Friday, July 13, 2007

East Africa - Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari

Following is a review of Paul Theroux's latest travel book, which is now several years old. The review also appears on the web site of the Friends of Kenya.

Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux,Houghton Mifflin, NY 2003

Dark Star Safari – Overland from Cairo to Cape Town marked Theroux’s return to Africa in the year 2000 after thirty years absence. He strove to travel the length of the continent as a solo voyager using local transportation such as buses, trucks and trains. Using his other travel books as models, he closely observed those whom he met and commented trenchantly, candidly and cynically about them. The value of the book is that Theroux writes so well that his observations ring of truthfulness – whether or not they are accurate. The compilation of anecdotes forms a body of work that paints a realistic picture of contemporary Africa. Furthermore, because he revisits territory and situations known to RPCVs, we have the advantage of seeing again places and people we once encountered.

Since this column focuses on Kenya, I will confine myself to comments about the East Africa section of Theroux’s journey, i.e. Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. Theroux came down the great north road from Moyale on a cattle truck, an overlander truck and with a missionary. Because he was refused a ride, Theroux gave vent to his negative opinion of AID workers and their undertakings. “They were in general oafish self-dramatizing prigs, and often complete bastards.” Theroux, however, was an equal opportunity basher, noting the provinciality of Kenya’s northern residents who were apprehensive about troubles in Ethiopia, Theroux observed, “These ignorant inhabitants, traveling on a hideous road in an over-heated desert, in a neglected province of one of the most corrupt and distressed and crime-ridden countries in Africa, regarded sunny, threadbare, but dignified Ethiopia as a war zone.” As did the locals Theroux feared shifta bandits. He was told by a driver, however, “They do not want your life, bwana, they want your shoes.” Theroux reflected that indeed human life was cheap in Africa; shoes had more utility.

Seeing the slums outside Nairobi, Theroux said, “it was clear that the Kenya I had known was gone. I didn’t mind; perhaps the newness would make this trip all the more memorable.” Theroux did find a new Kenya, where inhabitants were savaged by Moi’s thugs, harassed on crowded crime ridden streets, governed by a self-serving ruling class, afflicted by HIV/AIDS and gripped by a sense of desperation that he encountered in all African cities. He noted that whenever a city grew bigger, “it got uglier, messier, more dangerous, an effect of bad planning, underfunding and graft.”

The author did not stay long in Nairobi but hurried on through Nakuru, Kericho and Kisumu. He was not impressed. He noted the lack of any modern development. He blamed ineffectual international assistance programs for being a complete waste of money, but also recognized that Africans themselves had botched most opportunities. He saw one “booming industry” upon leaving Kisumu – coffin makers – “a perfect image for a country that seemed terminally ill.”

Theroux returned to his personal past in Kampala where he had taught for several years at Makerere University. He found Uganda marginally better than Kenya; at least it was imbued with a sense of forward motion. In contacting old friends he discovered that the surroundings of the political debates had changed, but the underlying terms were the same. How to develop? Who should rule? How? What systems would work for Africa? Obviously there were no answers to these questions. While awaiting permission to board a lake ferry, Theroux wandered around the city he once knew and reflected on the changes wrought by thirty years in Uganda, in Ugandans, and in himself.

Finally aboard a rail-car carrier to Mwanza, Theroux entered into a Zen like state that would successfully carry him across the lake, on by rail to Dar and via the TanZam towards Malawi. Although he enjoyed the people, Theroux observed, “The dogmatic, motto-chanting Tanzanians had been humbled. No one talked of imperialism and neocolonialism now, nor of the evils of capitalism – though they could have, for even capitalism had failed in Tanzania.”

Errors: I always stumble upon geographical mix-ups. I am surprised that “fact checkers” don’t do a better job. Talking about volcanoes, Theroux said that “Mt. Lengai in Rwanda” was erupting. However, Mt. Lengai is dormant and in Tanzania. All the Rwandan volcanoes are dormant, but Mts. Nyiragongo and Nyamulagira in neighboring Congo remain active. Theroux noted that he had hoped to visit “Kabila” in western Uganda to see chimpanzees. There is no Kabila. I assume he meant Kabale Forest where chimps are easily seen. Similarly, he listed Lake Tanzania as one of the East African great lakes. Its name is Tanganyika.

Theroux ‘s journey began before East Africa and continued on afterwards. His take on other countries and people encountered are equally realistic, albeit amusing or infuriating. Theroux wanted to be in-the-mix, but not of it. He sought to retain a dispassionate perspective, but never hesitated to share scathing judgments. He was proud of his undertaking, but arrogant in judging that the sojourns, travels, observations and works of others were somehow less noble. Even so, a reader cannot help but like the guy. He went and did it and told it like he saw it.


