First Person


For his latest book, “The Last Train to Zona Verde,” Medford-bred author Paul Theroux returned to Africa but thought of home.

Paul Theroux.
Steve McCurry Studios
Paul Theroux.

I first went to Africa 50 years ago, in 1963, when I JOINED THE PEACE CORPS. I wrote Dark Star Safari[2003] about a trip I took over land from Cairo to Cape Town. I decided to resume the trip in Cape Town and GO NORTH , UP TOWARD WEST AFRICA. I’d gone all the way down the right-hand side of Africa, and I wanted to go up the left-hand side.              

People think of Africa as widely scattered villages, but it’s really not. Because of insecurity — from militias, warlords, tyrannical governments — PEOPLE FEEL SAFER IN CITIES. And I thought: This is not the Africa I knew, an Africa that’s entirely urbanized. I really don’t like traveling in cities. I haven’t given up on Africa . . . but the experience has changed.               

When I was traveling on the back roads of Africa, I kept hearing the same complaint that I’ve heard in DISADVANTAGED PARTS OF THE UNITED STATES: They don’t have jobs. I was thinking: Why am I in Namibia and Angola when I could be in Alabama and Mississippi? Or even, for that matter, northern Maine? You TRAVEL TO MAKE DISCOVERIES. I was thinking: I need to make discoveries at home.              


I tend to travel during the winter because I live for the summer — summer in New England is just a magical time. I PADDLE ON MY KAYAK FROM MARTHA’S VINEYARD to Cape Cod just because it’s enjoyable and a long paddle. When you’re in a kayak or a sailboat off the coast of Maine, you’re alone, and you’re in a place that’s alone, that’s challenging. I think nothing can beat it.  — As told to Rachel Deahl

Interview was edited and condensed.