Problems with Paul

Paul Edward Theroux (born 10 April 1941) is an American travel writer and novelist, whose best known works are The Great Railway Bazaar and The Mosquito Coast.

I have never read his novels as travel writing has always held a greater fascination for me, but I have read and own most that he has written in the travel genre:

The Great Railway Bazaar, an account of his journey by train from London to Japan and back

The Old Patagonian Express, my first exposure to his writing, his travels by train from Boston to Patagonia

The Kingdom by the Sea, walking and train travelling around the United Kingdom

The Happy Isles of Oceania, kayaking in the South Pacific

Riding the Iron Rooster, train travelling in China

Dark Star Safari, by train from Cairo to Cape Twon

The Pillars of Hercules, travels around the Mediterranean

The Last Train to Zona Verde, overland from Cape Town to Angola

Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, a sequel to The Great Railway bazaar

…just to name his most famous works.

Generally I enjoy his train travel writing as it captures my imagination and lets me live vicariously through him as he sees faraway places with strange-sounding names through the windows of a train.

Having said this, I find myself constantly wondering where the line between travel as a novel and actual travel experiences is drawn for Mr. Theroux, for his experiences seem planets removed from my own with train travel.

In fairness, Mr. Theroux has travelled further and farther than I ever have, but he rarely seems to have the type of difficulties I encounter when I travel by train in North America, Asia or Europe.

Trains never seem to be late for Paul.

Ticket conductors are friendly and chatty with Paul.

Every passenger on board his trains seems open and forthcoming with Paul.

And somehow travelling across a landscape by high-speed rail makes Paul an instant expert on the places he visits.

He always seems to have just the perfect book with him as a travelling companion at just the perfect place and moment.

Here in Switzerland, my trains are invariably late, despite the false reputation of Swiss trains being so accurately punctual that you could use a stopwatch to observe them.

Here in Switzerland, a friendly chatty ticket conductor is a rare animal indeed, damn nearly extinct as a species as a matter of fact.

Here in Switzerland, as in England, South Korea and in English-speaking Canada, train passengers are not that conversational or open.

As for learning anything from a train window, I rarely see anyone aboard a Swiss train actually looking outside the window as their attention is drawn to some sort of electronic gizmo or on rarer occasion a book.

Now make no mistake.

I actually enjoy his travel writing.

I also feel sorry for him.

So many travel writers for whom solitary travel is a necessity seem to have difficulty in maintaining their marriages as a result of their solo wanderlust.

I remember in my own travels in the US, travelling about by thumb, I had the impulse to visit Spring Hill, Tennessee, where one of my travel writing heroes was said to live.

Peter Jenkins, sponsored by National Geographic, walked across the US from New England to New Orleans, where he met Barbara.

They married and then she walked with him from Louisiana to the West Coast.

They bought themselves a farm in Spring Hill and apparently lived happily ever after.

Not so.

Peter still heard the song of the highway and ended up travelling to China without her.

When I arrived in Spring Hill, I learned that the Jenkins, he and she, were divorced and lived on farm properties next to one another.

The Jenkins’ situation is sadly not unique amongst travel writers.

Paul Theroux divorced Anne in 1993, then married Sheila in 1995.

He still travels solo.

He still writes fulltime, a solitary occupation.

I thought of Paul this morning and his train travels when I remembered the unpleasant events of my own train journey home last night.

I had finished work in St. Gallen and wanted to go home.

The train schedule board announced that all trains to Schaffhausen, the end of the line for my train back home in Landschlacht, from St. Gallen were cancelled.

Apparently there was repair being done on the tunnel connecting St. Fiden with St. Gallen.

Signage indicated that an emergency bus service had been provided from St. Gallen Hauptbahnhof (Grand Central Station) to St. Fiden.

So, in accordance with the normal train schedule, I met the bus going to St. Fiden.

The driver took no notice and gave not a damn about whether the inconvenienced passengers made future connections or not.

The emergency bus simply sat behind the train station for half a hour while the driver chatted lazily with his fellow drivers assembled outside the bus.

The other passengers and I complained bitterly about the unnecessary delay, but the driver argued he was waiting for a fuller bus.

We arrived at St. Fiden where the train to Schaffhausen had already left.

To add insult to injury, ticket inspectors then wanted to charge passengers for travelling after 11 pm, which they wouldn’t have been doing had the bus driver left the station when the normal train would have left.

What passengers remained on the train were either young and drunk revellers, louder than fighting alley cats, or truly ticked off passengers like myself in a state of complete annoyance.

I was not home until after midnight, no thanks to the SBB (Swiss National Rail).

This sort of thing never seems to happen to Paul.

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