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