British-born, with Indian parents and a childhood spent in California, Pico Iyer is one of the most respected travel writers today. Tim Chester asks Pico about lessons learned, packing and the evolution of travel.
I was lucky in that I was really a traveller at birth: I was born to Indian parents in Oxford, England and we moved to California when I was seven. So from an early age, I could think of England and India and California as places that were and were not mine, places with which I had some connection but to which I never fully belonged. Everywhere was foreign to me, and therefore intriguing, partially unknown, sometimes exotic.
And then, when I was nine – such was the strength of the dollar then – I began travelling alone, by plane, six times a year, back to boarding school in England (which was cheaper, plane fares included, than the local private school in Santa Barbara), and then back to my parents’ home in California. So I came, at a relatively early stage, to relish the sensation of being alone in planes, spending time in airports, being surrounded by people who looked and sounded different from me – as well as all the distinctive liberations of being a foreigner.
I’m not sure I’m so interested in travel as in the criss-crossing of cultures, and all the weird and beautiful and unexpected combinations that result.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learnt from your travels?
The world is larger than our notions of it, and the only folly is to think you know someone or somewhere, can anticipate its movements or have travelled beyond surprise. The beauty of travel, as of love or terror, is that it regularly turns all your ideas on your head and reminds you that you really know nothing at all.
How do you travel differently later in life?
I choose my locations carefully – every year now I try to go to one place I’ve been longing to go to all my life. And I love going back to places to see how they have changed and I have. Thus I’ve been to Thailand more than 60 times now, and come to Japan more often than that. I’ve gone on retreat to my favourite monastery, in Big Sur, California, more than 70 times. And I also go back to the places of my youth – even places such as my hometown of Oxford, which I was always trying to flee – and see them now with the more forgiving and indulgent eye that the years can bring. It took me thirty years to realise that Oxford, the backyard I had always wanted to put behind me, is actually quite beautiful if you’re not blind to it.
What is the first thing you do when arriving in a new destination and why?
I walk, walk, walk, for as much as I can during my first few hours in a place and, if it’s too big to be seen on foot, I start taking buses to the end of the line. I try to engage with the place as much as I can in my first few hours there, when I’m wide-open, and before ideas and preconceptions have started to form; I get lost and fill myself with as many sights and sounds and smells as possible, at once orienting myself in a city and enjoying the new sensations that come with disorientation.
Of course wondrous things happen on every day of a trip, but I’m not quite as open or ready to be illuminated on the tenth day as on the first. And when I go home and start writing up a place, I find that most of my strongest impressions came in the drive in from the airport and in the first few hours.
Which one thing do you always pack when you embark on a journey?
A book to while away a ten hour delay or a long ride in a bus. And only certain kinds of books, of course, become ideal companions when you’re bumping through the Altiplano for days on end. So precisely the kind of book I might never have time for at home becomes a blessing, constant friend and alternative universe to lose myself in when stuck inside of Darjeeling with the Memphis blues again.
Where’s the most overrated place you’ve visited?
How can I answer that when someone from Atlanta might read this interview?
What was your most memorable meal on your travels?
Having been born and raised in England, I had my taste buds surgically extracted at birth; though interested in the world, I’m probably the least adventurous eater I know.
But that can open doors as well as close them. Recently, for example, I dined quite royally at a Burger King in central Kyoto, during Obon, the August festival when lanterns are set up above many of the city’s graves to guide departed spirits back to their earthly homes. I was offered a choice between an “Angry Chicken” set and an avocado burger, between an Irish lemonade and an espresso sundae. There were mango-and-banana drinks on the menu, and esoteric berry drinks.
At McDonald’s, down the street from me here in Japan, they serve Moon-Viewing Burgers at the time of the classic East Asian festival of the harvest moon; and pear sorbets, bacon potato pies, chicken tatsuta burgers and iced tea made of Earl Grey. Nowhere is uninteresting to the interested eye.
Where was the place that changed you and how?
Japan. Because, stuck in a layover at Tokyo’s airport in 1983, on my way back from Southeast Asia to New York, where I was living then, I decided to kill the few hours before my early-afternoon flight by taking a free shuttle bus into the little town of Narita.
The sense of wistful brightness in the late October day, the polished stillness of the narrow streets, the kids collecting acorns in the park outside Narita Temple – which turns out to be one of the great pilgrimage sites in all Japan – the whole mix of buoyancy and melancholy hit me with such force, and with such a mysterious sense of familiarity, that I decided I had to return here to explore this home I’d never known I had.
Three years later, I left my comfortable-seeming job to explore Japan and now, more than 25 years on I’ve never really left. One of the happier aspects of the global moment is that some of us can try to live in the secret homes that previously we’d only have dreamed about or visited very briefly.
Which country’s inhabitants have struck you the most and why?
I have sometimes found the people of Vietnam unusually impressive for their mix of steel and grace, and for the blend of poetry and prose I find in their culture. I love Cubans for their natural sauce and flair and intelligence and wit. I am constantly moved by the kindness and selflessness and attentiveness of my neighbours here in Japan. I am humbled by the emotions of many Tibetans I meet and I’ve seldom seen an unchic person in Paris.
I admire the Thais for their gift for turning charm to good use, and I like the mysteriousness and veiled qualities I’ve found in Indonesia. The locals I’ve met in Bolivia could not seem sweeter and more unspoiled and I’ve seldom met a people more intelligent and interesting, with a greater sense of humour and of history, than in Ontario, in Canada. I’m regularly stunned by the dignity and devotion I’ve met in the high places of Ethiopia. And who can resist the urbane charms and quicksilver wit of Beirutis, not to mention their impossibly glamorous sense of style?
Which one travel experience across the world should every reader add to their ‘bucket list’ and why?
Getting lost. Beyond that, there are no specifics, because two people, looking at the Jokhang Palace in Tibet or Petra in Jordan, can find epiphany or disappointment, depending on who they are. “The mind,” as Milton had it, “can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”
What one thing would make us all happier, better or more fulfilled travellers?
An open mind.
Does travel still feel as exotic or exciting – or even necessary – in a globalised, digital world?
Absolutely. I’ve always felt that wonder, terror and exoticism or excitement are in the eye of the beholder; it’s not a place that awakens them so much as what we bring to a place.
The digital world, to me, simply gives us more incentive to see the non-virtual world, the way a trailer may bring us to a new movie; the main thing seeing anywhere online, or on TV, does, for me at least, is excite a longing to see the place in the flesh, for which there can be no substitute. And in many places it’s travellers themselves who are as interesting as the sites they visit.
Should air travel be made more expensive?
No, no, no! There can never be too much exposure to the Other, for tourist or local, and one of the happiest aspects of my life has been to see travel become infinitely more democratic. If travel is a form of learning – and of difficult fun. There can surely never be enough of it.