The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas

The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the AmericasThis book tells the story of Paul Theroux s journey from his home in Boston, Massachusetts to the foot of South America, in 1978 He travelled almost exclusively by train many different trains and took it him about two months to reach his final destination, at Esquel From the snow of North America, through the heat of Central and South America and finally the barren desert of Patagonia I found myself held spellbound throughout.Theroux clearly completed exhaustive research beforehand and had figured out a route that took him through Chicago and down to Laredo, Texas where he crossed the border into Mexico From there took he took in much of Central America though he skipped troubled Nicaragua before travelling through Columbia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and finally Argentina And though the route itself was pre planned, it s clear that in this pre internet age the ability to accurately access train timetables and therefore schedule travel with any degree of precision was extremely limited And anyway, trains often ran late or were halted en route sometimes for significant periods of time.He initially positioned himself as an inquisitive but mildly truculent traveller, but as the journey progressed he seemed to relax into the pace of it and provided, increasingly, glimpses of not only his humour but also his intelligence and his powers of observation In fact, though he clearly enjoyed the role of solitary traveller, he clearly went out of his way to talk to as many locals as he could along the way His accounts of some of these conversations were illuminating and very often hilarious It helped that he speaks Spanish thus, possibly, his chosen route avoiding Portuguese speaking Brazil and sometimes he d listen in to chatting locals who were unaware that he could understand their jibes directed at gringos in general and, sometimes, at him in person But most people he met were friendly and they very often went out of their way to be helpful I ve heard Theroux previously state that to be able to travel and truly see a country it is necessary to avoid the luxury of the rich tourist and also to take your time He successfully achieves both here and yet it s clear that the journey was, at times, tediously boring and that he stayed in some pretty poor and sometimes rat or cockroach infested accommodation But his accounts of the colourful characters he met and his meticulous and brilliantly crafted passages capturing his reflections on the places passed along the way and visited are not to be missed I found his time spent visiting the Panama Canal Zone an unincorporated territory of the US until shortly after the author s visit to be particularly engaging When he met the local mortician, who also happened to sing with in barber shop quartet, he observed in his voice a melodious croon, a singer s modulation and a morticians concerned coo.I listened to this book on audio, read superbly by Norman Dietz who was brilliantly able to mimic a range of accents that to me seemed to bring a degree of local colour to the conversations This was demonstrated best of all when Theroux met with author Jorge Louis Borges in Buenos Aires The section detailing these meetings was a true joy and had me laughing out loud constantly Pure magic I read and listen to books read by others in order to feed my mind and to be entertained This book achieved both aims Theroux is a brilliant travelling companion, a well read and deeply interesting man in his own right and a natural storyteller to boot What can anyone ask for I loved this book and I m certainly going to accompany this man on another of his journeys very soon. I suppose Paul Theroux s travel writing isn t for everyone If you don t like his traveling persona you aren t likely to enjoy his books That being said, I like his traveling persona, so every travel book is a pleasure and there are still books to be read But I decided to read The Old Patagonia Express because a friend reminded me that he travels to South America in this book South America is a place that I have had a recent interest in and this summer I made my first visit to the continent when I attended a conference in Peru I often travel alone like Theroux, for different reasons perhaps Theroux writes about travel being its best as a solitary experience in that you get to see, examine, assess alone, which is something that requires that you be unencumbered with a companion I m not sure that I completely agree but I feel that traveling alone does give you this perspective In my case few people have the time or inclination to travel the way I do, so I tend to visit friends in far flung places and combine work with leisure travel I would rather have companions, but I agree that you have better mediation while traveling alone with the time and peace to think clearly without the company of other people.I am also an avid reader and traveling gives you ample time to read, something, which Theroux always incorporates into his travel writing During this trip he takes a somewhat academic approach During the first leg he reads obscure novels from some of America s most