KT Long Read: ‘The Year of Taking Nothing for Granted has awakened us to the beauty of the backyard’

Representational image - Reuters
Representational image - Reuters

Dubai - How did the world of distances, outer beauty and inner spaces change at a time when a virus traversed the global, sealing boundaries? Author and travel writer Pico Iyer weighs in

By Jayanth Kodkani

Published: Thu 14 Oct 2021, 10:10 PM

Last updated: Thu 14 Oct 2021, 10:24 PM

Slowly, the world is emerging out of lockdown life to make journeys again. Who best can capture the essence of such trips than the widely-travelled essayist and novelist Pico Iyer? His most recent works, twinned and contradictory, are Autumn Light and A Beginner’s Guide to Japan, and his next book, a happy product of lockdown, The Half Known Life, will be out within 15 months. Excerpts from an interview:

How have these been “strange years” as you describe them? Apart from the obvious unfamiliarities like masks, distancing and the tragic deaths…

I feel a little embarrassed to say this but, in my tiny and, so far, fortunate circle, lockdown has afforded all kinds of blessings and the chance to appreciate much that previously I took for granted. I had the opportunity to spend 200 straight days at my mother’s dinner-table, as hasn’t happened since I was eight years old — and was especially precious since my mother passed away a few weeks ago. I got to spend every day at my desk, which for a writer is a gift one dare not ever ask for or expect. I was able to spend every hour these past 16 months with my wife, as circumstances seldom allow. And, by keeping my trans-continental movements to a minimum, I was able to be a little more friendly to the environment, which needs all the help it can get, and to my too often jetlagged body.

Of course, in the public sphere, this long and uncertain season has brought tragedies beyond number. But if it’s helped some of us live more inwardly, wake up from our destructive habits and recall what we really love and need to protect, then some good may come in spite of all the losses.

Has lockdown life sharpened our sense of outdoor thrills and joys?

Without a doubt: for me, it’s really opened my eyes to the wonders close to home. Every day, here in Japan, my wife and I take walks (as we’ve never done before), in every direction from our tiny, rented flat. One day, we walked for four minutes, just across the street, and came upon an entire bamboo forest, rich with flowering cherry trees, and what sounded like nightingales, teaching their young to sing. We’ve lived in this apartment for 29 years, and we’d never had cause to walk four minutes down a main street.

Visiting my mother, back in California, we started taking walks up the road from her house, often through golden light, with the ocean behind us, scintillant in the distance, and the wrinkled hills of islands across the water. My parents have been in that property for 55 years now, yet I’d never taken the opportunity to walk all the way to the end of their road, twenty minutes away, till now. As soon as I did, I realised my family home was in a site as radiant as anything I might find in Rio or Capri — if only I could find the eyes to see it.

We can’t stop going places. We can’t stop meeting people. We can’t not see, feel, hear, smell and taste the unexplored. How then do we pack our bags and leave for new places in this virus season? What has been your experience?

As you suggest, in a global neighbourhood, many of us have to move a long way just to get our jobs done and to stay in touch with those we love. In my case, I’ve flown across the Pacific eight times during the virus season, the first time to offer a public event to which I was committed, the second time because my mother, then 89, had been rushed into a hospital in an ambulance. I’m currently due to fly back and forth across the ocean again before this month is over.

In my limited experience, the long flights I’ve taken between Japan and California have been easier than ever, with airports less crowded than usual, airline staff ever more committed to cleanliness and safety and the delight of getting to see family members again even greater than it’s ever been.

Two years ago, as you probably remember, I published a book about living with uncertainty and mortality, called Autumn Light. It was a reminder that we can travel just by walking around our neighbourhoods, as I do here in Japan, provided we’re able to think of travel and home in ways deeper than the literal. So while I’m grateful for the chance to move across the seas, I don’t think one has to go far to be transformed: a traveller, to state the obvious, is not someone who constantly crosses borders so much as someone who’s always ready to look around the next corner.

You once wrote, “The modern airport is the product of a mixed marriage between a border crossing and a shopping mall”. Has this ambience acquired a new meaning now with “vaccine passports” and quarantine restrictions?

Only on the surface. There’ll always be new rules in airports and fresh logistics; but the fundamental moral and emotional experience of encountering the unknown — or simply returning home — is not likely to change so much. I wear different costumes in different climates and contexts, sometimes swathed in 13 layers of clothing when I visit Alaska in midwinter, currently sporting a T-shirt here in sweltering Japan — and occasionally having to don a jacket and tie. Those cosmetic differences may alter slightly who I am and seem to be, but they don’t really change me at the core.

For the moment, I have to supply 19 pieces of paperwork to acquire a visa to visit Japan, a country I’ve been visiting constantly without a visa for 38 years. I have to absorb 27 pages of paperwork explaining a mobile phone the government gives me to make sure I don’t leave my home for 14 days after arrival. And I have to take a Covid test just before each flight and as soon as I disembark in Japan.

I’m not sure any of that has really dented my delight in finding myself here in the blue-skied early autumn, with what smells like daphne all around me while kids play catch under leaves just beginning to turn scarlet and gold.

