“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



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


“In this train there were of course no compartments, only the two coaches with their wooden benches. Some of the  passengers had brought their own cushions and their blankets and cloaks to wrap around themselves. They did not look at Sophia, much less try to speak to her. What use would it be if they did? She would not be able to understand or reply. No tea wagon either. Packages wrapped in oiled paper were being opened, cold sandwiches taken out. Thick slices of bread, sharp-smelling cheese, slabs of cold cooked bacon, somewhere a herring. One woman took a fork out from a pocket in the folds of her clothing and ate pickled cabbage from a jar. That made Sophia think of home, of Russia. But these are not Russian peasants. None of them are drunk, or garrulous, or laughing. They are stiff as boards. Even the fat that blankets the bones of some of them is stiff fat, self-respecting. Lutheran fat. She knows nothing about them. But what does she really know about Russian peasants, the peasants at Palibino, when it comes to that? They were always putting on a show for their betters.”

Haruki Murakami, South of the Border, West of the Sun, 469


“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