A Conversation with Pico Iyer
On January 26, GeoEx had the honor of launching Pico Iyer’s North American tour for his new book, The Man Within My Head, with an onstage conversation at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. Hosted by Recce editor Don George, the evening turned into an exhilarating exploration of places and lessons cherished by both of these peripatetic writers, who have been friends for two decades. We are pleased to present here an edited transcript of their extraordinary conversation.
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Don George: It’s a great pleasure, Pico, to see you, and, as always, it’s a great honor for me to share the stage with you.
Pico Iyer: Thank you.
We were remarking earlier that we haven’t seen each other in two years, but it feels like only yesterday. I wanted to begin this evening—speaking of the passage of time—by showing you a picture and asking you what you see in that picture. I wish I could show all of you in the audience this picture, but since I can’t, I’m going to describe it. It’s the author photo on the back cover of the jacket of Pico’s first book, Video Night in Katmandu, which was published in 1988. There’s a very handsome young man with a lot of hair. So, Pico, here you are. What do you see when you look at that picture?
Loss, impermanence, but freshness too. You probably know that one of my prejudices is that I think all writers write the same book again and again, but we try to cover it up by wearing different clothes or adopting different voices, but fundamentally we have the same single question driving or guiding us though our lives. When I see this book, I probably see something very different from you because at some level I’m just writing the same book again and again, more imperfectly each time. It’s interesting how first books are more revealing because they only come from the obsessions that have gathered slowly. In this case it was 27 years before I actually wrote it.
You really feel that you’re basically rewriting the same book?
I think we’re all defined by our upbringings and the central tensions of our upbringing. For this book I traveled very quickly through 10 countries in Asia. I was watching how so many of the people I met in Asia were transfixed by California, by San Francisco, by images of modernity and freedom and affluence—the things that they didn’t always have very much of—and I saw that other people in Asia, people like Don and myself, were drawn there by antiquity and continuity and even simplicity—the things we don’t always have. This was a book about the dance of dreams or illusions or projections between them.
My most recent book (The Man Within My Head), which Don is cradling there, is about how when I was a little boy I went back and forth six times a year between my parents’ house in ’60s California, where the students down the street were burning down the Bank of America, razing to the ground all the foundations of society as we knew it, and the very opposite world, my boarding school in England, which was set up in the year 1440. We had to wear full morning dress to class every day. We had to write poems in dead languages—ancient Greek and Latin. At an early stage, I was really defined by the movement between those two places. I didn’t belong to either of them. I could bring an outsider’s eye to each of them and I was fascinated by the way that their notions of each other collided in the middle of the Atlantic. So it’s not a surprise that I wrote this [first] book, and it’s probably not a surprise that 24 years later I come back to really that same movement back and forth, and the way that so many of us, especially in a city like San Francisco and at a time like now, are creating our homes in the space between places.
Home is not so much attached to a piece of soil these days but almost to a piece of soul. If you were to go to a university or a high school in San Francisco, probably 40 percent of the kids there would say, ”I’m from Vietnam and my boyfriend is from Iran and I want to go to Costa Rica and I’ve spent most of my life in Dubai.” Their sense of home will be a work in progress that they’ll probably never complete, and a matter of piecing together all these different places into a kind of stained-glass whole. I suppose that sometimes when I’ve written about myself, it’s only because it seems to me to speak for a much larger phenomenon, that this is the age of living in a state of passage. That’s much more than you bargained for when you asked me about that photo, isn’t it?
I didn’t see that when I looked at it actually. Wow.
No, that’s good! I’m curious: Do you think the person in that photo is more or less innocent than the Pico today?
Well…on the plane from Seattle this morning I read that travel makes one wiser, but less happy. I think there’s a truth to that. A part of me misses the recklessness I see in that boy [in the Video Night photo], the heedlessness, the readiness to go places that I would be anxious about now, the freshness of discovery of the world. I think innocence is a lovely word to invoke because I think that’s what travel gives us—the eyes of a child again, the eyes of wonder, and the eyes of first discovery. Certainly they came naturally to me then.
I think the other maybe less expected difference between this picture and the haggard one on the back of this recent book is that when you’re a kid you think you know everything, and the more time goes on, the more you see how little you know about anything. The sentences in this [first] book are delivered with a really bratty confidence, like a kind of a smart Alec, wise guy. You know, ”I know everything in the world because I’m 28 years old.” And this book, this recent one, is haunted by a sense of not knowing a thing, and that being the beauty of life but also the confoundingness of it.
My mother turned 80 last year and so I threw a little party for her. Some of her friends said, ”Why don’t you interview her? Why don’t you be her Don George at the end of her party— At first I thought this was a strange thing for a birthday party, but I raised the idea with her—she’s an adventurous soul, she’s up for anything—and she said yes. I asked her, as I would always be too shy to ask her in other circumstances, ”What’s the main thing you’ve learned in your life— She said, ”That you can never know another person.” It really made an impression, first because I never even imagined my mother would say that and I didn’t know she thought about that. Secondly, to me as her son, it was her way of saying that she doesn’t know me and that she probably doesn’t know my father. I was so glad to have had the excuse and the occasion of a formal interview to get something out of my mother that will stay with me for the rest of my life. It did make me think that life is a gradual process of unknowing and unlearning and casting off from shore. I could pass such confident judgments in that first book because I’d never really left my home base. I was stuck inside my assumptions and my prejudices, and I probably still am now, but I’m a little more conscious of the fact that they’re lingering and I try to be a little more alert to not being hostage to my own prejudices.
