We travel for pleasure, for a door-slamming sense of “I’m outta here,” for a change of air, for edification, for the big vulgar boast of being distant, for the possibility of being transformed, for the voyeuristic romance of gawping at the exotic; and sometimes we travel because we have been banished. I was banished once, and it fortified me.
In the stifling, non-air-conditioned lecture halls of 1960s Singapore, where I was an underpaid university lecturer, one of the texts I taught was Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus.” This play kept me upbeat and provided a bracing antidote to the sneering presumptions (“Get a haircut,” “Stop smoking ganja,” “You’re a hippie”) that prevailed in the tiny xenophobic (as it was then) island.
The Roman general, Coriolanus, is bold but unappreciated, an elitist you might say, a patrician who speaks his mind so robustly he is banished from Rome. Far from being fazed, he denounces the mob saying, “ … thus I turn my back:/There is a world elsewhere.”
That became my watchword in the tiny city-state that disapproved of me. Had I a coat of arms and an escutcheon, one of my heraldic elements would be that motto. After my three-year contract wasn’t renewed I left, and kept going.
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“You’ve been everywhere,” people say to me, but that’s a laugh. My wish list of places is not only long but, in many cases, blindingly obvious. Yes, I have been to Patagonia and Congo and Sikkim, but I haven’t been to the most scenic American states, never to Alaska, Montana, Idaho or the Dakotas, and I’ve had only the merest glimpse of Kansas and Iowa. I want to see them, not flying in but traveling slowly on the ground, keeping to back roads, and defying the general rule of “Never eat at a place called Mom’s, never play cards with a man called Doc … “
Nothing to me has more excitement in it than the experience of rising early in the morning in my own house and getting into my car and driving away on a long, meandering trip through North America. Not much on earth can beat it in travel for a sense of freedom — no pat-down, no passport, no airport muddle, just revving an engine and then “Eat my dust.” The long, improvisational road trip by car is quintessentially American. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald took just such a trip in a 1918 Marmon roadster, from Connecticut to Alabama in 1920, three months after their marriage. Scott wrote a jaunty account of it, “The Cruise of the Rolling Junk,” recently republished as a short book.
Last fall, with time on my hands, I set off from home and made a great 4,300-mile sweep in my own car on the back roads of the Deep South: all of it new to me. This was a road trip of discovery so enlightening and so pleasurable, so full of happy and dramatic encounters, that I intend to repeat it as soon as I can, but widening my itinerary, delving deeper. (By the way, my gas and oil bill for those miles was around $1,000.)
My Deep South road trip is just part of my wish list. Places I have not been, that I would love to go to in my car include a trip north, starting in Cape Cod and taking in Quebec, and continuing until I run out of road, then turning west, seeing the rest of Canada, land of my fathers. I have seen only a small bit of it, but the rest of it beckons, the very names: Great Slave Lake, Yellowknife, Moose Jaw, down through Alaska — months of it, maybe a year, and why not?
I think of that as the Cold World, the elsewhere I have generally avoided. But I am a cross-country skier and kayaker, and am eager one day to paddle or ski in Greenland and Iceland. I have never seen either place, nor have I touched down in any part of Scandinavia. I imagine skiing in Lapland (with the possibility of seeing the northern lights), listening to the preposterous and euphonious language that is Finnish, journeying through Sweden, and poaching myself in a sauna. Scandinavia has always seemed so easy to get to that I have saved it in my mind, while concentrating on the less accessible — and rather trying places — like Turkmenistan and Assam and Angola.
There is also in my mind the joyful notion of studying something useful in a far-off place; a transformational residence somewhere distant, and pleasant, to learn a skill, or feed my mind, is a travel idea that animates me. I would love to take a cooking course in Italy, or a six-week Spanish-language-improvement holiday in Mexico or the Dominican Republic, or go on a yoga retreat in an ashram in India: a trip to learn to do one thing well.
I have never been to Bhutan, and would love to go, for its architecture and its ancient pieties, and to verify its Gross National Happiness Index. I have friends in the Seychelles I’ve never visited, and would like to see. Apart from the writings of Paul Bowles and Tahir Shah, and the tagine I’ve had in restaurants, I don’t know much about Morocco. I would be an absolute beginner in Yemen, Madagascar and Tasmania, which are on my list. In one travel fantasy I am riding a bike for weeks through a big, flattish country — Australia, perhaps, or South China. In another dream I am on a Ski-Doo in Antarctica, a place I have read about since childhood and never visited.
The ultimate travel fantasies are, of course, unattainable. William Burroughs said in the 1950s, “What I want for dinner is a bass fished in Lake Huron in 1920.” In that spirit, I’d like to spend a Sunday in the West Medford of 1951, play bocce with my grandfather and eat some of my grandmother Angelina’s tortellini; I want to revisit the jolly bazaars of the Peshawar of 1973, the hopeful Nyasaland of 1964, the bike-riding China of 1980 (no private cars on the empty roads), and while I’m at it, I would like to return to the Borneo of the 1960s and again climb Mount Kinabalu.
More than 20 years ago I traveled through the western Pacific, a folding kayak in my luggage, for the trip I recounted in “The Happy Isles of Oceania.” But a map of the Pacific is like a night sky of islands. There are close to 1,000 islands in the Solomons; I paddled around six. I would like to see others, and especially to know how the Internet has affected them.
This wish list is not exhaustive. I have not mentioned the parts of Italy I’ve only heard about, the remote parts of Turkey that beckon, the Galapagos, which I’ve never been closer to than pages in Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle.” I am a native New Englander and have never been to Aroostook County, Maine’s largest county, or climbed Katahdin or seen Niagara Falls. And more, many more places. I glance over this list and think: Man, I haven’t been anywhere.
Paul Theroux has written numerous travel books, including “The Great Railway Bazaar,” and novels.