Talking Travel with Pico Iyer and a book give-away

When I first read Pico Iyer’s book Video Night in Kathmandu, I was hooked. Reading Iyer’s words is a trip down streets that you may have traveled before but have not found the words to describe. When you read his prose, the tendency is to say, “Yes, that’s it.” For places one hasn’t been, he draws you into the scenes as if you are there looking at the world through his perceptive eyes.

Seven years ago, I met Iyer, who lives in Japan when he’s not traveling the world, at a writers symposium in New Delhi. As usual, there was a bit of trepidation in saying hello to a person whose work I admire. Like, what if this person I think so highly of turns out to be a jerk? There was no need for such concern. Iyer is as gracious and warm as his writing.

As fate has it, I was able to reconnect with him this past summer via e-mail. In between his recent trips to Sri Lanka and New Delhi to attend literary events earlier this year, Iyer answered my Talking Travel interview questions. In subsequent e-mails, I found out that we have a mutual admiration for Kentucky, Thomas Merton and Johnny Depp. Yes, they are connected. More on that later. That post is percolating.

In the meantime, here’s the interview where Iyer gives his impressions of honing into the essence of place, the Country Bear Jamboree, Atlanta, and more.

Bonus: This Talking Travel interview comes with a bonus for Gadling readers. This month Iyer’s book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama came out as a Vintage Books paperback. His publisher, Random House, will give away two copies of the book (shipping included). See the end of the interview for contest rules and how to win. Look for the book review on Wednesday.

1. What are your earliest memories of travel as a child that captured that sense of excitement and wonder?

I am walking down the street in Oxford–a grey street of red-brick houses–towards the local sweet-shop, and something in me recognizes that, though this place is the only one I’ve known, and though I feel the same as every one of the five year-old boys around me, it’s not mine, and therein lies a promise, a possibility.

I am being driven by my parents through the Alps, the first massed snow I’ve ever seen. I am stepping into a fancy lobby in a big hotel in Belgium (my father must be at a conference), and realizing the pleasure of rooms not one’s own. I am setting foot in Reykjavik Airport, during a transit stop on the cheapest flight then across the Atlantic, and faces are crowding in against the window to see a woman dressed in a sari, an extraterrestrial, as she might be in Iceland. She is my mother.

[photo taken by Alefiya Akabarally at the Galle Literary Festival in Sri Lanka this past January.]

2. One quality I’ve always admired about your writing is your ability to tap into the personality of a country. What advice do you have about tapping into the essence of a place?

Places are like people, with personalities just as distinct, and a travel writer, of course, is someone who aims to create not just a photograph of a place but a portrait. My advice would be to walk and walk and walk, as soon as you arrive, when the place is still new to you and every perception is fresh–the mind has not yet begun to settle into prejudices or arguments.

Take down everything and remember that anything (an Internet cafe, a Golden Arches, a shop selling TVs) is interesting, and revealing of the society around it. And try, wherever possible, to remember that you’ve come all this way–even if it’s only to another state–to enter a foreign state of mind, a different sensibility. The joy of travel is not being reminded of your assumptions, or being confirmed in your beliefs, but in being led out of them, to something utterly other and, perhaps, unfathomable.

3. As a person who is a master at picking just the right words to evoke images and moods of a place, how have you observed a particular country’s use of language influences the personality it projects? Or, do you notice these differences?

Alas, I travel only with English, broken or occasionally patched together again, and I’m not sure I am sensitive to the words around me at all. As you know, I did write a whole chapter in my book Sun After Dark on how India has remade the English that the British Empire brought to it, so as to create a new language, thoroughly Indian, richly spiced, funny and charming and freighted with innocence, that is the first step towards the remaking of English literature we’re seeing in countries such as India. People worry that the world is growing smaller, but my experience is that, even as two hundred countries speak English, that simply leads to 200 often mutually incomprehensible forms of English.

[photo of Iyer talking with writer William Dalrymple at the Jaipur Literature Festival this past January. ]

4. Although most of the time I read your work, I feel a certain aura of safety. In Sun After Dark you give an account of your trip to a prison that did not go so well. Was your danger radar off that day? What WERE you thinking?

I travel in search of difficulty (or at least of contradiction and unease and challenge)–and apart from that prison trip, that book describes a night-time drive through the mountains of Yemen, from which I thought I’d never emerge, visiting Ethiopia, where I was staying in a hotel next to the most wanted man in the world, bumping through the haunted night in Cambodia and walking into privation and near-revolution in Haiti. I have been lucky enough to live in relative safety–and comfort and peace–all my life, so when I travel, I am trying to go to places as different from my gated privilege as possible. I want to see what the world is like for the 99% of my neighbors in my global village who are not lucky enough to live in a resort town in California or in placid and very protected Japan.

That’s why I’ve spent 26 years now in war-zones and revolutions, as a journalist, and why the places I seek out are generally places of great strife or seeming suffering (I write this in Sri Lanka, where my guide here from my last trip was gunned down on his way to work three weeks ago). Some people work very hard in an office, and when they travel they want nothing but peace and ease. Many refugees, propelled out of their homes by war or threat, long only to get back to the places they’ve been obliged to leave. I am just a regular person who’s never had to fight for my life and who isn’t burdened by the pressures of the office, so when I travel I want to go to South Africa, to Beirut, to Cuba, or to anywhere that will remind me that my cosy life is not the norm.

