Theroux on Why We Travel

Paul Theroux is not my favorite person, but I like his books. Theroux lives on the North Shore of Oahu, when he’s not traveling the world, and thrives as the brash, irreverent, articulate personality that gives his books a rebellious yet true quality.

On the long plane ride to relocate to Hawaii from the East Coast ten years ago, I read Hotel Honolulu – a great preview to the seedier side of Waikiki – with characters I later saw and avoided when I rode TheBus. In 2009, to celebrate Hawaii’s 50th anniversary of statehood, he wrote an essay for the New York Times on Hawaii’s idiosyncracies of island culture (Happily a State, Forever an Island) that I had also learned by then to tolerate.

Theroux often writes travel essays, so his recent article in the New York Times travel section – Why We Travel – seemed to be from an appropriate source.  His advice?  Don’t stay home; don’t be afraid to vacation in tyrannical countries or places in conflict. Go for the experiences – “shocking though they may seem at the time…the experience of being a bystander to sudden political or social change can be alarming {but also} an enrichment…one of the life-altering trophies of the road.

He draws the line: “I wouldn’t go to present-day Somalia or Afghanistan…nor Pakistan,” but “only the other day the Libyan tourist board was encouraging visitors with promises of Roman ruins,” and not all of Japan is in disaster. My guess is that he wrote the article before the no-fly zone air strikes and the radioactive meltdowns – but maybe not.

Theroux goes for the adventure, for the location that is not only “out of fashion” but also places the traveler may “dare to try.”  The article seems to be a preview for his new book, The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments From Lives on the Road, due out in May.

I look forward to vicariously traveling with him to all those dangerous yet “enlightening” places through reading, but I’m not sure I’m ready to actually go yet.


Springtime in Hawaii – everything looks about the same – but the locals are gearing up for the annual hula competition, the Merrie Monarch Festival on the Big Island – home of the volcano.

Hula schools, known as halau, dance against each other,  getting points for expression, gestures, and costumes – no hapa haole (English) songs allowed.  It’s a big deal – both men and women compete – and it’s not the tourist variety dancing you see on commercials.

Lots of books on, about, for Hawaii…   Michener wrote the epic saga that every tourist should read on the plane ride over, but Paul Theroux, who now lives on Oahu’s North Shore, offers an irreverent view of visitors and locals in his Hotel Honolulu.  Framed like a Canterbury Tales, this reads more like bawdy and shocking tales of the Decameron. The observed characters could be anywhere, but Buddy, the hotel manager, is typical of those looking to reclaim a life by moving to the islands.

Want more tame and historical? Molokai by Alan Brennert has a woman exiled to Kalaupapa when she is diagnosed with Hanson’s disease – set in the 1890s, before the cure – a tear-jerker.    Brennert’s latest – Honolulu – promises more historical fiction – a good perspective on Hawaii before it became the Aloha State.   Jin, a Korean “picture-bride” comes looking for a new life and finds herself in a not so romantic arranged marriage.

A hui hou…