A Conversation with Pico Iyer: Part Three
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 third part of our conversation.
DG: Where did you go last year?
PI: I’ve been fascinated of late by Jerusalem—many people in this room have been there I’m sure—and one thing that’s fascinating to me is, it’s not beautiful, comfortable, pleasant, easy or peaceful, but it’s extremely charismatic and powerful and textured. You used the word complicated, textured, a minute ago, and that’s the word for Jerusalem. It’s almost like a man in a tattered overcoat standing on a street corner ranting and raving, but his ranting and raving is so passionate, unexpected, and powerful that you can’t stop listening. He actually compels your attention much more powerfully than the woman dressed in the beautiful Dior dress or a much more conventionally charming person standing next to him. I find Beirut, Damascus, and Jerusalem are three of the most charismatic, magnetic places I’ve seen, but in radically different ways even though they are almost within driving distance of one another.
I was thinking just this morning on the plane from Seattle that one of the interesting things about Jerusalem is that the fellow tourists are really interesting. Because—it goes back to what I was saying three minutes ago—what they bring to Jerusalem is something much more than a typical sightseer or pilgrim or voyager, the extent of hope, of faith and intensity. I was staying on New Year’s Day last year in a little convent on the Via Dolorosa, right at the first station of the cross, a few minutes away from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a very unprepossessing modest place, like a hostel. Every morning at breakfast we sat around the table and chatted to whomever happened to be there. One morning there was a German woman probably in her mid-40s and an American in his early 60s. I said, “Where do you come from?” and they said, “Oh, you wouldn’t know it. It’s this little place in California called Paso Robles,” and I said, “My heavens! I come from Santa Barbara just down the street.” Then I said, “How did you get here?” (In my rather crass, unexalted way, I meant American Airlines or United. Are you a member of the Star Alliance or the One World network?) They said, “We walked,” and it was true. They had met on the walk to [Santiago de] Compostela four or five years before and been so transformed by that experience, they decided to walk, and to walk together, the rest of their lives. They walked from Paso Robles to Jerusalem: one year across the United States, just staying in strangers’ houses along the way; then they flew to Portugal, another year from Portugal to Jerusalem. The woman had broken her leg and spent a month in a hospital in Italy. She was still on crutches when I met her, but on crutches she was hobbling down those uneven, unpaved streets to the Church of the Sepulchre every morning. Really it was as remarkable to meet them as to see the places I’d come to love in Jerusalem.
When I was young, I probably thought, why go across the world not just to count the cats in Zanzibar but to meet other people from Santa Barbara and Berkeley? I thought, I don’t want to meet fellow tourists. It’s taken me a long while to see that they have just as much to give me as any of these quasi-exotic places I’m seeking out.
I so fell under the spell of Jerusalem that two years ago I took my mother there. She’s a professor of religions, but had never been there, and of course it was the perfect place for her. We traveled around one day with a tour guide, an Israeli person who was just fascinating, and at the end of the day he said, “Are you completely confused?” We were. He said, “Are you feeling frustrated because you know less than you knew at the beginning of the day?” We said, “Yes, it’s all spinning in our heads,” and he said, “Good. I’ve succeeded. I’ve made you feel like an Israeli.” He said that in a spirited way but in a very sincere way. He said, “Our land and our history are so complicated, we don’t know what’s going on. We just know there are all these stimulations coming from all these different directions and an answer seems ever more elusive.” But that’s part of the fascination with the process, that we can’t put it in a box, we can’t draw it into a conclusion. I love that he was explicitly taking us on a journey to ignorance and said, “My job is to make you feel confounded and not knowing whether you’re looking east or west.” Even a tour guide as well as a fellow tourist is fascinating in Jerusalem.
DG: What was it that drew you to Jerusalem originally?
PI: The same things that would draw anybody, and I must say that in that sense it moved me in all the ways I expected it would move me. It wasn’t a surprise to find this intense place which was both the site of our holiest dreams and our most human betrayals of those dreams in every second. Even so, I never expected in the space of 300 square meters to see not just three sites of three major religions, but people living them out so intensely… I would stand on the rooftop of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre as the sun fell every day and there would be angelic choirs coming from the Lutheran church nearby, there would be the Greek Orthodox hymns rising up from the basilica below. I would wend my way down that crooked stairway that many people in this room surely know, and I’d hear the Ethiopians wailing and moaning from their ancient bibles and rocking back and forth. Then I would go in just as the light was completely falling and walk into the church itself where a lot of Russian people were, kissing the slab where Jesus is believed to have died. I’m not a Christian, but just to be in the presence of that degree of intensity, it’s like being in the Jokhang Temple in Tibet, where you see people who’ve walked for 300 miles, sometimes prostrating themselves every foot of the way to get there, and prostrating themselves in front of the temple from dawn to midnight, day after day after day. You see them by the flickering half-light of the candle surrounded by what are for them among the most holy statues and icons. You can barely make out their faces but you can see the tears running down, and these streaked faces where you can see the dirt that has accumulated from five, six months of hard, hard travel, three months at least. Just the emotion of finally having attained this holy city—all the more so these days because it’s an imperiled and isolated holy spot for the Tibetans. Whatever your religious background or lack of religious background, you feel, just to be in the presence of people who are feeling so much and have brought so much to this place, is a real privilege. In Jerusalem you get a lot of that.
