A Conversation with Pico Iyer: Part Four

On January 26, I had the honor of hosting a conversation with the poignant, provocative, and peripatetic author Pico Iyer at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco. This event, sponsored by Adventurer Collection member Geographic Expeditions, launched Pico’s North American tour for his new book, The Man Within My Head. The evening turned into an exhilarating exploration of places and lessons cherished by both of us. We hope you will enjoy this edited transcript of our conversation. For reading ease, we are publishing it in five parts. This is the fourth part of our conversation.

DG: What’s in your head when you arrive someplace for the first time?

PI: I’m intoxicated. I don’t drink so this is my closest equivalent, my drug of choice, I suppose. I just walk, walk, walk, walk because nothing will replace or supersede that first impression, and the first impression really is worth the next thousand days combined. Propel me into Prague tomorrow—I’ve never been there—and especially when I’m jetlagged and even more discombobulated and cracked open to the world, I’ll just walk and walk and walk, through the night if necessary—10 hours, 12 hours, 16 hours—scribbling things down, but more than that, in that maximal stage of alertness. The reason I think that first encounter is so important is that at the end of the first day, I’ve begun to form ideas about Prague. I’ve begun to create my new prejudices and after that I’m only gathering things that will confirm them or be adornments around them. But in that state of absolute openness, I’m hearing Prague and responsive to it, trying to let it tell me what it is as powerfully and strongly as I can.

Somebody was asking me a few days ago, “Do you ever take a holiday?” That is arguably the difficult paradox of a travel writer. Every now and again I’d tell myself, put the notebook away, go to Hawaii with my wife, and just lie back, and I found I wasn’t getting anything out of the trip. By this I mean, as soon as I got my notebook out, I was motivated to start walking the streets again, to look around, to transcribe, to ask questions of it, to try and go around the corner and see many things that I couldn’t see. When the notebook was in my pocket, I’d probably sit in a hotel room watching NBA games or something like that, which is relaxing. You and I are in a very unusual position. If I was spending 50 weeks a year in an office, all I’d want to do is go to Hawaii and lie on a beach. If I was at home looking after young children, I would really need that break. But since you and I are on permanent vacation, when we go somewhere, it’s much more interesting to be engaged in a dialogue than just to be sitting in a theater and have the place unspool slowly in front of you.

I always found that when I didn’t take notes, I would return home and I’d really wonder where I’d been or why I’d been, and I would have nothing tangible. It would be like a dream that was very pleasant and then vanished entirely from consciousness. But as soon as I was engaging it in a dialogue—asking questions, wanting to find out more about it, impelled to try and see more of its aspects—then it would set into motion a conversation that would never end ideally. I was happy for the notebook, as the camera or the sketchbook—it doesn’t have to be writing. If you give yourself a project somewhere, instantly it becomes a much richer experience and you actually see more of the place even though you imagine you’re just looking into your viewfinder or looking at the sketchbook. In fact, you’re putting all your senses on the setting marked “on” and you’re fully alive. You’re innocent again.

DG: For you as for me, writing is a critical part of that conversation. Writing is a dialogue that you’re doing with yourself and with the place. So you arrive in Prague and you’re restlessly stumbling around the city, and you’re also stopping to write in your journal. I assume that you have to force yourself to stop to write because it’s this sort of parallel thing: you want to be writing continually but you also want to be experiencing continually. So how do you navigate that?

PI: I scribble lots and lots of notes very, very quickly almost while I’m walking, and luckily they’re illegible so I misread my own handwriting and come up with very creative word choices when I’m back at my home. I actually don’t stop too much, or I’ll stop for 15 minutes when I need to get a cup of tea or something and write it all down then and there.

One of the things that moves me about Graham Greene is that he couldn’t understand how people could keep their sanity without writing—whether or not it’s for publication—just as a way to make sense of the mess of every day that comes in on us every moment, to put it into a kind of pattern, to think through what you’ve taken in and make sense of it. Writing is the way that you and I make a clearing in the wilderness. That’s how we make our path through life. Do you write articles while you’re actually traveling or do you just take notes?

DG: Take notes.

PI: What’s your secret? Do you take notes as you’re walking or do you back to the hotel room, take a break, and do your notes then?

DG: A little bit of both. But I go back to the hotel room, definitely, and write, or go to a café and sit and write, observe and reflect.

PI: And then do you write the piece as soon as you get home?

DG: It depends what’s happening when I get home. Because often there’s a backlog of other pieces that I was supposed to have written before I went. But yes, ideally. Often, as I’m sure you know, you’re trying to recall something half a year later and it’s not quite as vivid as it was the moment that you experienced it, so that’s where the notes come in really, really handy.

PI: I’ve come to think that memory is a better editor than the conscious mind. In that sense, six months after the trip, I can much more see those six moments or three moments that really moved and transformed me than I can when I’m just out of the bombardment.

