Imagine the following: you hop on a local train in Boston and, a few weeks later, hop off a train in Patagonia. It sounds like the trip of a lifetime, doesn’t it?
Well, it kinda is, except for the fact that it isn’t, technically, possible; not only is the Darien Gap still alive and well, but there are other spots where the train system is disconnected in the middle of the journey. That, of course, didn’t stop Paul Theroux from getting as close as possible in 1979.
Now, I don’t normally read travel books of any kind (though we do sometimes have travel writers here), but I’d read Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast in high school (it wasn’t assigned reading, but I used to sit in the back row and I had a locker just behind me. Another class was reading this, and I was bored in class, so I read it while my classmates were slowly discussing Shakespeare plays that I’d already finished reading), so I decided to give this one a shot. Plus, I got the book for free…
The Old Patagonian Express tells the story of an adventure which, even in the limited form that Theroux attempted, is no longer possible. The final legs of the train journey, within Argentina, no longer exist (they may, again, someday – the missing link has recently reopened for cargo trains… here’s hoping passenger service will resume someday).
It also tells the story from a point of view that is almost forty years old. Yes, I know that most Americans are still just as provincial in their outlook today as they were in 1979, but now the WAY they are provincial has swapped around. Today, an American traveler might be surprised that countries on the other side of their border are not as politically correct and don’t really care for American’s sensibilities…
But in 1979 it was very different. Theroux might have been a world traveler and an enlightened exponent of his age, but he still looks at the people in Latin America without romanticizing them, and generalizes about their habits and activities in a way that would cause shock and outrage if published today.
The net effect of this is… refreshing and likely more accurate. Much of what he says isn’t exactly gentle and “nice”, but it is supremely accurate. Someone using this as a field guide for Latin American countries might find that a lot has changed, but might still find a more realistic description of the people one will encounter along the way than if you look at a modern equivalent. Seems that modern authors will never let you know when a certain town in Costa Rica is populated almost exclusively by people who hate tourists and look to rob them whenever possible.
Now, the question is: is accuracy a sacrifice that it’s reasonable to make in the name of cultural sensitivity? When does political correctness cross the line from a necessary buffer to avoid prejudice to outright lying in order to soften a hard truth.
I don’t have the answer to that, but I recommend reading this book if you’re interested in the question. It will make you think, and possibly to question.
And besides, it tells about a fascinating adventure which, in itself is more than enough to justify the purchase price. Also, we like trains.
Definitely one to read if you can.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer whose most popular novel, Siege, is available here.