famous authors The Wild Palms by Faulkner, Pudd nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allen Poe, and The Assassination Bureau, Ltd By Jack London Of these he has persuaded me to read the Twain and Poe works, the Poe novel he called the most horrifying novel he has ever read Some of his other light reading includes The Life of Samuel Johnson by Thomas Boswell he read this large tome twice on the journey and The Pledge Requiem for the Detective Novel by Friedrich Durrenmatt In the final chapter he visits Jorge Luis Borges and reads him Kipling, it seems that while he was traveling The New York Times book review ran an article by Theroux on Kipling so he was able to visit Borges who he shared a publisher with In fact, Theroux s whole section on Argentina was so complimentary that he inspired me to give up my plans for going to Brazil next year for a conference in favor of Argentina This books comes across as somewhat exotic since it was written in the late 70s when there were many dictators and eroding states in Central and South America The Peru and Panama he writes of no longer exist and are far different from what I encountered in visits to these two countries in the last two years Panama is thriving as they expand the canal, which was still in dispute when Theroux visited where he stayed among the American Zonians He had no affection for Torres the way that Graham Greene did, who was visiting Panama during the same time Peru was a backwater and had yet to endure the long terrorist counterterrorist war of the 90s It is now one of the leading economies in South America In addition, he does an excellent job of describing and characterizing those budget travelers who boast of the currency exchange rates and 5 a day budgets among the most tedious of travelers in my opinion, of which there is no shortage of in SE Asia While traveling through Costa Rica he talks of inspiration for a novel set there on the Mosquito Coast about a family of castaways based on the missionaries he sees while traveling in Central America This would, of course, becomes one of his great successes, the novel The Mosquito Coast which was subsequently made into a film starring Harrison Ford I really enjoyed this book and it gave me a lot of food for thought, inspired me to seek out some of those forgotten American classics as well as move Argentina up on my list of countries to visit. Theroux s non fiction books can scarcely be classified as travel books They are not tourist guides, not for those planning to travel to the countries Theroux visits The places he visits are not the places tourists visit He is there for the ride He is there to observe the people, just ordinary people What he delivers are his personal thoughts on what he sees and the people he meets Particularly this book, is about the act of traveling rather than the places visited We peek into Theroux s head I would say this book is as much or even about Theroux than the places visited No, that is wrong, you learn both about the author and about places You learn about the countries, the mentality of the people living there and the feel of the land He travels without credit cards, without a camera or a tape recorder He listens to people, ordinary people he meets along the way During the off hours along the route, he transcribes from his notes what these people have said and what he has seen He expresses himself wonderfully It is his ability to capture in words his impressions that makes the book special There is humor, often ironical in tone The people he meets, I think, have to make you chuckle but maybe not He expresses his views, many of which I share Maybe, if you do not share his views on literature, on art, on politics, on colonialism, on race, on gender issues then maybe the book is not going to say much to you as it did to me You may then see Theroux as simply a cranky, whiny American traveler If you agree with his views, you will smile and nod your head and marvel at his ability to capture in words landscapes and scenes and people s behavior and things you have yourself thought but lack the ability to express with his lucidity.On this journey he hops on the subway commuter train from his home in Massachusetts, along with all the others going off to work Theroux, he is off to Esquel, Patagonia, Argentina He will be traveling by train, pretty much all the way, that being the whole idea of the trip, to travel from northern North America to southern South America on one long continuous train trip Small sections are done by boat, bus and air, when the train was out of the question All advised him against such a crazy endeavor, but no one stole from him as everyone warned and in fact no real calamity ever befell him Sure, he got a cut on his hand, that would not stop bleeding, and altitude sickness, but this had to be expected given the mountains traversed, and there were endless hours of waiting and delays and food that the mere thought of makes you gag But he did it, the whole trip from north to south, and he made it in one piece That is quite an achievement The reward The memories of what he saw and the people he met He met people and saw places and ruminates about what it all means This is what he gives back to us Thank you, Theroux I