Monday, 3 February 2014

Paul Theroux's ten rules for travel writing


1. Leave your camera at home

Be in the moment. When you take photos you're not looking close enough.

2. Go far away

And go to places that people tell you not to go to.

3. Disconnect from your old world

Avoid the internet. And your family.

4. Don’t think you’re interesting

It’s other people who are interesting.

5. Never carry anything that needs a battery

They always need charging. And they're a distraction anyway.

6. Observe intently

Chances are, you won't be coming back.

7. Be friendly and receptive

Having an attitude when you travel won't get you anywhere.

8. Keep a small notebook handy

And make notes immediately. You'll be amazed by how quickly you'll forget things.

9. Dialogue is essential

Make your work full of human conversations. The best books are about human encounters

10. Make sure you capture the sounds, the smell, the feel of a place

That will be much more interesting than any museum you may visit.

Mr. Theroux also tells fibs. In Ghost Train to the Eastern Star where he retraces the journey he took thirty years earlier in 
The Great Railway Bazaar he tells us reveals that he re-arranged facts. He actually met an important character in The Great Railway Bazaar in a guest house, but pretended that he encountered him on the train "because I wanted to give my trip some drama". I wonder if all travel writers do that, and suspect they do. It is artistic licence but it would not do in a blog. Not in this one, anyway.

I agree with all these rules and keep almost all of them, especially Rule 2, though in future I shall stay closer to home (but home is in Bucharest which gives me an interesting leeway). I usually forget my camera or forget to take it out but I often forget to make notes in my book too. I do tend to dive into internet cafes to write up my thoughts and always get seduced by social media and gmail. 

It is important to travel to places where people warn you you will be killed. Hungarians in 1990 told me I would be killed if I went to Romania. One concerned man said 
'Paul, if you go to Romania you will die there' 
and I hope he is right. In 2002 Romanians told me i would be killed if I went to the Republic of Moldavia and in Moldavia they told me I would be killed if I went to Transnistria. In sleepy Tiraspol, the capital of that strange, self-styled country, unrecognised by the outside world though occupied by Russia, I felt very sorry for the Transnistrians. They had nowhere to beg others not to visit or of which to say, 
'You're crazy. You'll be killed.'
In fact I have two rules for countries. First that before they give you a visa the cultural attache must talk to you for half an hour and second that people should warn you 'You're crazy. You'll be killed.' I said all this very tactlessly to the Pakistani Cultural Attache in Bucharest, a very nice man, and he, slightly disconcertingly, replied 
Well, I didn't use those exact words when Ahmed said you wanted a visa but I did say why on earth does he want to go?
For my visit to Iraq click here.


  1. Nice article Paul. I'm glad to report that I followed all 10 of those rules when I did my big journey in 1986.87, from Scotland to Berlin, through Eastern Europe, India and China...a journey I am currently writing into book form

    1. Rupert, I envy you so much your experience. I remember reading Hungarian history in 1984 at university, seeing a picture of the chain bridge at Budapest in a book and envying those who could actually go to Eastern Europe when of course I could have found the money. I knew since childhood that the Communist Bloc was the only interesting place. At least I got to Eastern Europe in January 1990. I wish I had seen China in those days too,