My Perfect Adventure: Pico Iyer

One of the world’s foremost travel writers on why it’s important to immediately immerse yourself in a new place, his unabashed admiration for Emerson and Thoreau, and the magic that happened one day on a Tibetan rooftop

Pico Iyer.     Photo: Derek Shapton

"You can never meet a place—or a person—for the first time twice."

Pico Iyer is arguably the greatest living travel writer. Born in England to Indian parents who eventually moved to California, he was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard before establishing residence in both Japan and America, all the while wedging in more travel than most people will do in many lifetimes. It’s this simultaneous placelessness and placefulness that informs much of Iyer’s perspective; his website divides his work into two categories: “outerworld” and “innerworld.”

His father, the philosopher Raghavan Iyer, was a friend of the Dalai Lama’s, so Pico had access to the Tibetan leader early in his life and was wise enough to maintain the relationship into adulthood. Eventually, Iyer joined His Holiness on many trips throughout the world. In 2008, Iyer’s account of those voyages was published as The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.

In all, Iyer has written a dozen books, including, most recently, The Man Within My Head (in paperback on January 22), about his preoccupation with a fellow Englishman, the equally peripatetic writer Graham Greene. As prolific as he is worldly, Iyer also contributes articles and essays to a vast list of publications, including the New York Times, Harper’s, National Geographic, and Time.

For all Iyer has already done, he confesses that there are still places he yearns to see—he dreams of Iran and Antarctica, for instance—even while he fully realizes that travel is much less about where you go than what’s inside.

Describe your perfect day, from dawn until dusk. Where would you be, who would you meet, and what would you do?
To my horror and amazement, I’d have to choose a variation on the days I often know. I’d wake up in the monastery in Big Sur, California, where I’ve been spending time for the past 21 years, take a long walk above the Pacific, scintillant below, and sit and read in the silence of my private garden. Then I’d join my sweetheart at my favorite restaurant in the world, the Café Kevah at Nepenthe. We’d while away the afternoon on beaches and in galleries, check into the inimitable and changeless Big Sur Inn and set the alarm clock for midnight, so we could drive down to the Esalen Institute at 1 a.m., when it opens its magical baths to the public and allows even wayfarers like ourselves to sit above the crash of the surf below, under the darkness and stars.

If you could travel somewhere you've never been, where would you go and why?
Without question, Iran. In fact, just nine months ago, I fashioned a perfect three-week itinerary to travel across that country, only for my editors to pull the plug on the trip just before I was due to depart. Like so many, I’ve been dreaming of Persia and its culture ever since I was a little boy; I even wrote an entire novel about it, which concluded with 40 pages describing a drive from Tehran to Qom to Isfahan to Shiraz with information gleaned from old books and an ancient Lonely Planet guide. To see the Persia of poets and painters, hiding in plain sight behind the much-maligned Iran of our newspaper headlines, would be my fondest wish. There would even be the added benefit of allowing me to check my imagination (as I applied it in that old novel) against real life.

Where is the best place you've ever visited? What made it so special?
The first time I stepped onto the rooftop of the Potala Palace, in Lhasa, in 1985, I felt, as never before or since, as if I was stepping onto the rooftop of my being, onto some dimension of consciousness that I’d never visited before. Perhaps it was the effect of the 10,000-foot altitude combined with culture shock, but the shafts of light from the cobalt skies streaming into the dusty little rooms in which red-robed monks were rocking back and forth over their sutras, took me to a different place. I’ve returned to Lhasa often since, and for all its losses and the shocking developments there since that early opening, Tibet still hits me with an emotional force and urgency I haven’t known in Bhutan or Ladakh or Nepal or even Bolivia.

If you could have lunch with any adventurer or explorer, living or dead, who would it be and why?
The great thing about any real explorer is that he’d never want to have lunch with me—he’d have richer adventures to explore and greater challenges he’d want to confront.

That said, I would have loved to have met Francis Younghusband, the man of empire and professional soldier who led the British expedition on Lhasa in 1903. Somehow, after massacring hundreds of Tibetans and advancing the cause of Britain, he had such a powerful experience his last day in the Tibetan capital that he abandoned his lifelong career and became an earnest and indefatigable campaigner for peace.

Travel for me is all about transformation, and I’m fascinated by those people who really do come back from a trip unrecognizable to themselves, and perhaps open to the same possibilities they’d have written off not a month before.

What’s something you can’t travel without? And why do you need it?
Boringly, a book, to whittle away the almost inevitable 16-hour delay at, say, the Jaipur bus station. It’s always useful to have an inanimate object around on which to take out one’s rage. Though guidebooks can serve this purpose admirably, they too often have the disadvantage of being indispensable.

When you arrive at a new destination, what’s first on your agenda?
Walking and then walking, before walking some more. And if I’m somehow in an environment uncongenial for walking, I’ll take a bus to the end of the line, try to immerse myself in everything I find there, and then head back again, peering out the window all the time.

