AN EYE FOR TRAVEL
TRAVEL WRITER PICO IYER TO SPEAK AT THE PURE CONFERENCE 2014
WORDS BY KATIE PALMER
Born to a philosopher and political theorist father and a religious scholar mother, deep thinking is in Pico Iyer’s genes. Although hailing originally from India, his parents moved first to Oxford (where Pico was born) and then to California in pursuit of his father’s career; Pico thus spent his adolescence hopping back and forth across the pond, working his way from one scholarship to another at Eton, Oxford University and Harvard.
After graduating and beginning his career teaching writing and literature at Harvard, Iyer took his pen in hand (as Walt Whitman would say) and made the jump into journalism. Today, he is one of the most revered and respected travel writers in the world, with a catalogue of contributions to global publications that would make any well-respected journalist weep, along with the agglomeration of non-fiction travel works, travel novels and well over 40 introductions that make up his impressive portfolio. As a public speaker, Iyer has made appearances everywhere from Ivy League universities to the world-renowned TED stage, and is one of the few people in history to have conducted an on-stage interview with a Dalai Lama (the fourteenth, to be exact).
While currently based in Japan, Iyer professes that “I am not rooted in a place, I think, so much as in certain values and affiliations and friendships that I carry everywhere I go”. He has travelled widely both personally and professionally – from North Korea to Easter Island, Paraguay to Ethiopia.
If the theme of the PURE Conference 2014 is ‘Real People, Unreal Experiences’, then who better to begin exploring the relationship between the individual and travel – and to help us answer that crucial question: what makes travel transformational? We caught up with Pico in a rare ‘moment of stillness’ to hear his musings on travel, home, and how each contributes to our sense of self…
You began your writing career documenting the disconnect between local tradition and imported global pop culture. Do you think it is important for travel products to stay true to their physical and cultural surroundings?
I love the fact that travel products somehow nearly always seem to remain true to their surroundings, whether we want them to or not. I step into a McDonald’s near my flat in Japan, and they’re serving “moon-viewing” burgers (with eggs between the buns) to honour the classic East Asian festival of the harvest moon. And everything about the way the people there speak—or don’t speak—or cover their mouths when they smile is as Japanese as it would have been ten centuries ago.
None of us wants to go across the world just to visit McDonald’s, of course, but I use this as an example of how even a fast-food chain instantly takes on the colour and character of its country and becomes something radically different from the similar-seeming McDonald’s you might meet in London or New York.
Cultures, I think, lose their individuality and uniqueness no more than we do. We put on jeans, we sip at frappucinos, we go to see the same movies as people across the world—and yet we’re no less ourselves for that, I think, and no less distinct.
When I wrote that first book, spending four months criss-crossing ten countries in Asia to see how much they’d been changed by American culture, I came away from my trip thinking that Japan was just as impenetrable as it might have been before the war. That India was always going to remain untameable and unique India, even if it took in shopping malls and baristas; and that the spirit in a place like Tibet was in some ways stronger precisely because the culture was so endangered.
I love the fact that travel, as an industry, has grown wiser, more sophisticated, much more responsive to local needs, in the course of my lifetime; many travel operators take great and deeply thoughtful pains to introduce more and more of us to local crafts and foods, or to try to open the door to indigenous customs and particular stories that take us much deeper into Siem Reap or Cuzco than mere sight-seeing could.
But I also feel quite confident about most of the older cultures of the world having roots deep enough and strong enough to take what they want and what they need from the rest of us and still remain themselves.
More recently you have focussed on how our modern-day devices and digital networks can cause us to ‘overdose on information’. Do you think travel can help us regain our sense of stillness and focus?
Deeply so. For me travel is a wonderful way of slapping myself awake. I live in the beautiful ancient Japanese capital city of Nara—at the centre of my town is the largest municipal park in Japan, with 1200 wild deer walking free (and often seated at the entrance to City Hall)—and I regularly go back to visit my mother in Santa Barbara, California, a beautiful Mediterranean-style resort town. But even in those special places, when I’m at my desk or traipsing off to the health-club or paying my bills, I often sleepwalk through my life, barely aware of the beauties around me.
As soon as a friend visits me in either place, I’m newly attentive to what’s wondrous about my hometowns, and newly excited about them. And the minute I’m in a place I think of as foreign, I start watching everything around me, so that even the smallest details become something curious and fascinating.
When travelling, most of us carry very few things with us. We sometimes don’t have many words either. We’re reduced to essentials. So travel for me is a great way to understand my life and to step back from all the things I otherwise take for granted and reassess them. I nearly always return from a trip with new resolves, and thinking about fresh ways to make my daily life vibrant.
And I do feel that a large part of travel is about finding moments of stillness—as you’re sitting in a Greek amphitheater as the sun sets, or alone in the great treeless spaces of Iceland, the wind blowing in your ears. I loved the moai statues I saw in Easter Island, but perhaps I loved even more just the days of walking through that palpably remote place, 1300 miles from the nearest inhabited island, feeling and almost tasting the emptiness around me.
In your essay, The Photographer and the Philosopher, you study the work of travel writers including Jan Morris, V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie. To what extent do you think storytelling connects a person to a destination or culture?
