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Global Villager
Pico Iyer's wide, wide world.

Winter 2006

One day last fall, Pico Iyer found himself walking around the streets of Bangkok. It was early — 3 a.m. — and yet the Thai capital Iyer found was, in all its hedonistic glory, pulsating and awake. Cruising boats zoomed by on the Chao Phraya River. Music bleated from clubs. A tapas bar and jazz-café served up its creations over, perhaps, John Coltrane. And ladies, "long-legged ladies in dainty, jeweled sandals" stepped through the flooded streets "as demure as duchesses about to be presented to the Queen."

Iyer later wrote those words for the Financial Times, the U.K. daily best known for its pink pages and buttoned-up columns about international politics and currency rates. Iyer isn't a business journalist. But his vibrant, telling dispatch from Bangkok would no doubt be more than enough to tear any broker away from his Bloomberg terminal for a few moments of voyeuristic pleasure.

And more, indeed, than pleasure. Iyer's piece — what one might at first glance classify as a dessert amid the main courses of stocks or derivatives — displays analysis, records minute details and highlights the Asian city's enduring allure with a reference to W. Somerset Maugham. ("Oh, gentleman, sir, Miss Pretty Girl will give you Sultan Turkish Bath, gentle, polite massage, put you in dreamland," a man called to the British novelist eighty years ago.) Throughout the article (which he provided to me pre-publication and as sent to his editor), Iyer is wise to Bangkok's fabled underbelly but observant enough to see the place whole and show to the reader the state of the government's "Social Order Policy." (New, earlier closing times for bars, he finds, "are mostly honored in the breach.") Nothing, it seems, escapes Iyer's eye — from the Arabs in the dance club to the ten locals playing a kind of roulette outside an all-night department store.

On through the night he goes, stepping into a ferry to visit the Temple of the Dawn as the dawn itself breaks and the east's City of Angels wakes up to a new day. "The man who is tired of Bangkok," Iyer summarizes, invoking Samuel Johnson, "is the man who is tired of life."

Dreaming of the Other

Pico Iyer, I would venture, will never be tired of life (to say nothing of Bangkok, which he has visited some 50 times in 22 years). He's too curious, too ready to be moved, too intrepid and engaged and animated to give the appearance, anyway, of ever wanting to slow down. The author of eight books — novels, travelogues and essays — Iyer has been called "the poet laureate of wanderlust," labeled himself "a global village on two legs" and splits his time between Japan and California. A contributing editor at Time magazine, he regularly drinks in the quietude of a Catholic monastery and has known the Dalai Lama since he (Iyer) was a teenager. The former graduate student of literature at Harvard is one of the most gifted and penetrating "travel" writers alive today, though to call him a travel writer is as incomplete as saying Jimi Hendrix could sing.

Iyer, born in Oxford, England, in 1957 to Indian parents, is more properly an erudite flaneur with a pen. In his novels (like the 2003 Islamic "romance," Abandon), travel books (including 2004's Sun After Dark), and essays (the collection Tropical Classical, for example, published in 1997), Iyer limns what many call "globalization" in as fine and sympathetic a hand as any writer alive. His journalistic skill, evidenced in the Bangkok missive for the Financial Times, is for both the telling detail and the wider picture. And yet it is his underlying values and sensitivity that sets Iyer apart from the mere recorder of place or person.

"I would usually say I am a chronicler of the meetings between cultures," Iyer told me over the course of a lengthy email exchange last summer and fall. Traveling as a youth between his British boarding school and his academic parents' California home, he said, "I think I absorbed very young a sense of the way cultures dream of one another, cast their longings on one another, project their hopes and fantasies and fears on the other on the far side of the globe."

It's impossible to separate the author of The Global Soul from his peripatetic life. Just in the months we were zipping messages to one another through the ether, Iyer was in Zurich with the Dalai Lama, for a forthcoming book about His Holiness. He'd spent time in Santa Barbara at his parents' home, and at the monastery where he goes to think and write. En route to his adopted home in suburban Japan, he'd laid over in Bangkok. All the while, he was polishing off articles about Australia and Brazil.

