Paul Theroux

The Author of such classic works as The Great Railway Bazaar and The Mosquito Coast,
Paul Theroux is arguably the world’s greatest living travel writer. Here he describes the seven most
momentous expeditions of a lifetime defined by journeys

Illustration: Jacob Pérez Enciso

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1. Camping in the woods, 1952

My very first adventure was as a Boy Scout, when I was about 11. You had to be able to cook on a fire, shoot a gun and camp. I grew up in a suburb just outside Boston, so my father drove us to the woods and dropped us off at the campsite, where we set up our three little one-man tents and spent a couple of days. This was the first time I’d been away without an adult. With my own tent. My own sleeping bag. Cooking my own food. It was fun, but the best thing was being self-sufficient.


2. Skiing in New Hampshire, 1957

I grew up in New England, where winters were very snowy, but it was only when I was about 16 or 17 that I learnt to ski. This school trip made a profound impression because it was the first time I’d ever needed specific equipment – jacket, gloves, boots – and I learnt a new skill away from home. It informed the way I travel.


3. Discovering Italy, 1963

Straight after university, a friend and I hitchhiked from Rome across Italy, living like vagabonds. It was my first experience of life outside America, and it smelt different and it looked different. Italy then was very sober – the men wore brown suits and hats, and the women black dresses. I didn’t know what I was looking for; I was open. I thought, “Maybe I’ll fall in love.” I didn’t, but I did find a vocation: to teach.


4. The Peace Corps, 1963

This trip, to Nyasaland, which became Malawi, was the one that changed my life. I taught there for two years and then four in Uganda, and I was very happy. I lived in huts, among African people, in the way they lived. I had a connection and made real friends. Because it was a great time of social change, I learnt a lot about Africa, which is what keeps me going back.


5. Exploring the East, 1968

This wasn’t a trip in the ordinary sense; it wasn’t a journey there and back. I got a job for three years as a lecturer in Singapore. Because it was hot, stifling and noisy, I wanted to leave. So I did – a lot. I would take a train to Bangkok. A ship to Borneo. I went to Burma, to Thailand, to Indonesia and walked the old streets, and ate at the old markets that Joseph Conrad wrote about. By then I had written novels, but never a travel book. Once I’d traveled, though, I had material. I had stories to tell. So Singapore, in a sense, prepared me for a life as a travel writer.


6. Taking the train from London to Tokyo, 1973

I knew I wanted to write a travel book. I realized I could go from London to Paris, then Istanbul, and then through Turkey overland to Afghanistan and hook up with trains to India and the East. In parts it was dangerous. In Vietnam there was still fighting, and trains were being blown up. But I felt that if I was going to be a travel writer, it was these sorts of experiences I should be writing about. I was young – 31 or 32. I probably wouldn’t do that now.


7. From Cairo to the Cape, 2001

This was the longest overland trip I have ever undertaken. It was testing and very dangerous, but I produced one of my favorite books. I went to places I had never been – the pyramids in Sudan and the wild lands between Ethiopia and Nairobi. We camped when we got stuck and had to sleep under a lorry. Actually, I haven’t rough-camped much since my first trip as a child.


Paul Theroux’s book, The Last Train to Zona Verde, is published by Hamish