My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Having taken a growingly serious interest in travel writing, and having wanted to read Pico Iyer ever since I came across this quote, "Kindness is water, religion is like tea. You can survive without tea, you can't survive without water," I decided to pick up Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World two days ago.
In six eloquently crafted essays, Iyer introduces us to six different places, each fascinating and lonely in its own right.
What makes a lonely place? According to Iyer, lonely places
- have no seat at our international dinner tables
- all are marching to the beat of a different satellite drummer
- develop tics and manias and heresies. They pine, they brood, they molder
- are generally sure that their time is about to come
- are often poor places, because poverty breeds wonkiness and a greater ability to visualize than to realize dreams
- are often small countries, because smallness gets forgotten
- attract lonely people
In all essays, Iyer shows how the busiest of regions have a lonely face to them (e.g. the touristy Saigon side of Vietnam vs the abandoned Hanoi). He sews together every place's people, history and geography to present a portrait of loneliness to which local residents may not even be attuned. Iyer also alludes to other writers, such as Márquez and Lawrence (this is something I have noticed travel writers often do).
The reason why it is so lovely to read Iyer is because he comes across as a bold explorer, deciding "to try one last time to walk across the deserted street" in Pyongyang, and daring to accept a stranger's offer to board a new (and risky) plane to Bhutan. He has a keen eye for details, missing nothing about the different dimensions of a city. And he is as much of an intensely involved observer as he is an outsider, a unwelcome guest at certain Korean restaurants in Paraguay. We are often reminded of the fact that lonely places attract lonely people.
Yet beyond the loneliness of deserted landscapes and oblivious dreamers, there are also evolving cultures and reinvented people, foreign influences and more travelers. This book was published in 1993, and not all the places it describes are so lonely anymore. Yet as Iyer reminds us, "there will never be a shortage of Lonely Places, any more than there will ever be of lonely people."
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