In this season of infection, the stock market little more than a twitching corpse, in an atmosphere of alarm and despondency, I am reminded of the enlightenments of the strict curfew Uganda endured in 1966. It was, for all its miseries, an episode of life lessons, as well as monotonous moralizing (because most crises enliven bores and provoke sententiousness). I would not have missed it for anything.
That curfew evoked like today the world turned upside-down. This peculiarity that we are now experiencing, the nearest thing to a world war, is the key theme in many of Shakespeares plays and Jacobean dramas, of old ballads, apocalyptic paintings and morality tales. It is the essence of tragedy and an occasion for license or retribution. As Hamlet says to his fathers ghost, Time is out of joint.
In Uganda, the palace of the king of Buganda, the Kabaka, Mutesa II also known as King Freddie had been attacked by government troops on the orders of the prime minister, Milton Obote. From my office window at Makerere University, where I was a lecturer in English in the Extra Mural department, I heard the volleys of heavy artillery, and saw smoke rising from the royal enclosure on Mengo Hill. The assault, led by Gen. Idi Amin, resulted in many deaths. But the king eluded capture; he escaped the country in disguise and fled to Britain. The period that followed was one of oppression and confusion, marked by the enforced isolation of a dusk-to-dawn curfew. But, given the disorder and uncertainty, most people seldom dared to leave home at all.
The curfew was a period of fear, bad advice, arbitrary searches, intimidation and the nastiness common in most civil unrest, people taking advantage of chaos to settle scores. Uganda had a sizable Indian population, and Indian people were casually mugged, their shops ransacked and other minorities victimized or sidelined. It was also an interlude of hoarding, and of drunkenness, lawlessness and licentiousness, born of boredom and anarchy.
Kifugo! I heard again and again of the curfew a Swahili word, because it was the lingua franca there. Imprisonment! Yes, it was enforced confinement, but I also felt privileged to be a witness: I had never seen anything like it. I experienced the stages of the coup, the suspension of the constitution, the panic buying and the effects of the emergency. My clearest memory is of the retailing of rumors outrageous, frightening, seemingly improbable but who could dispute them? Our saying then was, Dont believe anything you hear until the government officially denies it.
Speaking for myself, as a traveler, any great crisis war, famine, natural disaster or outrage ought to be an occasion to bear witness, even if it means leaving the safety of home. The fact that it was the manipulative monster Chairman Mao who said, All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience, does not make the apothegm less true. It is or should be the subtext for all travelers chronicles.
The curfew three years into my time in Africa was my initiation into the misuse of power, of greed, cowardice and selfishness; as well as, also, their opposites compassion, bravery, mutual aid and generosity. Even at the time, 24-years-old and fairly callow, I felt I was lucky in some way to be witnessing this convulsion. It was not just that it helped me to understand Africa better; it offered me insights into crowds and power and civil unrest generally, allowing me to observe in extreme conditions the nuances of human nature.
I kept a journal. In times of crisis we should all be diarists and documentarians. Were bound to wail and complain, but its also useful to record the particularities of our plight. We know the progress of Englands Great plague of 1665 because Samuel Pepys anatomized it in his diary. On April 30 he wrote: Great fears of the sickness here in the City it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all! Later, on June 25, The plague increases mightily. And by July 26: The Sicknesse is got into our parish this week; and is endeed everywhere.
A month later he notes the contraction of business: To the Exchange, which I have not been a great while. But Lord how sad a sight it is to see the streets empty of people, and very few upon the Change, jealous of every door that one sees shut up lest it should be the plague and about us, two shops in three, if not more, generally shut up.
In that outbreak of bubonic plague, spread by rat fleas, a quarter of Londons population died.
My diary these days sounds a lot like Pepys, though without the womanizing, snobbery or name dropping. The progress of the Covid 19 pandemic is remarkably similar to that of the plague year, the same upside-down-ness and the dizziness it produces, the muddle of daily life, the collapse of commerce, the darkness at noon, a haunting paranoia in the sudden proximity to death. And so much of what concerned me as important in the earlier pages of my diary now seems mawkish, trivial or beneath notice. This virus has halted the routine of the day to day and impelled us, in a rare reflex from our usual hustling, to seek purification.