That’s beautiful. You really encapsulated what I was thinking about the difference between these two books and the journey of your life as a writer. You have stripped off layers and layers and layers as you go along, but as you strip off layers, you realize better and better what you don’t know, how little you actually know. That’s fascinating to me because in a way it means if you keep on writing at some point you’re just not going to know anything.
We’ve already attained that stage, Don Partly I think it’s the difference between spring and autumn. One of the really poignant things about Graham Greene is that he always presented himself as a very undiluted, skeptical man without innocence and without conviction, and mocking the innocence. You can always tell that that mockery comes from envy. He wishes he could be young again. There’s a great Richard Thompson song in which he says, ”I wish I could be a fool for you again.” And for all of us who’ve advanced into Act 4, or Act 7, of a relationship, a part of us wishes that we were still the guileless open-eyed person of Act 1. Graham Greene at the very end of his life said there’s wisdom in age and it’s all about wishing you weren’t so wise. Yet autumn can see spring a lot better than spring can see autumn.
I’ve always been fascinated by autumn. It’s my favorite season in the country that we both share as our secret home, Japan, because it can take in the whole cycle, because it knows everything is impermanent, and because it knows that the impermanence itself is rather permanent. All the leaves are falling, the cold is approaching, it’s getting darker, and the days are shortening, and that is all necessary to get back to spring. Whereas spring has a much more linear sense; it believes everything is moving in a forward direction. When I was a kid, I thought/expected I would know much more at 50 than I do at 20. Now I can see the progress moves cyclically rather than in a linear way, and follows the seasons rather than a man-made assembly line.
It’s a bit of the difference between the New World and the Old World. As we talk about this, the dance between spring and autumn is probably the dance between East and West. When I’m in Japan, I’m very conscious of California being a land of eternal summer, which is why our Japanese wives and so many of our Japanese friends long to be here. But it’s also the reason that people like you and I love to go to Japan, for that much larger picture, the roundedness. There are seasons in California, but there is the hope that you’re always pushing forward, whereas in Japan there’s a certain sanity for knowing that you’re ultimately going to come back to your grandparents’ place. For all the external changes in the world, for all the ways in which you’re shifting fashions with each passing month in Japan, ultimately you come back to the ancient verities. The new is only as important and valuable as the old that underwrites it. You notice this with technology, that we can only make the best use of our cell phones if we have something antique and depthless and wise inside us, if we have something rather old inside us. Otherwise we get caught on a rollercoaster that we never really wanted to get on and we don’t know how to get off. We find ourselves in this state of acceleration where we can’t really do justice to the new things that come into our lives. This is not where I expected our conversation on travel to be going, but maybe this is more interesting.
Yes, it’s really interesting. I’m thinking about the spring rollercoaster and the autumn rollercoaster and it’s fascinating. But it does tie in with travel in lots of ways. We both discovered Japan. I discovered it from America, you discovered it form a much more complicated, textured background than I did, and I’m wondering how the role of travel has changed in the course of your life. You began as a commuter to a school in England from California. That was one kind of travel, but can you talk about how travel has changed?
Yes. I think I approached Japan in just the same way as you, just as we’re dressed identically, we were probably on parallel paths; what fascinated and bewitched us about Japan was probably the same thing. Yesterday I met an Indian gentleman and he said, in more sorrow than anger, ”How come you’re not Indian— And I said, ”Well actually my first book was pure India and this [most recent] book is pure Japan,” but we won’t get onto that for the moment except to say, to answer your question, that when I wrote this [first] book, I felt that what the world desperately needed was more information about our global neighbors. When I went to places like Burma and Tibet and even China in 1985, I thought most of my friends, neighbors, and such readers as I might have in California can never expect to see those places and barely know what they look and smell like, and feel like. So my job was to be an information-gathering machine, kind of an emissary, but certainly a representative to go and take in as many sights, sounds, facts, and sensations as possible, and just saturate the page with that almost like verbal television.
Now I feel like we all have much too much information and what the writer can offer is freedom from information, a way of stepping out of the rush and commotion and acceleration of the day, a way to try to put it in a much larger perspective and make sense of it. In this [most recent] book I deliberately made the sentences as long as possible, almost literally to extend the attention span of the reader and take her to those places that no multimedia mechanism or invention can do better. Writing can’t hope to compete with the internet or TV or any of our latest inventions, so it has to stake its claim in those places of silence and nuance, the spaces between the words and intimacy that those other mechanisms can’t claim or colonize so powerfully.
In that sense I think travel has changed. If anyone in this audience were to go to Peru tomorrow she would be able to access it online. She would be able to get all the information she could possibly want. The challenge would be forgetting that, and going with a clear mind so that she’s seeing Peru as if for the first time. It was very easy when I first went to Peru in 1975 because I had not a clue except from TinTin books what it looked like. TinTin books are actually a very good introduction to the world, and in those days, that’s pretty much all we had. Now we have a surfeit of rivals and openings, and the rare person who wants to pick up a book now is saying, by virtue of that choice, I want spaciousness, I want slowness, I want continuity, and I want a conversation that goes on for 10 hours, even with this unmet person called the author, rather than the one I’m conducting on my cell phone.