appreciate your gift.He travels two to three months in the year 1978 He leaves the snow and cold up in the north, arriving in the dusty desert and plateau lands in Patagonia He travels on Amtrak through the US, continuing through Mexico, Central America Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica up and Panama , through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and finally into Argentina Down to Buenos Aires where he met up with Jorge Luis Borges The two could not stop talking day after day they had to meet again and talk and talk some But the trip had to be continued, so off Theroux goes, off further south to the endpoint destination, Esquel, Patagonia, the end of the rail We go to a soccer match in San Salvador We talk with a woman who has been duped she thinks she is in love with a guy who has TB and to whom she has given a large sum of money She also owns parts of slums The people, the people the strange people we meet Oh, Mr.Thornberry, he is seventy one, from New Hampshire His one word sentences and his ever observant eye catching the pipeline must make everyone laugh Theroux travels to places people do not go to, avoiding large cities as much as possible He gives lectures along the way He tells others he is a geography teacher, but Theroux is not just a geography teacher He knows books and he has seen so much of the world and he has taken the time to think about what he has seen and what he has read.Political events of the time are interwoven these being the things people he meets talk of Although Nicaragua is not traveled through, borders were closed, all spoke of the Civil War and the corruption, the atrocities taking place there The Treaty with Panama concerning its take over of the Canal Zone was in the process of being ratified History is covered the past and the present interlaced Bolivar is discussed Colombian drug wars Mountain passes are taken and the stoical, good tempered, noncomplaining people who live there are met We pass over a gorge, in a rickety train with loose doors and no windowpanes we look down at the birds flying below After the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire in the 16th century, Quechua, the ancient language of the Incas, is still spoken by the indigenous people Theroux talks to them, but in Spanish of course In Peru, train strikes threaten and occur, and government mismanagement is spoken of Between Argentina and Chile,the Beagle border conflict, a dispute over the possession of the Lennox, Picton and Nueva islands, brought the countries to the brink of war This too was in 1978.Theroux reads books He reads them constantly He almost always has a book in his hand He shares what he is reading with us He shares his thoughts, both positive and negative, on The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell on The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket by Edgar Allan Poe and the works of Rudyard Kipling and Jack London and Mark Twain, poetry too, for example by John Donne Both Borges and Theroux praise Thomas Hardy s poems over his novels When Jorge Luis Borges and Theroux get talking about books, it is a unique experience to listen in on What they say to each other is straightforward, blatant and honest The energy, the spark in their conversations is electric Borges is seventy nine years old and he is blind Theroux reads to him Borges recites complete verses from Kipling The audiobook narration by Norman Dietz is very, very good I settled on four stars but was even considering five He captures well the irony in the Theroux s humor He pauses right when he should The speed is perfect He renders different dialects well For example, when Theroux meets up with a priest from Belfast, you hear that is where he is from The Spanish speakers do sound a bit all the same this is why I have given the audio performance four rather than five stars.I highly recommend this book Deep South Four Seasons on Back Roads 4 stars The Old Patagonian Express By Train Through the Americas 4 stars Ghost Train to the Eastern Star 4 stars The Last Train to Zona Verde My Ultimate African Safari 4 starsNext, I will try a book of fiction by Theroux The Mosquito Coast seems appropriate Given what he knows about the people and places in Central America, I am curious to see the story he will draw and the words he will use to tell it. I am willing to change my mind Someone said that they liked the descriptions of this travel novel but would hate to have to go anywhere with this author I would prefer to hear about these places through the perspective of someone else Theroux is hard to read not due to the complexity of his prose, but because of his voice He is stuck up, self aggrandizing, and misanthropic What distinguishes Theroux from other misanthropes who may be worth reading is that he himself does not offer much to the reader with regards to intellect or insight His cultural critiques and personal critiques of the people he encounters in his travels are sophomoric at best Worse, he shows none of the humility expected of a travel writer protagonist His personality obstructs our view into the worlds he visits Every person or place he encounters serves as a platform for his personal self aggrandizement If there is any other