Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Review: Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown

My last trip was to Cape Town, South Africa, and really wanted to take a book involving the region along. I wanted that little contextual boost that goes with reading about a new place while also exploring it. Alas, it never happened. I couldn't get my act together, nor would I have had time to read the book on the trip anyway.

Still, Africa was on my mind so I rented Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Capetown. As the title suggests, the book chronicle's Theroux's adventures as he makes his way through thousands of miles Africa. At 496 pages, this is the real deal.

In short, the book was fantastic. Theroux managed to get across the excitement, tedium, exhaustion, frustration and elation that goes with an epic traveling adventure. Anyone who can make a trip to, say, the Sudan seem an obvious tourist destination, is both an accomplished writer and traveler. And while he shows that many places that may seem dangerous were welcoming, he also ran into his share of scary situations. From packed and smelly buses, to the most luxurious trains, you get a glimpse of it all.

The book isn't all fun and games. Theroux does get a bit snarky at times. He has no patience for those who have gotten so dependent on others that they no longer even try for themselves, or for aid the workers and organizations who help perpetuate this condition. His case that too much charity can be a bad thing, I suppose, is a reasonable one to make. There's no quick fix for the poverty he encounters, and throwing money at the problem isn't helping. This is heavy stuff, and I'm thankful to Theroux for giving me a boots-on-the-ground view of the challenges in many of the countries he visits.

I've definitely been inspired by the book. But not to buy a ticket to Cairo to retrace Theroux's steps. No, he's done a great job of taking me on that trek, I don't need to go again. No, he's inspired me to head down to my local Grayhound station and to book a trip to a few states over, where I would jump on Amtrak for a couple days and then perhaps rent a bike for a few hundred miles of riding. And from there, who knows. Just pick a far off destination, a few relatively slow forms of transportation, and the adventure will take care of itself.

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