“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 pinched 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 ruin, a river poisoned, a pond shrunk and filled with trash, and dismal reports: “He’s dead,” “He’s in jail,” “You can’t go there anymore.”

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, 20



“Sometimes, all you need is permission to feel. Sometimes, what causes the most pain is actually the attempt to resist feeling, or the shame that grows up like thorns around it. During my lowest period in New York, almost the only thing I found consoling was watching music videos on YouTube, curled on the sofa with my headphones on, listening again and again to the same voices finding the register for their distress. Antony and the Johnsons’ miraculous, grieving ‘Fistful of Love’, Billie Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, Justin Vivian Bond’s triumphant ‘In the End’, Arthur Russell singing ‘Love Comes Back’, with its lovely permissive refrain, being sad is not a crime.”

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, 138


Travel can induce such a distinct and nameless feeling of strangeness and disconnection in me that I feel insubstantial, like a puff of smoke, merely a ghost, a creepy revenant from the underworld, unobserved and watchful among real people, wandering, listening while remaining unseen. Being invisible—the usual condition of the older traveler—is much more useful than being obvious. You see more, you are not interrupted, you are ignored.

Ghosts have all the time in the world, another pleasure of long-distance aimlessness—traveling at half speed on slow trains and procrastinating. And this ghostliness, I was to find, was also an effect of the journey I had chosen, returning to places I had known many years ago. It is almost impossible to return to an early scene in your traveling life and not feel like a specter. And many places I saw were themselves sad and spectral, others big and hectic, while I was the haunting presence, the eavesdropping shadow on the ghost train.

Paul Theroux, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, 5-6


“That small family ceremony was the only time politics entered our house. When my father came home from work, and the table was laid with rice, soup, kimchi and pickles, which we ate with every meal, my mother waited for me to say: ‘Thank you, Respected Father Leader Kim Il-sung, for our food’ before we picked up our chopsticks. But over dinner my parents chatted only of personal matters, or family. There was usually plenty of innocuous family news from Hyesan to talk about. Serious topics were never discussed. I learned to avoid them in the way children acquire a sense for the dangers of the road. This was for my own protection, and we were no different from other families in that respect. Since there was no aspect of life, public or private, that fell outside the authority of the Party, almost every topic of conversation was potentially political, and potentially dangerous. My parent would not risk an incautious remark that might be repeated innocently by me, or misunderstood.”

Hyeonseo Lee – The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story, 157


“The atmosphere in the train was grim. This was the bottom of the social scale, mainly people going to the next village, a ten cent ride to sell a dollar’s worth of bananas. The children chattered; no one else did. The adults seemed incurious, even surly, and those whose eyes I caught watching me appeared guiltily suspicious and turned away. In conversation they were off-hand. They asked no questions at all; their replies were brief.

I had a political reverie on that train. It was this: the government held elections, encouraged people to vote and appeared to be democratic. The army appeared to be impartial, the newspapers disinterested. And it remained a peasant society, basically underfed and unfree. It must perplex any peasant to be told he is living in a free country, when the facts of his life contradict this. It might be that this does not perplex him; he has every reason to believe, in accordance with the evidence, that democracy is feudal, a bureaucracy run by crooks and trigger-happy vigilantes.

When one sees a government of the Guatemalan sort professing such high-mindedness in its social aims and producing such mediocre results, one cannot be surprised if the peasant concludes that communism might be an improvement. It was a Latin American sickness: inferior government gave democracy an evil name and left people no option but to seek an alternative. From Guatemala to Argentina, the majority of the countries are run by self-serving tyrannies which are only making the merciless vengeance of anarchy inevitable.”

Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express, 1979, p. 111


“Realizing how well I understood these places, I clung to what was familiar and was reluctant to surrender it to the distance. That bridge, that church, that field. There is nothing shocking about leaving home, but rather a slow feeling of gathering sadness as each familiar place flashes by the window, and disappears, and becomes part of the past. Time is made visible, and it moves as the landscape moves. I was shown each second passing as the train belted along, ticking off the buildings with a speed that made me melancholy.”

Paul Theroux, The Patagonian Express, 1979, p. 10


“We live together, we act on, and react to, one another; but always and in all circumstances we are by ourselves. The martyrs go hand in hand into the arena; they are crucified alone. Embraced, the lovers desperately try to fuse their insulated ecstasies into a single self-transcendence; in vain. By its very nature every embodied spirit is doomed to suffer and enjoy in solitude. Sensations, feelings, insights, fancies – all these are private and, except through symbols and at second hand, incommunicable.

We can pool information about experiences, but never the experiences themselves. From family to nation, every human group is a society of island universes. Most island universes are sufficiently like one another to Permit of inferential understanding or even of mutual empathy or “feeling into.” Thus, remembering our own bereavements and humiliations, we can condole with others in analogous circumstances, can put ourselves (always, of course, in a slightly Pickwickian sense) in their places. But in certain cases communication between universes is incomplete or even nonexistent.

The mind is its own place, and the Places inhabited by the insane and the exceptionally gifted are so different from the places where ordinary men and women live, that there is little or no common ground of memory to serve as a basis for understanding or fellow feeling. Words are uttered, but fail to enlighten. The things and events to which the symbols refer belong to mutually exclusive realms of experience.”

Aldous Huxley, The Doors to Perception, 1954, p. 3