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What Author Paul Theroux Loves (and Hates) the Most About Travel

We AFARians are always on the hunt for that next great travel narrative that can transport us from our armchairs and airplane seats. Topping our must-read list this fall is Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads by Paul Theroux, the celebrated writer who penned such narratives as The Great Railway Bazaar and Dark Star Safari. In his tenth travel book, which comes out on Sept. 30, the peripatetic author explores a slice of America for the first time, heading south of the Mason-Dixon line to uncover the region’s places, landscapes, and characters over four seasons. (Bonus: there’s also a gorgeous photo essay by the esteemed Steve McCurry.) We asked Theroux to fill out our AFAR travel questionnaire, which offered a fascinating window into his travel philosophy.

A: Let’s play spin the globe—name the one place you’ve always wanted to go.

PT: Sakhalin Island, eastern Siberia, once a penal colony that Chekhov visited and wrote about. It’s somewhat off the map, but is accessible from the port city of Wakkanai in northern Japan, which I traveled to in my “Ghost Train” book, in the middle of winter, when all the boats were iced up.

A: What’s your spirit city? (Where do you want to return to over and over?)

PT: There is no city on earth to which I want to return. I find urban life nasty, all cities unappealing, dense, noisy, overly bright—New York is praised, but New York is unfinished. I find many landscapes delightful when viewed from offshore, like the undulating hills and volcanic slopes of the North Shore of Oahu when seen from my kayak, two miles at sea.

A: Do you have a travel ritual (i.e., always take sand from the beach; always have a whiskey on the flight)?

PT: Whenever I arrive in a place, no matter where, I try to discover the way out—by road, rail, water—even though I might be staying awhile. This exit plan is always in my mind.

A: Do you maintain any routines from home while traveling or does it all go out the window (i.e., exercise, reading at night, etc.)?

PT: Reading—nearly always a paperback, which I bring a stock of. I give them away when I’m done.

A: Sorry, you only get to eat one regional cuisine for the rest of your life. What is it?

PT: Indian, and specifically three items: dhal, bindi (okra), and puris (puffy bread), as served on all Indian railway platforms and in many Indian homes. Simple, tasty, nutritious, unfailingly pleasant.

A: What one piece of advice would you give to someone traveling abroad for the first time?

PT: If “abroad” means one country, learn the language.

A: Describe your travel personality in three words.

PT: Curious, patient, memorious.

A: Are your trips very planned, or very spontaneous?

PT: A general plan, always open-ended, from which I freely improvise.

A: What’s the one travel souvenir you’d save in a fire?

PT: A teakwood desk (with removable legs for easy transport) that was made for me by a Chinese carpenter in Singapore in 1969, on which I have done virtually all my writing.

A: What book/movie most inspired you to travel?

PT: King Solomon’s Mines (starring Stewart Granger) made a deep impression on my 10-year-old mind.

A: Who’s your ideal travel partner?

PT: My wife for vacations, and no one for travel, because the travel partner inevitably asks, “Where are we staying tonight?” and I seldom know the answer.

A: Which travel experience do you prefer: plugged in or unplugged?

PT: If this means connected to the Internet, I’d say disconnected.

A: What’s a custom from another culture that you’d love to implement in your life back home?

PT: The simple heartfelt hello, ideally “Peace be upon you.”

A: What’s the first thing you seek out in a new place?

PT: The bazaar, the market, where people gather to talk.

A: What’s the one thing you indulge in on a trip that you don’t at home?

PT: Intensive, all-day walking.

A: What’s your first travel memory?

PT: Being on a train, alone, aged 8, on my way from Boston to Hartford, Connecticut. I was sitting by the window, watching the fields pass by, and the conductor—black, friendly, smiling—stopping by my seat from time to time saying, “You all right?” Then the arrival, my aunt and uncle carrying me off the train two hours later, laughing and praising me for taking the trip by myself. My uncle ran the Eagle Lock factory and gave me a silver padlock as a present.

Order Paul Theroux’s new book, Deep South: Four Seasons on Back Roads, out September 30th, 2015.