author who has written about his or her railroad excursions through the Americas, I would much rather read them Until then I am afraid that I will not be able to finish this train trip to patagonia with Theroux as my guide. Yes, he is a curmudgeon but I still love his books.This one in particular fed into my wish to someday travel I was a poor student who thought travel was only for the rich I didn t realize you could do it cheaply if you don t mind a few discomforts It gave the information I needed to take journeys that expanded my world view.The book reads like a diary of his travel from Boston to Tierra del Fuego, most of the time by train Along the way he meets both ordinary famous people most of whom he dislikes At the beginning of his train trip he meets a self centered young woman who gives him a rundown of her dietary needs and sensitivities She is a the first of many people who will annoy and confound him He also manages to meet luminaries like Jorge Luis Borges Even Borges doesn t distract him from train schedules , breakdowns, people, and misunderstanding that he thinks exist only to thwart his enjoyment He hates everyone and everything but manages to describe it all in hilarious prose.I know many people dislike his grouchy persona they wonder why he even travels Give him a break he is like one of those old fashioned uncles at least in literature who fill your head with wonderful images of far away places while complaining about the most trivial problems You know he s finicky, so all you take in is the wonder of discovering new places.I will always love this book and Mr Theroux for leading me out of small, Midwestern town USA How else would I have found myself hitching a ride to Otoval market ECUADOR on top of a precarious truck carrying vegetables chickens Two Japanese sisters made the trip even fun as we screamed laughed all the way A trip of a lifetime on a shoe string budget Luckily I was young enough to ignore discomfort so that I could enjoy new vistas and people.I will always keep my worn copy of this book I give it 5 stars for inspiration, hilarity, and practical advice. My third Paul Theroux book Last year I first came across Theroux s non fiction work The Happy Isles of Oceania Paddling the Pacific 1992 which I thoroughly enjoyed Theroux was travelling through almost all of the Pacific nations and went paddling here and there Then I read his fiction work The Mosquito Coast 1981 Theroux s voice sounds radically different in fiction compared to his non fiction, which I think is a good thing Now I ve returned to another of his non fiction work, namely The Old Patagonian Express By Train Through the Americas 1979.As the name suggests, Theroux traveled from his home in Boston all the way down to Esquel, Patagonia Argentina It took him around 2 months At first, he traveled by train through the US, Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador This part of the journey went by smooth and he managed to cross the borders easily However, from El Salvador he had to take a plane to Costa Rica He skipped Nicaragua because a civil war was raging in the country and people advised him against travelling there which he later regretted And he didn t write about Honduras in this book, because he would later publish a fiction story along the Mosquito coast In Costa Rica and Panama, he could only travel on train within the country because the railways don t cross any borders.It is very difficult for me to find books set in Central America This is one of the main reason why I picked up Theroux s The Old Patagonian Express By Train Through the Americas Of course, I reminded myself that all of this was taking place in 1978 and that many things must have changed already But it was nice to get a feel of the region there Some people hate Theroux, feeling that he is cynical, arrogant and a pain in the a However, I think that Theroux is a very keen observant of the environment around him, he is informed about the places he visits and genuinely outraged by poverty and injustice In the Central American portion of the book, Theroux met a variety of interesting characters The American woman who got swindled by her Mexican lover in Veracruz asking Theroux for love advice The young Salvadorean businessmen who were playing hooky and taking Theroux to a crazy football game The 70 year old American tourist Mr Thornberry who just wanted to look at monkeys and parrots, but ended up becoming the unlikely hero for Theroux in Limon The Americans who worked in the Panama Canal Zone and were hesitant to leave after the handover in 1979 I was also surprised to learn that the Caribbean coast of Central America is interspersed with English speaking black populations e.g Jamaican railway workers in Costa Rica, Bajans working in Panama.The funny thing is that most of the railways in Central America do not exist any They have been replaced by buses and planes that travel much faster and are not that expensive any So Theroux unconsciously wrote a historical document too.In South America, it was difficult for Theroux to continue his journey on train He initially rode a train in Colombia, but approaching the Andes, the tracks derailed and he had to take the bus He didn t manage to cross over to Ecuador by