Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Everyone, at some time, is a continent of one

Falling Off the MapFalling Off the Map by Pico Ayer
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
and, most poignantly of all:
  • attract lonely people
Unsurprisingly, the enigmatic and remote North Korea tops the list of lonely places in this collection. Argentina is there, too, a place with people "living in a dream" despite the economic collapse happening around them. It is followed by Cuba, which carries a "sense of wistfulness, of a life arrested in midbreath." Iyer captures the "seduction" of Cuba's loneliness, describing how "the whole island has the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set." Then, there is Iceland, which has a mystic quality to it; we, like Iyer, are swept away by its "certain kind of magic" as well as struck by its darkness.  Bhutan is the "hidden kingdom" that, like North Korea, shuts itself from the outside world (both are vastly different, however). Vietnam is beautifully described as "a pretty girl with her face pressed up against the window of the dance hall, waiting to be invited in." Paraguay is the "orphaned land," and the title of the essay - "Up for sale, or adoption" - is sadly fitting. Finally, we have Australia, which perhaps does not strike the modern reader as that much of a "lonely place" yet nonetheless comes across as "a country that feels as if it has fallen off the planet" in Iyer's essay.

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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