I am quickly settling down here in Savannah and on this island that seems separated from the larger world. Almost all the boxes have disappeared and I have found myself enjoying walks by the marsh, bicycling and will be heading out to kayak in a bit. More to come later. Here is a review of one of the books I recently finished reading...
Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Hartcourt, 2013), 353 pages, 1 map.
It has been a quarter of a century since I first read Theroux’s The Great Railway Bazaar. At that time, the book was close to twenty years old. Since then, I read all his train adventures (The Old Patagonian Express, Riding the Iron Rooster, Dark Star Safari and Ghost Train to the Easter Star) and have reviewed several of them in various blogs. I was excited to see that he had a new travel/train book out and was continuing his African journey that he started in Dark Star Safari which took him from Cario to Cape Town. In this trip, he planned to make his way overland from Cape Town to Timbuktu, but after wandering in Angola, he calls it quits and heads home.
When he wrote The Great Railroad Bazaar (he traveled in the early 70s), he traveled on what was left of the French-built Vietnamese railroad at a time the war was ongoing. He was much younger then and I don’t remember him discussing in detail the possibility of death even though it was a dangerous journey. He is now 70 years old and it is obvious from the beginning that he is pondering his impending death. This book seems to ooze death and three of the people he meets on his journey die before he finishes writing the book. When making this journey, it had been ten years since Theroux’s African overland trip through a continent he first encountered as a Peace Corp volunteer in the early 1960s. It becomes apparent early on to the reader that this is Theroux’s swan-song, at least for adventure travel.
The journey starts in Cape Town. After spending time visiting and seeing what has happened to South Africa since his last visit, Theroux heads northwest by train and bus, into Nambia. He finds Southern Namibia pleasant, but life was tougher in the northern part of the country (especially after crossing a fenced line that is designed to keep hoof and mouth diseases out of cattle in the southern part of the African Continent. The northern and more western parts of Namibia were more desolate. He crosses over into Botswana and experiences a safari camp that boosted being the only place in Africa where one can ride elephants. Elephants are not ridden or used as beast of burden in Africa as they are in Asia (although this left me wondering about Hannibal and his invasion of Rome on elephants, but that was a few thousand years ago). This marketing scheme (riding elephants) is generally the type that turned off Theroux in his previous books, but since he knows the founder of the program (they are trying to rescue elephants), he visits and although critical does seem to have a good time.
The closer he traveled to Angola, the more dangerous and daring travel becomes. He is led across the border, through crowds of people. Angola does not provide tourist visas, so Theroux has lined up a couple of teaching and lecturing gigs arranged that allowed him to obtain a visa. Probably the most exciting part of the book is the journey from the border to Lubango, where he is in a car that breaks down in the remote countryside. This allows Theroux to interact with locals (including a woman selling burnt and fly covered chicken) and see village life. He also sees the poverty and the impact years of war had on the country. He visits the old slave port of Benguela and travels up the coast to Luanda, the crowded capital of the country.
Despite the depressing report on the situation in Angola, I appreciate Theroux’s insight. He provides details into the dark history of the former Portuguese colony. Like other European country, Portugal used Angola as a dumping ground for criminals, the only difference is that Portugal sent harden criminals where Britain and other countries mostly exiled petty criminals (some of whom main offense was to be poor). These harden criminals quickly adapted to the slave trade, a major economic activity for Angola in the 19th Century. Others became brutal managers of farming operations. After the colony’s independence, a long war ensued that involved not only those living in Angola, but armies from South Africa and Cuba. Although the war had been over for ten years when Theroux made his visit, it is still evident. Furthermore, since then, the country resources are making a few people incredibly rich (in the capital, there is a private school that cost $47,000 a year for tuition and small apartments for the rich elite rent for $7000 a month while most people are unemployed and living in near starving conditions).
Theroux repeatedly asks himself what he’s doing there, a question that becomes more frequent as he travels in Angola. In addition to the problems of the journey, Theroux has his identity stolen in Namibia (which he learns about in Angola as has racked up forty-some thousand dollars of charges on his credit card). With everything hard and upon learning the situation is even worse in the Congo and the horrors of the Boka Haram (meaning “Death to Western Education”) in Nigeria, Theroux calls off his journey and heads home. It should be noted that Theroux’s journey in Africa was several years before the recent horrors of the Boka Haram (an extreme Islamic group) kidnapping Christian girls in Nigeria.
Theroux, in Dark Star Safari, was critical of much of the aid work in Africa. Then, he noted that how when he came to the continent in 1960, it was able to feed itself, but by the 21st Century, the continent was dependent on imports. Although he saw some improvements in South Africa at the beginning of this journey, he comes away from this trip bitter and disappointed. His experience of Angola is best described as a nightmare. A country with vast mineral resources (oil and diamonds), most people live in a near starvation state. There is little public transportation, the infrastructure is almost non-existence, and animals are absent from the countryside, which is littered with burned out trucks and tanks from the thirty year war. Corruption is everywhere. Theroux is disillusion.
One of the things that seemed to be different in this book from his other books is that Theroux spent less time with people who were struggling in life, especially in northern Namibia and Angola. Certainly some of the drivers that he hired were struggling, but there seems to be more encounter with those who are in Africa on official business or who have connections outside of the continent. Even his fellow travelers in broken-down vehicles only receive fleeting comments (such as his complaining about screaming kids), leaving me to wonder their stories. In his other books, he shunned tourist and western officials while interviewing prostitutes and others on the margin of society. He does, as he has done in many of his books, make contact (or attempts to connect) to authors in the region who do help provide insight into the struggles of the people. And he still has disdain for tourists (at one point calling a safari operation in Namibia “Trophy Hunting for Dummies”) and for religion (he was especially critical of Brazilian evangelists in Angola and their “prosperity gospel.”) However, he seem to appreciate those who come and make a long term commitment to working for the betterment of the people in the continent.
Another common complaint from Theroux in this book is how he hates cities (here, I have to agree with him). He notes the similarity of cities—especially within the slums—around the world. Africa is quickly becoming an urban continent as people leave the countryside for the city, where there are few jobs. Theroux does seem to be more comfortable in the countryside.
One of the interesting groups that Theroux explores in Angola are the Chinese. Enterprising Chinese (the first Chinese to come, like the Portuguese, were convicts), have started restaurants and industry (making cinder blocks and roofing tin). Many of the construction projects including rebuilding railroads (upon which Theroux didn’t travel) are being done by the Chinese, who are creating their own community within the continent. The role China will play in Africa is important, and Theroux exploration here is enlightening. He also provides some of the backstory to the funny but not political correct 1984 movie, “The Gods Must Be Crazy.” (156)
Two final complaints (Theroux’s complaining must be catching): I was disappointed that Theroux didn’t travel in trains (or write more of the experience in the few times he did). I also wish he (or his editors) would hire a decent mapmaker. I had to spend time putting the book down and picking up a large atlas to follow his journey. In my opinion, all his books have poorly drawn maps.
One final insight: Zona verde means “The bush.” (322)
Despite the complaints, I am still glad to have read this book and appreciate the new insights I have for the continent. I have long had a love/hate relationship with Theroux and his travels. In a way, this book seems more personal as Theroux is often reflecting on his own thoughts. However, these “reflections” become repetitious and are mainly centered on his age or his loss of identity and his credit card being compromised. Nothing seems to be resolved and as a traveler, I would have been interested in how he dealt with the credit card problem. Theroux crankiness is at a new level in this book, but if you can get around that, there is something to be learned from his travels.