The Best Travel Writing 2011 - Introduction

Seeing the World Anew

by Pico Iyer

Ten people walk into a crowded room, and every one of them comes out with a different story; the Rashomon effect plays out in all our lives pretty much every day. Someone sees the Donna Karan sunglasses and the Paul Smith stripes, and reads the strange figures in the room accordingly; someone else starts to talk to as many people as possible, and learns who they are from whether they like Massive Attack or Sigur Rós. Someone else starts to talk about “golden” and “blue” and “light-filled” auras. The travel writer is the one who can do all these things at once—listen more closely, see more deeply and bring some personal question into the room—so that we feel that we’re seeing a shadow story, a secret narrative visible to few, and everything is at stake.

There are a hundred ways of describing good travel writing, but really they all come down to much the same thing: does the piece make you see the world anew, while offering you a place or a feeling you instantly recognize? Does it—as a Jan Morris essay does—take in all the surfaces so attentively that you catch not only the way a place looks, but the way it thinks, and mutters, and hides from itself? Does it—as Peter Matthiessen’s writing might—take on the qualities of an allegory, the story of a soul looking for the gold it’s lost? Does it—I’m thinking now of V. S. Naipaul—have such an ache of unsettledness that you can feel that the writer himself is on the line? The great travel writer makes you see yourself anew, too, by introducing you to things you perhaps never allowed yourself to observe.

Not long ago, I was driving through the Outback with my old college friend Nicolas: the most brilliant student of our generation, thirty years before, but so individual and restless that we were sure he would end up somewhere dark (he left the university, physically, after only two years and wrote his final exams so illegibly he had to be summoned back to read them aloud to an examiner for two weeks). I hadn’t seen him in a quarter of a century, but I’d begun to get to know him again through the haunted, solemn, questing books he’d started to write about the Red Continent’s interior, full of Central European exiles and memories of war. On my way to meet him in Alice Springs, as I got onto the plane from Sydney, he e-mailed me, casually, that we might be meeting his “wife” Alison, too (Nicolas, a legendary classicist who had been covering wars for The Australian for many years, living for months on end in hotel rooms in Iraq, with nothing but his copies of Proust and Kafka, was the least marriable soul I knew).

As we scuffled about the scruffy town—a smiling young soul from Bombay checked me into my hotel, Singaporeans ran the Tea Shrine and even the fanciest place in town served mostly beef vindaloo and Nonya specialties in its restaurant—we saw huge signs for “Alison Anderson”: Nicolas’s partner turned out to be a significant politician, and the rare Aboriginal who went back and forth between her people and the state -government (speaking six indigenous tongues). As we drove across the red-dirt emptiness to visit some “old ladies” who paint (Aboriginal artists who sit on the ground outside a shed and dab patterns on canvasses that fetch hundreds of thousands of dollars in the West), I took note of the sign at the airport prohibiting tomatoes from entering the territory, Nicolas took inner notes on a strangeness that had become his second home, as familiar to him as recent patterns in his dreams. And Alison quietly told us about the “Dreamtime” stories associated with each tree or patch of desert, and how this “dingo dreaming,” amidst the cordwoods and the ironwoods, marked the place where the dingo ate the caterpillar and got separated.

The parallel paths, the disparate stories each of us began to develop as we drove along the same empty road came roaring back to me when I took the stories you’re about to read out onto my thirty-inch-wide terrace in suburban Japan and, in the radiant sunshine of an early November day, lost myself in them for hour after transported hour. I wouldn’t say these are necessarily the “best” travel essays of the year, because the phrase makes as little sense to me as talking of a “best” color, a “best” love, or even a “best” child. But many, many of them did what only the most memorable trips—and the most deeply felt essays—do, which is to deposit me back in my life someone different from the person who set out.

When I sat with Gary Buslik, musing on the wistfulness of old slides and long-ago lives; when I began, excitedly, to find the secret treasures of an unprepossessing part of the Lorraine (with Mieke Eerkens); as I learned about what happened in Minsk, thanks to Carolyn Kraus’s hard-to-forget excavations; as I found myself in a realm of meditation and allegory, learning how to see again, in the Iceland of Cameron McPherson Smith, I felt I was touching a part of the world, and of experience, that I hadn’t known was there and could no longer think of cruise-ship honeymoons, look at Belarus, even reflect back on the Iceland I knew and loved in quite the same way as I had before.

