Five Tips For Making Travel Meaningful

Clouds move over the Potala Palace in Tibet's Lhasa prefecture.

Clouds move over the Potala Palace in Tibet's Lhasa prefecture. Feng Li/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Feng Li/Getty Images

Few know more about the art of travel than acclaimed writers Paul Theroux and Pico Iyer, who have a combined six decades of experience chronicling their adventures around the world.

In his book The Tao of Travel, Theroux highlights the work of some of his favorite travel writers, including a conversation with Iyer. And 100 Journeys for the Spirit, which Iyer wrote the foreword to, features an essay by Theroux about the Lhasa prefecture in Tibet.

Theroux and Iyer give NPR's Neal Conan a list of things they do to make travel meaningful and how they go about being a traveler rather than a tourist.

1. Pick a destination that raises more questions than answers. "When I travel," Iyer says, "I want to be moved and I want to be transported and I want to be sent back a different person." Visiting places like Ryoanji in Japan, he says, inspires questions that reverberate long after you leave. "There's something in it that is always elusive ... that keeps bringing you back, again and again."

2. Leave the technology at home. "The more the world moves toward movement and acceleration and data, the more something in us cries out for silence and stillness and spaciousness," Iyer says. Iyer has visited monasteries for the past 20 years just to escape his phone and laptop, and he says he has found it liberating and even luxurious.

3. Rely on yourself. Self-sufficiency can be one of the best parts of travel, Theroux says. He says walking, looking for water, and just experiencing the simplicity and primitivism of life can lead you to a destination you end up truly loving.

4. Visit a charismatic place, not a pleasant place. "I would never call Jerusalem beautiful or comfortable or consoling," Iyer says. "But there's something about it that you can't turn away from." Similarly, he says, sitting in a very simple place like a Californian monastery in the midst of a storm takes you back to an essential, almost primal sense of fear or isolation — yet another part of the beauty of the experience.

5. Just go! "I still feel that ours is the only developed country in the world that's not full of travelers," Iyer says. Whenever you take yourself to some magical space abroad, he says, you see people of many nationalities, but few Americans. Take the time and trouble, he advises, to seek out the new places.

Excerpt: '100 Journeys For The Spirit'

Cover of '100 Journeys For The Spirit'
100 Journeys For The Spirit
Foreword By Pico Iyer
Hardcover, 240 pages
Watkins
List Price: $29.95

I walked last night into a 12th-century temple set against the eastern hills of Kyoto. It was an illuminated wonderworld: five-pointed maple leaves and camphor trees were lit up by soft lanterns in the warm late-autumn night. Stands of eerily bright bamboo stood over a small waterfall, a teahouse and a small garden. Figures walking in front of the shoji screens of bare tatami rooms looked like silhouettes. Every November, for a few weeks, Shoren-in and other Buddhist temples in the ancient capital of Japan open their gates after nightfall so visitors can enjoy the last flare of colours before the dark of winter.

Yet as I walked among the stone lanterns, along a narrow path beside a pond, my annual autumn pilgrimage, I noticed something even more remarkable. The college kids, grandmothers and other foreigners walking beside me were not at all the people I'd seen waiting on the street outside, 30 minutes before. They, too, were lit up, in less obvious ways, and newly hushed. And the effect was not just because of the cell-phone cameras that flashed to catch them in the same frame as the azaleas. It was as if they had stepped into a kind of natural church, and, whatever their tradition or belief, were ready to let something speak to them. Or even through them.

We all know how we can be turned around by a magic place; that's why we travel, often. And yet we all know, too, that the change cannot be guaranteed. Travel is a fool's paradise, Emerson reminded us, if we think that we can find anything far off that we could not find at home. The person who steps out into the silent emptiness of Easter Island is, alas, too often the same person who got onto the plane the day before at Heathrow, red-faced and in a rage.

Yet still the hope persists and sends us out onto the road: certain places can so shock or humble us that they take us to places inside ourselves, of terror or wonder or the confounding mixture of them both, that we never see amidst the hourly distractions and clutter of home. They slap us awake, and into a recognition of who we might be in our deepest moments. I will never forget walking out onto the terrace of my broken guest-house in Lhasa, in 1985, and seeing the Potala Palace above what was then just a cluster of traditional whitewashed Tibetan houses, its thousand windows seeming to watch over us. I will never forget, too, visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem two years ago and feeling, whether I wanted to or not, all the prayers, hopes and complications that people had brought to it. The place is as dark, irregular and everyday as the fights it houses — as worldly and human as the Potala seems the opposite — and yet the very fact that so many millions have come for centuries to pray and sob among its flickering candles ensures that many more will do so, even if, like me, they're not Christian or Buddhist or anything.

Places have charisma, in short, as much as people do. I've been travelling with the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, from Hiroshima to Zurich to New York to India, for more than 30 years now, and I've noticed how often — almost inevitably — even the most hardened journalists or non-Buddhists break into smiles, or actual tears, when he catches their eye or rubs their hand in his. The same happens with his close friend, the Anglican Desmond Tutu. Charisma (from the Greek, "gifts from the heavens") can't be replicated, and there's no recipe or reason for its existence, but certain places pull us as mysteriously as if they were answering questions we hadn't thought to ask.

