Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The Last Train to Zona Verde by Paul Theroux

The Last Train to Zona Verde: My Ultimate African Safari, Paul Theroux.  New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.  e-book, 338 pps.

Paul Theroux travels from Capetown up through Namibia and Angola in this latest book.  I really like Theroux's writing because he ties history and literature into his travelogues.  The Last Train to Zona Verde also exemplifies the best of Paul Theroux-- a bit grouchy but amiable and clearly aging.  There are some intimations about age and the winding down that accompanies it.  I can only hope that he is wrong about this in his own case.  I want him [and Oliver Sacks and Cory Doctorow and Lawrence Lessig and Sir Terry Pratchett] to live on forever-- or at least several more decades.

Besides the gloominess of advancing age, there is the hopelessness of the urban sprawl.  The cities are not clean.  They are crime-ridden, hopeless, and poverty-stricken.  A few shantytowns have become respectable neighborhoods but that is the exception rather than the rule.  The small towns and cities are full of despair.  That much is clear from this account.

I knew in a general way that Angola was a bit torn up by wars.  I didn't realize to what extent until reading about Theroux's journey through it.  The government of Angola itself is rich.  Many of the citizens of Angola are poor.  There are schoolchildren in Angola who do not even have a pencil to write with.  Angola itself is rich with oil.  Angola is a case of the politicos getting rich off the backs of the common people.  

Zona Verde, green zone, is another word for the Bush.  Theroux gets to meet some San tribal people, hangs out with them, goes on a walk through the Bush with them, only to discover that he's been trolled.  The whole glimpse into traditional life of a tribal people thing is staged for tourists.  After discovering his folly, Theroux bravely asks a question that I would not have thought to ask, "Who says they or other tribal people necessarily want to continue to live in hardship of the old ways?"  Having to walk several miles daily for water certainly is far less convenient than having running water available either in one's home or in a communal building.

Also in the Bush, Theroux meets up with a friend of a friend who has an elaborate safari camp for rich people.  Folks pay 4000 dollars or more a day to spend nights in little cabins overlooking a local watering hole.  They get to ride African elephants [something that the natives never ever do] and eat fancy foods [something else that the natives never ever do].  I think myself, I'd rather head upriver in a canoe or raft with a guide and camp out at night than spend time in the lap of luxury at that rich peoples' safari.  The safari is owned by an outsider.  The profits are not benefiting any local people.  The elephants themselves are problematic.  There is a reason why African elephants are not ridden around by the natives.

The train rides and bus rides, once they get underway, are descriptive and made me long to be on the road again.  There's something to be said for taking local transportation and mingling with the locals.  The border crossing that Theroux describes really sucked.  So does the food available to him after hiring out a car [with several other passengers] to get somewhere that there was no buses or trains.  In the end, Theroux decides that it is time to go home.  African Bush is beautiful if trecherous.  Urban sprawl in Angola-- a place of no trees and few animals-- is indistinguishable from city to city.

sapphoq reviews saysPaul Theroux's book The Last Train to Zona Verde is certainly worth a read by anyone who wants the real deal-- or as real a deal as a white privileged traveler can experience in foreign places-- about what traveling through parts of Africa is like.  If you are satisfied with standard template traveling fare, you really do owe it to yourself to read a real travel book such as the ones that Theroux writes.  Fans of Theroux of course will not be disappointed.  Absolutely highly recommended.    

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