The Traveler's Journey: From Departure to Arrival

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Chapter 4 (v.1) - Pico Iyer, Falling off the Map

Submitted: May 21, 2007

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Pico Iyer Falling off the Map

"Every traveler seeks out places that every traveler has missed" (Iyer 9) says Pico Iyer. In his book Falling off the Map, Iyer seeks to do precisely that. Aptly subtitled Lonely Places of the World, Iyer's book is a collection of eights essays written over a period of several years on what he considers lonely places, places ignored by the rest of the world. Ranging countries and continents from Argentina to Australia, Iyer's essays distinguish what defines each country as a lonely place and what distinguishes each lonely place from the others.

Iyer begins his book with a brief narrative of how he leaves Cuba each time he visits. Juxtaposed with descriptions of his disillusioned friends and women waiting for inefficient public transportation are pictures of Che Guevara and billboards that read: "SOCIALISM OR DEATH, THE MOTHERLAND BEFORE EVERYTHING, IT IS ALWAYS THE 26TH" (Iyer 3). Loneliness, as evident in his narrative about Cuba, seems to derive from an asynchronism. "THE MOTHERLAND BEFORE EVERYTHING" cries the billboard, but while waiting for the airplane, Iyer describes how his Cuban friends dream about what they would do if they had the chance to go to America. When the airplane arrives, his friends turn away, unable to watch him hop on a plane they have been waiting for in vain for years. The signs say one thing about a country while the reality is something else altogether. It is no longer the 26th: this is the distinction Iyer seems intent on emphasizing, and the distinction Iyer suggests defines Cuba as lonely.

Each country Iyer describes possesses a similar temporal disconnect. As Iyer states, "More than in space, then, it is in time that Lonely Places are often exiled" (7). Yet each lonely place also possesses a distinctive disconnect: the subtitles to each chapter, such as "La Dolce Vita meets ‘The Hyper'", offer clues to Iyer's take on the country's disconnectedness and source of loneliness. Though not always as obvious as the aforementioned subtitle suggests, the two poles between which a lonely country is caught are the characteristics Iyer finds important. Thus, to emphasize the loneliness of a place, he emphasizes those two poles, the ideal and the reality, and how far apart they are. Describing Cuba, he mentions a sign he sees - "SENOR IMPERIALISTS! WE HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO FEAR OF YOU!" (Iyer 6) - while he describes how America has largely forgotten about Cuba. The phrases from signs, billboards, and t-shirts are always capitalized in Iyer's writings, and it is this sort of emphasis that Iyer employs in defining his lonely places.

Loneliness thus has a relatively clear definition in Iyer's book. One looks for the discrepancy between what people say and what people do, how a country represents itself and how it actually appears, the ideal and reality. The places where the ideal is no longer grounded in reality are what Iyer considers lonely. And in his essays, those two poles are described in copious detail. To understand what makes a place lonely then is to observe the details Iyer describes: the shirtless boys at a soccer game in La Boca compared with the haute couture of the cafclichin Buenos Aires. That difference is loneliness, and not just any kind of loneliness, but an Argentinean kind: an unending nostalgia for an Old World that was never really theirs. Loneliness in Iyer's writing takes on the quality of a display. Here is loneliness, every essay proclaims, and here is how to observe it. Falling off the Map is in many ways a guidebook: a guide to a "grand tour" of the lonely places in the world.

The audience for whom this guidebook is written can be discerned from the semiotics of Iyer's writing. In his descriptions of the lonely places of the world, places where other travelers have not been, he attempts to make them understandable to those might make similar journeys. He translates foreign subjects into terms that are more familiar to his readers, whether through the use of quotes, numbers, or signs. His subjectivity is aimed towards those who are interested in loneliness, whether the potential tourist who might visit the places he describes or the armchair traveler reading from the comfort of his home. Consider this passage:

"The only preparation you need to make if you plan to visit Vietnam is to sweep your mind clear of all preconceptions. To begin with, Americans need fear nothing except an excess of curiosity and goodwill, and the insults of children who mistake them for Soviets; these days, much of Vietnam is praying for a greater American presence." (Iyer 119)

Such assurance of the hospitality of Vietnam allows Iyer to suggest how to visit. Whether visiting in reality or visiting by imagination through the words of Iyer, the potential tourist must bring not only include all the practical necessities (a comfortable seat for the armchair traveler), but also an emptying of preconceptions. The only preconceptions one needs are the fact that there exists only an excess of curiosity and goodwill, and to ignore the insults of children. As much as Iyer attempts to describe Vietnam, he at the same time describes how to enjoy Vietnam. If one visits, one can home in on the essential characteristics that provides for one's enjoyment. If one doesn't visit, then one still knows what characteristics are essential for enjoyment.

His depictions of the places he visits not only define loneliness but also describe how to recognize loneliness. His essays encourage his audience to appreciate the disjuncture he observes; to do so, he reveals to his audience how to see the difference between the ideal and the reality. Possessed with only the English language, Iyer must translate what is the ideal and what is the reality. In interpreting the ideal, Iyer begins with the focal points for tourists. Signs, monuments, billboards, t-shirts, and local guides of all sorts become important. Because they are focal points for tourists, they are crucial to how foreigners interpret the country and how the country wishes to represent itself. The official statement implied by these tourist locations often reflects the ideals of the country, and it is from the official statement that Iyer defines the ideal.

