The Last Train to Zona Verde – Paul Theroux

If you want to be taken into the heart of darkness, to perhaps the vilest country on the face of the planet, then Paul Theroux is your man. Why, in doing so we’ll even find the modern day Mr Kurtz waiting.

The question has to be asked as to why, at age 70, would anyone want to travel alone to somewhere he knew full well was a foul and foetid country? It would be beyond my comprehension. Surely, after eight travel books (as well as a goodly number number of novels), all, to varying degrees, successful, you would be putting your feet up to enjoy a well earned retirement. Many of us have been armchair travellers with him on his adventures to parts of the world it is increasingly unlikely that we ourselves will now ever undertake a visit to. But Theroux is not the type to break out the carpet slippers and port, so instead he heads to one of Africa’s hell-holes. As he writes at the commencement of this book, it wasn’t because he – ‘…was seeking something. I was not seeking anything. I was hurrying away from my routine and my responsibilities and my general disgust with fatuous talk, money talk, money stories, the donkey laughter at dinner parties…Most of all I wanted to go back to Africa to pick up where I’d left off.’

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He’d done the other side of the continent for an earlier travelogue and pre-fame had actually survived a stint of teaching in Malawi. He has a certain fondness for the place – or at least for the place it once had been. Now it was time, he figured, to work his way up the other side – although, in the end, he knew when to call it quits and abort what he planned, due to Congolese unrest and extremist Muslin outrages. He’s not a complete fool. But before he did so, he saw the ‘lower depths’ of life in a godforsaken land that few visit of their own volition.

At least, though, he eased his way into it by visiting South Africa and Namibia first. Within his disembarkation country Cape Town was the stepping off point. He was interested to see what had happened to the squatter camps he had visited a decade or so back for another book – squatter camps these days being a blight around all cities in the RSA. He was pleasantly surprised that they seemed so much more liveable these days, a credit to the powers to be, outside aid and the resilience, as well as the ingenuity, of their people. It was only later he realised that, although the camps of his previous time in the Rainbow Nation were now quite reasonable, the problem had only extended outward. When he visited the fringes of cities he found a repetition of what had existed before as more and more South Africans gave up their hardscrabble rural existence for the promise of the big smoke. But, according to Theroux, for most, they had even less hope in these ramshackle, dirty urban eyesores. But, now, believe it or not, they have become part of the nation’s tourist industry – us Westerners are attracted to so called ‘poverty porn’. At least this provides a few souls with gainful employment, guiding bus loads of tourists to see how awfully the ‘other half’ exist. In a few isolated cases it has also had a beneficial effect via some guilt-ridden visitors sinking large sums of money into these places to improve conditions. Largely, though, once the gawkers are returned to their luxury accommodations, the squalor they’ve witnessed is quickly forgotten about as more hedonistic pleasures await. I wonder, this feasting on the misfortune of others, is it, well, ethical?

Crossing into Namibia, the author is at first impressed with the tidiness of some of the townships there, such as Windhoek and Swakopmund, with their Germanic origins and still a noteworthy ex-pat population. And although here the tourist dollar seemingly trickles down a tad, he soon encounters the same ghastly camps, as in RSA, on their outskirts.

At one stage he was delighted to be taken to a bushman’s camp and at last he felt he was seeing the real Africa – the way it used to be before the atrocities of colonisation. There were bare-breasted maidens and he was taken out in the scrub hunting and gathering. After he left he was, for the first time on the trip, relatively content with the state of affairs. Unfortunately his guides took him back to the encampment unannounced and to his dismay he found the previously unencumbered inhabitants to be dressed in western cast-offs, the lads with their caps on backwards, listening to rap emanating from hand held digital devices. What he had witnessed was a show for gullible tourists – like him.

But if this was disillusionment, it was nothing to what he felt coming to Angola. I’ll let PT take it from here for a while – ‘The look of Angola was not just the ugly little town and the slum of shacks, but also the ruin of a brutalised landscape, of the stumps of deforestation and the fields littered with burnt out tanks, of rivers and streams that seemed poisoned – black and toxic. And not the slightest glimpse of any animal but a cow or a cringing dog. In most parts of the southern African bush you at least saw small antelopes or gazelles tittuping in the distance on slender legs. The impala was everywhere, and it was almost impossible to imagine a stretch of savanna without the movement of such creatures. And, wherever there were villages, there were always scavengers, hyenas or intrusive baboons.
But no wild animals existed in the whole of Angola. One effect of the decades long civil war here has been that the animals that had not been eaten by starving people had been blown up by old land mines. The extermination of wild game had been complete. Now and then cows in pastures were shredded by exploding mines, and so were children playing and people taking short cuts through fields.’

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And it just goes on and on, the listing of Angola’s woes. It doesn’t appear so, but this nation is one of the continent’s wealthiest, with bountiful deposits of oil, gold and precious gems. But nothing, absolutely nothing, trickles down. All income from these riches lines the pockets of the small ruling elite class which uses goon squads to stamp out any opposition to their avarice. José Eduardo dos Santos rules his country with an iron fist, having done so since 1979. Wikipedia states ‘Dos Santos has been accused of leading one of the most corrupt regimes in Africa by ignoring the economic and social needs of Angola and focusing his efforts on amassing wealth for his family and silencing his opposition, while, nearly 70% of the population lives on less than $2 a day.‘ As head of a craven, abominable regime, he is the modern day Mr Kurtz – fundamentally evil. It’s not pretty reading.

Theroux realises that, although the concentration of wealth may not be so starkly centred on the self-serving few further north, he reasons to travel on in his mission would be pointless – he’d only depressingly encounter more of the same, so he pulls up stumps and retreats home.

Between the writing and publication of this tome, three friends he made on this excursion ended up meeting their end. One, an Australian, was killed by a beloved elephant he worked with; another was murdered for his relative wealth and the last, a worldly and realistic Angolan, died on a dive. Sums it all up actually.

In the end, for PT, there were only glimmers of hope emerging from his journey into darkness, but hope nonetheless. The Rainbow Nation has made great advances, even if there’s a way to go. Namibia has a thriving tourism industry to build something worthwhile around. As for Angola, there is potential if someone can get in there and distribute the squillions it earns from its resources in a more equable manner, but, for the foreseeable future, it will remain a basket case.

Whist the reader cannot be unaffected by all this dire reality Theroux feeds us about the overall situation in this part of Africa, as, with all his books, it always remains interesting. The author is more curmudgeonly these days as one would expect, especially given his destination. His latest, ‘Deep South’, based around travelling the back roads of that part of his own nation, is his tenth travel book and awaits on my shelves. Maybe that one will be less doom and gloom.

There will come a time when his meanderings around the world will cease, given he’s now 75. Pity, he’s taken me on some great rides as I have reclined in my armchair or snuggled under the doona.

Author’s website = http://www.paultheroux.com/

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