I suppose this [first book] would be more of a cell phone book and that’s why I wrote it in a very Indian way. By Indian I mean there’s too much of everything. It’s like walking down the streets of Bombay: it’s very noisy, it’s very cluttered, it sets you into a state of sensual overload. Whereas in Japan, and you know this better than I—you actually speak Japanese, which is unforgivable from my point of view; I’ve only been there 24 years so I shouldn’t have to speak the language—everything is about leaving things out. In an empty room, you just put a single vase of flowers and that becomes the whole universe. The fewer things you have to concentrate on, the more you can give yourself to any object and the more that you find in any place. With this book, and we don’t necessarily keep having to talk about it, but I did write 3,000 fully polished, fact-checked, finished pages in order to generate a very tiny book. The process was all about leaving everything out, seeing how much I could leave out while still keeping something of a story. The Japanese aesthetic would be to empty this room entirely to put one object here, to put one object there, but in such intense relation to each other that there’s a kind of electricity between them. Anyone coming into the room would be able to fill that space with her imagination and, of course, each person coming into the room would do it differently. The Japanese way is a communal way because whether it’s a sumi-e painting, which is mostly blank space, or a haiku, which is mostly empty space on a page, or a tatami room, which is mostly literal emptiness, that’s an invitation to every person who comes in to complete the sentence or to be part of the conversation.
I shouldn’t say the Indian way is to deliver a monologue, but this [first] book gives very little space to the reader. It’s me chattering on unstoppably, the way I’m doing now, and there’s no way for the reader to slip in between the sentences. When you talked about the ways we went to Japan, I went there to learn about listening, to learn about silence, and to learn about attentiveness; those were not things I’d learned, especially in England or in Santa Barbara. The Japanese are really good at putting all their attention at what’s external to themselves. It’s very moving and it’s humbling, especially to those of us who are babbling away, because they will remember every last unspoken word as well as spoken word. You can’t live in Japan for 20 years without wanting to try to learn from and absorb some of the things you so respect and love in it. This [most recent] book is a very eccentric reflection of that.
That’s really interesting. I hadn’t thought about it in that way, but I agree completely that this [most recent book] is like a six-mat tatami room in Japan with one little sprig of a bloom and that’s about it.
Yes… Don DeLillo wrote a short, elliptical, mystical novel about a year ago called Point Omega that is largely set in the Sonoran Desert, and he says something like, ”The less there was to see, the harder you looked, and the harder you looked, the more there was to see.” I love that sense that emptiness draws you in and actually invites you to a kind of intensity that repletion wouldn’t. When I did move to Japan, I moved from the 25th floor of an office building four blocks away from Times Square to a temple in the back streets of Kyoto where I hoped to live for a year and where I lasted exactly a week. But still, it was a movement from saturation and information and distraction to a hope for clarity.
So I can see how as a travel writer, your goal has changed. In this [first] book, you’re trying to convey pop-pop-pop-pop-pop information. What do you try to do now in your travel writing?
I interpret transport much more metaphorically. The more that I’ve traveled, the more I see that when we talk about being moved or being transported, it has very little to do with Amtrak trains, or A380s. It even doesn’t have so much to do with the destination, but much more to what we bring to that destination, and to those things that transform us precisely because we can’t articulate them. When we go to see the Taj Mahal, if it changes our life, it’s in some way that probably doesn’t really have so much to do with that beautiful building but a lot to do with the questions or issues or romantic dilemmas that we bring to it for which it’s just a catalyst, a participant in a conversation.
It goes back to your previous question, I think travel is much more internal, not just for me but for all of us now, because we can physically travel so much more easily, even within our own rooms or within our own cities. When we actually physically move and when we go across the world, it’s in order to really go to some unvisited abyss or desert or wonder inside ourselves. ”I measure distance inwardly,” Thoreau said, and it’s one of my favorite lines. He always said, to travel and to describe new lands is to have new thoughts and think new imaginings. I think he had this very keen sense that really, as important as the Grand Canyons and the Antarctics on the planet, are those chilly places and empty spaces in ourselves that we have to attend to. I suppose like many of us I personally try to balance my life between staying in one place, where I can look unsparingly into those spaces in myself I’d rather avoid, and then traveling, so I can literally see what the physical world is and how it changes. Life would be insufficient if I didn’t have both aspects in the equation.
Where did you go last year?
I’ve been fascinated of late by Jerusalem—many people in this room have been there I’m sure—and one thing that’s fascinating to me is, it’s not beautiful, comfortable, pleasant, easy or peaceful, but it’s extremely charismatic and powerful and textured. You used the word complicated, textured, a minute ago, and that’s the word for Jerusalem. It’s almost like a man in a tattered overcoat standing on a street corner ranting and raving, but his ranting and raving is so passionate, unexpected, and powerful that you can’t stop listening. He actually compels your attention much more powerfully than the woman dressed in the beautiful Dior dress or a much more conventionally charming person standing next to him. I find Beirut, Damascus, and Jerusalem are three of the most charismatic, magnetic places I’ve seen, but in radically different ways even though they are almost within driving distance of one another.
