Copyright The Financial Times
When I say that I could live in airports, I’m not speaking metaphorically: a few years ago, I worked out that (like many FT readers, I’m sure) I spend 40 days a year either in an airport or an aircraft – in short, in the physical equivalent of jet lag, neither here nor there.
Extrapolated across a lifetime, this figure (of almost six weeks a year, more than 10 per cent of my existence) could come to eight or nine years in all, while my friends who work in consulting or international banking may spend as much as 11 or 12 years of their lives in mid-air. More time in anonymous passageways than in a single home often and yet we never stop to think of it until, perhaps, it is time to make a summation of our lives.
It was this sense of a whole life spent in transit that moved me once to go and spend two weeks in and around Los Angeles airport, taking it as a model of this new form of lifestyle, and an exemplum of the modern world, in which people live in between destinations, not so much in one culture or another as in the cracks between them.
Sometimes, just to get my work done, I’ve had to fly from Damascus to London to New York to Los Angeles to Kyoto in a week; and many times, when I’ve headed off to somewhere I think of as exotic – North Korea, say, or Bhutan or Easter Island – I’ll notice that the marvels and incongruities I experience en route are just as startling as anything I’ll see at the other end.
Flux has become a country in itself, I often think, and yet, unlike most other countries, it remains uncharted, neglected by the history books, and with no guidebooks yet to explain
its curious customs and sights.
I think this intuition of mine – that travel might become not just a means but an end in itself – must have begun soon after I was born in Oxford, to parents from India, and we moved to California – I rejoicing in the fact that I belonged to none of these places but could claim some native acquaintance with them all.
By the age of nine, I had begun, in the classic imperial fashion (though a vicarious subject of Empire myself) to go to school (in England) by aircraft.
Home in California, where my parents lived, was formalised, somewhat foreign and curtained; school was the realm of the barbarians, overseen by some feudal chieftain. The aircraft, the airport – the fact of being in the passages between the fixed points, under the legislation of no government, waited on by solicitous cabin attendants and offered films and Cokes and furtive glimpses of Raquel Welch a few rows ahead of me – began to seem the place to be.
It’s common to think of travel, nowadays, as an alternative life and whole parallel universe, a complete Fourth World with its own holy scriptures (the Lonely Planet guidebooks), its own soundtrack (the Lionel Richie and Eric Clapton tunes that are the mainstay of every third world bar), its own odd constituency (bangled Danes and young Israelis who’ve just been released from their country’s armed forces).
There are some who travel in a spirit of flight, or pilgrimage, acutely aware of what they’re leaving behind or what they’re permanently moving towards – fugitives, perhaps, who call themselves seekers; but there are many of us who travel just by habit. It’s the only home we know.
For us – for me, at least – it’s domesticity that is the foreign country where we don’t entirely trust the natives. It’s the notion of community that’s alien, and stasis that seems a nice word for paralysis. If I stay more than three months in any country, I start to feel unsettled (or prompted to seek out unsettledness of a more fruitful kind); it’s not that I have an itch to stir or cabin-fever, it’s just that I feel I’m betraying something in myself and have gone over to the other side. I therefore have made travel the portable home I take everywhere I go. I have been largely based in Japan for 12 years now, but live there on a tourist visa. As soon as I finished my A-levels, I took off for the summer to see the India that was technically my motherland but remains terra incognita to me even now.
After returning for a final term at school, I hived myself off to a Mexican restaurant in California, where I used my chameleon complexion to serve as a sub-waiter, courteously pouring hot sauce into customers’ laps and distributing glasses of water over their freshly made tacos. With the money I earned from this, I got on a bus in Tijuana and travelled through Central America and then Colombia, Educador, Peru and Bolivia before flying up the eastern coast of South America, through Rio, Salvador and Surinam, and hopping through Trinidad and Barbados back to Miami, where I got a bus home to California. By the time I arrived at college, therefore, I knew my only education would come on the road. Pan Am was my Harvard, to paraphrase Melville, poet laureate of mad explorers, and BOAC (as it was then) my Yale.
I went to get a post-graduate degree in literature, and spent much of my time at the university writing guidebooks to Italy, Greece, Britain and France. I finally got myself a job in New York and promptly took off on a holiday in Burma and Thailand. And then another holiday to Bali. And then another in India, finally acknowledging that my rewards would have to be internal ones and I would have to trade the security of a steady job for the familiarity of an unsteady life. Ever since, I’ve switched passports as if they were credit cards. As I draw close to 50, I’ve never owned a home.
The currency in which I earn my living really does at times seem to be frequent flier miles, and I horrify friends by saying that my ideal domestic environment is a hotel (I write this in a small guest-house in the foothills of the Himalayas, where I’ve been staying for six weeks). It is not that I necessarily think travel is better than fixity, only that it is better for me. Staying in one place would be a form of maximum security prison in which I would be no use to society or myself.
If you are living a life of constant movement, the one thing you most need is stillness. Stillness is something deeper than mere settledness, and something physically and metaphysically different from staying put: the Dalai Lama travels constantly round the world but what he carries to people everywhere is, to some degree, the focus and gravitas of his stillness.
Four times every year, I go for weeks at a time to a Catholic hermitage where (though no Catholic) I seldom leave my little cell and look out on an ocean that never moves. For much of the rest of the year I choose to base myself in a two-room flat in rural Japan where I have no car, no bicycle, no internet, no TV: I move only as far as my legs will take me. Travel that leads to travel would lead only to a different kind of fixity of routine.
And yet, in my places of stillness, what I am doing, as much as anything, is preparing myself for movement: as an archer does when pulling back his bow. As a boy I used to think myself unusual in going to school by aircraft. Now – though such frequent movement is of course still the province of only a minority (and of the 100m exiles who never sought to leave their homes, for whom displacement is a misery) – I see movement slowly becoming a greater part of almost every life.
The still life of my grandparents’ age has fractured into the MTV fragmentation of our own. This brings with it discordance, anarchy and confusion (jet lag, you could say, accentuated by culture shock and altitude sickness). It also brings with it possibility. Cyberspace has given us a new way to think of distance and geography, and movement for me has become one of the languages it is wise to speak because the very notion of home, community and self is being reformed.
Learning fluency in movement – the new nation I inhabit – I look around and find that I am in a country that constantly expands and is already more dynamic and more populous than most of the fixed states of the world.
Pico Iyer is the author of ‘Sun After Dark’ (Bloomsbury/Knopf), ‘The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home’ and ‘Falling off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World’
*Pico Iyer’s most recent book of travels, ( published by Bloomsbury in the UK/Knopf in the US), is SUN AFTER DARK: Flights into The Foreign. He is also the author of The Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home and Falling off The Map: Some Lonely Places of the World
PICO IYER – The Financial Times
Copyright The Financial Times