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Authors: Pico Iyer

Falling Off the Map

BOOK: Falling Off the Map
Acclaim for
Pico Iyer’s
Falling Off the Map

“Intriguing … Iyer’s eye for detail offers some nice glimpses of destinations few will achieve.”

Washington Post Book World

“Pungent … Iyer has a remarkable eye for the gently absurd details that lift the lid off a place. I wouldn’t trade his little gem[s] of information for all the guidebooks, Baedekers and travel fact-sheets in the world.”

Boston Sunday Globe

“[Iyer is] among the best of the current practitioners of literary travel writing. The reader very quickly comes to trust Iyer’s judgments. Having [him] as a tour guide, it’s hard not to want to fall in with him; his lonely places breed zany characters, bizarre events. But what really makes the journey delightful is Iyer’s way with words.”

Los Angeles Daily News

“Marvelous … memorable.… Always a keen eye, Iyer is at his best when he’s swept away by some aspect of a particular destination. [He] seems to hit upon the gist of why lonely places are so fascinating. Iyer’s book is a celebration of places that aren’t inclined to purge their own peculiarities to accommodate the expectations of the rest of the world.”

Wall Street Journal

“A classic travel book in the old sense, not having anything to do with the questionable habits of tourism. Iyer is pungent, witty, often brilliant on his far-flung destinations.”

—Jim Harrison

“Vivid … Iyer remains a consistently engaging observer. The Australian Outback and other landscapes spur Iyer’s eloquence. Irony meets elegy in [his] most haunting reports.”

Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Iyer brings a contemplative quality to his work that makes it exceptional … a wonderful companion.”

Boston Globe

“Iyer is a post-modern tourist, drawn to the textures of the present. He is alive to video culture and what he terms the emergent global ‘single polyglot multiculture.’ His whimsy makes him a more effective social critic than any ideologue. Iyer’s singular outlook and powers of observation do not grow stale.”

Christian Science Monitor

“[Iyer has] a special genius for spotting the loony-tunes aspects of East-West culture collisions.… This is terrific stuff.”

Seattle Times

“A vivid look at places long lost to mainstream travelers.”

Travel Holiday

“Pico Iyer is a matchless travel companion—wherever it is he wishes us to accompany him … an excellent introduction to one of the most perceptive and engaging travel writers of his generation … Pico Iyer displays here that love and understanding of differing peoples and temperaments that finally distinguishes the brilliant observer. Even if he did fall off the map, I’d happily go along for the ride.”

Toronto Star

“Entrancing … I enjoyed it more than any travel book I’ve read in years.”

—Norman Lewis

Pico Iyer
Falling Off the Map

Pico Iyer was born in Oxford in 1957 and was educated at Eton, Oxford, and Harvard. He is an essayist for
magazine and a contributing editor at
Condé Nast Traveler.
He is also the author of
Video Night in Kathmandu
The Lady and the Monk.

Books by Pico Iyer

Falling Off the Map

The Lady and the Monk

Video Night in Kathmandu


Copyright © 1993 by Pico Iyer

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, and Jonathan Cape Ltd., London, in 1993.

Parts of these chapters appeared, in somewhat different form, in
Condé Nast Traveler
The New Republic.
“Cuba: An Elegiac Carnival” was originally published in

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Iyer, Pico.
Falling off the map: some lonely places of the world / Pico
Iyer.—1st Vintage departures ed.
p.   cm. — (Vintage departures)
Originally published: New York: Knopf, 1993.
eISBN: 978-0-307-76072-2
1. Iyer. Pico—Journeys. 2. Voyages and travels. I. Title.
[G465.194 1994]
910.4—dc20    93-43494

Author photograph © Mark Richards


“This round gold is but the image of the rounder globe, which, like a magician’s glass, to each and every man in turn but mirrors back his own mysterious self.”