Tuesday, July 10, 2007

USA - Drive to Alaska

Following is a piece that I did for the Washington Post travel section, but they have not used it yet.

The Trip: A fifteen thousand mile odyssey from Virginia to the land of the midnight sun – west across the prairies, north along the spine of the Rockies, up the Alcan Highway, north to Dawson, Yukon, “Top of the World” highway into Alaska, north to the Artic Circle, then almost every road in that vast state (there are not that many), back south on the ferry through the inside passage, zip across the lower 48 to home. Whew!

Who went? Me; Connie, my wife, and our 2003 Jeep.

When? July to mid-September.

Why? I had been there briefly in 1992 and knew that Alaska needed more time. There is just too much to see. Recently retired, we had the time and the vehicle; besides, we had not been on a really good road trip since driving around East Africa for two months in 1999.

How long? We did not rush. Twelve weeks.

Getting there was …three quarters of the adventure. Each day was new. The road rolled out before us. Mountains loomed, glaciers gushed, bears prowled, flowers bloomed in profusion, rivers roared, fish jumped. Most roads were well paved and, once past the Canadian mountain parks, traffic was light.

First Alaskan moment: Stopping in the rain and mud at the ramshackle log cabin café at Boundary replete with moose antlers and assorted junk stacked around the yard, but a warm welcome, hot coffee and cinnamon buns inside.

Best museums: A guided walking tour of historical buildings – the court house, customs house, old church, and the army post - in the town of Eagle (population 60) exposed a rich trove of sleds, vehicles, pelts and paraphernalia from the gold rush era 100 years ago. Eagle has few visitors so everything was hands on – touch, sit, feel. A second delight was the hammer collection in Haines that displays virtually thousands of hammers of all descriptions. I also recommend the state museum in Anchorage, the oil pipeline display in Valdez, sourdough cabins in Hope, and Native American artists at work in Sitka.

It was all worth it when…. after two days of camping in the cold rain and mist at Wonder Lake in Denali Park, I arose at 3:00 am and in the dawn’s early light discovered Mt. McKinley, the mother of mountains, towering above. She was out and crystal clear for two days, fading again into the clouds only when we departed.

Wildlife: We saw lots of bears – black, grizzly, brown – along the Alcan, and all around Alaska, but especially in Denali Park where we also had encounters with moose, wolves, caribou and ground squirrels. In the waters we saw tens of thousands of salmon spawning, otters floating, sea lions bellowing and whales breaching. Eagles, hawks, puffins and kittiwake gulls crowded the skies. Good binoculars were essential.

Scariest moments: We hiked for several hours daily – rain or shine. In Alaska we had lots of rain. I wore bear bells and when evidence, i.e. fresh scat, indicated ursine presence nearby, I clapped and sang out, “I can run fastest. Catch Connie!” Fortunately, this was effective; the only bear I met at close quarters completely ignored me.

Best golf: Yes, I carted my clubs along. The links type course at Haines cannot be bested anywhere in the world for its spectacular setting along the fiord surrounded by snow capped mountains and hanging glaciers. It was a decent nine hole layout as well, but the eagles all stayed in the trees.

Thrill: Flying in a small plane below the mountain peaks over the vast Davison glacier and looking up to spot mountain goats on the ledges.

Favorite meal: An hour long boat ride from Homer took us to Halibut Cove, an artists’ enclave, where we dined at The Saltry on scrumptious fresh seafood before a roaring fire on the covered outdoor deck. A good bottle of wine made it perfect!

Hostelries: We stayed at brand name motels, mom and pop’s, even a double wide motel, b&b’s, our tents, with friends, park and fishing lodges, and a cabin on the ferry. We especially liked two old hotels with the charm of an earlier epoch: the Van Gilder in Seward and Hotel Halsingland in Haines. Be warned, however, that all lodging in Alaska – no matter the quality – is about twice the price of “outside,” i.e. the lower 48.

Biggest disappointment: Not the bugs, the distance, the prices, my failure to catch a really big fish, but the weather. August/September 2006 was mostly chilly (day time highs in the fifties at best) and wet. However, long daylight was nice and the few sunny days were magnificent.

While we were there: Alaskans squabbled, then elected a newcomer woman governor over seasoned pros. They voted a cruise ship tax (that will be passed on to passengers.) They vociferously debated routing of a natural gas pipeline, whined about federal controls on federal land, rejoiced in the $1000 per capita payout from the state’s Permanent Fund, bemoaned the extension of the 81st Stryker Brigade in Iraq, and mourned the passing of Iditarod legend, Susan Butcher.