Indie Traveler Interview: Pico Iyer

On Monday, BootsnAll announced a project that we, together with travel writer and vagabonding expert Rolf Potts,  have been working on. The Indie Travel Manifesto is a community-curated statement about a particular style of travel – the kind that emphasizes slowing down, interacting with and learning about the local culture, and seeing the world around you in shades of gray, not black and white, right or wrong. 

As part of the Manifesto creation, we asked some of our favorite indie travelers to give us their thoughts on travel and how indie travel helps them better understand themselves and the world around them. 

Here’s what Pico Iyer, legendary travel writer, had to say. 


Travel turns you upside down, challenges all your assumptions and habits and rearranges your soul. The best trips make you see the world anew, with fresh eyes of wonder (and sometimes unease).

I think–or hope–travel has made me a little more sympathetic to positions and values different from my own, helped me see a little around the corner of my prejudices and moved me to see how tiny, ignorant and provincial I am. Travel, like writing, is  a way to dream yourself into the Other, and, in fact, to put all your values and beliefs into play, so that it becomes harder to settle too complacently into any dogma or presupposition.

I’m sure I know everything about right and wrong, reality and humanity, when I’m sitting safely at home, cocooned in my assumptions. As soon as I’m on the road, I see, often palpably, that I know nothing at all, which is always a great liberation.

Every time I go to Yemen–or Cuba or Syria or Vietnam–I’m acutely aware that I’m beginning to rescue the humanity of a place that is otherwise merely an abstraction to me, and to remind the people that I meet in those places that a typical American these days may be (as I am) small, dark-skinned and interested enough in their culture to travel across the world to see them. From afar, we see countries in static block capitals, in black and white, in labels; as soon as we arrive, they acquire a face and voice, which means complexity, nuance and a refusal to fit within our narrow categories.

I especially remember traveling to southern Yemen a few years ago–not an easy place–and finding kindness, sympathy and a great affection for America in the blasted port of Aden, which, after 40 years of war, lacked houses, shops, restaurants, almost everything that we think constitutes human life.

When, upon my return to the gated ease of Santa Barbara five weeks later, I was sitting at my desk, thinking about how I could possibly put these two places in the same sentence, my mother raced into the room saying that Yemen was suddenly all over the news, because the terrorists who were flying into the World Trade Center at that very moment had associations with the country, and Osama bin Laden’s home village was in Yemen.

Just a few days as a bewildered and sometimes unsettled tourist in Yemen in August 2001 had helped me, I think, to put voices and faces–and therefore complexities–to those terrible events as I could never have done otherwise. People and cultures can always reach out and touch one another across the divisions that governments and sometimes corporations make. The us-versus-them polarities of the public world dissolve before the much more porous relations of the private.

I always make a very detailed plan and itinerary before I leave home, confident that it will fly out the window (often quite literally) the minute I arrive in a foreign place. But thinking I know how to get to the airport gives me the freedom to get lost on the way there. In travel, as in writing, the illusion of a direction is what allows you in fact most comfortably to wander off-course.

[The qualities that make good travelers are] humility, openness, a keen sense of your own ignorance and unimportance and a freedom from assumptions.

Are you an indie traveler? Sign the Manifesto and share your thoughts about indie travel! 

Like Pico Iyer? Check out which of his books made our Top Books for Travelers list.

All photos courtesy of Pico Iyerand may not be used without permission. 

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