Few things are more despised by the avid traveler than the tourist. The malarial mosquito is in the running, but is limited by habitat. The tourist has a far wider range, with the ability to change from obnoxious souvenir sweater to obnoxious souvenir t-shirt if the climate shifts. The history of travel literature is filled with writers trying to one up each other with colourful ways to describe, insult and complain about tourists. But where does all this animosity come from? Tourists are often idiotic and annoying, but are they any more annoying than some of the locals? And in all of these malicious descriptions, no one ever defines what it is exactly that separates the traveler from the tourist. Is it a state of mind? Duration of the trip? Common manners or fashion sense? Could it be that all of this anger and disdain stems from something more?
Tourists were a huge concern of mine when I first began travelling. Every morning, I biked to school with my black, navy-inspired uniform buttoned up to my throat, and entered the classroom looking as tired and apathetic as any of my Japanese classmates. I was living in a small town in Japan on a year-long youth exchange, studying or at least pretending to, and this should have been justification enough. Somehow, it wasn’t. A strange discomfort nagged at me. It manifested itself in an avoidance of popular destinations, and distaste for all other gaijin. It reached the point where—filled with all the usual teenage angst and self-loathing—I even began to dislike myself. I would stare into the mirror with disgust. After months of living among Japanese faces, my own seemed odd and repugnant. Like Dorian Gray staring at his warped and ugly portrait, I saw in that mirrored face how ridiculous my life had become. I began to question what I was doing in Japan. What was my purpose? What was I really achieving? Was I nothing more than a tourist?
This sort of existential question of travel is the main topic of Paul Theroux’s The Pillars of Hercules (Random House, 1995). The book is ostensibly about, as the subtitle makes clear, A Grand Tour of the Mediterranean—Theroux’s two-year journey travelling along the great sea’s circumference. He travels from one side of the Straight of Gibraltar to the other, taking the long way round, sticking to the coast and visiting all the countries and islands along the way—at least, as many as geopolitics would allow. But the Mediterranean is a place with so much history—a place of odysseys, poets, traders and invaders—that any book about it can’t simply be an account of one man’s journey. It must, as Theroux does, investigate the intersection of cultures, contemplate the act of travel itself, and even acknowledge that lowest of lowly creatures: the tourist.
Theroux begins Pillars with his contribution to the literary canon, an almost zoological examination of the tourist: “People here in Western Civilization say that tourists are no different from apes, but on the Rock of Gibraltar, one of the Pillars of Hercules, I saw both tourists and apes together, and I learned to tell them apart.”
The apes are tender towards their young, while the tourists scream at their disobedient children, threatening violence if they don’t behave and start enjoying themselves. The apes are quiet and thoughtful, the tourists loud and obnoxious. The tourists teased the apes, made faces at them, invaded their space for photo-ops, feeding and generally harassing the apes despite the numerous signs telling them not to. The apes show great patience and restraint when putting up with this abuse.
“Yet every year apes are shot and killed on the Rock of Gibraltar for biting tourists.”
”I have been driving a taxi for twelve years, and this is the first time I have ever taken a tourist to the main railway station,” the taxi driver told me.
“I’m not a tourist,” I said.
“Why you take the train?”
“So I can look out the window.”
What follows is a somewhat episodic tale, jumping from one scene to the next, with little in the way of narrative arc, besides the progression across the map. At points, Theroux jumps off this train or that ferry, stops long enough to make a sardonic remark about where he’s just arrived, and then moves on. Pillars also suffers greatly when Theroux takes a break halfway through the trip, returning home so as to miss the busy summer months and the mindless hoards of tourists that descend upon the Mediterranean and its beaches. It’s hard to blame him. But this trip home further breaks the flow of the journey and the story. Worse yet, he returns the following autumn for a luxury cruise, travelling among the tourist elite. He spends the trip teasing and mocking them, of course, drawing obscene caricatures of his fellow passengers. Meanwhile, he relishes his free trip and the decadent meals that come along with it. He makes up for this pleasure cruise by providing a counterpoint later on, in the form of a voyage on a battered old steamer, stuffed with vacationing middle-class Turks, and seeing the Levant, at least partially, through their eyes.
