the HALO Trust that remove land mines. A great thing. But why is a British organization required to remove land mines from Angola, which is a wealthy country? The reason is, if you can get somebody else removing land mines, you can spend the money on yourself.

That’s the corruption from aid. Aid weakens people. The Gates Foundation gives medicine to people in Sierra Leone, and they end up selling the medicine. Gates runs health agencies all over Africa. Why, when these countries have a ministry of health? Why have a ministry of health when Gates is running your health service? It’s a weird thing, foreigners running the health service so people don’t have to do it.

One of your first transcendent moments was with the San, the people from the movie The Gods Must Be Crazy. You then discover they’re acting out their vanished culture for tourists. I felt conned by the film. Your response is more nuanced.

It’s not any different from going to an Indian reservation or a place by the side of the road in New Mexico or Arizona, and you have people dressed as Indians selling handicrafts. In some cases, it’s the only way to make a living for some people, to dress up and act in ways that are culturally coherent. There are still fragments of belief clinging to these people, but the logic has been left behind.

But you are less forgiving, even harsh, about many of the African societies you revisit. They haven’t improved in 50 years; in some cases, they have gotten worse.

There’s no point writing if it’s all sweetness and light. No point in writing unless you’ve got something new to say. It’s like Hawaii: People come to write about gentle breezes and the sunset and the Mai Tais, and we know that’s not Hawaii. The truth of any place is often unflattering and difficult. But that’s the only stuff worth writing about.

If they let you. We just had our media shield law dropped, after some people in government tried to reshape it to target us and bloggers.

I think the Weekly is great. An alternative paper is what lets you know what other people are thinking and what you don’t hear from the powers that be. The kind of writing you do–talking about the Weekly and the First Amendment–you might as well give up if you can’t write the truth. But you have to write it well. It can’t just be the litany of abuse. This book was not just scribbled. It’s a public service, the Honolulu Weekly. Tell Mindy.

She’ll be thrilled. [Editor’s note: Yes.]

For Theroux’s 2012 Smithsonian Magazine article on Hawaii, see []

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