DG: You’re filtering it.

PI: Yes. In that sense, that’s the difference between this book and that book: This [first] book is transcribing instantly as soon as I’m off the plane and that [most recent book] is letting 20 years pass to see what rises of its own accord to the top of one’s mind.

DG: What places rise to the top of your mind?

PI: I’ve been thinking a lot about Cuba of late because I miss it. I used to go every year and I haven’t been for many, many years. Japan is not at the top of my mind, only because it’s so deep inside my heart, and Tibet is deeply inside my sensibility, though I am not a Tibetan Buddhist. But I think Cuba is the most complicated place and therefore the most involving place that I’ve been to. I would say the most romantic, the most disenchanted, the happiest, the saddest, and the most irresolvable in some ways. In that regard, I never stop thinking about it. That’s why, when my friends come up to me and say, “Where would you recommend taking a holiday?” I always would say Cuba.

DG: What part of you do you see in Cuba?

PI: It’s probably a counter-me. Most of us, when we’re drawn to somebody, are either drawn to somebody who echoes us or somebody who is exactly the opposite of us. I think Cuba was a good influence on somebody coming from English boarding school—you’ve got Carnival and you’ve got people in morning dress reciting the Lord’s Prayer in Latin in a classroom from 1440; I think you’ve got something to work with. Graham Greene worked with it in Our Man in Havana. It’s a wonderful dynamic place, but also the stakes are so high.

You and I and the people in this room are among the very few people on the planet who’ve probably never known hunger, homelessness or war. I think all of us in this room travel in part to see how the other half lives, which is actually the other 99 percent of the people on the planet. Again, it raises unsettling, disquieting questions for the likes of you and me. We fly into Cuba and when that person comes up to us with that request for the green card, it’s a life and death thing for him, and in fact, even to approach us can be a huge risk because he will fall under the eye of the authorities. We have a kind of diplomatic immunity. Nobody in Cuba or Iran or any of those places is likely to give us a hard time. But the locals are in a much more charged position. You realize that when you spend that afternoon with him, it’s a moving occasion you can recollect in The Herbst 15 years later, but for him, his whole life is hanging on that moment and what is likely to come out of it. That’s humbling. That poses challenges that I think I’m usually not up to but they’re worth confronting. For those of us who live in a life of ease, it’s good to be confronted with unease and discomfort. “Everywhere man wants to be settled,” Emerson said, “but only in so far as he’s unsettled is there hope for him.”

DG: When you’re planning your year out and you’re trying to figure out where you’re going to go, how do you decide, I’m going to go here next?

PI: My first commitments are to family and my second to my bosses; that doesn’t leave much scope for other things. I can take maybe one trip a year to a new place. Actually, I think there comes a time in your life—and this goes back to your first question, the difference between this book and that one—when I found I was much more enjoying meeting old friends than trying to find new ones. You didn’t have to introduce yourself to them. You could assume a context and a history. You could resume the conversation where you’d left off—as you and I can from 2 years ago or 10 years ago—and instantly you’re in the context of a much greater depth. Whereas with a new friend, it’ll take many years probably to get to that stage. In the same way, I started rereading books that I loved. Of course they were always changing and I was always changing, so it was like reading a new book, but you knew what was going to happen and there were certain things you weren’t distracted by.

In the same way I love revisiting places that I’ve watched grow up. It’s like meeting a friend’s daughter. You see her when she’s in that state of being an innocent 11-year-old, and then you see her when she’s 30 years old. A small part of you mourns the loss of that innocence, but a larger part of you is thrilled that she is now ready to take on the adult world and has made the transition that she needs to. She’s looking at you with different eyes also. When I go back again and again to a Thailand or Cuba or Tibet or many of the places with which I’ve formed a bit of a relationship over my life, I feel I will probably get much more than if I’m suddenly plunked down in Prague. Prague will give me the excitement of first discovery, but they will give me the depth of a lifelong conversation.

I have a list of places that I’ve always wanted to see, but if I never see them that’s fine. I’ve been lucky enough, unusually lucky, to see many of the places I’ve wanted to see. They live strongly enough inside my head—I’ve read about them, I’ve thought about them, I have a vivid sense of what and who they are—so if somebody were to say, You have to stay in rural Japan the rest of my life, part of me would exult and say, I can find everything I need right here. There’s somebody in the audience who pointed out to me that when you walk into certain temples in Kyoto, there’s a sign that says, “Look beneath your feet.” In other words, don’t go around the world to count the cats in Zanzibar. Everything you need is right here. If one were forced to confront that reality, no bad thing. I suppose I shouldn’t say that at an event sponsored by Geographic Expeditions! Pretend I didn’t say it — let’s delete it.

DG: Well, you have to travel a lot before you come to that realization.

PI: That’s right. Tick off 88 percent of the places on your list. Thank you, Don.

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