Journalists pursued them. Goaded by their editors to feed a public hungering for proof of savagery on earth, reporters stood near starving Africans in their last shaking fuddle and intoned on the TV news for people gobbling snacks on their sofas and watching in horror. "And these people" tight close-up of a death rattle "these are the lucky ones." You always think, Who says so? Had something fundamental changed since I was there? I wanted to find out. My plan was to go from Cairo to Cape Town, top to bottom, and to see everything in between. Now African news was as awful as the rumors. The place was said to be desperate, unspeakable, violent, plague-ridden, starving, hopeless, dying on its feet. And these are the lucky ones. I thought, since I had plenty of time and nothing pressing, that I might connect the dots, crossing borders and seeing the hinterland rather than flitting from capital to capital, being greeted by unctuous tour guides. I had no desire to see game parks, though I supposed at some point I would. The word "safari," in Swahili, means "journey"; it has nothing to do with animals. Someone "on safari" is just away and unobtainable and out of touch. Out of touch in Africa was where I wanted to be. The wish to disappear sends many travelers away. If you are thoroughly sick of being kept waiting at home or at work, travel is perfect: let other people wait for a change. Travel is a sort of revenge for having been put on hold, having to leave messages on answering machines, not knowing your partys extension, being kept waiting all your working life the homebound writers irritants. Being kept waiting is the human condition. I thought, Let other people explain where I am. I imagined the dialogue:
"When will Paul be back?"
"We dont know."
"Where is he?"
"Were not sure."
"Can we get in touch with him?"
Travel in the African bush can also be a sort of revenge on cellular phones and fax machines, on telephones and the daily paper, on the creepier aspects of globalization that allow anyone who chooses to get his insinuating hands on you. I desired to be unobtainable. Kurtz, sick as he is, attempts to escape from Marlows riverboat, crawling on all fours like an animal, trying to flee into the jungle. I understood that.
I was going to Africa for the best reason in a spirit of discovery; and for the pettiest simply to disappear, to light out, with a suggestion of I dare you to try and find me.
Home had become a routine, and routines make time pass quickly. I was a sitting duck in my predictable routine: people knew when to call me; they knew when I would be at my desk. I was in such regular touch it was like having a job, a mode of life I hated. I was sick of being called up and importuned, asked for favors, hit up for money. You stick around too long and people begin to impose their own deadlines on you. "I need this by the twenty-fifth" or "Please read this by Friday" or "Try to finish this over the weekend" or "Lets have a conference call on Wednesday." Call me, fax me, e-mail me. You can get me anytime on my cell phone, heres the number.
Being available at any time in the totally accessible world seemed to me pure horror. It made me want to find a place that was not accessible at all: no phones, no fax machines, not even mail delivery, the wonderful old world of being out of touch. In other words, gone away.
All I had to do was remove myself. I loved not having to ask permission, and in fact in my domestic life things had begun to get a little predictable, too Mr. Paul at home every evening when Mrs. Paul came home from work. "I made spaghetti sauce . . . I seared some tuna . . . Im scrubbing some potatoes . . ."The writer in his apron, perspiring over his béchamel sauce, always within earshot of the telephone. You have to pick it up because it is ringing in your ear.
Copyright © 2003 by Paul Theroux. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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