One thing that exhilarates me about this book is that so many of its writers are women (you would not have found that thirty years ago, when I began writing), and many of these women are in places that I would be afraid to go to even as a shifty male—alone in New Delhi’s train station after midnight, on the edge of the Sahara with a mother and a sometime lover, in Guyana after the exodus of most white folks, or looking for mass graves in Minsk. There is a sense of personal investment, of openness and soulfulness, a heartfelt introspection in many of the pieces here that would have shamed (and surely could have taught) the “travel writers” I grew up on in my youth, mostly tight-lipped British men remarking wryly on the natives.

So many of these pieces, too, show how our world is moving as much as we are, growing multiple and diverse, newly complex, as the entire planet, so it seems, is on the road or spinning on its axis. An American and his Polish girlfriend are looking for the Mona Lisa; a Canadian and her African lover are watching her mother receive news, in a cyber-café among the mosques of Africa, of a death in the family. Women are traveling to ski resorts with their eighty-three-year-old fathers, and young men are going all the way to Hiroshima or My Lai to say sorry, after a fashion, for what their country has done. In a meticulously crafted piece like Michael Shapiro’s account of rafting down the Colorado River, even that most famous of poster images, the Grand Canyon, is made human and mysterious and new.

When a piece of travel writing is truly transporting, it works a small transformation in our lives, so that we are carrying around with us not just a new pair of eyes, but a fresh heart and an awakened conscience. And many of these essays take me back to some of the great works of travel-literature, old and new, that have permanently altered the way I think about the world. I cannot hear the words “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” today without calling up the hallucinatory intensity and horror of Dexter Filkins’s accounts of both in his recent work of combat reportage (and therefore travel literature), The Forever War; and when I try to think of how to make sense of war and the peace we need to cultivate within, I call upon the clarifying priorities and gift for essentials of the great poet laureate of journeying in one place, Thoreau. My favorite travel writers tend to be ones whose first and foremost interest is not in travel: they’re closet anthropologists, personal historians, readers of texts or even just observers of the treacherous human heart and the cycles of history (think of John le Carré or Derek Walcott). A travel writer, for me, is someone like Elizabeth Gilbert, who can at once find a wise man, a lover, and a new life in Bali, yet also take the time and trouble to excavate much of the island’s bloody history of violence and slavery.

Occasionally, nowadays, you’ll hear people say that travel is dead, since we can access almost anywhere from the comfort of our living rooms and find Louis Vuitton stores in the shape of suitcases in Shanghai. Pshaw! As these pieces often memorably show, travel will last as long as we have difficult loves, unsolved memories, haunting questions, restless hearts and legs. Nicolas is still tracking the empty wastes at the center of Australia; his new wife Alison is still trying to find a way though the tangles of history; and I am still revisiting the interior of their land, and of their memories, and planning how I might somehow return there. The travel writer shines a light on something we never thought to look at—“gray, moss-covered churches, and gray, moss-covered cemeteries, and gray, moss-covered monuments,” in Mieke Eerkens’s beautiful essay—and then the light comes on in our eyes, too, and we can see its “hidden beauty.”

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Born in Oxford, England, to parents from India, raised in California and long settled in Japan, Pico Iyer has always been interested in the places where cultures collide and conspire. His first book, Video Night in Kathmandu, explored the West playing itself out in ten countries in Asia; his second, The Lady and the Monk, tied together the Western dreams of Japanese with the Japanese dreams of those from the West; and his third, Falling Off the Map, traveled to isolated places from Paraguay to North Korea and Iceland to Bhutan. In the years since, he has been looking at what travel is doing to a world and humanity on the move, in an age of immigration and exile, as described in such works as The Global Soul, Sun After Dark, and The Open Road: The global journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. His next book, on Graham Greene, will look at what fears and hopes we can legitimately carry out into the world.

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