I was thinking just this morning on the plane from Seattle that one of the interesting things about Jerusalem is that the fellow tourists are really interesting. Because—it goes back to what I was saying three minutes ago—what they bring to Jerusalem is something much more than a typical sightseer or pilgrim or voyager, the extent of hope, of faith and intensity. I was staying on New Year’s Day last year in a little convent on the Via Dolorosa, right at the first station of the cross, a few minutes away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a very unprepossessing modest place, like a hostel. Every morning at breakfast we sat around the table and chatted to whomever happened to be there. One morning there was a German woman probably in her mid-40s and an American in his early 60s. I said, ”Where do you come from— and they said, ”Oh, you wouldn’t know it. It’s this little place in California called Paso Robles,” and I said, ”My heavens! I come from Santa Barbara just down the street.” Then I said, ”How did you get here— (In my rather crass, unexalted way, I meant American Airlines or United. Are you a member of the Star Alliance or the One World network?) They said, ”We walked,” and it was true. They had met on the walk to [Santiago de] Compostela four or five years before and been so transformed by that experience, they decided to walk, and to walk together, the rest of their lives. They walked from Paso Robles to Jerusalem: one year across the United States, just staying in strangers’ houses along the way; then they flew to Portugal, another year from Portugal to Jerusalem. The woman had broken her leg and spent a month in a hospital in Italy. She was still on crutches when I met her, but on crutches she was hobbling down those uneven, unpaved streets to the Church of the Sepulchre every morning. Really it was as remarkable to meet them as to see the places I’d come to love in Jerusalem.
When I was young, I probably thought, why go across the world not just to count the cats in Zanzibar but to meet other people from Santa Barbara and Berkeley? I thought, I don’t want to meet fellow tourists. It’s taken me a long while to see that they have just as much to give me as any of these quasi-exotic places I’m seeking out.
I so fell under the spell of Jerusalem that two years ago I took my mother there. She’s a professor of religions, but had never been there, and of course it was the perfect place for her. We traveled around one day with a tour guide, an Israeli person who was just fascinating, and at the end of the day he said, ”Are you completely confused— We were. He said, ”Are you feeling frustrated because you know less than you knew at the beginning of the day— We said, ”Yes, it’s all spinning in our heads,” and he said, ”Good. I’ve succeeded. I’ve made you feel like an Israeli.” He said that in a spirited way but in a very sincere way. He said, ”Our land and our history are so complicated, we don’t know what’s going on. We just know there are all these stimulations coming from all these different directions and an answer seems ever more elusive.” But that’s part of the fascination with the process, that we can’t put it in a box, we can’t draw it into a conclusion. I love that he was explicitly taking us on a journey to ignorance and said, ”My job is to make you feel confounded and not knowing whether you’re looking east or west.” Even a tour guide as well as a fellow tourist is fascinating in Jerusalem.
What was it that drew you to Jerusalem originally?
The same things that would draw anybody, and I must say that in that sense it moved me in all the ways I expected it would move me. It wasn’t a surprise to find this intense place which was both the site of our holiest dreams and our most human betrayals of those dreams in every second. Even so, I never expected in the space of 300 square meters to see not just three sites of three major religions, but people living them out so intensely… I would stand on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the sun fell every day and there would be angelic choirs coming from the Lutheran church nearby, there would be the Greek Orthodox hymns rising up from the basilica below. I would wend my way down that crooked stairway that many people in this room surely know, and I’d hear the Ethiopians wailing and moaning from their ancient bibles and rocking back and forth. Then I would go in just as the light was completely falling and walk into the church itself where a lot of Russian people were, kissing the slab where Jesus is believed to have died. I’m not a Christian, but just to be in the presence of that degree of intensity, it’s like being in the Jokhang Temple in Tibet, where you see people who’ve walked for 300 miles, sometimes prostrating themselves every foot of the way to get there, and prostrating themselves in front of the temple from dawn to midnight, day after day after day. You see them by the flickering half-light of the candle surrounded by what are for them among the most holy statues and icons. You can barely make out their faces but you can see the tears running down, and these streaked faces where you can see the dirt that has accumulated from five, six months of hard, hard travel, three months at least. Just the emotion of finally having attained this holy city—all the more so these days because it’s an imperiled and isolated holy spot for the Tibetans. Whatever your religious background or lack of religious background, you feel, just to be in the presence of people who are feeling so much and have brought so much to this place, is a real privilege. In Jerusalem you get a lot of that.
Beautiful. That’s why travel is my religion.
It’s an act of surrender.
It’s an act of humility, and it’s a leap of faith—literally—because you’re trusting in the world. One reason I travel is that when I’m at home, I’m completely straight-jacketed in my assumptions. Again, I’m like this kid [in my first book]. I think I know it all. I think I’m on top of the world, that I can plan my life for the next ten years in ten minutes. The minute you’re in a bus in India, forget it. Nothing is in your control. You’re reminded of all the much higher forces, whether you ascribe religious names to them or just call them nature or fate or time or providence, there they are, and you are a speck on the horizon that they’re going to bat about randomly. It’s a very tough kind of shock therapy, but it’s good. The more that you are stuck within your own assumptions, the better it is suddenly to be plunged into the middle of that nowhereness. I think that’s probably a little bit of what religion is for somebody who’s really committed to it.
When you were young, travel was a vehicle to get from home to school and then back home and then back to school. When did travel start being something else for you?
Probably when I was 17. I was very lucky to grow up flying back and forth between England and California from the age of 9 as a little boy, so it meant I was at home in planes. I was used to traveling alone. Everywhere was half foreign. I couldn’t take anywhere for granted, even California or England. I could see each through the eyes of the other. It disqualified me for many things, such as being part of a community or committing myself to a single country or even embracing a neighborhood, but it did qualify me for other things having to do with displacement. I remember when I was 17, I spent one summer visiting India, my parents’ homeland, essentially for the first time, meeting my uncles and aunts and grandmothers. Then I returned for a final three months at school, and then I spent the next three months in Santa Barbara working as a busboy in a Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant.
Wait, wait, time out. You worked as a busboy in a Pancho Villa?