DG: Beautiful. That’s why travel is my religion.
PI: It’s an act of surrender.
PI: It’s an act of humility, and it’s a leap of faith—literally—because you’re trusting in the world. One reason I travel is that when I’m at home, I’m completely straight-jacketed in my assumptions. Again, I’m like this kid [in my first book]. I think I know it all. I think I’m on top of the world, that I can plan my life for the next ten years in ten minutes. The minute you’re in a bus in India, forget it. Nothing is in your control. You’re reminded of all the much higher forces, whether you ascribe religious names to them or just call them nature or fate or time or providence, there they are, and you are a speck on the horizon that they’re going to bat about randomly. It’s a very tough kind of shock therapy, but it’s good. The more that you are stuck within your own assumptions, the better it is suddenly to be plunged into the middle of that nowhereness. I think that’s probably a little bit of what religion is for somebody who’s really committed to it.
DG: When you were young, travel was a vehicle to get from home to school and then back home and then back to school. When did travel start being something else for you?
PI: Probably when I was 17. I was very lucky to grow up flying back and forth between England and California from the age of 9 as a little boy, so it meant I was at home in planes. I was used to traveling alone. Everywhere was half foreign. I couldn’t take anywhere for granted, even California or England. I could see each through the eyes of the other. It disqualified me for many things, such as being part of a community or committing myself to a single country or even embracing a neighborhood, but it did qualify me for other things having to do with displacement. I remember when I was 17, I spent one summer visiting India, my parents’ homeland, essentially for the first time, meeting my uncles and aunts and grandmothers. Then I returned for a final three months at school, and then I spent the next three months in Santa Barbara working as a busboy in a Pancho Villa Mexican restaurant.
DG: Wait, wait, time out. You worked as a busboy in a Pancho Villa?
PI: Yes, generously pouring hot sauce into customers’ laps, pouring water into the hot sauce place, entrusted only to clear up plates and I couldn’t even manage that. I only had to do it for three months, luckily, and then I got in a bus and rode from Tijuana down to La Paz, Bolivia. Then I flew up the west coast of South America through Brazil and Suriname to Trinidad, got to Miami, and then took a Greyhound bus home. I’m just telling all that as a way of saying by that time, travel had already become my home. I was most at home on the road, alone, not knowing what was around me, and exalting in all of that.
It was shortly thereafter that I decided to turn it to advantage. I studied nothing but English for eight years getting nothing but more unemployable with each passing year—let’s hope there are no English majors in this audience—and then I thought, well the only thing I’ve learned to do is read, write, and travel, so I’d better try to alchemize these into some kind of profession. So then I started doing it ostensibly as a profession, but really because it was second nature and something I felt comfortable doing.
One of the things I most appreciated in travel and do still is that it confronts you with moral and emotional tangles that it’s easy to sleepwalk past, to sidestep in one’s everyday life. You arrive on the streets of Havana and a stranger comes up to you, a Cuban, and shows you everything for a week, and couldn’t be kinder and more understanding and sympathetic, never asks for anything, opens all the doors of his country to you, and really gives you Cuba. Then, just as you’re about to board the plane, he says, “Please will you get me a green card?” What do you do with that? I don’t think there’s a right answer, but it’s a really important question to think about. When you’re in the same situation at home, somehow it’s easier to slide away from it, but there, when you return to your home, all you’re thinking about is this Cuban person waiting at the airport for a letter from his new friend that’s either going to open a new door or is going to, not close the door, but allow him some way to keep the hope alive in a situation with very little hope. It’s one of the things I love about Graham Greene; more than any other traveler, that’s what he was interested in, how to see the world as it is and how to bring kindness to it. Travel asks you that question at every second.
DG: It’s difficult that the more you open yourself up to the world, the more rewards you get, but the more you expose yourself to that kind of very, very difficult situation. Someone’s taken you into their life, you’ve taken someone into your life, and suddenly they ask you something that’s almost impossible for you to do.
PI: Yes, beautifully said.
DG: What do you do?
PI: Exactly. The openness is the reason you’re traveling in the first place. You can’t not be open and you can’t not take seriously that plea. As you know I’ve spent a lot of time seeing the Dalai Lama travel and one of the things that so moves me about him is that wherever he goes, the first question he asks is, what can I give these people? And the second is, what can I learn from them? I think having those two questions in mind, even if you filter out all the others, is a very good searchlight to take one through any journey. Of course, most of us can’t live up to the Dalai Lama’s example or precedent, but just the fact that he’s thinking in those terms is liberating I’d say.
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