Pico Iyer: Travel, The Dalai Lama, Houston & That Jerk V.S. Naipaul

Few people live up to the (somewhat shopworn) descriptor "citizen of the world" more than Pico Iyer, who today divides his time between Southern California and rural Japan. Born in England to scholarly Indian parents, raised in California, and partially educated in England (at Eton and Oxford), Iyer shuttled back and forth between continents and cultures throughout his youth.

And then, after college, he really started traveling. Beginning as a reporter for the now-venerable Let's Go series of travel guides, Iyer has since graduated to writing both novels and travel literature, with renowned titles like Video Night in Kathmandu, Falling Off the Map and Global Soul: Jet Lag, Shopping Malls, & the Search for Home under his belt, not to mention regular bylines in magazines like Time, Harper's, National Geographic, The New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement.

Both of Iyer's parents were of a deeply spiritual bent, so it's no surprise that Iyer has been called "Thomas Merton on a frequent-flyer pass." And there's a certain sense of inevitability in the fruition of his latest book, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. Iyer's father was one of the first friends the Dalai Lama made after the beginning of his exile 50 years ago, and the younger Iyer has known the Tibetan holy man for 30 years.

Brazos Bookstore and the Asia Society of Houston are bringing Iyer to town on Wednesday. Iyer will be discussing this masterfully-crafted work at the Westin Galleria at 7:30 pm, but here we range beyond that to talk about how to travel the world without leaving Houston, Iyer's admiration of our Museum District, and the nasty disposition of a certain Anglo-Indian Nobel Prize-winner.

Hair Balls: If I was gonna be so bold as to try to encapsulate the Dalai Lama into one pithy sentence, I might try to use one that I just stole from a review of The Open Road on Amazon.com, and that was that he is "a man of superlative contradictions." Would you agree with that?

Pico Iyer: You know, I wouldn't. I would actually say that he is a man of superlative consistency, a man of absolute consistency and wholeness in a very contradictory situation. I suppose if I was going to define him in two words I would say that he is "thoroughly human." I think that his position is contradictory in that he has to be both temporal and spiritual leader of his people, and that he's a monk who is very visible in the world, and that he comes from this very ancient tradition but is a radical in his way and eager to make contact with the modern world.

But I think all of those actually stem from a very clear consistency in his thinking. So his belief is that religion and science shouldn't be on opposite sides of the world, and that a monk's most important acts are in the middle of our regular world and not just in a monastery. And I think he's always calling for interdependence and in that sense, bringing all these many worlds together into places where they are not accustomed to being seen maybe.

HB: I've seen that a lot, where people of genius are called men or women of contradictions, and I guess it is maybe that the perceptions of those who have observed them have not been thought all the way through.

PI: Yes, we haven't thought them all the way through, and I think that many of us are people of contradictions. I think what makes them a genius -- when we are talking about those kinds of people -- is that they are very single within themselves and we project our own contradictions on to them.

I must say more specifically, before I began this book, I thought "Well, if I spend five years with this man, or any man, what I am going to see are contradictions and discrepancies, and ways in which the theory is very different from the practice, or the public is very different from the private." And I must say at the end of my five years to have felt even more that he was consistent than I had thought before. In other words, I did not see any contradictions. Who he was when he was by himself and who he is when he is in front of 20,000 people -- there is really no difference.

HB: Do you think Buddhism perhaps allows more room to be consistent, in that you don't have to swallow the sort of religious dogma that other religions demand?

PI: That's a really interesting question. I think I once asked the Dalai Lama almost the same question. And he said "Maybe, well possibly." I think he said "maybe" seven times in the same sentence. I think he said that it was probably true but that he didn't want to make a claim for Buddhism over others and that he believed he hadn't thought it through fully enough. He was probably saying "Let me get back to you in a few years and I can get back to you more authoritatively." But yes, I think his particular Buddhism is about not having a dogma and being eager to learn from every other religion and every other tradition.

