Writers We Love: Pico Iyer

This world-wanderer masterfully tracks the intricacies of the dance of East and West.

Published September 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

I am reading at a rooftop cafe surrounded by trim wooden buildings. To my right, wind chimes tinkle in the late morning breeze; in front of me, brilliant orange and purple flowers climb a wooden lattice; around me, travelers swap tales in French and German. The waitress brings a waffle topped with fruit and a pot of English breakfast tea, and I sip and scribble and study the clouds massed on the horizon.

I began the morning in Lhasa, then traveled to Ubud and Kathmandu; just now I've entered Chiang Mai. What's this, you're thinking, magic mushrooms in that waffle?

No, I'm just riding the magic carpet of Pico Iyer's "Video Night in Kathmandu," his bright and densely woven chronicle of Asian travels in the mid-1980s.

Iyer has written five books -- including "The Lady and the Monk," his crystalline account of a year in Japan; the novel "Cuba and the Night"; and two collections of essays and articles, "Falling Off the Map" and "Tropical Classical." All of them astonish, delight and inform. But today I am rereading "Video Night," Iyer's first book, because the perceptions are so extraordinarily fresh -- and because they remind me, on this gray, breezy, autumnal morning, of the September day 22 years ago when I landed, heart in my throat, in Asia for the first time.

Iyer's magical mystery tour de force begins in Bali, then roams through Tibet, Nepal, China, the Philippines, Burma, Hong Kong, India, Thailand and Japan. Asia in the mid-1980s was not so different from the Asia I visited in the late 1970s, and so reading these essays is like roaming that world all over again -- heedless, unfettered, without map or plan but just a desire to see and to live anew. By the time of Iyer's travels, the process of cultural crossbreeding had accelerated, to be sure, but his words bring vividly back to me the Asia I was discovering: a place of prayer flags and dusty squares, monks and mendicants, temples and brothels, epiphanies and perplexities, banana pancake breakfasts and Lonely Planet nights.

Iyer's portraits of these places offer much to admire and emulate. He approaches the world with a fresh heart and wide open eyes. He looks closely and doesn't simply describe what he sees, but constantly analyzes it, trying to understand what things mean and where they fit in the puzzle of the whole. As a traveler, I especially love his openness, gentleness, kindness and vulnerability. As a writer, I love the precision and music of his prose and his witty, insight-compacting turns of phrase. As a fellow pilgrim, I love his relentless attempts to understand his experiences and encounters and his constant questioning of his own assertions and explanations, his ongoing quest for some deeper truth.

Most of all, I love how Iyer hones in on the nuances of cultural interaction. As a child of Indian parents raised in the United States and schooled in England, Iyer is no doubt especially attuned to the way cultures interact. With extraordinary empathy and insight, he limns how cultures collide, carom and cohabit on the road -- how a dance of dreams, desires and preconceptions ensues every time a visitor and a local meet. A brave new world is being shaped in all these intercultural encounters, Iyer knows, and better than any other writer I have read, he portrays the intricately intersecting influences of this world -- neither wholly East nor wholly West but something wholly new.

Iyer's method as reporter and raconteur is to enter a place as completely open -- as free of prejudice and preconception -- as possible. He enters like a blank journal, hoping the world will write itself upon his pages. Often he begins his accounts with a compelling catalogue of his first impressions of a place. "Bali: On Prospero's Isle," for example, opens with a flashback to his arrival on the island:

I had come into town the previous afternoon watching video reruns of "Dance Fever" on the local bus. As I wandered around, looking for a place to stay, I had noted down the names of a few of the stores: the Hey Shop. The Hello Shop. Easy Rider Travel Service. T.G.I. Friday restaurant. And after checking into a modest guesthouse where Vivaldi was pumping out of an enormous ghetto blaster, I had gone out in search of a meal. I ran across a pizzeria, a sushi bar, a steak house, a Swiss restaurant and a slew of stylish Mexican cafis. Eventually, however, I wound up at T.J.'s, a hyper-chic fern bar, where long-legged young blondes in tropical T-shirts were sitting on wicker chairs and sipping tall cocktails. Reggae music floated through the place as a pretty waitress brought me my corn chips and salsa.