On every trip I take, it’s the first impressions, when I’m wide open and before ideas and prejudices have begun to form in my head, that are the essential and illuminating parts of the experience, so I try to be out in the streets, absorbing sights and sounds and smells, for as much as possible of my first 48 hours in any place.

You can never meet a place—or a person—for the first time twice.

What keeps you writing?
Writing is how I find out what I believe and what I care most deeply about. It’s how I sort through the mess of daily experience and try to make sense of it—by stepping out of it for a while. Writing is how I train a searchlight into the darker corners of my self and the world, as I’m sure I’d never do otherwise. Writing, in fact, is the greatest adventure into the unknown I know. It’s never hard to find the motivation to do it, and my biggest challenge would come if somehow I was prevented from putting pen to paper every day.

When and how did you venture into travel writing specifically?
Although I was keeping notes furiously whenever I traveled—and never at any other moment—it first came to seem a way to support myself when, during two summer vacations in graduate school, I wrote parts of the Let’s Go guides to Britain, France, Italy, Greece, and Europe. Those summer jobs were pure exhaustion, and had me moving from town to town every day for three months and scribbling long reports every evening on carbon paper to be mailed to a basement in Massachusetts.

But that job got me into the habit of moving quickly, taking voluminous notes, and keeping my eyes open as I never had done when taking a mere holiday. So, willy-nilly, it proved the ideal preparation for writing essays every time I went on vacation, from the next year on, and that turned, within four years, into my first travel book. So I was cursed from the time I hit my early twenties.

As a child, what was your dream job? If you gave up that dream, when and why did your plans change?
I suppose, growing up on planes between my parents’ home in California and my various schools in England, I felt that movement was the most comfortable world I knew, and that the ideal job would be one in which I could move for a living. Little else besides travel gave me the sense of freedom and possibility, the intense curiosity and excitement of being confronted, surrounded by the new.

It was only when I was traveling, as I noticed early on, that I was moved to transcribe every moment of every day, to record experiences I’d perhaps never know again, to note how cultures dreamed of one another and projected their longings, insufficiencies, even their terrors upon one another. Traveling made me feel alive and writing made the experience seem something more substantial than mere escape. Alas, it seems I was headed toward my present life of half-employment from the beginning.

What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
Leave your assumptions at home.

If you're writing about place, narrow in on one small aspect of a location that your particular passion, experience, and background can light up, which would have otherwise remained dark for the rest of us.

Also, step away from the desk for as long as possible and recall that your best work on any project may come when you’re not thinking about it at all. Notes are a wonderful prop, but I’ve regretted the many moments when I’ve been hostage to them.

Who has been your most influential role model or mentor? What did he or she teach you?
My favorite travelers, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, have been my guides, philosophers, and friends since I was in my teens—the epigraphs to all my books too nakedly bear this out. These men taught me to look in as much as out, to recall that a reader in some sense creates every book he consumes, and to remember that it’s folly, as each of them said, to think you can find anything abroad that you could not find at home.

They taught me that travel is about rigor and reflection, and that how far you go—or whether you go at all—is finally almost immaterial. The greatest Grand Canyons are invisible, as are the oceans that we’ll never escape. Sitting in one place can be at least as transforming as traveling to Kathmandu.

Do you have a life philosophy?
I travel because I feel that the world is much larger than my ideas of it. Every stereotype dissolves as soon as I set foot in Syria or Cuba or Vietnam (though not North Korea) and, sitting at home, I’m usually in a perfect state of ignorance and complacency. Living in rural Japan for more than a quarter of a century now has taught me that questions are much richer and deeper than most answers, and that the more I live with someone or something, the less I know of them. So maybe I travel and write to get past the dangerous illusion of knowingness. I’m ever more keen to acknowledge the mystery in everything, even my prosaic old self.

Have you ever experienced an accident during your travels that made you think twice about going out again?
I had a near-death experience [a car crash] at 12,000 feet in southern Bolivia the last time I visited, in which I finally got to taste the celebrated sensation of seeing time slow down and asking what felt like the final questions of my life. Bolivia has been my favorite country in Southern and Central America since I traveled across the entire continent in my teens but that narrow escape has stayed with me, and dissuaded me from returning to the country I’ve loved for almost 40 years. Especially since, my previous time there, I got stripped of my passport for life by two uniformed officers in the middle of the empty Altiplano. I was then strip-searched and almost became stranded in a notorious La Paz prison. On departure, I broke out into a virulent rash from head to toe that made me wonder if I was allergic to a country I thought I adored.

If you had to choose a different career, what would it be and why?
Acting. But writing itself, of course, is a form of acting, one in which you get to write your own lines. And you can get by without makeup, public rehearsals, and a director telling you what to do and how to feel. So maybe I’ve already chosen the stage, but in a surreptitious way.

Name three things you still want to cross off your bucket list.
Staying on Mount Athos.

Visiting Antarctica.

Having a long dinner with Terrence Malick.

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