A mural in Leland, Miss. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

Planning thespontaneous


With the publication of "The Great Railway Bazaar" (Houghton Mifflin, 1975), Paul Theroux established himself as a travel essayist with an unmistakable eye, ear and voice. His gift for drawing people into unguarded discussions, and then putting those conversations into a broader historical, political, cultural and geographic context, is without parallel. Theroux's narratives are, nonetheless, highly personal. He fully layers his observations and opinions — sometimes acerbic and biting, sometimes nuanced and sympathetic — into his work. And in doing so, he brings a reader's attention to the overlooked textures of societies and places.

Theroux has won numerous accolades and awards for his 33 published works of fiction and 18 nonfiction books. Three of his novels, "The Mosquito Coast" among them, have been made into films.

Joining Theroux in his debut in Travel Weekly's Masters Series is award-winning photojournalist Steve McCurry, best known for the haunting 1984 photo of a green-eyed Afghan girl that appeared on a National Geographic cover. McCurry provided the images for Theroux's most recent book, "Deep South: Four Seasons on the Back Roads" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015).

We asked Theroux to write for Travel Weekly about how he prepares for a trip when he's writing a book. As you'll discover, his approach and goals are quite different from a typical client seeking advice from a travel adviser, but in his Travel Weekly essay and accompanying interview, you'll also discover that his approach could serve any travelers hoping to better understand and appreciate the places they visit


Because my trips involve months of travel, lots of uncertainty and I have only the vaguest notion of when I will be home again, my preparation is different from the traveler who is away a matter of weeks. My trips are a project: I go with the intention of bringing back the experience for a book. This is the opposite of a vacation, which is the pursuit of pleasure. I am not looking for trouble, but I nearly always expect some sort of hardship.

We have to assume, for the purposes of discussing how to plan a trip, that I have already decided where to go. The destination is the hardest choice, and I should add that "destination" has seldom been my objective in a trip.

Most of my travel can be filed under the heading "The journey, not the arrival, matters." Most of what I have written is the result of a lengthy itinerary: following a coastline, sailing down a river, connecting a series of railway lines, island hopping and in the case of my most recent travel book, "Deep South" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), heading down back roads into the hinterland. 

I leave home to go on a long journey, and because I always intend to return, my real destination is home. My guilty secret as a well-known traveler is that I love being home. But every so often a journey beckons.

I choose places I have dreamed about, read about, fantasized about. I don't think of myself as a scholar, but I have been deeply curious and inquisitive my whole life, and these qualities contribute to my choice of destination. I am also fascinated by the effects of time on places, and so my return journeys — to Africa, China, India, Southeast Asia — have given me sharp insights into the direction the world is headed: bigger cities, greater blight, booming populations, more migrants.

I have a general route in mind, and because I travel alone, in a generally improvisational way, I need to know as much as I can. But I must keep in mind that the purpose of the trip is enlightenment: I am setting out to discover new people in a new place — figures in a landscape — to hear their stories, to discover and describe their land.

Apart from kayaking in the Pacific for the "The Happy Isles of Oceania" (1992), all my travel has been overland, though I must credit British Airways and not a sailboat for getting me to the dazzling Maldives.

With a place in mind — the China of "Riding the Iron Rooster" (1988), the South America of "The Old Patagonian Express" (1979), the Britain of "The Kingdom by the Sea"(1983) — I first of all study detailed maps. I create a route for myself based on available trains or buses.

The hardest trip I've taken was the one from Cairo to Cape Town, which I recounted in "Dark Star Safari" (2002), because I was determined not to leave the ground. I was able to get myself through Egypt, but information was sketchy about the Sudan. Maps helped a little: I saw a railway line. There was no up-to-date information that I found in books. I talked to people who had visited the country, especially the outlying areas: aid workers, diplomats, visiting scholars. 

The greatest challenge for me is the border crossing. The airplane passenger, arriving at the modern international airport in the capital of most African or Asian countries, has little idea of the delay and misery of walking across the distant border of that country. A few hours from Addis Ababa to Nairobi by air: up to 10 days by road, but an enlightening 10 days.

I avoid other travel books as too subjective, and I look for the most practical guides: the Blue Guide, the Moon guides, the Lonely Planet guides. I am not seeking hotel information (there's always a place to stay if you're not fussy) but the condition of the roads, the frequency of buses or trains, the weather, possible dangers.

I read novels and short stories about places I intend to visit because often in fiction there is significant revelation about the mood, the atmosphere, the people. I am speaking about fiction by writers who live in the region. Movies aren't much help and sometimes make a place look much better or much worse than it really is. The movie "Casablanca" is not much help if you're going to Morocco, but the novels of Paul Bowles and Tahir Shah are excellent.

Language is always a crucial part of travel. I studied Mandarin before going to China and Spanish before setting off for South America; from my six years of teaching in Africa I can manage in Swahili and Chichewa, and I speak passable Italian. For the rest, I count on the kindness of strangers and bless my luck that English has become an international language.

Natchez, Miss., on the Mississippi River, thrived as a cotton and sugar port; the population has fallen by a third since its 1960 peak.
Natchez, Miss., on the Mississippi River, thrived as a cotton and sugar port; the population has fallen by a third since its 1960 peak. Photo Credit: Steve McCurry/©Steve McCurry

Obtaining a visa is sometimes a problem. It was with great difficulty, requiring the intervention of an American diplomat, that I got a visa to visit Sudan. The same was true for a visa to Turkmenistan, a country inhospitable to traveling writers; a former ambassador helped me. Ditto for Angola, where no tourists are welcome. And if you put down "Occupation: writer" on your visa application to India or China you might encounter a significant delay or a turn-down. For many years, I have described myself as "retired." I used to put down "teacher." Two harmless occupations, and in my case close to the truth.

Traveling might seem selfish and parasitical; after all, the well-off traveler is often a privileged voyeur in a poor country. But at its best, travel should be a corrective, a way of informing ourselves about what the world really is and where it is headed.

Years ago, I traveled happily in Syria, Afghanistan and Nigeria, and now they are nightmare places. Who knows, they might improve. Vietnam, which I saw as hellish in the war, is now a peaceful, prosperous and hospitable country. Germany is now unified. The Soviet Union tumbled apart into numerous countries. Albania is now open for business, and so is Cuba. All in my traveling lifetime. Amazing.

We live in the know-it-all, arrogant and impatient age of the Internet. Technology pretends to be friendly to the traveler, but I believe it is often a tease, and can be misleading to the person who wishes to make his or her own discoveries firsthand in the old, slow, laborious way. The best travel, like the best writing, is a slog and solitary, and it is at last an enlightenment, an inspiration and a joy.

Travel Weekly Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann spoke at length with Paul Theroux about traveling through the Deep South and other aspects of his life as a traveler and writer. Read the interview here.