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Pico Iyer Shares His Secrets for Traveling Better and Relaxing More

When I first started working in the travel world, my biggest fear was that I’d grow callous to that sensation of feeling so alive when visiting a place for the first time. You know how pasta at home never tastes as good as it does while you’re in Italy? I wondered if, the more I traveled, the less vulnerable I’d be to that sense of wonder. Or that I’d be too distracted by the (admittedly fabulous) pressures of bringing something back from that trip: an idea, a story, or even just a box of the Kit Kats du jour from Tokyo.

But I’ve found that those low-grade pressures sharpen my senses even more. As I savor that carbonara in Rome, I’m thinking about how I might remember or translate the experience into words on a page. It feels almost meditative, and the more I can dip into this mindfulness, the more content I am, even when things go wrong.

All of this was swirling around in my mind when an email invitation to interview travel writer Pico Iyer—famous for his talks and books on the connection between stillness and travel—came through. Our conversation wound from how to treat a flight like a retreat in the sky to his arguments for choosing someplace like Iran or North Korea over, say, a week in Hawaii. He had many wonderful things to stay, but here are the ones I want to tuck away and revisit.

1. Think of travel as just the starting point.
“Travel is the way we collect the sights that turn into insights when we’re sitting still back at home. If we take an amazing 10-day trip to Bhutan, and if it’s a rich trip, we’ll probably spend the next 10 months or 10 years looking back on it, finding a place for it in our daily lives. It’s akin to going to a market to collect some raw ingredients to cook up into a meal when you’re back home. I think most people who come back from a trip saying that it changed their lives will probably find that their life is most richly changed as they’re sitting still at home and revisiting those places.”

2.Trade at least one beach vacation for North Korea.
“For any traveler, it’s really useful to spend a few days in North Korea. Twenty years ago, I went for four days—and really spent the next two decades thinking about those four days. This time last year, I revisited the county. It’s not the most pleasant or inviting destination on the planet, but it’s one of the most thought-provoking and different—and the one that sends you home with the most questions and uncertainties. You return with the deepest realization that nothing you believe to be part of daily life pertains to daily life in North Korea, and vice versa. And that’s really my definition of a good trip. I’ve been to beautiful places such as Hawaii and Venice and I’ve partaken of their beauty…and then I’ve returned home and picked up my daily life as if nothing has happened to me.”

3. Turn travel mishaps to your advantage.
“I’m speaking as the everyday journalist and travel writer whose job involves keeping up with the moment but who nonetheless feels that I won’t be able to keep sanity or balance if I don’t step outside of my life or the world as often as possible. I don’t have a formal meditation or spiritual practice, but I have a handful of daily habits by which I try to hold onto my sanity. And travel is an ideal way to practice them. For example, when I show up at the airport and the flight is delayed for two hours, I will often think (if I’m in a good mood) ‘Wonderful! I have a micro vacation—I can go off to a quiet corner and bury myself in a book.’ It’s not always easy to find 120 minutes free to read a book these days.”

clouds from plane

4. And consider the flight as a mini retreat.
“When I’m on the plane, I try to pretend it doesn’t have Wi-Fi. And I learned through watching my fellow passengers to use the flight to turn off your mind—which is to say to let it run around like a dog off the leash. I think more and more of us find in our accelerated world of updates and messages that the plane is one of the rare places where we can escape all that. We can read or think about someone we care about or do nothing at all. Those three things are ever more luxurious. I was talking to a monk once and I asked him how he deals with jet lag. He looked at me as if I were a five-year-old child (which I probably am) and said, ‘A flight is a mini retreat in the sky. You can’t be anywhere else. Nobody is expecting you. Everything is brought to you in the comfort of your seat. What better place to practice monasticism, at least for the 16 hours of the flight?'”

5. Get in touch with all your senses.
“When people talk about meditative practices they’re really talking about attention. And I’ve always thought that the beauty of travel is that it’s like turning all your senses to the setting marked ‘on’ and suddenly you’re wide awake and not able to take things for granted like you might at home. So I suppose travel is a training in attention, which therefore brings you to the same point as mindfulness.”

6. Leave your routines at home.
“I just wrote a piece on the virtue of having a quest or a question whenever you take a trip. Even if that quest is that a friend’s six-year-old has asked for a Hello Kitty bag when you go to Japan. Suddenly you’re going to parts of Japan you never would have seen otherwise. So that six-year-old is opening a door for you. But a quest also takes you out of your routines. When we travel it’s not so much about leaving our homes but about leaving our habits behind.”

Meditative city skyline

7. Travel behind the headlines.
“When my neighbors in California ask where they should go on vacation, I always suggest Iran, Cuba, and Vietnam. Partly because those are three of the most culturally rich, beautiful, and welcoming places I’ve ever been and partly because, while having an amazing time, you’re also getting a history lesson about places that have been so implicated in our recent history. You’re learning about the headlines you’ve been taking in over the last 30 years.

8. Be a traveler in your own hometown.
“I try to look around Santa Barbara, for example, with the eyes of someone’s who from, say, Cambodia and within a second, I’m reminded what a beautiful place it is. When we’re at home, most of us are keenly aware of what’s not perfect, but visitors can remind us of the beauty that surrounds us. I remember one time when I had come back from Tibet, and I was restless and jet lagged and out of sorts. I was missing Tibet a lot and wanted still to be there. I was so antsy, I decided to just get in my car and drive. A few minutes later, I looked out to one side of me and there was the great blue expanse of the Pacific. Then I looked to the other side of me and saw this ridge of untouched valley with an emerald lake in the center and not a single trace of human habitation. And I suddenly realized that 10 minutes from my mother’s house was a landscape probably more beautiful than anything I’d seen in Tibet.”

9. And don’t overlook the power of the staycation.
“A large part of the beauty of travel is the way it illuminates home and shows you the things you take for granted. For example, if you go to North Korea, one happy result is coming back and enjoying the freedoms and movements we have here and often forget (and even complain) about. But if you’re seeking stillness, it’s right here, you don’t have to go to Tibet or Tahiti to find it. It’s right in the heart of home, if you can only open your mind and senses. In Kyoto, when you step into a temple, it’s often written in the ground to ‘Look beneath your feet.’ As a way of saying that everything you’re trying to find is right here.”

Want to hear Pico’s wisdom in person? Join him for a day-long workshop at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco on Saturday, July 25th. 

For suggestions on where to go if you’re trying to center yourself, check out the AFAR guide to traveling off the grid.