5. What do you do to hone your senses so that you avoid bad situations, or do you think you’re more likely to go with the flow and hope for the best?

I do listen to my intuition, and assume that it always knows more than I do. Though I do seek out difficulty, I don’t want to place myself needlessly in the way of danger; I see no value in people from relatively safe places courting death just for the thrill of it. But travel is not about physical movement; it’s about trying to journey out of your assumptions into the eyes and shoes of another. If it can be done without harming the other, or yourself, it can only be good; if not, then one has to ask why one’s doing it.

6. As much as traveling can create the sense that one is connected to the world, it can also create the feeling of being unsettled. What do you do to stay grounded and keep track of yourself in the process?

I tend to be too settled, so I seek out being unsettled–at the very least, that can test the ground I have. Everywhere man is settled, as Emerson says, and only insofar as he unsettled is there any hope for him. I hope I have solid ground within me–I do after all spend two months a year in a monastery, and eight months in a monastic life in Japan (a two-room apartment without cellphone or printer or World Wide Web or car or bicycle), and I have been living in these simple cells now for more than 16 years, so I feel that I am rooted, as much as I need to be, in what is real and stable.

But to stay too long in these places that I know as well as my heartbeat would be to risk complacency, blindness and inertia. So I try to force myself out of my grooves, feeling that groundedness is what I have, unsettledness what I need.

7. With all the locations you’ve written about, what location totally surprised you-a place where you expected one thing, but found something completely different? Either for the good or the bad.

Atlanta, Georgia is, on paper, one of the great global players on the planet–the home of CNN, Coca-Cola, Holiday Inn and Delta Airlines. But spending weeks and months on end there in 1996, at the time of its Olympic Games, I wondered if it was global beneath the surface. I suppose I expected, I hoped for an easy acquaintance with the larger world of the kind one finds in a Miami or a Vancouver; but I found (with apologies to those who know Atlanta better than I do) a small town’s idea of what a big town should be, and a sense of power without a corresponding sense of confidence. Atlanta began to seem to be a force on paper more than in its heart or global imagination.

8. Is there a piece of travel wisdom someone told you that you took to heart? What was it?
The Dalai Lama always suggests that there’s no virtue in looking backward–the future is what we can change–and I suppose that is what has guided me in my traveling life. Most of the travelers I love and learned from are in some ways journeying back into the past, to explain the present; I, by making most of my central travels to places like Los Angeles Airport or the state of jet lag (or even to the monastery) have always pointed myself towards the future. My interest is not in what the world has been but what we can make of it, especially those 21st century citizens who are, to some degree, children of possibility (alarming or pretentious as that phrase might sound to some).

9. Wherever you go, from what I gather, you seem to feel comfortable. Are there settings that feel odd to you? Ones where you ask yourself, how did I end up here anyway?

I like being by myself, so I’m not always at ease at big parties or among large groups of people. And, having grown up with movement, I haven’t always excelled at placing myself within a home, a family or a community. But I see any of these discomforts as something to be cherished, ways of confronting what, left to myself, I’d try to avoid. I suppose I do see every situation or setting as a possibility, and to fight against it would be to do it, and myself a disservice. Better to see what one can produce together.

10. When you arrive back home after a long trip, what are the things you do to slip back into your at home routine?
Alas, my home routine very quickly slips back into me. Within 36 hours of my return–certainly after one full day at home–I am back at my desk, taking walks (on foot and in the imagination), gobbling down tea and yogurt, going to sleep again at 8:30 p.m. Jet lag helps keep one unsettled and out of joint for a while, but left to my own devices I can very quickly resume the routine that I took the trip to break out of. Indeed, it’s the persistence and power of routine that probably these days moves me to travel, as I would never do otherwise.

11. I tend to see you in unusual locations-the almost off the map sort of locations. Let’s talk about mainstream.

Have you ever been to Disney World or Disneyland? If so which ride was your most favorite and why?
I go to Disneyland–and to Tokyo Disneyland–all the time, and I grew up on Space Mountain, while sustaining a lingering affection for the Country Bear Jamboree. My traveling life was probably begun in the frenzy of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, and I screamed for a good (or bad) eight years or so at the Matterhorn, but it’s the country-and-western jingles of the fiddling raccoons and drawling bears that may have made (or unmade) me for life.

I should say that I do spend most of my life in mainstream locations–if monasteries count as such–and I think that they are just as interesting, rich and rare as Easter Island or North Korea. In my experience, the destination has never been very important; all that matters is the awakened eye you can (or cannot) bring to it. As Thoreau famously put it, to paraphrase a bit, “It matters little how far you go, the farthest commonly the worst. The only important thing is how alive you are.

12. And one more. Is it a small world after all?

It’s a huge, heterogeneous, endlessly various and surprising world, only made small by our illusions that distance has disappeared. I think the differences and distances between places are now perhaps as great as they have ever been, partly because of the illusion of closeness.

To enter the contest for the chance to win a copy of the book The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

  • Simply leave a comment below telling us one of the places where you’ve traveled that made you wish you could capture its essence on paper.
  • The comment must be left before Monday, March 23 at 5:00 PM Eastern Time.
  • You may enter only once.
  • Two winners will be selected in a random drawing.
  • These two random winners will each receive a copy of the paperback book The Open Road, (valued at $14.95)
  • Click here for complete Official Rules.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States, including the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.