Pico Iyer is one of the world’s most respected travel writers and author of Cuba and the Night, The Lady and the Monk, Video Night in Kathmandu and The Open Road: Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Born in Oxford and raised in California by parents from Eastern India, Iyer visited Bogotá and spoke with The City Paper about his work.
1. When did the journey begin for you?
I was a traveler from the day I was born. I started going to school by plane, shifting between nations which were not my own. As an outsider, I started to gain a different perspective about the world.
2. When was your first visit to Colombia?
In 1975. I was 18 or 19 and was heading from California to La Paz, Bolivia by land down the west coast of the Americas with a school friend. We visited Cartagena and had memorable days in Bogotá. I remember reading the South American Handbook on Bogotá and its tightlipped description of the Hotel Picasso. It said something like ‘passable’ and cost around three dollars a night. We were thrilled. It was the kind of place where men lurked in the shadows behind other men in the shadows, that sort of thing. It was also full of incredibly pretty girls and it took us three days to realize we were in a bordello. That was the Hotel Picasso and all its vagaries. And I always recall Bogotá with its blue black clouds.
3. What other city interests you?
Toronto is an abiding fascination of mine. It’s one of those great global metropolises, which has been able to incorporate 150 cultures into an interesting city. Canada has been consciously thinking about multiculturalism for 30 years and has become good at it. Before, Canadian culture was famous for being bland, but nice. Now’s it’s electric. It’s charged.
4. In your work there is a relationship between physical distances and the search for love. Where does this come from?
I am an only child and lived—when in boarding school—6000 miles from my nearest relative. I love being alone in foreign places. I am less good in making connections and there is a cost in apartness and detachment. Like one of the characters in Cuba and the Night, one has to make a leap of commitment.
5. Do utopias exist?
Any traveler is looking for a utopia, some version of paradise. And when they arrive in that utopia – take Nepal for example – they soon find that the people there are also yearning for their own utopia in some London or California. It is ‘the grass is always greener’ syndrome. Utopia is just a projection.
6. So are we always trying to look for something deeper, more spiritual, when we travel?
In a way, yes. While writing my most recent novel, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, I spent a lot of time in this Shangri-La with this man who is seen as a miracle worker by the rest of the world. And even the Dalai Lama was saying, ‘I am not a superman.’ Tibet is ready to learn from the rest of the world. It is time to reach out.
7. Where’s home for you?
I feel completely at home in Japan. It is quite similar to England and although I have no formal connection with the country, it makes more sense to me than other countries. Affinity does not observe geographical distinctions.
8. Who are your favorite writers?
My great traveling companion is Graham Greene. I also like Somerset Maugham. They wrote a lot about the world from a stayed England.
9. Has globalization worn down our sense of identity?
Identity hasn’t become worn down. Before, we used to have some 6,000 languages and this has been reduced to a few hundred. Soon, everyone in the world will be speaking English, but 6,000 different kinds of English. Indian English is different from Colombian English or Brazilian English and so on. All the world sings Britney Spears in different languages. Cultures that are so old and deep can withstand the passing moment.
10. So there is unity in diversity?
Yes. We are all seeing the same movie, but leave after seeing a different film.
11. What are universal traits among countries you have seen while traveling?
There is a Darwinian process going on where stronger cultures are cannibalizing weaker ones. That’s the way of the world, sadly enough. But on the other hand, I am less critical about the democratization of culture. When I was growing up in Oxford, I was very happy when they opened the first McDonald’s there. We had the Wimpy Bars with their awful food and at the other end, the posh restaurants. When McDonald’s opened, the food was good and reasonably priced. For a student like me, it was wonderful. So when you talk about culture, you have to ask yourself the question: “How do the locals feel?” I can understand how a person in Delhi is happy when an American-type mall comes to town.
12. In this age of rising oil prices, how do you see the future of travel?
Travel may become more difficult. But it has always been the providence of an affluent few. These days you can see all the cultures of the world in a single city. In most major cities you can have neighborhoods with restaurants and shops from different corners of the world. If you don’t have the resources, there is no need to travel.
13. And how do you see travel publications these days?
There is very conspicuous consumption at the expense of many. The world is presented like jewelry in an expensive shop on Fifth Avenue. Destinations are becoming collectibles. It is about acquiring trinkets. But travel educates us, in spite of ourselves.
14. Which places would you next like to write about?
The place that is consuming me is the Middle East. It is still reverberating inside me. Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus. They all have a very powerful charisma. They are very old and dense and layered cities. I am interested in old cultures and Jerusalem cannot be a collectible. It engages you spiritually, psychologically and morally. It leaves you unsettled.
15. Is the Middle East misunderstood?
The Middle East is the one place the U.S. most needs to understand and there has to be a human face to places that for many are just stereotypes. I am sure Colombians can relate to this.
We have a very simplified vision of places like Syria and Lebanon. And the U.S., which is the one country that should be out there getting to know other countries, doesn’t. Only 27 percent of Americans have passports. The rest have not traveled or don’t want to.
16. How do you see South America and its writers?
I am glad Latin America is coming to our shores with great writers. I grew up with the ‘boom’ of Gabriel García Márquez.
17. And the work of Colombia’s greatest writer Gabo?
He tapped that universal current of the importance of rural traditional places. That is his greatness. Macondo. The village a whole world can recognize, put to the world.
18. Could one consider Gabo a travel writer by taking the village global?
In as much as he is plunged into one particular place, yes. But the term would dismiss him immensely.
19. How long do you spend in a place when writing?
My ideal is two weeks. I get more out of two weeks than two months. After a certain amount of time you settle into your own preconceived notions of a place. I am a sprinter rather than a marathon runner.
20. You have written about so many countries, but never a book on India. Why?
Maybe it’s the closeness. I travel there often. Don’t get me wrong, I love it— but India is a shock to my senses. I feel like a tourist there and my hope is that India never changes. China interests me a lot because it is reinventing itself; but India is untamable.