The new year has begun, and in the spirit of fresh starts, I’m revamping my approach to blogging: The initiation comes in the form of Pico Iyer, a beloved travel writer respected for his ability to pull something interesting out of everything. I hope to do the same when, in the first week of each month, I share with my comparatively small audience thoughts on a travel book.
When last I visited the States, I ordered about half a dozen selections from authors whose names had cropped up time and again, some known for their daring, others their humor, as well as Pico, who seemed to be known simply as a great writer, somewhat un-categorically. Somewhere I can recall reading a description of Pico Iyer’s panache in which he is put in a country café of some abandoned highway and comes out with a story—a travel story.
Perusing through his list on Amazon, my expectations were summed up to one title that had appeared again and again on the webzines, blogs, and personal pages where I’d been educating myself on the craft: Video Night in Katmandu. While the book sounded good enough—it is the most popular selection by one of the most popular travel writers—there was something about it, perhaps its esteem, perhaps the way its name conjured up memories of watching DVDs at Korean nori bangs, that put me into the mindset of wanting something different.
I flipped through rather aimlessly amongst his titles--Sun After Dark, The Lady and the Monk, and Tropical Classical—any of which might have done the job just fine. After all, my goal was simple: get a good sampling of Pico’s work. However, just as I’d begun to resolve myself to settling, all of them relatively interesting but no title that just enthralled me, I found a book that made my ears point a little: The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama.
Though not one with a particular interest in global religious figures and, like many, particularly turned off when celebrities become too involved in waxing political about situations, something in me wanted to know exactly who the Dalai Lama was, what he was getting up to in his daily life, and why and how he’d garnered such a favored position in the global community.
My knowledge going into this book was the general locale of Tibet on a map, that the Dalai Lama didn’t live there due to some skirmishes with the Chinese government, the Himalayas, teaching peace, Buddhism—a collection of random thoughts. I hadn’t (still haven’t) even seen Seven Years in Tibet, but I’d once seen an interview in which the Dalai seemed much more jovial—almost a practical joker—than one would expect from such a reverent figure. Seeing the Dalai Lama crack a couple of friendly insults at his interviewer had been enough, I suppose, to make me want more.
What I didn’t know going into the book was that Pico Iyer, beyond being an author of reverence himself, had a rather unusual relationship with the Dalai Lama: His father had been a personal friend, dating back to when the Dalai first arrived in India, having narrowly escaped the Chinese army and braved the peeks of the Himalayas. It was as if Pico had spent a lifetime preparing to write this book, getting to know his subject.
In general, the Dalai Lama wasn’t entirely different from what I expected. He is a man who gets up at four every morning to meditate for hours. He is an advocate for peace, tolerance, patience, and understanding. He holds incredible position (literally, god-like for Tibetans). He has immense power (preventing young militants from fighting the Chinese). He influences the world at large (the book is framed with the Dalai acceptance of a Nobel Peace Prize). The scaffolding of who the Dalai is to us all is reconstructed in the book.
However, where Pico Iyer’s talents come into play is his ability to relay the Dalai’s interactions with people, his reactions to people, painting a more rounded picture of the human being as opposed to his credentials. The book looks at the Dalai from several angles: as the idol, as a man with a family, as a monk, as a question mark in a world curious to be enlightened, as an optimist and leader who is often left contemplative by his own stances and hopes. He is humble, friendly, fallible, obliging, and self-deprecating without losing mindfulness of his station on the globe.
Of course, discussing the Dalai Lama, his country and religion and message, inevitably leads into rather deep and harrowing moments of language. Concepts can be swift, simple, and dare I say Zen-like; however, expounding on such thoughts, reflecting on their meaning in the webbed wide world, is a dangerous proposition for any writer. Even the great Pico, I think, at times falls prey to getting overly poetic and profound on certain subjects, perhaps spinning his wheels over ideas that are less interesting than the portrait he was piecing together.
Still, I came away wanting to know more about it all, not from any lacking ofThe Open Road but by the constraints of keeping the book palatable, rewarding, and focused. I’d recommend this one, but in the same breath, I’d warn that it’s not a fluffy, quick read. Pico Iyer a serious writer who packs sentences with meaning and takes on difficult ideas. At times, I’d sneak every free moment to get in another section, and just as often, I found myself stepping away for a rejuvenating breath.
Ultimately, my first book by Pico has warranted the next.
In 2013, I took a year to work part-time and pursue a travel writing career on the side. Part of my travel writing training was to read travel books and take from them what I could. These are thoughts on some of those travel books.