He recounts his amblings around town that evening, then continues:

After an unquiet sleep, I had woken up and walked around the three or four square blocks of the town. Most of the stores seemed to be trendy boutiques, across whose windows were splashed New Wave Japanese T-shirts and pretty sundresses in "Miami Vice" turquoise and pink. Surfaris. Tropical Climax. Cherry. Mariko. "An American Werewolf in London" was playing at the local cinema ... Fatty. The Beer Garden. Depot Viva. The Duck Nuts. "Marijuana and hashish," whispered one man to me. "Hashish and cocaine," muttered his friend. Joe's. Lenny. Jerry. Elly's. Elice's. I walked back to my guesthouse -- Van Morrison had now replaced Vivaldi on the system -- and a couple of the boys there invited me to sit down over some guacamole and give them my opinion of Michael Landon and John McEnroe.

Now comes the sardonic kicker:

I was, of course, in Bali, the Elysian isle famous for its otherworldly exoticism, its cultural integrity, its natural grace.

By recording the world around him and then juxtaposing that record with the island's erstwhile reputation, Iyer introduces one of the themes at the heart of his whole journey: how reality and reputation are so often at odds for the Westerner in the East, and how of course that Westerner is often responsible for this very discrepancy.

In the next paragraph Iyer succinctly states the paradox at the heart of his Indonesian odyssey:

Say Bali, and two things come to mind: tourism and paradise. Both are inalienable features of the island, and also incompatible. For as fast as paradises seduce tourists, tourists reduce paradises ... Hardly has a last paradise been discovered than everyone converges on it so fast that it quickly becomes a paradise lost.

For Iyer, Bali is the ironic exemplar of this equation: paradise made accessible to all. With a succinct sensuality, he evokes the bounties of this enchanted world:

For $2 a night, I was given my own thatched hut in a tropical courtyard scented with flowers and fruit. Each sunny morning, as I sat on my verandah, a smiling young girl brought me bowls of mangoes and tea, and placed scarlet bougainvilleas on the gargoyle above my lintel. Two minutes away was the palm-fringed beach of my fantasies; an hour's drive and I was climbing active volcanoes set among verdant terraces of rice ... And all around were dances, silken ceremonies and, in a place scarcely bigger than Delaware, as many as 30,000 temples.

"Thus," he concludes, "the paradox remained: Bali was heaven, and hell was other people."

Iyer goes on to explore this heavenly hell, discovering and deconstructing its three tourist circles: Kuta, for "Australian surfers and their blondes"; Sanur, "where the international set came to play"; and Ubud, "where trendy visitors came to study the native culture and foreign artists set up home and shop." Summing it all up, he writes: "No self-respecting self-styled student of the local culture would ever be caught dead inside the discos and juice bars of Kuta, while few of the musclemen on the beach had time for the festivals and galleries of Ubud; both groups scorned the Sanur life they could not afford, and the Sanur settlers looked down on the basic conditions of Kuta and Ubud, which they found uncomfortably close to those of the Balinese they so admired."

As he travels around the island, midway through his essay, Iyer concludes that tourism is taking over Bali:

When I consulted Bima Wasata, a pamphlet put out by the village of Ubud to explain its culture to foreigners, I found Buta, or the force of evil, defined as follows: "Evil power can be many things. It might be too much money from tourism, or the imbalance number between locals and visitors, or the local people who think about moneymaking work." All three kinds of evil, one could not help but notice, arose from tourism.

And yet, he writes three paragraphs later, "At daybreak, Bali took on the soft glow that bodies acquire in sleep, and the same sense of innocence inviolate." He continues:

Thus I went back and forth, unable to decide whether paradise had been lost, or was losing, or could ever be regained. And my greatest problem with Bali was, finally, that it seemed too free of problems. In many respects, it struck me as too lazy, and too easy. A real paradise, I felt, could not just be entered. A real paradise must exact a price, resist admission as much as it invited it. And a real paradise, like a god or lover, must have an element of mystery about it; only the presence of the unknown and the unseen -- the possibility of surprise -- could awaken true faith or devotion.

And so Iyer carries the debate one level deeper -- the question is not simply whether tourists have spoiled Bali; the question is whether Bali is too spoiling, too easy, to be a real paradise.

In this way, Iyer's essays proceed as a kind of conversation with himself. He travels, experiences, analyzes and concludes; each (temporary) conclusion furthers the dialogue and deepens his understanding of the place.

He again invokes Bali's inviolability: "Innocence, I thought, could be its own protection." But then, four paragraphs later, he writes: "So I had decided in 1984. But when I returned to Bali just eighteen months later, my faith was shaken, and my seesawing convictions about whether paradise could survive took what seemed to be their final turn, downward."

