“They say travel broadens the mind,” says G.K. Chesterton, adding, “but you must have the mind.” Further, that mind must be both attentive and reflective, independent and philosophical, and must be gifted with a rare ability to regard itself.
Perhaps that is the reason so much travel writing is shallow and silly — no brains. It is certainly the reason that great travel writing has a special claim to our reading it. It is the record of someone who went into the unknown (it need not be Tombouctou, it could be Las Vegas) and describes more than just what he or she saw.
Beyond the scenery and even the people, the traveler finds a self born of observation, one freed of the verdigris of habit, polished shiny by the new, and turned poet by the experience.
“The city caught by surprise, going about its private rites while the bulldozers, churning in the little lanes, all the neon now turned off, grind back and forth, back and forth, removing the evidence of night.” This is dawn in prosaic Bangkok observed by the jet-lagged traveler.
But, instead of joking or complaining, this traveler reasons that “because jet lag is so much a part of my life now, I tell myself I will make the most of it — attend to it, enjoy its disruptions, as I would those of a geographically foreign place.”
This the traveler can do because he is Pico Iyer, one of the most intelligent and compassionate of writers. He knows, as he later says, that jet lag can cure you (though temporarily) of the illusion of self and that this is freedom — dreadful though it may seem.
It is one of the many gifts you receive if you keep your eyes open and fly into the foreign. Travel is a vocation, a necessary one. Iyer would agree with another writer of travel, Robert Louis Stevenson, when he says: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
Iyer’s wonderful new book is a collection of astute views caught in passing and here preserved — shots taken on the fly (the traveler is always moving) and revealed from this oblique angle.
In this latest collection, the author of “Video Night in Kathmandu” and “The Global Soul” again gives himself the chance “to confront the questions and challenges that he would never see at home.” Travel remains a journey into whatever we can’t explain, or explain away.
He stops and talks with other fellow travelers — Leonard Cohen, the Dalai Lama (who “has had to enter the confusion and chaos of the Celebrity Age in order to fulfill his monastic duties”). He introduces the “haunted wanderer” W.G. Sebald and another unplaced author, Kazuo Ishiguro.
He takes us to Bali, Indonesia’s most tourist-infested island where, even now, “part of the excitement of being a foreigner . . . is that you can’t reduce the sights around you to everyday language.”
We travel to nominally unattractive places: southern Oman through less than lovely Aden (“the city is stretched out along the coast like a piece of gum that someone has been chewing for a very long time”); to Bolivia, where we learn that the traveler “travels, in part, to be stood on his head, to lose track of tenses or at least to be back to essentials, free of the detail of home.”
He spends the millennium on Easter Island, goes to Haiti and makes several trips to Cambodia, which he finds to be “a kind of emotional puzzle with spikes, and anyone who puts his hand into it emerges with bloodied fingers.”
And here is his celebrated 2002 essay on Tibet, where the Potala Palace is now a theme park surrounded by high-rise apartments and looking like an eastern Las Vegas: gleaming new buildings “full of boom boxes and signs for Giordano and Jeans West,” where the Tibetans, called barbarian by the occupiers, find that the “karaoke parlors and industrial cranes look to them truly barbaric,” and where Iyer wonders “how to put the terrible conditions you see around you together with the radiant sunlight.”
(This Tibet essay is available in the new issue of our most prestigious English-language publication, The Kyoto Journal, and is hence locally available. By all means acquire it but also get this collection as well because there is so much else.)
Born in Oxford, raised in India, Iyer is, one might say, a congenital traveler, a member of what another great travel writer Robert Byron called “the traveling species,” adding that “when the impulse is so imperious that it amounts to a spiritual necessity, then travel must rank with the more serious forms of endeavor.”
And travel writing the caliber of Iyer’s must rank with the more serious forms of literature.
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