Header image courtesy of Brigitte Lacombe
Pico Iyer has embraced the art of stillness.
In itself, this would not be a remarkable statement, were it not for the fact that Iyer is one of the most prolific travel writers of our time, a man who has collected stamps from over 85 countries in his passport, written more than a dozen books about them, and filed stories for more than 250 periodicals, among them The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Time.
Hailed as “arguably the greatest living travel writer” by Outside magazine, Iyer’s journeys over the last 49 years have taken him to remote territories like Easter Island, North Korea, and beyond, but after penning a wealth of literature on far-flung destinations many only dream of setting foot in, the 66-year-old traveller is on a quest to capture tranquillity.
“In everybody’s life, travel and stillness are part of the same equation, like breathing in and breathing out. I think a traveller is not somebody who’s crossing many borders, so much as somebody who is always interested in looking around the next corner,” the seasoned writer says in conversation with Localiiz on a temperate February afternoon.
It is surprising to hear that from someone whose bread and butter is to tell stories about distant places, but in reality, Iyer passes an astonishing amount of time in one spot. “I probably travel two weeks of the year, and I spend the other 50 weeks sitting at my desk trying to make sense of my travels,” he reveals. “Readers would imagine me permanently in mid-air, but my wife would know that I almost never leave this little apartment.”
Born in England to Indian parents who later relocated the family to the US, educated between two continents, followed by a long-time home in Japan—Iyer’s life reads like a travel memoir in and of itself, even when you disregard his decades-long profession as a globe-trotting journalist. It’s enough to give most people an identity crisis, but the writer has always considered his diverse background to be one of his most recommending qualities.
“I had been given three pairs of eyes, three ways of looking at the world, and I can mix and match them and play them off against one another,” he says, recalling the “little boy with an Indian face, an English voice, and an American green card.” Little did the self-proclaimed “global village on two legs” know then that this transcending of cultures and casual multinationalism would later become a defining feature of the twenty-first century.
“I realised very early that the more mobile you are, the more important it is to be really rooted,” says Iyer. If you examine his life, this philosophy of anchoring makes itself apparent in more ways than one. For more than three decades, he has shared a two-room home in Nara—a spiritual, deeply historic, and “extremely sleepy” town near Kyoto, Japan—with his wife of 35 years, Hiroko Takeuchi, and some 1,200 wild and perpetually hungry sika deer.
If you are imagining a culturally rich neighbourhood with grand structures and a treasure trove of inspiration, think again. “We live in the most boring of suburbs where there’s actually nothing Japanese around,” he admits, “so it gives me a chance to get my work done and not be too distracted.” Other parts of the year, Iyer makes frequent pilgrimages to a Benedictine monastery in Big Sur, California, a calming place he calls “my hermitage.”
Despite his international upbringing and global experiences, Iyer’s daily rituals are resolutely grounded in rote routine—or rather, in spite of it. “I’m completely a creature of habit. I wake up at 4.30 am. I spend my first five hours at my desk, without even a computer in the room. I take a couple of walks around the neighbourhood, just 20 minutes each. After I finish my day’s writing, I turn to emails, or nice conversations like this.” (How charming.)
With work out of the way by 1.30 pm, he visits the health club to play table tennis with octogenarians, spend time with his wife, or go into town to talk to the deer. “In many ways, I’m very much stuck in place. I think anyone who grows up with myriad influences quickly sees that your home is really not where you live, but what lives inside you,” he muses.
Finding home within oneself was a profound lesson for Iyer—and one that was starkly realised—when a vicious forest fire burned his family home in California to the ground. With the building in ashes and no physical structure to call “home,” he was forced to reconsider the concept of belonging. Now, he finds solace in familial relationships, his favourite monastery, and “the song that keeps going on around my head.” Iyer continues, “Home is almost a collage. It’s a sentence you’re never going to complete.” But all this has led him down a path of liberation, allowing him the freedom to find the home of his heart: Kyoto.
“Here I am, having no connection to Japan, but I feel entirely at home here, in a way that maybe I wouldn’t in India, or England, or the US,” he explains. “So the place where you belong may not be the place you come from, and the place where you feel at home may not fit any of the official markers for what home ought to be.”
At this point, it’s safe to say that Iyer completely defies general preconceptions with his contradictory nature—a travel writer who spends most of his time at home, a globetrotter whose greatest expeditions take place within himself, an adventurer who seeks stillness. But regardless of where his wanderings have taken him, his enthusiasm for the journey remains intact, eloquently recalled in written word with exuberance and brilliant intensity.