So when you encounter the (highly arbitrary) list of special places that fill this book, we hope that you'll be moved to challenge the selection, to add candidates of your own, to ask if Angkor Wat is really more inspiring than Banteay Srei down the road, or whether Bolivia doesn't have a power that Peru might have lost by now. The value of a list like this is to stir you into making up lists of your own, which may include places not so far from home at all. When I was in my mid-twenties I travelled from Bali to Havana to Reykjavik in search of a place that would take me out of time and space. Then, not fully satisfied, I came back, as parable suggests, to my mother's house in California — and found the private heaven I'd been looking for in a monastery three hours' drive up the road.

We travel, as Proust famously said, in search not of new sights, but of new eyes with which to see everything, old sights included. And though those eyes are available to us, as Emerson pointed out, even when we just sit quietly at home, some places so startle or quiet us that we can't help but see things differently. At the end of the last century, an editor at an online magazine asked me to write an essay on a "Sacred Space". He was expecting a piece on Machu Picchu or Stonehenge, I knew, but I wrote about my little blond-wood desk. He asked for a second essay, and I wrote on memory, everything inside me. Yet if I hadn't been to Greece and Burma, if I hadn't stood, wordless, before Ayers Rock and Notre-Dame, I'm not sure that I'd have been able to see how much was available to me at my desk or just by closing my eyes and looking back. A journey of the spirit only starts with somewhere wondrous. It continues wherever we are, through the doors that wonder has opened.

Excerpted from 100 Journeys For The Spirit. Copyright 2010 Duncan Baird Publishers. Foreword copyright 2010 Pico Iyer.

Excerpt: 'The Tao Of Travel'

Cover of 'The Tao Of Travel'
The Tao Of Travel: Enlightenments From Lives On The Road
By Paul Theroux
Bonded Leather, 304 pages
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
List Price: $25

The Importance of Elsewhere

As a child, yearning to leave home and go far away, the image in my mind was of flight — my little self hurrying off alone. The word "travel" did not occur to me, nor did the word "transformation," which was my unspoken but enduring wish. I wanted to find a new self in a distant place, and new things to care about. The importance of elsewhere was something I took on faith. Elsewhere was the place I wanted to be. Too young to go, I read about elsewheres, fantasizing about my freedom. Books were my road. And then, when I was old enough to go, the roads I traveled became the obsessive subject in my own books. Eventually I saw that the most passionate travelers have always also been passionate readers and writers. And that is how this book came about.

The wish to travel seems to me characteristically human: the desire to move, to satisfy your curiosity or ease your fears, to change the circumstances of your life, to be a stranger, to make a friend, to experience an exotic landscape, to risk the unknown, to bear witness to the consequences, tragic or comic, of people possessed by the narcissism of minor
differences. Chekhov said, "If you're afraid of loneliness, don't marry." I would say, if you're afraid of loneliness, don't travel. The literature of travel shows the effects of solitude, sometimes mournful, more often enriching, now and then unexpectedly spiritual.

All my traveling life I have been asked the maddening and oversimplifying question "What is your favorite travel book?" How to answer it? I have been on the road for almost fifty years and writing about my travels for more than forty years. One of the first books my father read to me
at bedtime when I was small was Donn Fendler: Lost on a Mountain in Maine. This 1930s as-told-to account described how a twelve-year-old boy survived eight days on Mount Katahdin. Donn suffered, but he made it out of the Maine woods. The book taught me lessons in wilderness
survival, including the basic one: "Always follow a river or a creek in the direction the water is flowing." I have read many travel books since, and I have made journeys on every continent except Antarctica, which I have recounted in eight books and hundreds of essays. I have felt renewed inspiration in the thought of little Donn making it safely down the high mountain.

The travel narrative is the oldest in the world, the story the wanderer tells to the folk gathered around the fire after his or her return from a journey. "This is what I saw" — news from the wider world; the odd, the strange, the shocking, tales of beasts or of other people. "They're just
like us!" or "They're not like us at all!" The traveler's tale is always in the nature of a report. And it is the origin of narrative fiction too, the traveler enlivening a dozing group with invented details, embroidering on experience. It's how the first novel in English got written. Daniel Defoe based Robinson Crusoe on the actual experience of the castaway Alexander Selkirk, though he enlarged the story, turning Selkirk's four and a half years on a remote Pacific Island into twenty-eight years on a Caribbean island, adding Friday, the cannibals, and tropical exotica.

The storyteller's intention is always to hold the listener with a glittering eye and riveting tale. I think of the travel writer as idealized in the lines of the ghost of Hamlet's father at the beginning of the play:

I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end

But most are anecdotal, amusing, instructional, farcical, boastful, mock-heroic, occasionally hair-raising, warnings to the curious, or else they ring bells like mad and seem familiar. At their best, they are examples of what is most human in travel.

Excerpted from The Tao of Travel: Enlightenments from Lives on the Road, copyright 2011 by Paul Theroux. Reproduced with permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved.

Books Featured In This Story

100 Journeys for the Spirit

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Enlightenments from Lives on the Road

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