Yes, generously pouring hot sauce into customers’ laps, pouring water into the hot sauce place, entrusted only to clear up plates and I couldn’t even manage that. I only had to do it for three months, luckily, and then I got in a bus and rode from Tijuana down to La Paz, Bolivia. Then I flew up the west coast of South America through Brazil and Suriname to Trinidad, got to Miami, and then took a Greyhound bus home. I’m just telling all that as a way of saying by that time, travel had already become my home. I was most at home on the road, alone, not knowing what was around me, and exalting in all of that.
It was shortly thereafter that I decided to turn it to advantage. I studied nothing but English for eight years getting nothing but more unemployable with each passing year—let’s hope there are no English majors in this audience—and then I thought, well the only thing I’ve learned to do is read, write, and travel, so I’d better try to alchemize these into some kind of profession. So then I started doing it ostensibly as a profession, but really because it was second nature and something I felt comfortable doing.
One of the things I most appreciated in travel and do still is that it confronts you with moral and emotional tangles that it’s easy to sleepwalk past, to sidestep in one’s everyday life. You arrive on the streets of Havana and a stranger comes up to you, a Cuban, and shows you everything for a week, and couldn’t be kinder and more understanding and sympathetic, never asks for anything, opens all the doors of his country to you, and really gives you Cuba. Then, just as you’re about to board the plane, he says, ”Please will you get me a green card— What do you do with that? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but it’s a really important question to think about. When you’re in the same situation at home, somehow it’s easier to slide away from it, but there, when you return to your home, all you’re thinking about is this Cuban person waiting at the airport for a letter from his new friend that’s either going to open a new door or is going to, not close the door, but allow him some way to keep the hope alive in a situation with very little hope. It’s one of the things I love about Graham Greene; more than any other traveler, that’s what he was interested in, how to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Travel asks you that question at every second.
It’s difficult that the more you open yourself up to the world, the more rewards you get, but the more you expose yourself to that kind of very, very difficult situation. Someone’s taken you into their life, you’ve taken someone into your life, and suddenly they ask you something that’s almost impossible for you to do.
Yes, beautifully said.
What do you do?
Exactly. The openness is the reason you’re traveling in the first place. You can’t not be open and you can’t not take seriously that plea. As you know I’ve spent a lot of time seeing the Dalai Lama travel and one of the things that so moves me about him is that wherever he goes, the first question he asks is, what can I give these people? And the second is, what can I learn from them? I think having those two questions in mind, even if you filter out all the others, is a very good searchlight to take one through any journey. Of course, most of us can’t live up to the Dalai Lama’s example or precedent, but just the fact that he’s thinking in those terms is liberating I’d say.
What’s in your head when you arrive someplace for the first time?
I’m intoxicated. I don’t drink so this is my closest equivalent, my drug of choice, I suppose. I just walk, walk, walk, walk because nothing will replace or supersede that first impression, and the first impression really is worth the next thousand days combined. Propel me into Prague tomorrow—I’ve never been there—and especially when I’m jetlagged and even more discombobulated and cracked open to the world, I’ll just walk and walk and walk, through the night if necessary—10 hours, 12 hours, 16 hours—scribbling things down, but more than that, in that maximal stage of alertness. The reason I think that first encounter is so important is that at the end of the first day, I’ve begun to form ideas about Prague. I’ve begun to create my new prejudices and after that I’m only gathering things that will confirm them or be adornments around them. But in that state of absolute openness, I’m hearing Prague and responsive to it, trying to let it tell me what it is as powerfully and strongly as I can.
Somebody was asking me a few days ago, ”Do you ever take a holiday— That is arguably the difficult paradox of a travel writer. Every now and again I’d tell myself, put the notebook away, go to Hawaii with my wife, and just lie back, and I found I wasn’t getting anything out of the trip. By this I mean, as soon as I got my notebook out, I was motivated to start walking the streets again, to look around, to transcribe, to ask questions of it, to try and go around the corner and see many things that I couldn’t see. When the notebook was in my pocket, I’d probably sit in a hotel room watching NBA games or something like that, which is relaxing. You and I are in a very unusual position. If I was spending 50 weeks a year in an office, all I’d want to do is go to Hawaii and lie on a beach. If I was at home looking after young children, I would really need that break. But since you and I are on permanent vacation, when we go somewhere, it’s much more interesting to be engaged in a dialogue than just to be sitting in a theater and have the place unspool slowly in front of you.
I always found that when I didn’t take notes, I would return home and I’d really wonder where I’d been or why I’d been, and I would have nothing tangible. It would be like a dream that was very pleasant and then vanished entirely from consciousness. But as soon as I was engaging it in a dialogue—asking questions, wanting to find out more about it, impelled to try and see more of its aspects—then it would set into motion a conversation that would never end ideally. I was happy for the notebook, as the camera or the sketchbook—it doesn’t have to be writing. If you give yourself a project somewhere, instantly it becomes a much richer experience and you actually see more of the place even though you imagine you’re just looking into your viewfinder or looking at the sketchbook. In fact, you’re putting all your senses on the setting marked ”on” and you’re fully alive. You’re innocent again.
For you as for me, writing is a critical part of that conversation. Writing is a dialogue that you’re doing with yourself and with the place. So you arrive in Prague and you’re restlessly stumbling around the city, and you’re also stopping to write in your journal. I assume that you have to force yourself to stop to write because it’s this sort of parallel thing: you want to be writing continually but you also want to be experiencing continually. So how do you navigate that?