Having directed his gaze outwards for many years, the author came to realise that the next exciting thing would be to see the other part of the equation. Looking in, rather than out, was a change of pace that transformed his style of telling stories. “It has made me a different writer; much more quiet, much more recessive,” he admits. “If you read my early books, I’m shouting at you from every sentence. If you read my more recent books, I’m barely there, barely visible, and barely audible. I’ve sort of disappeared into the scene around me.”
It’s a lesson he learned from Japanese culture, where the community is emphasised over the self, “a society based on harmony and collective delight.” (As to how he came to make a home on the Asian isle, well, that’s a story for another time. In fact, he’s already documented it in his 1991 nonfiction, The Lady and the Monk: Four Seasons in Kyoto.)
Iyer applies this same introverted approach to his latest mission: finding paradise. But is paradise found, or paradise made? He explores this question in his latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, a compendium of essays that take him through some of the most turbulent places on the planet. He crosses the conflict-laden lands of Jerusalem, Kashmir, Ladakh, Iran, and more, all in search of a feeling: “How do we find calm and contentment in the middle of a world that’s always going to be difficult and uncertain?”
“I’m not seeking out pleasant places so much as interesting. When I travel, I seek discomfort and unease,” he shares. “I’ve got plenty of calm and sunshine right here, so I want something radically different that might send me back home. I don’t expect them to be consoling. But I do expect them to be quite different from the world I know. If you can find paradise in a place of conflict, that’s a notion I can trust; that’s a paradise I can trust, right in the middle of the real world, which exists even in the face of death and difficulty.”
Death and difficulty was a leading theme of the past few years. Covid-19 took its toll on the world. Flights, both literal and metaphysical, were grounded. It was during these dark times that Iyer grasped at the idea to search for paradise in the midst of a traumatic lockdown.
“It is a book that came out of the pandemic,” he says. “20 hours after lockdown was announced in California, my mother was rushed into the hospital because she was losing blood. I had to take three flights through ghost-town airports to be with her. On the one hand, like everybody, I was living very close to death, literally, with my mother in her final seasons, which made me think about how I wanted to live. I was also getting to spend months on end in the same place, which I wouldn’t usually. It gave me a nice opportunity to think back on my years of constant travel, to see what it really had added up to.”
And what has he found, after revisiting a slew of tumultuous places in search of utopia? His answer is instantaneous: “Paradise lives within. It’s a way of being and therefore it’s a way of seeing. If paradise belongs to a sunny climate or a beach, then most of the world is not going to be able to attain that. But a paradise that has to do with mental clarity and resilience, that’s in the reach of people almost regardless of your circumstance. Mental strength is something within the reach of us all. For me, that’s a much more hopeful vision. Many wise people would say paradise belongs in the afterworld and they have good reason for saying that. But I was wanting to find, if not paradise, then a better life, right here, right now.”
Iyer feels lucky to have found his own slices of paradise, and, maybe unsurprisingly, given what we’ve learned about the author, it’s closer to home than you’d think. His self-admitted “tiny” two-room apartment is one such place, and the other is the monastery he has been visiting for more than 30 years, “above the clouds; a place of great stillness and silence.”
“Part of the beauty of travel is it makes you see home with new eyes, and I am often much more appreciative of the freedoms I take for granted,” he says. Ultimately, all roads to paradise lead to home—the feeling of comfort you create within yourself. He smiles as he recalls a piece of wisdom imparted to him by monk friends, “Joy is the happiness that’s not based on circumstance. In other words, if you can find your joy in the middle of lockdown, on a rainy day, when everything’s going wrong, you’re probably on the right path.”
After three years of pandemic-induced sitting still, Iyer is on the road again. Next stop: Hong Kong. It’s going to be his fourth time at the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, following appearances in 2003, 2006, and, most recently, 2019. “I feel I have almost a lifetime of Hong Kong memories,” he says. Returning to the city is “like visiting an old friend and seeing how he has weathered.” Our shores served as the backdrop for many firsts for the well-travelled writer since his first visit 40 years ago. “It was the first business trip I had ever taken; the first time I got to stay in a Hilton on corporate expense. Everything was exhilarating and Hong Kong will always be emblazoned in my memory because of those early formative experiences. It really seemed like the crossroads of the world.”
As for the future of travel?
After almost 50 years of traversing the globe, there are few people better suited to answering this question. Iyer has pondered on this, too: “I think the heart of travel is just the encounter between one person in one place and an encounter with the unknown.”
Learn more about the Hong Kong International Literary Festival 2023 here.