So much travel might seem like the frequent flier's version of peak-bagging if it didn't have a point. But Iyer does have a point. "I think when I travel," he says, "I am journeying into humanity, deep down."

"I travel to move out of the abstractions with which we imagine Syria or North Korea — and they imagine us — and to encounter a human reality that is confounding and contradictory and much more complex than any of our ideas."

Say "Rio de Janeiro" and the average American would probably think of a tropical paradise and a tropical paradise only. It's that, to some extent, yes, Iyer tells us in the November 2005 Conde Nast Traveler. But it's also a place where, as he writes, "tall black boys from the slums" create on the beach "stunning Oriental cities and a stricken Jesus out of sand."

It's this kind of mindful reportage that has resulted in Iyer's pieces appearing in not just Conde Nast Traveler (where he's also a contributing editor) and Islands but also Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and the Shambhala Sun, another Buddhist-inspired magazine. Iyer takes the traditional Buddhist concern for all sentient beings and spins it out to the family of nations. It's an almost fantastic notion, to be sure. But by tuning such an intent ear to those so unlike himself, Iyer is able in his writing to make fully human the foreigners we all too often read about only in the papers.

The role of cultural go-between comes naturally to Iyer, says Don George, the global travel editor for the guidebook- and literature-publishing Lonely Planet company. "There's a multidimensionality and a multiculturalism to his writing that's unique," George told me from his office in Oakland, California. "He's kind of barrier-less."

And so it is that Iyer is able to write, as he did in his collection Falling Off the Map, that Vietnam "is a pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in." Iceland, he says in the same book (subtitled Some Lonely Places of the World), "is the mystic poet in the corner, with her mind on other things." Australia, he finds, is 5,000 miles from anywhere and Cuba, about which Iyer would later write a beguiling novel called Cuba and the Night, is an "elegiac carnival."

Iyer's travel writing is, simply, literature about places and people that you want to read and re-read. And it has a corresponding resonance that no Sunday newspaper article could ever match. Depth, in Iyer's travels, never takes a holiday.

Between light and dark

Iyer lives near the ancient capital of Nara, Japan, with his partner Hiroko Takeuchi and her two children. Lately, from the desk he shares in their home, Iyer has been plugging away at two books: one that he calls a "fictional biography" of Graham Greene and another (more factual) about the Dalai Lama. Iyer has written about the exiled Tibetan leader for years and has made multiple visits to the Indian town of Dharamsala, home to both the Dalai Lama and scores of Tibetan refugees and monks.

"The Dalai Lama has always moved me because he sees the world so shrewdly and un-deludedly and yet always finds hope in it," Iyer told me last September. "As someone who has written and thought quite a bit about globalism and the new reality and possibilities of our global order, I'm interested in someone who decides to turn our global reality to advantage and to try to transmit a sense of responsibility or conscience that could never be transmitted so globally before." He cites the rock band U2, with its developing-world-debt-cancellation agenda and deep concern for poorest Africa, as another example of a shining worldly conscience.

Iyer's aiming for the Dalai Lama biography to appear in 2007 — "certainly," he adds in a rare bit of political statement, "before the 2008 Olympics in Beijing." That's an unambiguous jab at China, which invaded and conquered Tibet during 1949 and 1950. And yet it's as uncharacteristic as it is pointed. I doubt that Iyer is completely apolitical, but his central concern — to see through the eyes of the Other — transcends politics or institutions.

"His work is all informed with a deep concern for humanity," said Melvin McLeod, editor-in-chief of the Shambhala Sun. "He's very thoughtful," McLeod told me by telephone one afternoon from Halifax, Nova Scotia. "He's concerned with deeper issues and connects even topical journalism with deeper issues," McLeod said.

So it is that in Sun After Dark we find Iyer in some of the poorest, or loneliest, places on Earth. "I take the long drive to Dharamsala, the small Tibetan settlement in the foothills of the Himalaya, and the Dalai Lama tells me that exile, suffering, loss — everything — is, if seen in the right light, a blessing and a teaching," Iyer writes in the book's introduction, titled The Place Across the Mountains. "I go that same year to Cambodia and find myself encircled by a darkness I can't write off." His talent as a writer is to put us "On the Ropebridge," in the words of another essay title, swaying between the sometimes tragic past or present and the unknowable future.