In the last two decades, we saw a new vibrancy at airports. Travel has become commercial and the new traveller is busy collecting places. Is there caution on that count now?

I’ve never been a great believer in collecting places — or people or conquests. To me, travel has always been more about curiosity than consumption, and the beauty of travel today, compared with when I began, is that many passengers are journeying across the planet not to get something, but to give something — especially at a time when we’re all painfully aware of what air travel can do to a perilously fragile environment. If the virus has moved us to be more deliberate and more thoughtful about our movements — though not more fearful — some good, again, may have emerged from it.

For many, the closure of sacred sites and curbs on spiritual gatherings had caused distress. How do you find faith outside holy abodes, was a thought that crossed their minds...

An editor once asked me to write an essay about a “Sacred Space”. Though I suspected he wanted me to write on either Tibet or Ethiopia — or any of the other soul-stirring places I’ve visited — I sent him a piece on my desk. Disappointed perhaps, he commissioned another essay on the same topic, and, on that occasion, I sent him an essay on the most reliable and ever-present sacred space I know: my memory.

Of course, it’s been heart-breaking that the sense of community, of collective worship, of massed devotion and singing (or silence) has been out of reach at times these past many months. But we can find the sacred without only if there’s something of it within. When I think of prayer or contemplation or lectio divina (sacred reading), it’s often been more available to me during these quiet months than ever before. Four times in the past 15 months I’ve driven up to the monastery where I’ve been staying for 30 years, and though its chapel is closed, the sense of sanctity, of polished silence, of liberation remains as strong there as it’s ever been — and as powerful even when I simply sit and think of it, as I did this morning, at a distance of six thousand miles.

How are the transit-loungers, the Nowherians who are “site visitors in their residence”? Has the lockdown period increased their sense of self-reliance in any location they consider home?

I hope so. When I brought out my book, The Global Soul, in the first month of the new millennium, describing those who live more and more in many places at once — the honorary citizens of the 21st century, as I think of them, and many of the literal citizens of Dubai — I was trying to examine the ways in which we might be freed of provincialisms, of old black-and-white thinking, of a sense of “them” and “us”. But I was also issuing a warning: it seemed to me, as I wrote in the first chapter of that book, that we were a little like kids joyriding in a Porsche around blind curves, at very high speed, racing towards a future we couldn’t begin to anticipate and surely to be confronted very soon by roadblocks.

Now the entire, fast-moving world has been brought to a halt. I’m hoping that might move many of us to think more rigorously about why we are moving and where we are going.

Thoreau speaks of travel with perspective which means more than merely leaving footprints on strange lands. You too say the best trips are like the best love affairs. What is it that transforms us?

I measure travel inwardly, Thoreau wonderfully says, and I think most of us feel the truth of that. It’s more than possible to travel across the world to Kathmandu and not be moved at all; and then one walks down one’s street at home and falls in love, or has a fresh idea, or bumps into a friend unseen for years. Travel can be a short-cut to transformation but it’s hardly a prerequisite. As statistics show, most accidents take place within half a mile of home; that might be no less true of windfalls.

It matters not how far you go, as Thoreau also says, the farther commonly the worse; what matters is how alive you are.

About 28 years after Falling Off The Map, how would you look at the lonely places you visited? Do you still see them as solitary and secluded? In the virus season, didn’t the big and buzzing cities feel isolated as well?

To be honest, I think everywhere is much more connected than it’s ever been. The season of the pandemic has reminded us that a virus can travel across the planet at the speed of light, and that no man — or market in Wuhan — is an island; at the same time, it’s shown us how Zoom technology and other such allow us to communicate freely across the planet, to see and hear one another across oceans, in ways that weren’t imaginable 20 years ago. So the biggest change in the three decades since I explored those lonely places is that almost all of them are much closer to the world, not more isolated. Iceland, so shocked to encounter a dark-skinned visitor in 1987, is now one of the hottest destinations for the cool young traveller. Bhutan sees many more travellers than it did in 1989, and a country that didn’t have TV when I first visited, is now as wired as anywhere, I saw on a return trip. Last year I was back in Tierra del Fuego, and the windswept and desolate little port that seemed the end of the world to me in 1990 is buzzing with international visitors and fancy shops now.

We can travel in so many ways that sounded like science fiction when I was in college; even when physical travel is limited, mental, emotional and imaginative travel are more possible than ever.

It seems like the world hasn’t been homesick for a while. But no matter where one goes, one always carries the memory of home. Would that feeling get stronger now?

That’s a beautiful question, and yes I do feel that the Year of Taking Nothing for Granted has awakened us to the beauty of the backyard we never stopped to look at, the local street we used to sleepwalk through. And, of course, in a place like Dubai, where so many have so many homes, one’s always far from some of them, wherever one happens to be. Homesickness can be a tonic thing if it suggests care for those who await us at home — and especially if we can begin to think of the entire planet as our truest home.

(Jayanth Kodkani is a writer based in Bangalore, India)

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