Episodic as it may be, many of these episodes, like the Turkish cruise, are wonderfully drawn. Theroux is highly skilled at sketching out the people he meets along the way, so that they remain memorable despite often being given little more than a paragraph. He is his usual moody, misanthropic self, but this lends the book a feeling of honesty. Upon arriving in Barcelona, for example, he enters a bookshop and discovers that they have a number of his books in translation. He admits that this causes him to instantly fall in love with the city and its people, knowing them to be truly wise and discerning. His reviews of other cities aren’t quite as glowing. Nice is “mainly older people, retirees, crooks, tax exiles—who else can afford it?—and meretricious businesses and dog walkers and stony beaches on the sluggish sea. Nothing is sadder than a resort out of season, no matter how good the food.” It’s safe to assume the bookstores in Nice weren’t well-stocked.
Another possible source of Theroux’s distaste for Nice is the artistic overcrowding. The South of France already belongs to Matisse and Renoir, Fitzgerald and Graham Greene. It seems that everywhere he goes along the Mediterranean, someone else has been there before, and laid claim to it, dictating how to look at the place, what to think of it. Theroux struggles against these preconceived notions in order to see the places for himself. Whether that’s in the Trieste of Italo Svevo and Joyce. Or in the Alexandria of Durrell and Cavafy.
No one has ever described the place where I have just arrived: this emotion makes me want to travel. It is one of the greatest reasons to go anywhere.
Theroux sets out from the beginning to avoid all the usual landmarks, which in the Mediterranean means ruins. He knows that the sea has been visited and written about innumerable times and wants to provide a unique view on the region, sets out to find that place “no one has ever described.” Despite this heroic declaration, Theroux spends most of his time visiting his own landmarks, many of them literary and many of them (like Durrell’s Alexandria) in ruin themselves. He travels to towns because they’ve been mentioned in epic poems, or have been immortalized by great writers. More often than not, he’s traveling to places because they’ve been described before.
One of these places is a tiny Italian village named Aliano—so insignificant that it’s said that even Jesus couldn’t be bothered to visit. It was here that Levi, a Florentine Jew and doctor, was banished in the 1930’s because of his antifascist views. He ended up writing a memoir about his time there, called Christ Stopped at Eboli. In describing the book, Theroux describes his intentions for his own work, “The book is unclassifiable in the best sense; it is travel, anthropology, philosophy; most of all, it is close and compassionate observation.”
Some of the best of this observation happens when Theroux breaks from his plan to stick to the coast in order to visit Naguib Mahfouz in Cairo. He finds the 80-year-old Nobel laureate recovering from a near death experience, after being attacked by a religious nut with a kitchen knife. A fatwa had been declared on him because of his book, Children of the Alley, which appeared to contain echoes of the Koran and the Bible. Despite the attack, and the loss of much of the use of his injured writing hand, Mahfouz remained playfully defiant:
“I feel no hatred,” he said, slowly, in English. “But—”
He was gasping, having a hard time getting the words out. Dr. Yahyah looked anxious, but Mahfouz waved him away.
“—it is very bad to try to kill someone for a book you haven’t read.”
He was sniggering again, and seeing me laugh, he kept on talking, gesturing with his wounded hand.
“If you read the book and don’t like it,” he managed to say, stopping and starting, “then, okay, maybe you have a reason to stab the author. Eh? Eh?”
The trip is disrupted by violence in other ways, with war and unrest making it impossible for Theroux to visit every destination along his planned route. The former Yugoslavia is devastated by war (although Theroux manages a brief visit to Croatia). Albania is brutally impoverished and held hostage by dictatorship. The first intifada is just beginning to ease into an unstable ceasefire. Libya is under UN sanctions. And Algeria has to be skipped as well, because of its own civil war. Theroux is forced to double back a number of times in order to reach safer ports. In the embattled places he does manage to visit, Theroux is insightful about the idiocies of war and the strange paranoia that infuses all aspects of life under oppressive regimes. As a whole, the book offers a great snapshot of the region in the early 90s—and more generally. For when was there not a violent dictator or armed conflict of some kind, somewhere along the shores of the Mediterranean?
The journey ends in Morocco, in Tangier, with Theroux paying a visit to the great composer, translator and author, Paul Bowles. Bowles is the quintessential anti-tourist, the long-term literary exile. He spent 52 of his 88 years in Morocco, because in Tangier, as he wrote in a letter to Henry Miller, “One can set one’s life metronome at the speed that seems convenient for living.” But Theroux finds Bowles’ metronome set at lentissimo. The windows are blacked out with heavy curtains, to the point that he doesn’t know if it’s night or day. The 80-year-old receives Theroux from his bed, where he is laid up after an injury, smoking away the pain with kif cigarettes.
In one of the most captivating sections of the book, Bowles talks to Theroux about all the people who passed through town, come and gone like so many tourists. The Beats visited twice, in ’57 and again in ’61. Ginsberg and Orlovsky, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. But Bowles kept his distance, as Theroux describes it, “These people were only passing through. But Bowles was a respectable exile—superficially at least.”
