More travel thoughts from Pico Iyer

Travel Perspectives, Travel Writers & Books — By on April 8, 2009 at 7:10 am

I’ve written about Pico Iyer a couple of times previously and he is one of the world’s more thoughtful and interesting travel writers. He recently gave an intriguing interview to Gadling that is worth reading. An excerpt:

One quality I’ve always admired about your writing is your ability to tap into the personality of a country. What advice do you have about tapping into the essence of a place?

Places are like people, with personalities just as distinct, and a travel writer, of course, is someone who aims to create not just a photograph of a place but a portrait. My advice would be to walk and walk and walk, as soon as you arrive, when the place is still new to you and every perception is fresh–the mind has not yet begun to settle into prejudices or arguments.

Take down everything and remember that anything (an Internet cafe, a Golden Arches, a shop selling TVs) is interesting, and revealing of the society around it. And try, wherever possible, to remember that you’ve come all this way–even if it’s only to another state–to enter a foreign state of mind, a different sensibility. The joy of travel is not being reminded of your assumptions, or being confirmed in your beliefs, but in being led out of them, to something utterly other and, perhaps, unfathomable.

As much as traveling can create the sense that one is connected to the world, it can also create the feeling of being unsettled. What do you do to stay grounded and keep track of yourself in the process?

I tend to be too settled, so I seek out being unsettled–at the very least, that can test the ground I have. Everywhere man is settled, as Emerson says, and only insofar as he unsettled is there any hope for him. I hope I have solid ground within me–I do after all spend two months a year in a monastery, and eight months in a monastic life in Japan (a two-room apartment without cellphone or printer or World Wide Web or car or bicycle), and I have been living in these simple cells now for more than 16 years, so I feel that I am rooted, as much as I need to be, in what is real and stable.

But to stay too long in these places that I know as well as my heartbeat would be to risk complacency, blindness and inertia. So I try to force myself out of my grooves, feeling that groundedness is what I have, unsettledness what I need.

Is there a piece of travel wisdom someone told you that you took to heart? What was it?

The Dalai Lama always suggests that there’s no virtue in looking backward–the future is what we can change–and I suppose that is what has guided me in my traveling life. Most of the travelers I love and learned from are in some ways journeying back into the past, to explain the present; I, by making most of my central travels to places like Los Angeles Airport or the state of jet lag (or even to the monastery) have always pointed myself towards the future. My interest is not in what the world has been but what we can make of it, especially those 21st century citizens who are, to some degree, children of possibility (alarming or pretentious as that phrase might sound to some).

There is much more from Iyer in the full interview. Check it out.

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