By Anastasia Mills Healy
Recently I had the good fortune to hear the accomplished writer and world traveler Pico Iyer speak in Manhattan as part of a new lecture series presented by the World Monuments Fund.
Being a good writer does not automatically make one a good speaker, but Iyer was engaging and inspirational, charming and wise.
He peppered his talk with travel quotations, my favorite being one from Henry David Thoreau: “No place is uninteresting when looked at with interested eyes.” Think of that the next time you get antsy when your travel companion is lingering somewhere.
Iyer spoke glowingly about locations including Kyoto, where he lives, and Dharamsala, where he has spent time with the Dalai Lama. But in response to a query from an audience member who asked him to name some of his favorite destinations, Iyer quickly responded that Cuba was a place he has visited many times and which he finds intriguing, and an island of dichotomies. Iyer called it “mesmerizing” and “beautiful,” albeit poor and laden with crumbling infrastructure. The warmth of its people, the intricacy of its history, the loveliness of its Caribbean setting all lure him back time and again.
A poignant story he told concerned a trip to Yemen some years back. His return flight was postponed four days, a delay that meant he was to miss an important event. He spent a lot of time with a gracious and helpful airline agent who finally was able to get him on a sooner flight, which left at 6 a.m. the next morning but from a different city, many miles away. He hired a genial, toothless old man as a driver and together they pushed on through the night, climbing and winding their way up mountains with precipitous and unsecured slopes, stopping every so often for roadblocks manned by masked gunmen who demanded payment. He made his flight and his important event thanks to the tenacity and helpfulness of the airline agent and the bravery and benevolence of the driver. Several weeks after his return, the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred and Yemen was discussed as a hotbed of al Qaeda. Iyer said that although Yemen as a country has been proven a threat to Westerners, he was so very grateful to have had such lovely encounters with its citizens. He had an opportunity not many have of putting a friendly face on that country.
Of course the masked gunmen won’t be plastered on any tourism posters, but Iyer’s point was that the “people to people” interactions that travel can create often teach us more about a country than its most celebrated art treasures.