railway In Ecuador, he exclusively traveled by plane because the trains were always fully booked He flew over to Peru, where he also ended up flying from Lima to Cuzco and only then boarded the train to Machu Picchu From Cuzco, he took a busride to Puno and then an overnight boatride across Lake Titicaca Finally in La Paz Bolivia did he manage to take the train across the border to Argentina, all the way to Buenos Aires Later he rode the Old Patagonian Express to Esquel Patagonia His meeting with Jorge Luis Borges in Buenos Aires was very heart warming I think that was my favorite part of the book Throughout the book, Theroux also shared what books he read along the trip, which I also enjoyed.All in all, I would recommend this book only to those who enjoy travel writings and who are really interested learning about Latin America 3.5 rounded up to 4The funny thing about being smug and egocentric and thinking about health and purity all the time, is that it can turn you into a fascist My diet, my bowels, my self it s the way right wring people talk The next thing you know you ll be raving about the purity of the race I do not consider myself to be an animal lover, but it is a long way from disliking them to maiming and torturing them And I came to see a resemblance between the condition of domestic animals and the condition of the people who mistreated them It was the same contempt, and the whipped dog and the woman carrying wood had the same fearful eyes And it was these beaten people who beat their animals Politics is a hideous subject, but I will say this people tell you that dictatorships are sometimes necessary to good order, and that this sort of highly centralized government is stable and dependable But this is seldom so It is nearly always bureaucratic and crooked, unstable, fickle and barbarous and it excites those same qualities in those it governs Central America was haywire as if they had evolved into motiveless tyrannies and become forcing houses of nationalism It was no wonder that, seeing them as degenerate states, tycoons like Vanderbilt and imperial minded companies like the United Fruit Company took them over and tried to run them It was easy to understand how the Indians hereabouts had come to believe that their lands were inhabited by monster lords.Not only did the mountains have a monstrous aspect, the animal shapes and clumsy claws of giants and demons, but they growled and rumbled and trembled and hollered, and shook down the flimsy huts of the Indians they burned the Indians alive and buried them in ashes and made their fish disappear and ate their children And these oddities of landscape were still a source of fear It was in Bogota, one grey afternoon that I read the following passage Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill policed and wretchedly governed a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization Gentlemen of education, he observed, were pretty much the same in all countries the condition of the lower orders, the poor especially, was the true mark of national discrimination The argument that five star hotels benefit a country by producing employment is a silly and even subversive one it turns nationals into waiters and scullery maids, and that is about all I hate not finishing books, but this might be one of those I cannot finish Or perhaps I ll finish it just to cement my bad opinion of it.I first read Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux and must add that this was several years ago I absolutely adored it at the time I thought I would like this one just as much, and have been dying to buy it for a long time now The author walks you through every place he travels, leaving you with a good sense of orientation and geography of the place he s travelled, at least that was the case with Dark Star Safari and so far it has been the case with this book too That s really nice no sarcasm intended But the rest of the book is not as enjoyable I ve rarely read a book by someone who is SO unbelievably arrogant and full of himself And he also quite clearly makes comparisons with himself and other people and blatantly points out just how much interesting and better he is Such as at the very beginning of the book, talking about how the train was full of people going to work and he was going on a much longer and interesting journey Well, I m so sorry Mr Theroux, that there are so many boring people out there who can t, in their middle ages, afford to just pack up all their things and leave behind their life and their responsibilities to go backpacking through the world, like an 18 year old high school graduate That s exactly how I see him.Well and also, he is probably one of those very people I hate talking to One of those people who dump themselves beside you on a train and try and strike up conversation with you, when all you want is some peace and quiet Then when they lure you into a conversation, they ask you all sorts of questions about yourself, who you are and where you re headed, then, because they have all the time in the world to waste and nothing better or productive to do, they start asking you about your opinions on philosophy and politics and religion and , all those sensitive topics my grandmother always says