Stories are some of the greatest souvenirs we bring back from our trips, along with images and mementoes (sometimes even placemats or shampoo bottles or menus). And stories are a wonderful way into a culture.
I made my first trip to Namibia last year, and what I brought back from it was largely the stories I heard from the people I met: such as the guide who took me on a walk at dawn—just the two of us—and told me how he’d given up a comfortable job in a bank to enjoy the land that he loved and to share that joy with others.
In every place we visit, it’s the stories we hear from locals that offer us memories, at some level far deeper than sights and sounds, that we feel we could almost never get at home; and that change the way we think of the world and our lives in the process. And it’s the stories we bring back that become a part of our lives and the larger narrative we construct of our time on earth. Those are the kind of stories we’ll keep telling—sometimes all too often—till our final days.
So yes, travel turns all of us into storytellers and the astonishing thing is that, very often, our stories are exotic and surprising and compelling.
In your TED talk you remark that “Travel, for me, is a little bit like being in love, because suddenly all your senses are at the setting marked ‘on’”. To what extent do you believe travel can transform a person?
Completely, and again and again. Travelling, we step out of the grooves of our daily lives, and into something unknown, dreamed-of, occasionally terrifying. It’s almost as if we’re asking to be changed, every time we take off from home for a very different place, and to come back home somewhat different from the person who left. In almost any place—but especially in those places that are very different from our homes—we’re bombarded with more experiences, emotions, intensities than we know what to do with.
Sometimes with questions, as we face poverties or repressions we don’t face at home; sometimes with wonders, as we walk through the narrow canyon that leads into Petra or look out on Machu Picchu or sequester ourselves in a little guest-house in Luang Prabang; sometimes with responsibilities, as we befriend a young woman in Java or get to know an engaging kid in Kathmandu, and think about how we can usefully help this deserving young soul without needlessly or foolishly complicating his life.
I’m guessing that when most of us at PURE think back on our lives, we’ll think about them very much in terms of the ways different trips have set us on a new course and opened doors we’d never thought to step through. Travel has made us who we are, and reminded us, at a deep level, of how much we’re not stuck in our daily lives or in the habits and perceptions by which we sometimes define ourselves.
My definition of a good trip is one that leaves me so far from whom I was when I took off that I come back home with new plans as well as eyes.
Can you share with us your most life-enriching travel experience?
I think of a layover at Narita Airport near Tokyo when I was 26. I’d just made my first trip to Southeast Asia—Thailand, Burma and Hong Kong—and was reeling from the very different kinds of miracle and challenge that each one presented. I was flying on Japan Air Lines back to my home and job in New York.
The airline put me up overnight in a Narita hotel as I awaited my connection back to JFK and, with a few hours to kill before the flight, I decided to take the free-shuttle bus into the little airport town of Narita, expecting nothing.
It was a late October day, blindingly blue and cloudless, but with the first pang of winter in the air, the first pinch of coming cold and dark. I walked around the narrow lanes of the pilgrim quarter in Narita, ventured into the temple at the centre of town, felt a strange sense of déjà vu—feeling myself in my boyhood home of Oxford again somehow—and, by the time I boarded my flight, had decided I should move to Japan.
I did, a little later, and have been there 27 years now, without a moment’s regret.
All of us have a thousand memories like this from our travels, of moments that reoriented our lives, completely unexpectedly, and I could go on forever. But I cite the morning in Narita just to remind myself how even an airport layover, which I’d never have chosen to make, can transform the direction of one’s life in a positive direction.
I often tell myself that, as soon as we travel, our eyes becomes interested. And as soon as our eyes are interested and wide-awake, everything becomes interesting.
In your essay, A Place I’ve Never Been, you explain how places you haven’t visited exert a hold on your imagination “that gives them an intensity that other places cannot match”. Do you think this appetite for exploration is inherent to the sophisticated traveller?
More and more people now think in terms of “bucket lists” and the like, and in my experience, the more places you visit, the more places you think to visit; travel itself educates us in possibility, and in geography and culture—shows us how incomparably rich and various the world is—and so, after our first trip to Thailand, we gather a new list of places to visit (Koh Samui, Chiang Rai, maybe Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia), and after we start going to them, we start thinking about venturing north of Hanoi, or to that Cambodian beach that not so many souls have discovered yet.
It’s like a journey through a series of doors—like the 10,000 orange tori gates that lead up the slope in Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto—and each time you pass through one, you are changed and the view has altered and you can see new places you couldn’t see before. Each summit discloses a new horizon.
As well as places you long to return to. I’ve been lucky enough to see many sights in my four decades of travel, but I never grow tired of returning to Paris or San Francisco or even the city near which I live, Kyoto, and I never begin to feel I’ve exhausted all their secrets. Places are to me like friends, sometimes sweethearts, with whom you’re engaged in a dialogue for life; I never feel as if I know my wife, or even my oldest friends, inside-out, which means I’m always seeking them out to find out what’s new in their lives, how their thinking or habits have gone off in directions even they could never have expected, what new things we can share and exchange.