A Prefatory Note

Most of these essays were originally written, in somewhat different form, to introduce potential visitors to places of potential interest; to serve, that is, as open-eyed first impressions. In many cases, circumstances have overtaken me—Argentina has stabilized its peso, Cuba’s destiny changes with every passing month, parts of Vietnam are probably unrecognizable. Still, I have not tried to update the chapters, or to allow myself the luxury of retrospective wisdom and prescience. These pieces were aimed to catch their subjects at interesting historical moments, but in moods that would not change with history’s tides.

I would like to extend sincerest thanks to the editors who dreamed up or supported most of the journeys herein described: Harold Evans, Thomas Wallace, and colleagues at
Condé Nast Traveler
; Joan Tapper at
; Andrew Sullivan at
The New Republic
; and Henry Muller and friends at
Thank you, too, to the brothers at the Immaculate Heart Hermitage in Big Sur, for offering peace beyond measure and the perfect place in which to think about loneliness and space.

Lonely Places

On every trip I took to Havana, the ritual was the same: I would get into a car with two of my friends (into a ’56 De Soto most likely), and we would judder off towards José Martí International Airport. We drove past huge pictures of Che (
), past billboards that said
(of July, 1953), past long lines of women waiting for a bus. We spoke only in indefinite pronouns, so as not to arouse the driver’s suspicions, pretending that we thought that everything was well, pretending that we did not hope to meet again. When we arrived at the airport, we would get out and sit under a tree just outside the battered terminal. There my friends would tell me about everything they planned to do as soon as they arrived in America: how they would open a bookstore, or take pictures of the clubs on Forty-second Street, or send all the jeans they could find back to their families at home. Then, when it came time for me to leave, they would turn and, without looking back, walk across the street to another tree and wait for a bus back into town. They couldn’t bear, they said, to see me getting on the plane that they had been dreaming of for twenty-five, or twenty-seven, or thirty-one years.

That is one of the things that make me think of Cuba as a
Lonely Place. Just like the old men sitting on the terraces of the cheap hotels, showing you photos of long-lost fiancées (“Miss Dade County 1956”), or the trim government officials who ask, in perfect Eisenhower-era English, “Do they still play tetherball in the States?” Just like the statues of Don Quixote set on lonely hills across the countryside, and the pictures of Ava Gardner in the downtown restaurants; just like the tiny huddle of worshipers singing hymns on Easter Sunday, or the messages people give you to take to unheard-from mothers in the Bronx, distant cousins in Miami, an Indian—of course you can find him—by the name of Singh. Cuba is ninety miles from the United States, but it might as well be a universe away. Letters pass only infrequently between the two neighbors, and telephone calls are next to impossible (though it was once my mixed fortune to befriend, of all things, a telephone operator: every night in Havana, she would call me up, unbidden, and serenade me with Spanish love songs, and for months after I returned home, the phone would ring, at 2:00 a.m., 3:15 a.m., 4:36 a.m., and I would pick it up, to hear “
Oye, oye!
” and the opening strains of “Guantanamera”). Exiled from the Americas, deserted by its Communist friends, its only ally these days a xenophobic hermit state run by an octogenarian madman (“Querido compañero Kim Il Sung,” run the greetings in the Cuban official newspaper,
), Cuba is increasingly, quite literally, a Lonely Place.

Lonely Places are the places that don’t fit in; the places that have no seat at our international dinner tables; the places that fall between the cracks of our tidy acronyms (EEC and OPEC, OAS and NATO). Cuba is the island that no one thinks of as West Indian; Iceland is the one that isn’t really part of Europe. Australia is the odd place out that no one knows whether to call an island or a continent; North Korea is the one that gives the lie to every generality about East Asian vitality and growth.
Lonely Places are the exceptions that prove every rule: they are ascetics, castaways, and secessionists; prisoners, anchorites, and solipsists. Some are famous for their monasteries (Bhutan and, in some respects, Iceland); some are famous for their criminals and cranks (North Korea and Paraguay). 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.”

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