I scribble lots and lots of notes very, very quickly almost while I’m walking, and luckily they’re illegible so I misread my own handwriting and come up with very creative word choices when I’m back at my home. I actually don’t stop too much, or I’ll stop for 15 minutes when I need to get a cup of tea or something and write it all down then and there.
One of the things that moves me about Graham Greene is that he couldn’t understand how people could keep their sanity without writing—whether or not it’s for publication—just as a way to make sense of the mess of every day that comes in on us every moment, to put it into a kind of pattern, to think through what you’ve taken in and make sense of it. Writing is the way that you and I make a clearing in the wilderness. That’s how we make our path through life. Do you write articles while you’re actually traveling or do you just take notes?
What’s your secret? Do you take notes as you’re walking or do you back to the hotel room, take a break, and do your notes then?
A little bit of both. But I go back to the hotel room, definitely, and write, or go to a café and sit and write, observe and reflect.
And then do you write the piece as soon as you get home?
It depends what’s happening when I get home. Because often there’s a backlog of other pieces that I was supposed to have written before I went. But yes, ideally. Often, as I’m sure you know, you’re trying to recall something half a year later and it’s not quite as vivid as it was the moment that you experienced it, so that’s where the notes come in really, really handy.
I’ve come to think that memory is a better editor than the conscious mind. In that sense, six months after the trip, I can much more see those six moments or three moments that really moved and transformed me than I can when I’m just out of the bombardment.
You’re filtering it.
Yes. In that sense, that’s the difference between this book and that book: This [first] book is transcribing instantly as soon as I’m off the plane and that [most recent book] is letting 20 years pass to see what rises of its own accord to the top of one’s mind.
What places rise to the top of your mind?
I’ve been thinking a lot about Cuba of late because I miss it. I used to go every year and I haven’t been for many, many years. Japan is not at the top of my mind, only because it’s so deep inside my heart, and Tibet is deeply inside my sensibility, though I am not a Tibetan Buddhist. But I think Cuba is the most complicated place and therefore the most involving place that I’ve been to. I would say the most romantic, the most disenchanted, the happiest, the saddest, and the most irresolvable in some ways. In that regard, I never stop thinking about it. That’s why, when my friends come up to me and say, ”Where would you recommend taking a holiday— I always would say Cuba.
What part of you do you see in Cuba?
It’s probably a counter-me. Most of us, when we’re drawn to somebody, are either drawn to somebody who echoes us or somebody who is exactly the opposite of us. I think Cuba was a good influence on somebody coming from English boarding school—you’ve got Carnival and you’ve got people in morning dress reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin in a classroom from 1440; I think you’ve got something to work with. Graham Greene worked with it in Our Man in Havana. It’s a wonderful dynamic place, but also the stakes are so high.
You and I and the people in this room are among the very few people on the planet who’ve probably never known hunger, homelessness or war. I think all of us in this room travel in part to see how the other half lives, which is actually the other 99 percent of the people on the planet. Again, it raises unsettling, disquieting questions for the likes of you and me. We fly into Cuba and when that person comes up to us with that request for the green card, it’s a life and death thing for him, and in fact, even to approach us can be a huge risk because he will fall under the eye of the authorities. We have a kind of diplomatic immunity. Nobody in Cuba or Iran or any of those places is likely to give us a hard time. But the locals are in a much more charged position. You realize that when you spend that afternoon with him, it’s a moving occasion you can recollect in The Herbst 15 years later, but for him, his whole life is hanging on that moment and what is likely to come out of it. That’s humbling. That poses challenges that I think I’m usually not up to but they’re worth confronting. For those of us who live in a life of ease, it’s good to be confronted with unease and discomfort. ”Everywhere man wants to be settled,” Emerson said, ”but only in so far as he’s unsettled is there hope for him.”
When you’re planning your year out and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to go, how do you decide, I’m going to go here next?
My first commitments are to family and my second to my bosses; that doesn’t leave much scope for other things. I can take maybe one trip a year to a new place. Actually, I think there comes a time in your life—and this goes back to your first question, the difference between this book and that one—when I found I was much more enjoying meeting old friends than trying to find new ones. You didn’t have to introduce yourself to them. You could assume a context and a history. You could resume the conversation where you’d left off—as you and I can from 2 years ago or 10 years ago—and instantly you’re in the context of a much greater depth. Whereas with a new friend, it’ll take many years probably to get to that stage. In the same way, I started rereading books that I loved. Of course they were always changing and I was always changing, so it was like reading a new book, but you knew what was going to happen and there were certain things you weren’t distracted by.
In the same way I love revisiting places that I’ve watched grow up. It’s like meeting a friend’s daughter. You see her when she’s in that state of being an innocent 11-year-old, and then you see her when she’s 30 years old. A small part of you mourns the loss of that innocence, but a larger part of you is thrilled that she is now ready to take on the adult world and has made the transition that she needs to. She’s looking at you with different eyes also. When I go back again and again to a Thailand or Cuba or Tibet or many of the places with which I’ve formed a bit of a relationship over my life, I feel I will probably get much more than if I’m suddenly plunked down in Prague. Prague will give me the excitement of first discovery, but they will give me the depth of a lifelong conversation.