I’ve been to Thailand more than 60 times since 1983, to take another example, and if you gave me a ticket tomorrow, I’d be on the first plane back. Places never grow old.
Where is the one place you haven’t been that you would most like to visit?
The world is inexhaustible—and as soon as I go to a place I’ve been waiting 40 years to see (as with Iran, last autumn), all kinds of new places come to mind I’ve never been. Even in my ancestral home of India, I’ve never been to many of the places people find transporting—not to Goa or Kerala or Sikkim or so many other astonishing-sounding destination (I only recently made it for the first time to Kashmir and Darjeeling and Ladakh and Varanasi, many of which were even more remarkable than I’d expected).
And I’ve never been to Prague or Vienna or Dublin or Glasgow, even though I was born and spent most of my first 21 years in England; I’ve never seen Uruguay or Mali or Kenya or Afghanistan. Even Stockholm and Tallinn I’ve visited only briefly, and would love to investigate further.
And places I’ve loved for decades but have never seen enough—Greece, say—beckon me as old friends do, whom I haven’t seen for years, and are sure to hold me with a special mix of familiarity and strangeness, which is perhaps what we’re all most looking for in our journeys.
As one of our speakers for the PURE Conference 2014, what does the theme of ‘Real People, Unreal Experiences’ mean to you? What can we expect from your talk in November?
I’m really interested in the way travel is becoming more alive, more exciting and more diverse with each passing year, as new places open up to us, but also as more different kinds of people start travelling—when I was last in Jaipur, I was struck to see large groups of visiting Thais in the breakfast-room of my sleek hotel and in Yazd, in Isfahan, I was surrounded by Chinese travelers, hejabs slipping down from under their straw hats, but eagerly responsive to a guide explaining everything to them in English.
To me fellow travellers and guides are often part of the wonder of any experience; and as the theme for PURE 2014 suggests, it’s so often the people we meet along the way—maybe especially the ones we never expected to meet, or who open doors we didn’t even see were there—who transform a trip.
Nowadays, I’ll sometimes meet friends who say that travel makes ever less sense since we can see so much of the world at home, whether on our TV screens or through smartphone videos, or whether simply through the fascinating “ethnic” restaurants and festivals to be found in every major city.
But for me, the more the world comes to our doorstep, the greater is the beauty and point of trying to go and see it first-hand—and you can never really smell Oman, say (that amazing scent of frankincense that greets you in your lobby) online, cannot so easily lose yourself in an all-night conversation with a new friend on TV.
Most unreal media give us the highlights or the greatest hits of somewhere; but it’s everything between them, the everyday moments, the moments when nothing is happening, that really get inside us and can turn us around.
My travels over the last forty years have mostly shown me how little we know of the larger world, and how much there is that will surprise, unsettle and expand us as soon as we arrive in Bali or New Orleans. And sometimes I feel that the more information or images we get of certain places, the less we know of them—and the more vital it is to see how they really look for ourselves.
So I’m urging my friends in California, for example, if they can save the time and money, to go to places like Vietnam, Cuba and Iran, if only because those places have played such a major part in recent American history and yet are often known only through images and abstractions in America. Also, because each is so beautiful and rich. And I know my own trips to Syria or Ethiopia or Burma, to choose but three, have thrown open the windows on places that could not be less like our narrow, collective images of them. So often we hear only about the government of a country, or its policies, and never about what gives a place its life and particular colouring and charm.
If there were one thing you could change about the travel industry, what would it be? What role do you see PURE playing in the industry today?
I wish more of the people I visit, in closed or impoverished places from Cuba and Iran to Tibet or Bolivia, could visit the world as we can do, and I wish more of my friends and neighbours in a place like California would venture out into a world that’s open and accessible in ways that were unimaginable even in my parents’ generation.
But of course there’s little I can do on either front, except to bring the news of distant, or misunderstood places, to people who can’t or don’t want to travel.
And I know, from experience, how important a gathering like PURE can be. One reason I was so excited to be a part of this year’s conference is that I have benefitted so much from seeing the world through the eyes and with the help of those more seasoned and professional than I.
Last autumn alone, for example, a new friend I’d never met before, who’s a long-standing member of PURE, gave me an expert tour of Kashmir, which I’d never seen before except through my mother’s girlhood memories. And not only guided me to places I’d never have known about, introduced me to the first luxury houseboat on Dal Lake, took me on a new attempt to offer luxury camping outside of Pahalgam and led me to a water market at dawn, but also shared with me all that he had learned over 25 years of visiting Kashmir, not least through the most gracious and interesting people he’d met on his trips.
I felt as if I were the sudden beneficiary of half a lifetime of an expert’s memories.
PURE to me is an example of something I couldn’t have imagined when I was growing up: a community that introduces the wonders of the world to many of us, who wouldn’t know where to start, and that introduces us, and whatever we may have to share, to people who would otherwise have no chance of meeting us.
The best thing about a gathering like PURE, as I understand it, is that it celebrates exactly what travel is all about: near-strangers meeting, in a state of curiosity, fun and adventure, to share ideas, experiences and memories, and going back home, fired up with new possibilities for exploring the world a little more deeply.