Travel

The world may be shrink­ing, but we’ll never tire of leav­ing home

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - by Pico Iyer

I at the group of sixty trav­ellers, mostly women, lean­ing in to hear their English-lan­guage guide as their hi­jabs kept slip­ping to­ward their shoul­ders. Ev­ery one of these visi­tors to Iran’s desert city of Yazd in the fall of 2013 hailed from China. I could barely re­call how, when rst I touched down in Bei­jing, in 1985, al­most the only glimpse of for­eign­ness that Chi­nese cit­i­zens could get was at a bowl­ing al­ley that had just opened up in the cap­i­tal. Eleven months af­ter my trip to Iran, I found my­self chat­ting with the oth­ers in my tour group to North Korea: I re­mem­ber a physi­cian from Tehran, a Googler from Ger­many, and two spir­ited ex­ec­u­tives from Sil­i­con Val­ley on a long sab­bat­i­cal from Ap­ple. The last time I’d vis­ited Py­ongyang, I’d been in a group of one. I be­gan my life of full-time writ­ing and trav­el­ling thirty-two years ago. At that time, there were no web­sites, no smart­phones, no video calling to make you feel that home was just a click away. I couldn’t have imag­ined talk about driver­less cars and aug­mented re­al­ity, about trips to Mars and “ ying trains” that run faster than com­mer­cial planes. At the con­fer­ence in Van­cou­ver last year, I stepped into a vir­tual-re­al­ity space, in which the birds and sounds of a rain­for­est came swoop­ing down on me, while Spacex founder Elon Musk spoke on the main stage about his plans for in­ter­plan­e­tary travel. But deep down, travel re­mains what it has al­ways been: the en­counter of one hu­man soul with an oth­er­ness she can never fully grasp. And even as tech­nol­ogy fa­cil­i­tates this — or o ers sub­sti­tutes — i don’t think the core of the ex­pe­ri­ence (won­der, ter­ror, and the eerie min­gling of the two) ever changes very much. Each time I re­turn to Venice or Bali, what strikes me most is not how much has al­tered but how lit­tle the dis­tinc­tive­ness, the sen­si­bil­ity, the char­ac­ter, of such places is trans­formed. Come to my adopted home near Ky­oto, and the most use­ful guide­book may well be Is­abella Bird’s Un­beaten Tracks in Ja­pan, from 1880. Yes, Lon­don and Toronto — not to men­tion Shanghai — have changed beyond recog­ni­tion in my life­time, o er­ing far richer op­por­tu­ni­ties for their res­i­dents, but that means only that more and more of us can see the world just by walk­ing down the street. Of course, frag­ile sites are grow­ing dan­ger­ously con­gested now that there are nearly twenty in­ter­na­tional trav­ellers for ev­ery one that ex­isted when I was a kid; Ky­oto cur­rently sees 55 mil­lion do­mes­tic and for­eign tourists crowd into the city ev­ery year — and the num­bers are ris­ing rapidly. But I’m never up­set that travel is grow­ing demo­cratic; when I be­gan com­mut­ing reg­u­larly as a boy, be­tween my fteenth- cen­tury board­ing school in Eng­land and my par­ents’ home in hip­pie Cal­i­for­nia, air travel felt like the prov­ince of a priv­i­leged few. Nowa­days, the peo­ple on those same flights are likely to come from Bangkok or Bu­san or São Paulo. A once rather colo­nial en­ter­prise has been turned on its head, and 2050 may well bring ever more com­fort­able trav­ellers from Ki­gali and La Paz to Am­s­ter­dam and Paris. None of this means that al­most ev­ery­where to­day re­sem­bles a sub­urb of Los An­ge­les. Any­body who thinks that has never set foot in­side a Star­bucks in Hiroshima (where ges­tures and cus­toms are as Ja­pa­nese as they might have been hun­dreds of years ago) or sipped a car­damom chai latte amid the chaos of a Mcdon­ald’s within walk­ing dis­tance of the Ganges River in In­dia. The fact that so many of us are now wear­ing blue jeans and T-shirts does not be­gin to mean we think or dream alike. Be­sides, the main les­son of travel is that it’s per­ilous to an­tic­i­pate what will hap­pen even a minute from now. But as I watch Ti­betans y to In­dian beach re­sorts around Goa (where signs for mo­ji­tos are in Cyril­lic script) and as I see the Western­ers around them think ever more about what they can give to the places they visit — not just what they can get — i re­joice that travel, even if it re­mains too di cult for too many, is slowly be­com­ing a two-way street. When a new­comer (from Dakar, per­haps) ar­rives in Mon­treal thirty-two years from now, I’m guess­ing she’ll feel much as I did when I vis­ited the city for Expo 67 — ex­cept that the faces all around her may re­mind her very much of home.

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