I have a list of places that I’ve always wanted to see, but if I never see them that’s fine. I’ve been lucky enough, unusually lucky, to see many of the places I’ve wanted to see. They live strongly enough inside my head—I’ve read about them, I’ve thought about them, I have a vivid sense of what and who they are—so if somebody were to say, You have to stay in rural Japan the rest of my life, part of me would exult and say, I can find everything I need right here. There’s somebody in the audience who pointed out to me that when you walk into certain temples in Kyoto, there’s a sign that says, ”Look beneath your feet.” In other words, don’t go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Everything you need is right here. If one were forced to confront that reality, no bad thing. I suppose I shouldn’t say that at an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions! Pretend I didn’t say it — let’s delete it.
Well, you have to travel a lot before you come to that realization.
That’s right. Tick off 88 percent of the places on your list. Thank you, Don.
Is there one quintessential travel experience that embodies for you the value and the potential of travel? Can you think of something?
I can. Do you mind my telling a story? I hope I haven’t told it before and I’m not becoming like the party bore reciting the same thing time after time.
I’d love to hear it.
I vividly remember when I went to southern Yemen a few years ago. Actually, by chance, I’d been there at the age of two in 1959 in the little port of Aden. In 1959 Aden was the largest port in the world outside Manhattan because it was the place where all the British ships stopped for refueling as they traveled between Britain and India. But when I went back to Aden a few years ago, it was really the most broken, desperate place I think I’ve ever seen: no shops, no houses, no playgrounds, goats foraging in the main street. When the occasional car would stop at a red light, sunken-cheeked old women would come and hammer on the windows asking for a handout. There’s nothing there because it had been through 40 years of war. I finally found a hotel on the beach, but every time I went into the hotel, I had to walk through a security machine as at our airports. I walked out onto the beach as soon as I arrived and it was absolutely empty. Then I noticed on one side of me, five armed men with AK-47s. On the other side of me, five armed men with AK-47s. Nobody enjoying the beach, but ten men on guard, I suppose protecting me from southern Yemen. As you know, and everybody in this room knows, in places like that of desperate need, you get humbled by the kindness. Everybody there couldn’t have been friendlier, they were fascinated with America, but also they were just extending themselves to me because they could see that I was the only tourist there. They were offering to show me around or share their stories or keep me company, so I had a very rich couple of days there.
Then when it came time for me to fly out—I was going on Yemenia, which is not a part of the Star Alliance or the One World system—somebody came to me in the hotel lobby and said, ”Oh, by the way, your flight’s been cancelled.” And I said, ”For how long— And he said, ”Three or four days,” but the way he said that, I thought probably three or four years, possibly three or four lifetimes. I felt there was no way of getting out of Aden, and my wife was waiting to meet me the next day in Greece and my bosses were anxiously waiting for my report from there, so I had to leave. I found out from a very, very kind lady in the Yemenia office that the only way I could leave Yemen was to drive right across the heart of the country—this was 9 o’clock in the evening—a six-hour drive for a flight that would leave the next morning from northern Yemen at 6 a.m. Now this was not good news to me because northern Yemen and southern Yemen had been at war with one another for a long, long time. It was not good news to me because I happened to know that the main traditional source of income in these places was the kidnapping of foreigners. And it was also not good news to me because I knew there was barely a road there. But I finally found—and it was getting very late now for a six-hour drive, check-in was at four in the morning—this old man who was, I suppose, so needy that he was ready to get in the car and drive me—for what would be a pittance for us but was a lot of money for him—all the way across the country. He could barely look over the driver’s wheel. He’d probably never been behind a driver’s wheel before.
We set off into the darkness. At first there were the lights of trucks coming at us and then it was pitch black. We were up in the high places of Yemen, which are very, very high and absolutely dark except for the tower houses eerily shining, the medieval tower places that looked like they’re ready for full-out sieges. I looked on one side of the car and it was a sheer precipice. Then it began to rain and we began swerving this way and that way. Then we turned around a corner and suddenly there was a clatter of seven teenage boys with Kalashnikovs gathering around the driver. I showed them the passport and he paid them off, I guess, and we drove on a bit. Then there was another group of boys with more guns around the next corner, and then another boy. It was a perfect example of what we were just talking about: very soon I realized there is nothing I can do to bring this to a happy ending, to control this, to make this go as I would like. I just have to pray or to surrender or close my eyes, or all of the above.
The rain was falling more and more heavily, it was getting darker and darker, and suddenly, in the middle of this emptiness, he stopped and just walked out into the night. I was sitting in the back seat. He strolled back about 15 minutes later, and, of course he and I had no words in common, but I pointed angrily at my watch and he opened his hand to disclose a bar of chocolate and a can of Coke. He was worried on my behalf that I had missed my dinner and he’d gone out and somehow found dinner for me and nothing for himself.
We kept on driving and just as the first call to prayer was coming up, we arrived in the capital, the huge oil drums in the middle of the empty streets just like in south-central LA. It really seemed like a war zone. We got to the terminal with minutes to spare. I gave him his money and raced into the terminal. I checked in and four hours later, there I was in Dubai, where they’re selling Maseratis in the airport, with the Armani café and ski slopes in the shopping malls, a seven-star hotel not far away. Most of all I’m thinking that this poor man has to make all the drive back. Who knows if he would make it. Who knows what he would have to go through without me, having to pay off those boys. I’m not sure he’d ever made that trip before. So what for me, again, was a story I would share with you many years later was for him an everyday occurrence. What for me was so dramatic and terrifying, he had known probably 96 percent of the days of his existence.
