Pico Iyer is a travel writer's travel writer, one of a small elite among the living (also Paul Theroux, Bill Bryson, Jan Morris) whose travel writing ranks as literature. In an era when most travel publications want stories about Five Fab Luxury Hotels for Dogs or Ten Terrific Places to Buy Expensive Crap (I make my living writing stuff like that), Ayer writes thoughtful reflections on the world as it is and as he sees it, journeys both exterior and interior.
So being stuck in the Horchow Auditorium to wait out the storms last night with him and a handful other people was a wonderful opportunity to glean some wisdom, travel writer-to-travel writer, about how he does what he does.
But rats. As always when travelers gather, there was one world traveler who shot an elephant in his pajamas or something and wanted to tell Iyer all about it. The rest of us could only listen and peer at our phones, watching the weather radar.
I would have to be satisfied with the wisdom Iyer imparted in his lecture, an Arts & Letters Live event.
Trim and diminutive (his word) with high cheekbones and dark deep-set eyes, Iyer cut a neat figure in suit and tie behind the lectern on an empty stage, but for a vase of flowers on a table to his left. His theme was "movement and stillness," and he started by unapologetically apologizing for his low-tech approach. "I don't even have a PowerPoint," he said. "Everything I say is going to be powerless and pointless."
He started our journey with his journey to the Chichu Art Museum in Naoshima, Japan via train, passing through train stations of increasingly smaller towns, "each platform emptier than the last." Ordinarily, he said, he is indifferent to museums. But the three spare and simple installations of the museum engaged him for hours and, in their stillness, changed the way he saw the world.
From there, Iyer spun a soliloquy that took us to through Los Angeles airport, multiculturalism, the mission of modern museums, jet lag, monastic retreats, travel writing... He spoke quickly, his words lilting, then drifting, then spinning back on themselves, like a leaf riding an eddy of wind.
At first, I tried to capture each word and pin it in place, scribbling in my notebook furiously. But eventually I stopped working so hard, letting his images and ideas float around me, to light in my brain where they would. Their significance would come later, when I had space and stillness to digest them.
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Even the Q&A period, often so tedious, didn't quell Iyer's passion and poetry. He talked about Iceland and about his friendship with the Dalai Lama, subject of his last book, The Open Road. When one man asked about the homogenization of the world (clearly coming down on the Chicken Little side), Iyer gleeful denied it. Despite the fact that any place you touch down, you see "a Starbucks, a McDonald's and a picture of Lady Gaga," he said, the context and how it acts upon them makes them different everywhere. I asked about balancing the need to experience his travels with the need to record them and he described taking copious notes in full paragraphs. (I glanced at my notebook full of illegible chicken scratchings.)
After the lecture and the book signing, when about a dozen of us were stuck until the weather calmed, we clustered in a few rows in the auditorium and listened to Iyer and the world traveler compare notes. Finally, I managed to grab my Commander McBragg moment, telling Iyer that, like him, my earliest travels included the Greyhound bus. I like to bring this up with a sort of perverse defiance towards all the people for whom travel isn't travel unless it entails sleeping in a yurt.
But as he turned to me and we started talking, a fellow traveler announced that a window had opened between the storms and if we all dashed, we could make it home. And so, with hasty farewells, we scattered, and my moment with the great Pico Iyer had passed.