Still writing gives order to the day and helps inform history. In my journal of the Ugandan curfew I made lists of the rumors and tried to estimate the rate at which they traveled; I noted the instances of panic and distraction there were many more car crashes than usual, as drivers minds were on other things. Ordinary life was suspended, so we had more excuses to do as we pleased.
My parents habits were formed during the Great Depression, which this present crisis much resembles. They were ever after frugal, cautious and scornful of wasters: My father developed a habit of saving string, paper bags, nails and screws that he pried out of old boards. The Depression made them distrustful of the stock market, regarding it as a casino. They were believers in education, yet their enduring memory was of highly educated people rendered destitute college graduates selling apples on street corners in Boston! My mother became a recycler and a mender, patching clothes, socking money away. This pandemic will likely make us a nation of habitual hand-washers and doorknob avoiders.
In the Great Depression, Americans like my parents saw the country fail and though it rose and became vibrant once more, they fully expected to witness another bust in their lifetime. Generally speaking, we have known prosperity in the United States since the end of World War II. But the same cannot be said for other countries, and this, of course, is something many travelers know, because travel often allows us glimpses of upheaval or political strife, epidemics or revolution. Uganda evolved after the curfew into a dictatorship, and then Idi Amin took over and governed sadistically.
But Id lived in the dictatorship and thuggery of the Malawi of Dr. Hastings Banda (Ngwazi the Conqueror), so Ugandas oppression was not a shock. And these experiences in Africa helped me deconstruct the gaudy dictatorship of Saparmurat Niyazov, who styled himself Tukmenbashi Great Head of the Turks when, years later, I traveled through Turkmenistan; the Mongolia of Jambyn Batmnkh, the Syria of Hafiz Assad, the muddy dispirited China of Maos chosen successor, Hua Guo Feng. As for plague, there have been recent outbreaks of bubonic plague in Madagascar, Congo, Mongolia and China, producing national moods of blame-shifting and paranoia, not much different from that of Albert Camuss The Plague.
Were told not to travel right now, and its probably good advice, though there are people who say that this ban on travel limits our freedom. But in fact, travel produces its own peculiar sorts of confinement.
The freedom that most travelers feel is often a delusion, for there is as much confinement in travel as liberation. This is not the case in the United States, where I have felt nothing but fresh air on road trips. It is possible to travel in the United States without making onward plans. But I cant think of any other country where you can get into a car and be certain at the end of the day of finding a place to sleep (though it might be scruffy) or something to eat (and it might be junk food). For my last book, I managed a road trip in Mexico but with hiccups (bowel-shattering meals, extortionate police, bed bugs). But the improvisational journey is very difficult elsewhere, even in Europe, and is next to impossible in Africa. It is only by careful planning that a traveler experiences a degree of freedom, but he or she will have to stick to the itinerary, nagged by instructions, which is a sort of confinement.
In fact, most travel is a reminder of boundaries and limits. For example, millions of travelers go to Bangkok or Los Cabos, but of them, a great number head for a posh hotel and rarely leave: The hotel is the destination, not the city. The same can be said for many other places, where the guest in the resort or spa essentially a gated and guarded palace luxuriates in splendid isolation.
The most enlightening trips Ive taken have been the riskiest, the most crisis-ridden, in countries gripped by turmoil, enlarging my vision, offering glimpses of the future elsewhere. We are living in just such a moment of risk; and it is global. This crisis makes me want to light out for the territory ahead of the rest. It would be a great shame if it were not somehow witnessed and documented.
Paul Therouxs latest book, On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey, was published in 2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Follow New York Times Travel on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And sign up for our weekly Travel Dispatch newsletter to receive expert tips on traveling smarter and inspiration for your next vacation.
