Traveling on your own – as I often do – is exhilarating, inspiring, complicated, lonely, engaging and yes, challenging. Every journey teaches me more about myself than I ever anticipate. And sometimes more than I care to learn in one bang.
This testing and stretching of personal boundaries – however trying – allows us to see the world and ourselves with fresh eyes. No one articulates this condition – the condition of the traveler – better than Paul Theroux.
I encountered Theroux’s name throughout my early teens, but didn’t read anything by him until 2001. In a bout of procrastination, I sat in my dorm room whittling away the hours on Amazon looking for music, books, DVD. (Yes, my form of procrastination got pricey). I searched the key words “Travel Writing,” and they led me to Theroux’s Fresh-Air Fiend, where I was given the choice to purchase a new or used copy. Aside from the difference in price, I chose a used copy from the UK because used books are magical. They cross borders, change hands, and unconsciously link groups of strangers. I clicked “Add to Cart,” and two weeks later I held the book in my hands.
In three days, Theroux took me from the Massachusetts coast to Europe, Maine, Florida, the Zambezi River, back to Cape Cod, then to Germany, China, Hawai’i, and through various South Pacific islands. And what a journey it was. But the single greatest joy of this book was the Introduction: Being a Stranger. Never have I related to a piece of writing as much as this. He speaks of being a stranger, the phenomenon of ‘otherness,’ the inner experience of the traveler, and the quiet understanding the traveler gleans of his/her home.
Whether you’re in between travels, planning your next trip or pondering taking your first leap ‘out of bounds,’ then maybe, just maybe, Theroux’s book will inspire and touch you as much as it did me.
Note to Readers: Paul Theroux is best known for The Great Railway Bazaar (1975). It details his experience traveling from Europe to the far East on the Orient Express. For those interested in fiction, Theroux also writes brilliant novels. My dear friend Denby once recommended I read Hotel Honolulu, which exposes the seamier side of paradise. It was a thrill to read, and is by far my favorite of Theroux’s novels.