Paul Theroux, the author who made his name in part writing cranky travelogues on Africa, is done with the dark continent. He told NBC News his latest book, “Last Train to Zona Verde, My Ultimate Safari,” represents his final book-writing excursion into Africa.
"I have no interest in urbanized Africa or safari Africa or failed state Africa," he said.
His reasons are found within the pages of "Last Train to Zona Verde," like when he chafes at a touristed seaside town in Namibia. “I felt I was on vacation, an intimation that made me feel uncomfortable and frivolous and lonely,” he writes.
Despite being an acclaimed and prolific travel writer, who broke out with his 1975 chronicle “The Great Railway Bazaar: By Train Through Asia,” Theroux doesn't do vacations.
“It's just idleness” Theroux told NBC News. “It makes me feel like an old man ... I want to discover something. Vacation is a wonderful thing but if I want to have a great time I go home [to Hawaii]. The idea of going someplace for vacation is very odd to me.”
At 72, his drive to discover endures. “We have a notion that the world is accessible [from the internet] but it's not,” he said. “You have to … get out into the world and take a risk and see what it's like. The reality is scary sometimes … but you need to be frightened.” Theroux seeks out that scary reality.
With the means to travel first class, “I have to go to a lot of trouble to find out the way things are,” he told NBC News. “It's a struggle because I don't have to--I’m not a millennial with a backpack and an iPad.”
In researching “Last Train” Theroux “devised ways,” like crossing into Angola on foot and spending the night in a broken-down Land Cruiser in the bush, to get at the truth of today's Africa. It's no longer the same continent he found as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1963.
“Africa gave me everything ... Africa had given me life,” he reflects in the book. But at the site of his “deliverance” he now finds “the misery of Africa, the awful, poisoned, populous Africa; the Africa of cheated, despised, unaccommodated people; of seemingly unfixable blight: so hideous, really, it is unrecognizable as Africa at all.”
By design, his words aren't uplifting, at least in the conventional sense. “The best books are not jolly books,” Theroux told NBC News. “The best books are books of problem solving and difficulty. ”
“One of the paradoxes of tourism is that people go on vacation where people are having a tough time,” he adds. As he writes in “Last Train,” “in most destinations you can't be a tourist without turning your back on human desperation,” then confronts readers with that desperation, exploring “bereft of hope” shantytowns. “Because I think you need to know the reality of a place,” he told NBC News.
This reality ultimately proves to be the impetus for Theroux's final farewell to Africa, as he cuts his journey short, faced with Islamic militant violence and unending “dense and hopeless slums.”
Now the inveterate traveler speaks of the pleasure of not going anywhere at all. "Staying home is bliss for me,” he said.
That bliss doesn't require a ticket to Hawaii. It “comes from natural landscapes [that haven't been] trampled or industrialized," said Theroux. "There are still places of wilderness... Montana, the wilds of Maine, Vermont, they're still in their natural state. That evokes bliss in me. You have this illusion that it hasn’t been destroyed. It still awaits discovery. That inspires me.”
Follow Dana McMahan, food, travel, and fitness writer: @danamac.