The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux

Neither an explorer nor a hitch-hiker; no rucksack, no compass. Just a tidy little suitcase and small gold-rimmed glasses covered with dust, an empty Pepsi bottle and a sandwich wrapper, sitting with Teutonic uprightness through the tumbling hinterland of Chiapas. His map was small, he had no other book, he did not drink beer. In a word, a skinflint.

Paul Theroux, author, traveller, grumpy old man. Even though he made this trip in 1978, when he wasn’t so old. It’s what I love about him, he judges fellow passengers with acerbic wit yet at the same time tempers his complaints about the grind of travel with the the enjoyment he gets from it’s many pleasures.

Another re-read to tide me over until some fresh words, the whole premise of The Old Patagonian Express was to track a train in his native Boston and to travel as far south as he could. There was no set itinerary, just a world train timetable and an ultimate destination of as far south as possible. Starting in a freezing Boston buried in snow, Theroux boards a commuter train and just keeps going. He passes through pretty much everywhere, never staying for more than a couple of days, unless waiting for a connection, this is Theroux travelling on his love of train journeys. The simple relaxing pleasures, even when stuck on a train in Mexico for hours on end, a simple beer stretched out on the empty benches of his car as the sun goes down makes up for the hours of interminable boredom, the realisation that at times the drudgery of the journey has taken his enjoyment of the scenery away, yet at others he finds it uplifting:

It is not often that one gets a view like this in a train and it was so beautiful that I could forget the heat and the dust, the broken seats, and was uplifted by the sight of the hills way down and the nearer hills of coffee and bamboo. For the next half-hour of this descent, it was an aerial railway diving across hills of purest green.

As usual he talks to as many people as he can, finding the Guatemalans taciturn yet the Salvadorean’s more open and friendly. The football match in San Salvador between El Salvador and Mexico is a highlight, as it descends into farce and violence. More often than not it seems the train is abhorred, the quicker, more comfortable bus a preferable alternative to all those that can afford it’s modernity. Unfortunately that doesn’t include Mr Thornberry, one of the more famous travelling companions Theroux has met. Despite his clear loathing of Thornberry, it is this old man that rescues Theroux when he has nowhere to sleep, even if it means turning in at nine pm.

There is a jump to South America, and indeed there are a few times when Theroux just appears in the next country seemingly without touching a rail. He settles into Quito and has to pull himself away from the parties and colonial churches as he treks through Peru and Bolivia down to Argentina. Another highlight is the time he spends with Borges, reading to the author and going to dinner with him before the final stretch of his journey to Esquel.

Despite it’s age, The Old Patagonian Express still reads well, Theroux is best when on the move and he writes this simple trip extended across a continent with wit and a keen eye, that leaves you wishing the line went just that bit further.

…it ought to be possible to make your way by road through Nicaragua, if only to judge how much reckless exaggeration there is in the commonly held view that Nicaragua is the worst eyesore in the world: the hottest, the poorest, the most savagely governed, with a murderous landscape and medieval laws and disgusting food. I had hoped to verify this. The inhospitable country, like the horrible train ride, has a way of bringing a heroic note to the traveller’s tale.

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