Pico Iyer’s travel writing — whether he’s describing a long walk in Kyoto, a jetlag-fueled airport layover, or a quiet moment in a monastery — captures not just the physicality of places, but also the spaces within and between them.
In his essay “Why We Travel,” Iyer writes that he has been a traveler since birth: born in Oxford to parents from India, schooled in England and the United States, then living in Japan since 1992 (with annual trips to California). These seven reads reveal Iyer as a perpetual wanderer of both place and time: navigating spaces in flux or forgotten, meditating on finding one’s place in an ever-shifting world, and, as part of this journey, exploring that which is deep within us.
1. “Why We Travel.” (Salon, March 2000)
“Abroad is the place where we stay up late, follow impulse and find ourselves as wide open as when we are in love. We live without a past or future, for a moment at least, and are ourselves up for grabs and open to interpretation.” In “Why We Travel,” Iyer says that we travel to lose and then find ourselves, to return to a more innocent self, and to be open and awake.
2. “The Foreign Spell.” (Lapham’s Quarterly, Winter 2015)
“Foreignness became not just my second home, but my theme, my fascination, a way of looking at every place as many locals could not. As some are born with the blessing of beauty or a musical gift, as some can run very fast without seeming to try, so I was given from birth, I felt, the benefit of being on intimate terms with outsiderdom.” Iyer describes being forever a foreigner, not just in places he visits, but in countries he could claim as home.
3. “In the Realm of Jet Lag.” (The New York Times, March 2004)
“The lure of modern travel, for many of us, is that we don’t go from A to B so much as from A to Z, or from A to alpha; most often, we end up somewhere between the two, not quite one, and not quite the other — in an airport, perhaps, that is and isn’t the place we left and the place we think we’re going to.” Jet lag is part of Iyer’s life, so he makes the most of it, enjoying its disruptions in the same way he experiences a physical place.
4. “The Walk That Made Me Love Japan.” (BBC Travel, July 2014)
Iyer describes a walk through Kyoto among shrines and shops — the first one he took when he moved there more than 25 years ago. “In Kyoto, the main thing to note is that every simple distinction — between high and low, sacred and profane, even old and new — is something of a figment of the imagination. And it’s in the empty spaces of a local painting, the white space around a haiku, that all the power lies.”
5. “Hyderabad in Five Colors.” (The New York Review of Books, September 2013)
“The mark of a deep culture is its closeness to its roots; when I look at my adopted home, Japan, for example, I see a place that isn’t sure how much it belongs to its past, how much to the future, and sometimes seems to be doing the splits.” In this piece, Iyer describes a visit to Hyderabad, and how the beauty of India lies in its ability to remain changeless even in a time of rapid change.
6. “Nara: Where Japan Began.” (Conde Nast Traveler, December 2011)
Iyer describes Nara, a city in Kyoto’s shadow: “Nara, I had come to see, is the pause — or is it just the question mark — that comes after Kyoto’s rich and brocaded sentences. The empty space, as classical Japan is always trying to teach us, is at least as important as everything that surrounds it.”
7. “Where Silence Is Sacred.” (Utne Reader, May-June 2011)
“A chapel is the deepest silence we can absorb, unless we stay in a cloister. A chapel is where we allow ourselves to be broken open as if we were children again, trembling at home before our parents.” In this piece on silence, Iyer recalls growing up in chapels — “emergency rooms for the soul” — and writes on the importance of stillness, even for those who are always on the move. “I started to see that no movement made sense unless it had a changelessness beneath it; that all our explorations were only as rich as the still place we brought them back to.”
Worldhum.com recently republished one of my favorite essays – Why We Travel by Pico Iyer – as part of their 8th anniversary celebration.
The essay is an absolute masterwork.
Why We Travel elucidates the inner journey of travel in Iyer’s classic style of lyrical juxtaposition.
Here’s an excerpt:
The sovereign freedom of traveling comes from the fact that it whirls you around and turns you upside down, and stands everything you took for granted on its head. If a diploma can famously be a passport (to a journey through hard realism), a passport can be a diploma (for a crash course in cultural relativism). And the first lesson we learn on the road, whether we like it or not, is how provisional and provincial are the things we imagine to be universal.
Isn’t that a fabulous quote? The whole essay is even better.
For years, some Where There Be Dragons programs have used Why We Travel as the first reading assignment, simply because it captures the magic of exploration so well.
If you haven’t read Why We Travel yet, read it now. If you have read it, read it again.
And while you’re at Worldhum, make sure to say congrats to Jim and Mike for eight – !!! 8 !!! – years of publishing fantastic travel stories.