Long after I took the trip I wrote about in The Great Railway Bazaar I went on thinking how I'd gone overland, changing trains across Asia, improvising my trip, rubbing against the world. And reflecting on what I'd seen — the way the unrevisited past is always looping in your dreams. Memory is a ghost train too. Ages later, you still ponder the beautiful face you once glimpsed in a distant country. Or the sight of a noble tree, or a country road, or a happy table in a café, or some angry boys armed with rusty spears shrieking, "Run you life, dim-dim!" — or the sound of a train at night, sounding that precise musical note of train whistles, a diminished third, into the darkness, as you lie in the train, moving through the world as travelers do, "inside the whale."
Thirty-three years went by. I was then twice as old as the person who had ridden those trains, most of them pulled by steam locomotives, boiling across the hinterland of Turkey and India. I loved the symmetry in the time difference. Time passing had become something serious to me, embodied in the process of my growing old. As a young man I regarded the earth as a fixed and trustworthy thing that would see me into my old age; but older, I began to understand transformation as a natural law, something emotional in an undependable world that was visibly spoiled. It is only with age that you acquire the gift to evaluate decay, the epiphany of Wordsworth, the wisdom of wabi-sabi: nothing is perfect, nothing is complete, nothing lasts.
"Without change there can be no nostalgia," a friend once said to me, and I realized that what I began to witness was not just change and decay, but imminent extinction. Had my long-ago itinerary changed as much as me? I had the idea of taking the same trip again, traveling in my own footsteps — a serious enterprise, but the sort of trip that younger, opportunistic punks often take to make a book and get famous. (The list is very long and includes travelers' books in the footsteps of Graham Greene, George Orwell, Robert Louis Stevenson, Leonard Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Mister Kurtz, H. M. Stanley, Leopold Bloom, Saint Paul, Basho, Jesus, and Buddha.)
The best of travel seems to exist outside of time, as though the years of travel are not deducted from your life. Travel also holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home. In a distant place no one knows you — nearly always a plus. And you can pretend, in travel, to be different from the person you are, unattached, enigmatic, younger, richer or poorer, anyone you choose to be, the rebirth that many travelers experience if they go far enough.
The decision to return to any early scene in your life is dangerous but irresistible, not as a search for lost time but for the grotesquerie of what happened since. In most cases it is like meeting an old lover years later and hardly recognizing the object of desire in this funny-looking and bruised old fruit. We all live with fantasies of transformation. Live long enough and you see them enacted — the young made old, the road improved, houses where there were once fields; and their opposites, a good school turned into a ruin, a river poisoned, a pond shrunk and filled with trash, and dismal reports: "He's dead," "She's huge," "She committed suicide," "He's now prime minister," "He's in jail," "You can't go there anymore."
A great satisfaction in growing old — one of many — is assuming the role of a witness to the wobbling of the world and seeing irreversible changes. The downside, besides the tedium of listening to the delusions of the young, is hearing the same hackneyed opinions over and over, not just those of callow youth but, much worse and seemingly criminal, the opinions of even callower people who ought to know better, all the lies about war and fear and progress and the enemy — the world as a wheel of repetition. They — I should say "we" — are bored by things we've heard a million times before, books we've dismissed, the discoveries that are not new, the proposed solutions that will solve nothing. "I can tell that I am growing old," says the narrator in Borges's story "The Congress." "One unmistakable sign is the fact that I find novelty neither interesting nor surprising, perhaps because I see nothing essentially new in it — it's little more than timid variations on what's already been."
Older people are perceived as cynics and misanthropes — but no, they are simply people who have at last heard the still, sad music of humanity played by an inferior rock band howling for fame. Going back and retracing my footsteps — a glib, debunking effort for a shallower, younger, impressionable writer — would be for me a way of seeing who I was, where I went, and what subsequently happened to the places I had seen.
Since I will never write the autobiography I once envisioned — volume one, Who I Was; volume two, I Told You So — writing about travel has become a way of making sense of my life, the nearest I will come to autobiography — as the novel is, the short story, and the essay. As Pedro Almodóvar once remarked, "Anything that is not autobiography is plagiarism."
The thing to avoid while in my own footsteps would be the tedious reminiscences of better days, the twittering of the nostalgia bore, whose message is usually I was there and you weren't. "I remember when you could get four of those for a dollar." "There was a big tree in a field where that building is now." "In my day . . ."
Oh, shut up!
Excerpted from Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux, copyright @ 2008. Reprinted with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.