Talking with Jeffrey Tayler (page 2)
Talking with Jeffrey Tayler
page 1, page 2, page 3,
 
Do you see yourself as a travel writer or a political/social commentary writer?
  I write about what interests me. Depending on the subject, there may be politics or travel or social commentary involved, or themes better explored in fiction. These days, I’m working on the outlines of a novel.
 
  You said that the Peace Corps program in the former Soviet Union was untenable and wrong. Why that opinion? Should the Peace Corps pull out of Eastern Europe?
  I will speak only to the program in Uzbekistan, but the problems all over the former USSR (but not in Eastern Europe, which does not belong to the same historical sphere) are the same. The formerly Soviet states possess a population that is often more educated, and in certain crucial ways, more sophisticated, than the Americans, be they staff or Volunteers, who are sent to man Peace Corps programs. The system that the Soviets devised created a population for whom education was sacred and deceit a matter of survival, so Americans learn more from the formerly Soviets (especially about deceit, definitely about deceit), than the other way around — which makes a program of American aid here consisting of less than crack specialists a farce of sorts.
     The root problems here in the former USSR are those of nihilism and cynicism — everything is being stolen, people are raped with impunity by any number of actors, killed for nothing and perishing through negligence, and no one here responds, at least in a meaningful or effective way. This is poisoned earth, and we should not deny this because we don’t want to believe it. Living here, one cannot escape the notion that the formerly Soviet states are slipping into extinction, rotting away, losing people to demographic trends caused by an utter and pervasive failure of their civilization. In view of all that, the Peace Corps (and most other foreign aid) is at best irrelevant here.
     That said, I’m all for Americans getting out and seeing the world and living abroad; that is the principle benefit Peace Corps offers, and it is a vital one, given how powerful the United States has become since the end of the Cold War. Also, learning about fundamental, and at times unbridgeable, cultural and historical gaps between peoples is essential (such a gap exists between Americans and all the formerly Soviet peoples, with the exception of the Balts and western Ukrainians) — one must not delude oneself that we are all alike or destined to be members of some sort of global family, and we must not participate in or facilitate the delusion of others. I have never regretted quitting the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan.
Lets go back to your latest book. Were you the first person to go down the Congo since Stanley?
A team of adventurers descended the river in the mid 1980s, before Zaire came apart, on high-speed motorized rafts, and of course barges and ferries were going up and down it. But my aim was to do it by pirogue, and concerning that I could only find evidence of failure — the Zairean authorities told me no one had succeeded. I still wouldn’t exclude the possibility that someone managed it and published nothing about it, or did it without being detected by the authorities.
Describe how you went about writing the Congo book. Did you keep a journal? Do you write on a computer, long hand?
  I kept a journal during the trip, which served me well when it came time to write, as did the copious collection of 35mm slides I shot along the way and other memorabilia I retained. I write, however, only on a computer, with some minor exceptions, so the book was written later. In any case, I think one needs some time away from an event to understand what has really happened, or at least what it means.
  Looking back, what was harder, dealing with the corruption of the country or the river?
  I would say the hardest thing of all was dealing with fear and feeling exposed. Fear is very corrosive. In one way, the most terrifying moments came out on the river in the pirogue, in confronting robbers, though my guide, a Zairean named Desi, was superb in handling them. I owe him everything. He was a born diplomat, even as afraid as he was, and he got us through. In another way, the most frightening moments came at night, when the mosquitoes kept us in our tent and we felt — and were — blind to what was going on around us. I have to add that Desi’s fear enhanced my own — when your guide gets scared it doesn’t do much for your moral. But as he got sick, his fear waned into apathy and resignation, then a sort of dread settled over my heart like a rock.
Was there any moment when you thought you would not make it out of the Congo alive?
After the incidents with the would-be robbers occurred, and when we hit the most threatening stretch of river, after Lisala, I thought we were all at grave risk, and that our end would be a sorry and slow one, rather than a dramatic and agonizing one.
  How long was your trip and how long did it take to write the book?
  The actual trip described in Facing the Congo — the Congo Republic and Congo/Kinshasa segments — took a little more than two months. I finished the book a year and a month after I began writing it (but I was often away on assignment and had to interrupt the process). However, the book covers time in Moscow at the beginning and the end, and altogether spans a five-year period.
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