I am reading Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express in short sittings between classes and over lunches. I found it in a used book several months ago, but my free time being what it is, I am still 75 pages from the end.
Theroux takes a series of trains from Boston to Argentina. While the sites and cities between Point A and Point B do not escape his scrutiny, the focus of the book is on train travel. From the relatively comfortable Mexican train and its cutlery smuggling staff to an antique locomotive in El Salvador, the essense of each journey is recorded such that you can imagine yourself travelling shoulder-to-shoulder with the locals.
As you might expect, Theroux has a dim view of airplanes – at least in relation to travel literature. I include the following quote partly to illustrate this point, but also so you can see how absorbing his writing is:
There is not much to say about most aeroplane journeys. Anything remarkable must be disastrous, so you define a good flight by negatives: you didn’t get hijacked, you didn’t crash, you didn’t throw up, you weren’t late, you weren’t nauseated by the food. So you are grateful. The gratitude brings such relief your mind goes blank, which is appropriate, for the aeroplane passenger is a time-traveller. He crawls into a carpeted tube that is reeking of disinfectant; he is strapped in to go home, or away. Time is truncated, or in any case warped: he leaves in one time-zone and emerges in another. And from the moment he steps into the tube and braces his knees on the seat in front, uncomfortably upright – from the moment he departs, his mind is focused on arrival. That is, if he has any sense at all. If he looked out of the window he would see nothing but the tundra of the cloud layer, and above is empty space. Time is brilliantly blinded: there is nothing to see. This is the reason so many people are apologetic about taking planes. They say, ‘What I’d really like to do is forget these plastic jumbos and get a three-masted schooner and just stand there on the poop deck with the wind in my hair.’
But apologies are not necessary. An aeroplane flight may not be travel in any accepted sense, but it certainly is magic. Anyone with the price of a ticket can conjure up the castled crag of Drachenfels or the Lake Isle of Innisfree by simply using the right escalator at, say, Logan Airport in Boston – but it must be said that there is probably more to animate the mind, more of travel, in that one ascent on the escalator, than in the whole plane journey put together. The rest, the foreign country, what constitutes the arrival, is the ramp of an evil-smelling airport. If the passenger conceives of this species of transfer as travel and offers the public his book, the first foreigner the reader meets is either a clothes-grubbing customs man or a moustached demon at the immigration desk. Although it has become the way of the world, we still ought to lament the fact that aeroplanes have made us insensitive to space; we are encumbered, like lovers in suits of armour.
Now that I have hopefully whetted your apetite for train travel, check out Mark Smith’s top train trips (and their affordable alternatives) over at The Guardian.