Agrees Michael Shapiro, author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration: "He travels the world lightly, virtually free of judgments, sharing his perceptions with clear-eyed compassion that can lift your soul and revelations that can break your heart."

It's that grasp of light and dark, between hard truths and measured optimism, that so marks Iyer's writing and makes him, in fact, a prime explorer of Greene. Like Iyer, he was also a champion world traveler, and so it makes eminent sense that the "fictional biography" Iyer is planning about Greene should be set in places as varied as London and Oxford and Cuba and Paraguay. It will include also places Greene didn't go. "Since he is the natural patron saint of travelers, who keeps many of us company as we roam the world's less fortunate corners, I decided to make up a Graham Greene and take him with me to certain places he probably never went," Iyer told me. He couldn't say for sure but hopes the biography might appear in 2008.

A portable Walden Pond

With all this activity — all these travels, books, essays and also lectures — it's something of a wonder Iyer isn't burned out or at least less articulate. But while Iyer's life consists in no small part of departures and arrivals, he appears to equally crave a nourishing stillness. Not for nothing has he spent part of each of the past 15 years or so at the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California. Though not a Catholic (he's reluctant to claim any one faith), Iyer absorbs from the seaside monastery what he once called "some pre- or post-millennial state of mind described in a holy book." Even in his travels, he told me, there's a personal search for a calm center. "My traveling is all about, to some extent, finding a portable Walden Pond in a world that spins ever more wildly and speedily around us."

That reference to Thoreau — whose Transcendentalist words Iyer has imbibed since boyhood — and the spiritual bent are perhaps a natural corollary for the son of two philosophers. He thanks his mother, Nandini, "a lifelong student and teacher of mysticism" in the acknowledgements that follow the text of Abandon and recalled to me a childhood spent amid Japanese paintings, Indian scriptures and all of Shakespeare. Thus perhaps it's no coincidence he's cited or excerpted nowadays in outlets from the magazine Today's Christian Woman to The Best American Spiritual Writing anthology.

And in these post-September 11 days, when a certain brand of Islam makes up so much of the current American idea of evil or wrong, it's worth noting that Iyer's Islamic novel, Abandon, was written even before those airplanes slammed into the Twin Towers. The "romance" of the book's subtitle is not just between Englishman John Macmillan — who's in California studying Islamic poetry — and Camilla Jensen, but also between the West and the Islamic world. Or at least the world of the spirit, the space into which poetry is one of the surest conduits.

Iyer, who is of Hindu origin, took pains to steep himself in Islam and in the poet Rumi. But this time he didn't have to go far to find his subject. In fact, his neighbors in California — and perhaps even some residents of Lancaster County — almost led him to it.

"My novel, Abandon, turns on the fact that even as Washington was waging war on radical Islam, the single most popular poet in America — and this has been the case for more than a decade now — is, of all things, an Islamic mystic from the 13th century," Iyer said.

The arc of Abandon follows John and Camilla's love affair and includes, as one would expect, vivid tableaux of places including India, California, Syria and finally Iran. But the impact of the novel isn't its exoticism. It is about the strange ways in which we connect, even sometimes with people we don't understand. It's important to note that, while researching Abandon, Iyer didn't — and hasn't ever — visited Iran. In some sense, he didn't need to. He could see it and feel it in his head and heart, and was able to reach out, as so many Americans did, through the poetry of a man he'd never met, to a place he'd never been.

He could just as easily have booked a ticket to Tehran and seen the sights, describing the scene in another piece for the Financial Times. But by reading and imagining, Iyer traveled a greater distance than any airplane could take him.

"Something in this Islamic writer [Rumi] touches us these days in ways that neither Shakespeare nor Whitman nor Emily Dickinson can touch," Iyer said, though he could just as easily have been talking about a sermon by a Tibetan monk or the grandmothers in his Japanese neighborhood.

"And that place of cultural meeting is where the hope for our future lies."

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