The final part of the story is that when I got back at the end of that trip to Santa Barbara, I was sitting in my room in this place of great gated comfort and I was thinking, how can I possibly put this place of privilege even in the same sentence as Yemen? They don’t seem to belong to the same planet. I was literally sitting at my desk thinking about this when my mother raced in and she said, ”That crazy place you just went to is in the news. It’s in all the headlines right now. We’re being told it’s a center of evil.” I had gone to Yemen five weeks before 9-11 and on 9-11 we were suddenly reminded that Yemen is where Osama bin Laden’s home village is. It’s a famous hotbed of Al-Qaeda terrorists—hence all the security in my hotel. It was the site of the previous attack against the United States, the blowing up of the USS Cole in Aden harbor, right outside my hotel 10 months previously. Instantly we were being told that in some ways it was our moral duty to wipe this place off the face of the earth. There’s a truth to that, because it is full of mischief-makers who have murderous designs on us and it is one of the most incendiary, anti-American places in parts. But of course just by virtue of being there, I remembered all the people I’d met—their faces, their voices, their longings for America. I think many of them probably had relatives in New York, maybe even in the World Trade Center, people who couldn’t have been nicer, couldn’t have been more sympathetic to America, and couldn’t have been more human.
I think that’s the main difference. If you’re sitting in Santa Barbara and you hear the word Yemen, Yemen translates to a government, Al-Qaeda, or certain interests that are hostile to our own. As soon as you get off in Yemen, or any country in the world, Yemen means that kid who’s smiling at you, that person who’s offering you a can of Coke or a myriad other things. First it becomes human, second it becomes impossible to hate, and third it becomes something much more nuanced and complex than any of our ideological assumptions, on Right or Left, can begin to do justice to.
That’s a long story and it’s one of myriad—and everybody in this room has many such stories—but it just reminded me that it was a really uncomfortable trip, but I was so grateful for the rest of my life that when somebody says the word Yemen, I can think about the man who showed me around the cemetery where his parents and all his siblings had died in war. I could think about that old man who drove me, and I could think about the woman in the Yemenia office. Yemen would never have that reductive meaning for me. I probably got much more out of that trip than when I’d been to Paris or Venice or one of those places that are much more seductive in obvious ways.
If there were a button that said ”publish,” I would just push that button.
I think most of the people in this room actually are seeking out these kinds of unusual places for these same reasons. I’m not saying anything that everybody here doesn’t know or hasn’t experienced already, I suspect.
A tad more eloquently perhaps than most of us would say it. It was beautiful and I think just to reference GeoEx, that’s exactly why they do what they do. GeoEx is all about getting people out into the world so that they bring back that sense of connection and understanding. What you just said was a beautiful encapsulation of all of the difficulties and riches and contrasting feelings that we have when we travel, when we’re put in difficulty and suddenly someone does something that shocks us with its kindness that we never expected. The context changes automatically and suddenly you think, I have such a better understanding of that place that I’ll carry with me the rest of my life now. I loved what you said about Yemen. That it’s a hot button for so many people and for you it’s this complicated mosaic of people and encounters and deprivations and riches.
Thank you. It’s a story but much more important, it’s a question or it’s a challenge. In fact, the story and the drama and the adventure are the least important aspect of it. It’s what one carries with one forever, the Yemen that keeps on turning in one’s head, which has not just to do with the real country but the reminder of what it speaks for—and many other countries, too—and what I have never had to encounter or only had to encounter one day of my life instead of every day. That’s always a tonic thing.
Everything in that story was wonderful to me, but I’ll never forget the chocolate bar. I’ll never look at chocolate bars the same way again. What an amazing moment.
And we had no words in common, as I say, but we formed a very strong sense of fellowship, as you can imagine, over the course of that night. I think we were both so relieved when we made it to the capital. He was probably relieved when I safely made it to the terminal and was able to pay him. I’m hoping he got back safely.
He’s still driving in your head and always will be.
And he may be remembering that crazy foreigner who inflicted that trip on him.
I’m going to ask you one last question, going back to the original question I asked so long ago. I want to show you this picture—this is Pico’s new book [The Man Within My Head] and this is the author photo on his new book. What do you see when you look at that picture?
Professional photographer! I found this wonderful photographer in Toronto a few years ago who has the great gift of making you feel absolutely relaxed and you forget he’s there. He’s just the nicest, sweetest person ever. We talk just like I’m talking to you and then suddenly he says, ”I’ve taken a hundred photos.” He catches something that is very hard for photographs to catch, and then if, cunningly, you only choose the best one of all those pictures, you can give a totally unrepresentative view, like here.
This angle is more reflective. It’s looking sideways rather than out.
No one’s ever going to ask me this question again, which is a register of what a great question it is. Hmm. It looks meditative, balanced. Somebody once asked me, ”Why do you travel— I said, ”In search of ambiguity.” A few years later I saw an interview with Graham Greene and they asked him just before his death, ”Why do you travel— He said, ”In search of ambiguity,” so if nothing else I’m in good company. These eyes look very much pitched towards ambiguity, not ready to come to conclusions, and ready to see what’s coming next. Maybe a little wary, but I hope not.
Very much more open to the world than this one [on Video Night in Kathmandu].
Thank you for noticing that. I wouldn’t have guessed, but you’re right, I hope. Even though this [first] one thought he was open to the world.
Yes, but in a different way.
When I look at that picture and when I look at you, and I think I speak for everybody here, I see someone I admire tremendously, for their eloquence, their open-heartedness, their open-mindedness, their incredible humanity. We love what we see. Thank you very much.
Thank you, Don.
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Pico Iyer’s new book is The Man Within My Head. In previous years, he’s published two novels and seven other works of non-fiction, including Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk, and The Global Soul.