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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Hawai'i essay a labor of love

 •  Adventure Islands

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

When it came to selecting someone to write the introductory essay to their "Ultimate Guide to Hawaii," the editors of Men's Journal figured they couldn't do any better than Paul Theroux, the esteemed travel writer and author who makes his home in Pupukea.

Paul Theroux

That's more or less what Theroux figured, as well.

"I would have said, 'No, I don't have the time," says Theroux, who has one book ("Dark Star Safari") new in paperback, another ("Blinding Light") scheduled for release this spring, and several other projects competing for attention. "But I'd rather do it myself than have someone else parachute in from the Mainland and do the conventional gushing post-impressionist piece. I feel very lucky to live here. This essay is a sort of tribute to this place."

Theroux, author of "The Mosquito Coast," "The Great Railway Bazaar" and other novels, has lived in Hawai'i since 1990.

The "Ultimate Guide" introduction is written in Theroux's usual elegant prose, though with his trademark irony temporarily suspended for a warm, at places reverent, tone. But it wasn't an easy piece to write, as Theroux told The Advertiser during a recent chat.

Theroux: The most difficult place to write about is where you come from, where you live, the place you know best. It's almost impossible to describe, because you know so much about it. You can't just look at the surface, you're looking at it through its history and through your personal memories. It's easier for me to write about Mozambique than Hawai'i. Most travelers are romantic voyeurists. We generalize, as people do in a new place, and that's it. But when you're living in the middle of it with all of these memories, the experience of writing about it is a challenge. I found this when I wrote my novel "Hotel Honolulu."

Q. You chose to highlight not just the adventure aspect, but people, culture and spirituality. It's an affectionate piece ...

A. I wanted to show Hawai'i at its best. I've never been to a place I've liked better. But it's the bright side. You know there's another side. That's like a family matter. I feel very lucky to live here but I do wish there wasn't so much litter, not so many congested subdivisions, so much man-made ugliness. I wish traffic wasn't so bad. But these are not dilemmas for visitors to figure out. That's our litter. That's our traffic. That's for us, the family, to contend with and find a solution for.

Q. Why do you think Hawai'i is rather suddenly being recognized as an adventure travel destination?

A. Hawai'i is experiencing a positive effect, the up side of 9/11. People are less likely to go to the Middle East and Southeast Asia. I think it's a salient point that travelers don't feel as safe going to distant, foreign destinations. There are a lot of freelance terrorists in places like Indonesia and Pakistan. And I've been hassled a lot in Africa. Hawai'i is beautiful, exotic, friendly. You don't have to exchange money. I think Hawai'i is coming into its own as a post-9/11 destination. It is safe — it's like home.

Q. But do you think all of this is sustainable? Can we actually accommodate continual growth in this sort of tourism?

A: No, it's not sustainable. We will max out. In my opinion, we can't sustain much more unchecked growth. One thing I've noticed is that when a place gets a reputation as a paradise, it very quickly turns into a purgatory, and then goes to hell. Phuket, when I first saw it in 1973, was just a fishing village until it became a popular tourist destination ... now it's a blight on the landscape.

Q. What's next for you? Any new projects?

A. I have a burning desire to go to Angola. No one goes there. So I might go there, or I might stay here and scribble and go swimming.