Iyer's essay on North Korea begins with a description of the Tower of the Juche Idea and aptly enough the idea of Juche. "The Juche idea means that we should believe in our own strength, we are the masters of our destiny" (Iyer 11) according to Iyer's guide. According to Iyer, Juche is what Americans would consider "self-reliance" as described by Emerson. Iyer thus brings the rather vague definition of "we should believe in our own strength, we are the masters of our destiny" into a more clearly defined concept in Western thought. Iyer often references authors and writers from the Western European tradition as a way of expressing a particular idea about a place. To describe the alienness of Australia, he quotes D.H. Lawrence (Iyer 173). To describe the grandiloquence of Argentina, he quotes V.S. Naipaul (Iyer 34). The references not only clarify an idea for the erudite reader but also reinforce Iyer's own observations, showing that others have trod the path before him. Iyer's observations are thus not unique: what is unique according to Iyer is that he has brought these observations together to define a concept of loneliness. As he declares in his introduction, "And though no one has ever formally grouped them together - save me - every Lonely Place conforms to the Paraguay described by its native writer Augusto Roa Bastos as ‘an island surrounded by land.'"(Iyer 5).

Loneliness in North Korea is defined by the idea of Juche. Juche is repeated throughout North Korea in many other forms: a "Happiness-Filled Pleasure Park", the Grand People's Study House, the Arch of Triumph (not to be confused with the Parisian variety), and blocks of stoic gray buildings, towers, and monuments. Iyer is careful to show how the official buildings echo the official statement: everything seems to be provided for in North Korea.

To describe the reality of a place raises more questions than translating the official statement, not the least of which is defining what the reality is. The official statement can be thought of as the reality a place proclaims for public consumption. In order to describe the reality he sees, Iyer takes his direction from the official statement. He writes about the difference between what the official statement suggests should happen at these tourist locations and what actually happens. The "Happiness-Filled Pleasure Park" caters to nearly 100,000 visitors a day, but on the day Iyer visits there are only fifteen guests (Iyer 19). Not even the Jet Coaster, personally demanded by Kim Jong Il to be made 1,500 meters long, was enough to attract more people. The park was apparently neither happy nor filled.

The numbers provide precision and emphasis. The discrepancy in visitors at the Mangyongdae Fun Fair (official name of the "Happiness-Filled Pleasure Park") is made clearer by the precise difference between 100,000 and fifteen. 1,500 meters reveals the ambition of Kim Jong Il's demand, and thus emphasizes how even such an ambitious ride failed to bring in visitors. Numbers and data is a method Iyer uses to describe a foreign reality in terms familiar to his audience. To describe "The Hyper" in Argentina, by which he means hyperinflation, Iyer notes how someone who changed his dollars five years ago into australes would now be paying nearly $100,000 for a taxi and a million for a hotel room (27). To pithily capture the disconnect between "La Dolce Vita" and "The Hyper" and conclude his essay on Argentina, Iyer tells of how he sees President Menem on a TV variety show crooning a song of his own composition one night and reads about inflation being 95.5 percent the next (47). Numbers provide a precise difference that is clear from one culture to the next, even if the observation that the President of Argentina sings on TV is incomprehensible.

The disconnection for North Korea occurs at the extreme of the idea of Juche. Juche on one hand, allows North Korea to attempt to act as a nation of certain power on the world stage, but on the other hand, has made North Korea nearly inaccessible to outsiders. Separated from the world by the very idea that defines them, North Koreans are caught in a predicament of their own creation. This is what Iyer defines as the North Korean loneliness, which can be seen as Iyer saw it, in glimpses, past the monuments and the official statements.

In the end, the description began with what was known. Just as the paragraph about the Arizona sky could be called touristic, so could Iyer's. Never stepping away from the rhetoric of the familiar, Iyer attempts to translate the foreign into familiar terms. Iyer's subjectivity was that of a tourist: his experience was primarily a social experience. He worked primarily with the idea of loneliness, the common interest that bonded himself and his audience: his experience of his destination was less an illustration of the place than an illustration of a particular idea of loneliness.

Many people travel with such a perspective, a tourist's subjectivity. Not many people, however, are widely published and read. What is problematic about Iyer's writing is not his perspective, but the fact that with a kind of intellectual authority, the writing attempts to define knowledge for those interested in lonely places. Iyer shows what should be observed and recognized. Hyperinflation of 95.5% juxtaposed with the President singing on television: that kind of disjuncture is loneliness. In this way, Iyer's writing can be considered an act of appropriation. Hyperinflation is a characteristic of that strange quality of Argentina's called loneliness. Yet there is no explication of what the experience of hyperinflation might actually entail. How people cope each day with money that turns worthless each night is not a substantial part of Iyer's essay.

By defining a particular knowledge about a place, Iyer allows the future tourist to understand a place, in his terms, without ever having to actually visit. And if the tourist does visit, he can visit without ever leaving the realm of familiarity and comfort. The tourist with only Iyer in his hand would be hard pressed to understand a place beyond that which has already been "understood" for him. The danger then in Iyer's writing is that it becomes less description than imposition, that people might travel to Argentina not to observe Argentina but loneliness.

Iyer has spoken about the unusual nature of his lifestyle in interviews. Talking with Scott London, Iyer suggested that there were two ways to react to the kind of statelessness he found himself in. One way was to act as Naipaul did, which was to call no place home and feel alienated in every place. The other way was to "treat everywhere as equally home. Because I'm not fully English, Indian, or American, when I go to China or Ethiopia or Peru I'm no more displaced really than when I'm in India and can't speak a word of Hindi, or when I'm in England and don't look like an Englishman, or when I'm in California and speak with this accent that sounds so bizarre and incomprehensible to people" (London).

Iyer calls all places home, but the unfortunate side effect is that he never departs from home. Iyer remains solidly in the realm of the familiar, even in the most remote and exotic of locations. Iyer studies lonely places, but he himself professes an ability to not feel lonely wherever he is. Iyer travels, but he echoes the armchair travelers he writes for. He stands at the point of departure on the journey to understanding a place, but never moves away from it.


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