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Forget the Maps: Why All the Data in the World Won't Make You a Better Traveler

Travel writer Paul Theroux on why planning your trip can be a lesson in frustration.
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Listen to Life in the Data, Episode 3, featuring Paul Theroux:

In the absence of information the only certainty in travel is suspense, with the suggestion of risk, and the possibility of danger. The usual presumption, amounting almost to a conceit of many travelers, is that they will be able to brainstorm a trip before they set out—downloading data, solving the issues of transfer and transition, places to stay, places to eat, the condition of roads, the mood of the locals, the sights, the diversions. It’s pretty to think so.

Sometimes, as I have found, this amounts to pure fancy and is a lesson in frustration. Even the best libraries can be unhelpful; maps can be misleading; some places are still little known, even unknown, unstable, and blighted, which I suppose is one of the uses of that odd duck on the literature shelf, the travel narrative. When in the late 1990s I planned a trip down the Shire River (pronounced “sheer-ay”), a tributary of the Zambezi that flows from southern Malawi into Mozambique, I looked for data, confident that I’d find what I wanted—after all, the river was first mapped by David Livingstone in 1859, as Tim Jeal recounted in dramatic detail in his newly republished and expanded biography Livingstone. You can see from a map that the river flows across a border in the bush, with no town nearby—so where do you get your passport stamped? Where do you find provisions? I had many questions, none of which I found answers to until I arrived at the village of Marka on the banks of the Shire, with my folding kayak and camping equipment.

Even the best libraries can be unhelpful; maps can be misleading; some places are still little known, even unknown, unstable, and blighted.

My map had not shown that the river flows through a labyrinthine marsh; that the dotted national boundary on the map represents a shed where a Mozambican official in a torn shirt under a tree examines your passport; that the confluence of the Shire and Zambezi is a muddy whirlpool; and that the bold place-name Caia is little more than a cluster of grubby sheds but, strategically sited, is marked by fish trucks and beat-up minibuses carrying wayfarers to the coast.

A few years ago, researching a trip to Angola for my new book, I found almost nothing relating to the condition of roads in the southern provinces of the country: no helpful books, nothing on the Internet. The maps of Angola I located looked a bit too coherent and colonial to represent a country that had endured 27 years of civil war. I went anyway, hoping for local knowledge, but even in Namibia I drew a blank. People who lived near the border had never crossed it—and it is a characteristic of those who don’t travel that they fantasize, exaggerating the dangers.

“It’s a nightmare,” an Ovimbundu man said to me near the border, in the Namibian town of Ondangwa, en route to Angola.

He wasn’t wrong, but he was short on particulars.

Nothing in print or on the Net (even now on the bird’s-eye Google Earth, with its dartboard of on-the-ground images) indicated that the road north from the border to the Angolan town of Lubango was mostly theoretical: paved in part, deeply potholed, and in places not a road at all but a series of wide detours, zigzagging through the bush. The road map was a fiction, but outside Angola this was unknown. Angola is a rarity in Africa, a country without big game and almost without wild animals, oil rich, xenophobic, and muddled, almost without tourists.

Still, ignorant but undaunted, I crossed the border and headed north. When travel information is scarce, or nonexistent, I make the assumption that if there are enough residents in a small roadside town in the African bush, there will be a market and a local mode of transportation that the traveler can use—a bush taxi, a van, a truck, or the sort of chicken bus that is too ramshackle to rate a mention in the wider world.

It is silly to think that any of this will be efficient or comfortable, but if you have no objection to traveling like everyone else (and that includes old women with sacks of vegetables, freelance evangelists with Bibles under their arms, amateur emigrants, and wiseguys wearing baseball hats turned back to front), you will find, as I did, something to eat, somewhere to stay, and a way out.