there are two things you cannot talk to people about and that s religion and politics, and she was a teacher too to just walk away without having any input of their own, to judge you and feel good about themselves That s not discussing That s just being judgmental and a bloody smartarse.Above all I get the feeling he thinks he s so much better than everyone else And also, I think for someone his age to be bumming around in seedy hotels and bars and meandering through countries is ratherperhaps immature Or is he just going through a midlife crises You d think someone his age would have a stable job, monthly payments and far productive things to do than to sit on disgusting old trains, torture himself with a dirty and ragged journey, and get into conversations with random strangers.Oh yes another word I thought of for him was opinionated And I hate people like that.Wonderful writing style, although very negative, almost depressing, but that can be good in itself sometimes, and also a fantastic range of vocabulary but my goodness is he an arrogant, stuck up and self important snob I would hate to meet him.I might just re read Dark Star Safari now, perhaps I ve matured enough now to notice that s not such a good book any either Oh but what do I know Acccording to Paul Theroux, it s practically impossible for me to know much or be interesting at my age But i could not blame her for that it is hard for anyone to be interesting at twenty page 19 when he first strikes up a conversation with Wendy.Well thanks, Paul, I m 22 But you know, I think you re just as boring as any odd backpacking teenager at best, because you seem to have no life of your own and no decent ideas to write up for a book either so you have to hop on crappy trains and take a grubby journey through South America and sit on trains all day and stare at every single person on it and take notes about them just so you can then publish a book about it Yeah, that s what I call a really interesting person. There are parts in this book which I find brilliant, funny, entertaining, and even deep A description of reading Lovecraft on a train full of people that probably thought the name referred to something naughty is quite good for example It s just a little too much of this book I think I might have liked it in shorter form because in the end it was starting to feel like challenge to finish Maybe it was just too long a trip for the book Or maybe I didn t feel like going all this way with Theroux He is a good writer though. Award Winning Travel Writer Paul Theroux Invites You AboardThe Old Patagonian Express By Train Through The Americas Packed With Powerful Descriptions And Portraits Of The Many Colours Of Humanity, The Old Patagonian Express Is An Unforgettable ReadA Witty Sharply Observed Journey Down The Length Of North And South AmericaBeginning His Journey In Boston, Where He Boarded The Subway Commuter Train, And Catching Trains Of All Kinds On The Way, Paul Theroux Tells Of His Voyage From Ice Bound Massachusetts And Illinois To The Arid Plateau Of Argentina S Most Southerly Tip Sweating And Shivering By Turns As The Temperature And Altitude Shoot Up And Down, Thrown In With The Appalling Mr Thornberry In Lim N And Reading Nightly To The Blind Writer, Borges, In Buenos Aires, Theroux Vividly Evokes The Contrasts Of A Journey To The End Of The LineAmerican Travel Writer Paul Theroux Is Known For The Rich Descriptions Of People And Places That Is Often Streaked With His Distinctive Sense Of Irony His Other Non Fiction Titles, Riding The Iron Rooster, The Happy Isles Of Oceania, Sunrise With Seamonsters, The Kingdom By The Sea, The Tao Of Travel, Ghost Train To The Eastern Star, The Great Railway Bazaar, Dark Star Safari, Fresh Air Fiend, Sir Vidia S Shadow, The Pillars Of Hercules, And His Novels And Collections Of Short Stories, Including The James Tait Black Memorial Prize Winner The Mosquito Coast Are Available From Penguin This is probably my second re read of Paul Theroux s travel classic of a railroad journey from Boston to as far south as he could go in the Americas By now, many of the trains he describes no longer exist so he has produced, at the very least, a valuable historical document The Old Patagonian Express By Train Through the Americas is an unusually snarky look at Latin America and its people, but then his views are typical of the period in which the book was written some forty years ago.Still, it is Theroux and Bruce Chatwin who led me to travel to South America His observations are always interesting, even when they do not entirely convince me.

Paul Edward Theroux is an American travel writer and novelist, whose best known work is The Great Railway Bazaar 1975 , a travelogue about a trip he made by train from Great Britain through Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, through South Asia, then South East Asia, up through East Asia, as far east as Japan, and then back across Russia to his point of origin Although perhaps best know

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  • Paperback
  • 432 pages
  • The Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas
  • Paul Theroux
  • English
  • 07 September 2019
  • 9780140249798

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