So yes, I think for him, clearly, one of the blessings of his life is that he grew up in this really isolated place, but circumstances have allowed him to interact with scientists at CalTech, MIT and with Catholics and Islamic people and to live in a Hindu country, and I think he sees all that as a great benefit for him. And yes, dogma would be the one thing that I think a Buddhist would want to avoid. I'm not a Buddhist myself, but I think that the Buddhists believe that Buddhism is almost a science, a science of the mind. And as with any science, there are new experiments, new discoveries, research is being pushed forward. There are no givens and no certainties. Even in quantum mechanics some Nobel Prize-winner might think something today, but next week someone else is coming up with a new thing, and he has to change and expand his vision to accommodate that if it's really solid. And I think that is how Buddhism is, at least for the Dalai Lama.

HB: Let's talk about your other endeavors and travels and things like that. There's a lady here who thought I really should talk to you because I do travel writing myself, only I never leave Houston.

PI: Oh I love that idea. I am all in favor of traveling at home, actually.

HB: Houston's such a car city, so what we do is a friend of mine and I will ride a bus out to the end of the line and then walk back to town.

PI: I love that.

HB: My family and I are not in a position to be able to afford to travel as much as we would like, so this is born out of a spirit of restlessness.

PI: What a great idea. A magazine just asked me to do a piece on the ten basic principles of travel, and one of my first ones was if you are arriving in any different town for the first time, you should get on a bus and ride it to the end of the line, because it's sure to be an interesting adventure. You're doing that in your own hometown, and I think that's even better. I'd like to steal that idea for my hometown. It's amazing in our hometowns how little we see on our regular routes around town. Eighty-eight percent of the town we never see.

HB: Houston's sort of a 45-RPM town and when you walk, you slow the turntable down to 16 RPM. Oddly, I've found that there are things that you notice when you are driving that you miss when you are on foot. But it's fascinating; Houston's a very multicultural city but it is spread out over 600 square miles. Have you experienced much of Houston?

PI: Before I address that I was going to say that one thing I tell people, a variation on what you were just saying, is that these days you don't go across the world to see all the different cultures of the world. If you are traveling across Houston, or LA, or New York, you can see Vietnam, Africa, Guatemala, Tibet, all these places that for our grandparents were very, very far away, are all within a bus ride now. And I think that's a really exciting development. Our hometowns are getting more interesting. You can see the whole world in your hometown if you are in a city like Houston.

HB: Exactly. Here, you can be walking through a neighborhood of impoverished Central American immigrants, and then you will come across something like a Filipino Baptist church.

PI: Yeah. I'm glad you like that. I think all cities benefit from that sort of thing. As for my experiences of Houston, incredibly, I've only been there once, I think, in 1996, I believe, for the Asia Society also. But it's interesting. My mother was born and grew up in India and I know she's been to Houston several times for Indian weddings. I think she's been to more Indian weddings in Houston than her hometown of Bombay. Or at least the same number, and that speaks to what you were saying. I know there is a very substantial and lively Indian community there. So the two times I will have been to Houston [after this visit], are probably because of my Indian ancestry rather than Texas itself; it's an interesting byproduct of the fact that Houston is full of all these different cultures now.

HB: A few years ago I traveled to San Francisco for the first time, and it's exciting there, there's a buzz when you are walking around. Houston has all those same raw ingredients, but they are spread out so far. Take our Chinatown. It's about ten miles from downtown, five miles from east to west and a couple of miles wide. It's a very suburban Chinatown.

PI: Yes, exactly, and I think in that way you are a victim of your size and your geography, in the way Los Angeles is. Los Angeles doesn't have that concentrated buzz that San Francisco or New York or any other more urban city has, because as you said, it's a suburban city. The trick in Houston is probably the same as the trick in Los Angeles, which is to remind yourself that you have all these cultures here by getting on the bus or getting in your car and getting out there and exploring them.

HB: Which was one of the reasons I did those stories. I hoped that people would emulate us and walk around town more, explore these corners. I'll be the first to admit, though, that we focused a little too intensively on dive bars.

PI: Well, they are as interesting as anywhere else.

HB: Well, it was kind of to the exclusion of too much else.