Kuta, he says, had become almost unrecognizable for all its flashy cafes and sleek boutiques. Even Ubud had become more crowded and commercial, with hostels sprouting like mushrooms.

But then -- and again the essay twists, the exploration deepens -- "The fates were kind to me: a shadow crossed my path, and I fell ill. I was struck down, indeed, by a mysterious ailment that laid me low with a sledgehammer force I had never known before."

Iyer is bed-bound for three days and nights.

Cast out from the sunlit paradise that seemed so compliant, I was borne back, so it seemed, into the night world of Bali, island of shadow plays and cockfights, sacred daggers and full moon rites ...

I had strange dreams each night. And gradually, through my fever, I began to catch the steady, keening undertone of this island of spirits (the aural equivalent, perhaps, to the undertow that carries several surfers to their death each year). I heard the jangled syncopation of the clangorous gamelan, weird, unearthly, psychic, resolving itself into no pattern that a Western ear could follow, but hammering away, with a dissonant and insistent tinkle, all through the narrow lanes of Kuta in the dark.

He plunges further, and wider.

As I lay alone in the dark, I began to think about the secrecy of this whole mysterious land, a secrecy so deep that it seemed like sorcery. Indonesia is the fifth largest country in the world, exceeded in population only by the three superpowers and India, home to more people than South Korea, the Philippines, Thailand, Hong Kong and Nepal combined. But how often was it heard from? And what did we know of it? ... Indonesia was far and away the largest Islamic nation in the world, with twice as many Muslims as Iran, Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia combined. Yet even in Muslim Java there seemed to be few mosques, the mythology was Hindu and its most famous monument (Borobudur) was Buddhist.

After these wide-sweeping thoughts, he returns to Bali, to end with a final emblematic scene:

And in a village courtyard, a huge moon hanging in the branches of the tree beyond, I watched as an old man patiently lit candles in the silence. A gang of bare-chested men burst out, in a trance, chak-a-chakking rhythmically, waving their arms about, sitting down in concentric circles and raising their hands to the heavens and shaking their heads wildly in the dust and all the time chuck-a-chucking furiously. As the chant mounted, the village mongrels let out a low growl, and backed away slowly. Limber, light-footed spirits in monkeys' masks jumped out from the darkness and leaped this way and that. Then two little girls, perhaps eight years old, slithered out of the darkness in a trance, dressed all in white, bodies swaying, eyes shut tight, twitching their tiny wrists together in a witchery of motion, fluttering their hands like snakes. And as the fairies rocked back and forth in a spellbound dance of exorcism, the gamelan continued its relentless ungodly wailing, the voices of its caged dark spirits clanging and jangling through the night.

This final iconic image resolves Iyer's own journey of exploration, his quest to come to terms with Bali's elusive essence.

"I was delighted," he concludes. "Caliban was back, and the spirits were active, and both had survived even their shipwrecked visitors from abroad."

The old magic embraces -- and outlives -- all.

So Iyer creates a complex, multilayered portrait of Bali. This portrait is rooted in his highly individual experience of the island -- his journeys and perceptions, his encounters, his illness -- but transcends that experience to evoke more general truths.

Iyer's art in this enterprise epitomizes the best travel writing, for it is really the record of two journeys -- one outer and one inner. The outer journey -- the encounters and incidents of the trip -- is the vehicle, but the inner journey -- the understanding of the place and of the author's experience in that place -- is the trail the essays trace.

This trail leads to mysteries that can never be fully understood, and revelations that will always seem mysterious. One of its lasting lessons, for me, is that polar opposites are an illusion -- silence and cacophony, good and evil, purity and corruption, tourist and local, all partake of each other. There is a heart of silence in the loudest cacophony, and a kernel of purity in the most corrupt heart. Nothing is as it seems; everything disguises -- and reveals -- some deeper and more complicated truth.

The breeze has taken on a warm edge now; the wind chimes tinkle, the orange and purple blossoms dance and the pages in my ink-splotched journal turn. I close Iyer's book and turn my eyes to the horizon. The waitress brings more hot water for my tea. Spicy scents waft from the kitchen. More travelers amble cheerily onto the terrace.

Now the sun is out, and the clouds are beginning to disperse. And in the distance the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge emerge, gleaming like an Asian pagoda, high above the mists.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

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