- The myth of the 'model minority' - Los Altos Town Crier - June 24th, 2020
- Trump's move against China for its Uighur oppression makes him look like a hypocrite - NBC News - June 24th, 2020
- Free Markets and Limited Government Reconceived - Niskanen Center - June 24th, 2020
- Trudeaus government has a plan to tackle racism in the RCMP. Experts say it wont work - Global News - June 24th, 2020
- Black Lives Matter is International: Where there is oppression, there will be resistance - Council On Hemispheric Affairs - June 24th, 2020
- Unabated killing in IOK - The Express Tribune - June 24th, 2020
- No Justice, No Peace: Voices of the Young and Outraged - rvamag.com - June 24th, 2020
- I grew up a white Jew in South Africa, so I am joining the fight against racism - The Jewish News of Northern California - June 24th, 2020
- In 15 years, RTI has gone from Indian citizens most powerful tool to an Act on life support - ThePrint - June 24th, 2020
- Public Diplomacy and the Risk of Overmoralizing - The Bulwark - June 24th, 2020
- Rule of law must first be strengthened by people power - Mail and Guardian - June 24th, 2020
- Benton County JP compares masks to burqas and talks about a coup - KARK - June 24th, 2020
- Remove Manu statue from premises of Rajasthan HC: Dalit activist to Sonia - The Indian Express - June 24th, 2020
- 'We have no justice:' Are Native Americans the forgotten victims of police brutality? - Great Falls Tribune - June 24th, 2020
- Letter: Wearing masks isn't oppression - The Republic - June 13th, 2020
- Readers Comments: If you oppress a people for too long, they will rise with greater force - Scroll.in - June 13th, 2020
- When tools for a health emergency become tools of oppression - Pursuit - June 13th, 2020
- Kidnapping Of Thai Exile Ignites Protests For Justice - The Organization for World Peace - June 13th, 2020
- Myth: Second Amendment protects individual liberties | TheHill - The Hill - June 13th, 2020
- Lambeth Council orders audit of all borough landmarks for links with slavery, colonialism and oppression of black communities - BrixtonBuzz - June 13th, 2020
- How People Power Strengthens the Rule of Law by Doug Coltart - Project Syndicate - June 13th, 2020
- Let Hongkongers Immigrate to the WestAnd other Victims of Chinese Government Oppression, too - Reason - June 1st, 2020
- Minnesota and Michigan show that we are living in a Hobbesian state of nature - Bryan-College Station Eagle - June 1st, 2020
- Anchorage racism rally pamphlet says 'pigs are enemy of the people' - Must Read Alaska - June 1st, 2020
- EDITORIAL: Why I wear a mask and you should, too Agassiz Harrison Observer - Agassiz-Harrison Observer - June 1st, 2020
- An Unfathomable Oppression Meets An Astronomical Resistance: Police Vs. The People - New University - June 1st, 2020
- People protested peacefully -- and things got worse | 48 hills - 48 Hills - June 1st, 2020
- Modi 2.0: Dark clouds have engulfed the nation, writes Sitaram Yechury - Hindustan Times - June 1st, 2020
- Surveillance takes on many different forms during a pandemic, according to Concordia researcher - The Suburban Newspaper - June 1st, 2020
- Diversity and inclusion officials address police brutality - GW Hatchet - June 1st, 2020
- Why I wear the mask - The Times-Independent - June 1st, 2020
- Excerpt: The Gated Republic by Shankkar Aiyar - Hindustan Times - June 1st, 2020
- Jatri Kalyan Samity demands withdrawal of bus fare hike - United News of Bangladesh - June 1st, 2020
- Unmasking Biden's hypocrisy and government control in America - Bayoubuzz - June 1st, 2020
- Mexico's other epidemic: Murdered women - The Conversation US - June 1st, 2020
- Virus apps expose tension between privacy and need for data - Buenos Aires Times - June 1st, 2020
- Why discrimination between blood of a black man and a Kashmiri? - Kashmir Media Service - June 1st, 2020
- UT national security expert: COVID-19 accelerating some global trends, changing the direction of others - UT News | The University of Texas at Austin - June 1st, 2020
- Hundreds march in Huntington to protest police brutality, systemic racism - MU The Parthenon - June 1st, 2020