Superficially respectable, because there were, of course, the stories: Of his marriage with Jane Bowles, a serious novelist in her own right, and her frank lesbianism. And his open homosexuality. Then there was the alligator they kept as a pet. And the time a biographer stumbled upon Bowles being tossed up and down in the air by a muscular Arab man, like a baby being thrown in the air, while Bowles giggled madly.
In the end, Bowles asks his guest if they’ll meet again. Theroux tells him he’s leaving tomorrow. Bowles takes a deep haul of his kif cigarette and holding the smoke in his lungs, delivers a line that he must have been practicing for 52 years: “Everyone is always leaving tomorrow.”
These are the two extremes that are given as options to the traveler, the metaphorical pillars that Theroux travels between throughout the book: the tourist and the exile. Both are crude and strange creatures. The exile perhaps more so. Because when you reach that sort of extreme level of exile, as Bowles did, you become a part of your adopted city, you become just another sight, a spectacle, a monument. And—as Bowles mentions during Theroux’s visit—monuments get pissed on.
“One of the virtues of a good travel book is the chance to see a traveler’s mind, however childish, ticking away.”
I’m not sure whether it’s troubling or comforting that someone as well-travelled and prolific as Theroux would still be mulling over these questions; still be unsure where he stands in that wide spectrum between tourist and exile; still wondering to himself, along with Elizabeth Bishop, whether he wouldn’t have been wiser to have just stayed at home. What purpose is there in wandering around aimlessly from place to place? Theroux reflects upon this question throughout Pillars, saying that what he likes to witness most, beyond any festival or ceremony, is people going about their daily lives. The baker opening her shop, the farmer working his field, the businessman nervously walking to the meeting he’ll never make on time. These are the tourist’s true opposites, the people who are working and producing and living their lives at home, instead of blowing hard-earned savings on the collection of ersatz experience, or trying in vain to fit into a culture where they don’t truly belong.
So where does that leave Theroux? He retreats into that great excuse of all writers—the very excuse that might be the reason that most of us want to write in the first place: that he isn’t aimless, he is working. The trip is research. He frequently denies that he’s writing anything to the people who recognize him. Yet he also mentions that he’s happiest when squirrelled away somewhere—be it in train, car or ferry, hotel room or cafe—scribbling away in his notebooks. He writes himself into relevancy. The act of writing gives purpose to the trip. Without it, Theroux would be just another tourist. This then is not a book, per se. It is an alibi, an explanation, the defendant taking the stand in the hopes of wringing a little sympathy out of the jury. If it’s truly a jury of his peers—and travel writing is best appreciated by fellow travellers—then they’ll recognize a bit of themselves in the testimony. We’re all flawed creatures. There’s a little tourist in all of us.
Near the end of my Japanese exchange, I had my own opportunity to compare myself with an ape. I was soaking in the outdoor section of an onsen. The snow monkey, a Japanese macaque, climbed over the adobe wall, and began making its way over the artfully placed stones towards the hot spring. It froze when it noticed me, and stared at the silly towel-headed teenager, sitting naked in the water. There was something in its stare, as it eyed me to see what I might do, if I posed a threat. I was a bit nervous myself, having been dutifully warned not to feed the monkeys in the region, that they can bite. But I didn’t have any food, and that look in its eye wasn’t hunger. It seemed that he was looking at me with disdain, frustrated that this outlandish and unseemly intruder was ruining his evening routine. He looked at me the way one might look at a tourist. It was a look I recognized receiving before, and many times since. Somehow, it didn’t seem as insulting coming from a monkey.
Eventually, it came to a decision about me and began to creep toward the water’s edge, keeping me in sight at all times. Once there, it jumped in the water and back out again. Looking refreshed, fur steaming, it gave a little dog-like shake and then sat down to relax. It seemed to be enjoying, just as I was, the pin-prick feeling of hot water and cold air. We continued to consider one another, though now with less animosity. Its wet hair looked styled and rakish as it watched me with yakuza cool. I can’t remember which of us left first. Likely me, overheated and thirsty for beer, eager to tell my friends about the encounter. I probably startled it, getting up, splashing around, making an undignified ruckus, my feet slapping the wet stones as I paraded my white ass back indoors. Even so, I was honoured to have shared that brief moment with that monkey and happy to have the story to take home with me. True, I was little more than a tourist in its world. But writing that just now, it doesn’t feel quite as bad.
Chris Oke is a poet and journalist. One of the founders of Errant, he is currently en route to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.