The novelist Paul Theroux had a bestseller with his enjoyable nonfiction travel book about riding trains across Eurasia in 1973, The Great Asian Railway Bazaar. He followed it up with similar books about riding the rails around Latin American and China, but his dislike of those two places got on my nerves when I first read them.
I finally reread The Old Patagonian Express, which tells of his 1978 train journey from his home in Boston to a small town a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. Maybe I’m just becoming as misanthropic as Theroux, but I liked it a lot more this time. His shtick is predictable but still fun: he goes to some deplorable place like Guatemala or Colombia and, sure enough, roundly deplores it.
Still, compared to his Asian travelogue, which centered around crossing the Indian subcontinent, his Latin American book is less entertaining. In fact, it’s rather grim for the basic reason that, even though Theroux speaks Spanish, from the time he leaves central Mexico to the time he arrives in Argentina via the Andes, he barely can entice anybody on the train into an interesting conversation. (The book does have a happy ending — in Buenos Aires, Theroux gets introduced to Jorge Luis Borges and spends a couple of weeks hanging out with the blind sage, who of course is very interesting to talk with.)
Theroux’s problem was that in Latin America — at least in 1978 — the rich traveled by airplane and the working class by bus, leaving the aged and dilapidated trains to the poor. And the poor in Central America and the Andes are largely Indian. And, while Theroux has great sympathy for the plight of the Indians in these grotesquely inequitable countries, he can’t figure out any way to overcome the Indians’ deep-rooted taciturnity. This is the opposite of his more amusing Asian book where those other Indians, the loquacious ones of South Asia, talked and talked.
When staying in Quito, he did hear something interesting:
“‘You must not judge people by their country,” a lady advised me. ‘In South America, it is always wise to judge people by their altitude.’
“She was from Bolivia herself. She explained that there were fewer national characteristics than high-level characteristics. The mountain people who lived on the heights of the Andes were formal and unapproachable; the valley people were much more hospitable, and the sea-level folk were the sweetest of all, though rather idle and lazy. Someone who lived at an altitude of about four thousand feet was just about ideal, a real good scout, whether he lived in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia or wherever.”
Of course, what she’s describing are racial differences that are sorted out by altitude. The barrel-chested Andean Indians can survive better above about 10,000 feet (pure whites have too many miscarriages to propagate themselves when the air gets extremely thin) and on the tropical sea coasts, Africans are better adapted to the heat and diseases (although Lima, with its moderate climate, is an exception).
Charles Darwin, who visited South America on the Beagle, wrote in The Descent of Man:
“Everyone who has had the opportunity of comparison must have been struck by the contrast between the taciturn, even morose aborigines of South America and the light-hearted, talkative negroes.”
My vague impression is that individual mestizos tend to vary a lot on this talkative-taciturn dimension, depending upon whether they inherited the genes and/or culture influencing this from their Spanish or Indian ancestors. So, Mexican-Americans aren’t generally stereotyped as either loud or quiet. In contrast, Puerto Ricans, who have more black and less Indian ancestry, are widely seen as quite talkative. (Of course, because Spanish typically requires more syllables to articulate an idea than English, Spanish-speakers on the whole tend to speak faster.)