- The history of Puerto Rico shows that nationalism can be liberatory rather than xenophobic - USAPP American Politics and Policy (blog) - June 1st, 2020
- Reply on behalf of the Indian people to the Honble Prime Minister of India - indica News - June 1st, 2020
- Protests against police brutality turn to violence in Albany - Times Union - June 1st, 2020
- Donald Trump, "The Crowd" And A Nation's Bitter Despair - Modern Diplomacy - June 1st, 2020
- Is Civil Disobedience Justified in Defense of the Freedom to Worship? - PanAm Post - June 1st, 2020
- Vancouverites are taking to the streets to speak out against racism amidst deaths of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet - Vancouver Is Awesome - June 1st, 2020
- Man's Thoughts of Black Stepson Prompted George Floyd Demonstration in Madison Heights Oakland County Times - Oakland County 115 News - June 1st, 2020
- East Turkistan Government in Exile Applauds US Senate Passing of Uyghur Human Rights Bill - PRNewswire - May 15th, 2020
- D. Dowd Muska: Stay-at-home folks overreacting to COVID-19 protocols - Waco Tribune-Herald - May 15th, 2020
- SUDDEATH COLUMN: Slow reopening hints at long road to recovery - Evening News and Tribune - May 15th, 2020
- Scotland's lost a great thinker and fighter after Neil Davidson's death - The National - May 15th, 2020
- What to Know in Washington: Pelosi Sets Marker With Virus Vote - Bloomberg Government - May 15th, 2020
- My Idea Of Socialism - The Shillong Times - May 15th, 2020
- When India Tested a Nuclear Device on Its Citizens - Modern Diplomacy - May 15th, 2020
- Coronavirus Highlights Tragic, Longstanding Racial Inequity in the U.S. | Opinion - Newsweek - May 15th, 2020
- Letter of the Day | We must develop our human capital - Jamaica Gleaner - May 15th, 2020
- Andrea Circle Bear and six centuries of genocide - Workers World - May 15th, 2020
- The American Way of Life Is Shaping Up to Be a Battleground - The New York Times - May 14th, 2020
- Beijing Hones and Exports Religious Oppression | Opinion - Newsweek - May 14th, 2020
- After coronavirus: Global youth reveal that the social value of art has never mattered more - The Conversation CA - May 14th, 2020
- Telling the truth about China's oppression of Uyghurs MercatorNet - MercatorNet - May 14th, 2020
- A year on, the Christchurch Call must go beyond dont livestream mass murder - The Spinoff - May 14th, 2020
- Iraq's new government in the Iran-US crossfire - World - Al-Ahram Weekly - Ahram Online - May 14th, 2020
- Commentary: Message to Trump, Newsom and Faulconer: 'Please release us from the coronavirus oppression' - The San Diego Union-Tribune - May 14th, 2020
- Turning point: What will be the post-pandemic 'new normal'? - People's World - May 14th, 2020
- Live and Let Die - Cascadia Weekly - May 14th, 2020
- Free power, easy loans: How Uttarakhand is trying to hold back locals who have returned from cities - Scroll.in - May 14th, 2020
- What's Left of the Failed States Debate?: Putting Five Hypotheses to the Test - World - ReliefWeb - May 14th, 2020
- Beating around the bush on the constitutional conundrum - Ethiopia Insight - May 14th, 2020
- LABOUR REFORMS NOT IN SYNC WITH CONSTITUTION Northeast Today - NorthEast Today - May 14th, 2020
- Music helps us remember who we are and how we belong during difficult and traumatic times - The Conversation CA - May 8th, 2020
- Covidspiracy Uncovered: The truth about 5G - Shout Out UK - May 8th, 2020
- Land rights sand castle in a wind storm | - IndigenousX - May 8th, 2020
- [OPINION] Our lack of critical reflection is the real disease in our midst - Rappler - May 8th, 2020
- Ubuntu, privilege and sheer ignorance thrive in the midst of Covid-19 - News24 - May 8th, 2020
- GOP lawsuit to block Tony Evers' order to stay home in hands of Supreme Court - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - May 7th, 2020
- Chinese oppression 'worse than US reported' - UCAN - May 7th, 2020
- Growing hunger and oppression face urban poor - The Tablet - May 7th, 2020
- A Spotlight on Health Care Disparity During COVID-19 - Drug Topics - May 7th, 2020
- Money Heist: An Exhaustive Review of Alex Pina's New Series - The New Leam - May 7th, 2020
- Andrew Cuomo, The Virus King | 570 WSYR | Bob Lonsberry - KFI AM 640 - May 7th, 2020