The celebrated travel author Paul Theroux talks to Nomad about bandits, boys with guns and overrated luxury hotels.
First, or early, impressions of Kenya?
On my way to Nyasaland (as it was known), I landed at Nairobi Airport (as it was known) in late December, 1963, and stayed at the New Stanley Hotel. Nairobi was a small, tidy town, like a market town in England, easily walkable and very pretty. I had a curry at the Three Bells Indian restaurant and spent some time at the small library, which was a bungalow in a little park, staffed by two English wazungu ladies. They told me they had seen Jomo Kenyatta on TV the night before, wishing everyone a Merry Christmas, “and he seemed a little tipsy.”The long bar at the hotel was filled with white hunters, and the streets had very little motor traffic – most people [were] on bicycles. I was surprised by the cool weather – I had expected heat – and I was greatly encouraged by the mingling of whites and Africans, because I had just come from the USA where activists in the Civil Rights movement were being beaten and killed. I felt hopeful and happy. I was 22 years old. Joseph Conrad said, “I was a mere animal before I went to Africa.”
If you could pick out one travel anecdote from your time in East Africa, which would it be?
I was on a lorry, travelling south from Moyale towards Marsabit. Clinging to the top of the lorry, that is, because the lorry was carrying cattle to the market in Nairobi. At one point at a narrow place in the desert road, lined by large boulders, a shifta [bandit] stepped into the road and began firing. I crouched, as the lorry sped up, leaving the shifta in the dust. and I must have seemed terrified, because the man beside me steadied me. “Hapana taka kufa,” I said. The man said, “Bwana. That man doesn’t want your life. He wants your shoes.”
What do you never travel without?
A book to read.
There is only one factor that determines the hairy-ness of a trip and that is an encounter with a young person aiming a gun at you. One memorable night in Malawi at a roadblock – a boy, with a very old rifle, his hand on the trigger, the muzzle pointed at my face. He did not want my shoes. He wanted to intimidate me – and he succeeded.
Favourite hotel in the world, and why?
The Marshall Motel, in Marshall (pop. 1300), Arkansas. I was driving down Rte 65 on a rainy night and had no idea where I would stay. I was tired and hungry. I saw the sign “Marshall Motel” and pulled in. I asked the clerk, a Chinese woman, if she had a room. She said, “Yes – forty dollars.” And I said I was hungry. She said, “I’m the cook, too. I just made some gumbo (okra stew).” You could not ask for more. In my experience, all luxury hotels – I have stayed at many – are overpriced and overrated.
Favourite view in the world?
Going north, along the Great Rift Valley, the view from the road – the year would be 1966 – the enormous emptiness and beauty of the valley, for miles. Not a soul in sight, just some browsing animals. It looked to me like a world that had just been made, the dawn of the planet.