PI: When this magazine asked me for my ten tips, my very first one was to just walk and walk and walk, which is kind of what you were saying. Another was to go to McDonald's. That's not a dive bar, but if you go to a McDonald's or a dive bar you can see a lot that reflects the city.

HB: It's true. There are some bars here that are indistinguishable from places deep in the heart of Mexico. A lot of people really like to visit San Antonio. Houston sort of has an entire San Antonio in it, over on the east side of town.

PI: And I'll bet it has a Saigon and a Bombay too.

HB: It does.

PI: I must say that part of my sense of Houston is that it is one of those cities that is most misunderstood by the rest of the nation. I remember when I went there the first time, the first thing that hit me was the magnificence of your museums, which would be the envy of almost anywhere. I think I spent almost a whole day around the Menil and the Rothko Chapel and those areas. And when I come this year, I asked my hosts that I be given at least three hours there. It just speaks to my sense that when people across the U.S. hear the word "Houston," they flash on signs or freeways or something like that, when there's actually something more interesting going on. And those museums are amazing. New York would be proud to have museums like that.

HB: A lot of people still think of desert, horses, cowboys, and tumbleweeds. And we're really a subtropical swamp.

PI: It's very hot in the summer, right?

HB: It's already cranking up.

PI: Right. It's funny, I was just in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago and I was talking to a very great essayist there, a man who has spent his whole life writing and thinking about America, and he heard I was going to Houston and he told me that I really must go to River Oaks, which I'd never heard about. He told me that it puts all the other neighborhoods like that to shame. I guess that's the opposite of the dive bars, but it's another aspect of Houston.

HB: It's funny, the one man who has traveled with me the most on those trips grew up in River Oaks.

PI: So this must be interesting for that person -- the opposite. I'm excited, I don't know if it will come through, but I got an invitation to visit Kinkaid School for next year. I thought that would be very interesting because so much of what the world has seen of Houston has come out of there, in terms of the President [George W. Bush] and the Secretary of State [James Baker].

HB: Kinkaid is sort of the oil-industry prep school.

PI: That's in interesting formulation.

HB: St John's is sort of a notch above it. Its graduates cavort with princesses.

PI: (Laughs) I have a good friend from Houston who lives in Holland and I wrote to him and said that I had been invited to go to Kinkaid and I said I was interested and he said exactly word for word what you just said. Are you a lifelong Houston person?

HB: Kind of. My parents are both from here, but I spent a lot of my youth moving back and forth between here and Nashville, where my dad moved to be in the music business.

There's an interesting story about my dad and travel writers: back in the 1980s, he hosted a party for V.S. Naipaul when he was researching his book on the American South. [A Turn in the South]

PI: (Laughs) Oh, your dad is a brave man.

HB: He didn't have much nice to say about him afterwards.

PI: I'm guessing. I've never heard anything nice said about him, and especially his hosts, I think, really suffer. People across the world have worked so hard to be nice to him, and they always end up on the receiving end of something not so nice.

HB: My dad was far more hurt than angry.

PI: That's nice of him. I think there are many people that are angry at him. What an experience. So that was in Nashville?

HB: Yeah, he was passing through. As it turned out, my dad didn't like the book and he thought Naipaul was a jerk.

PI: Yeah. I think almost everyone does. Good writer, but I wouldn't want to be hosting a party for him. [Naipaul won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2001, but not for A Turn in the South.]

HB: I missed that party, because I wasn't living in Nashville at the time. I am a little like you, a bit of a mongrel. My wife is English, I lived over there for three years, I shuttled back and forth between different parts of my family through most of my childhood, and it was always a struggle to find where you fit in everywhere. And you sort of end up fitting in nowhere for a time, and then if you are lucky, you learn to fit in everywhere.

PI: Well, that's what I always say. In fact, I often use V.S. Naipaul as a counter-example because if you grow up in as many different situations as you have or I have, you can either feel alienated everywhere, which is what he does, or you can feel at home everywhere, which is what it sounds like you feel, and what I feel.

HB: For me it's a little of both. I guess we've come full-circle. It's a contradiction. Or is it?

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