The Global SoulJet Lag, Shopping Malls, and the Search for Home
Vintage Books USACopyright © 2001 Pico Iyer
All right reserved.ISBN: 9780679776116
The Burning House
Suddenly, the flames were curling seventy feet above my living room, whipped onby seventy-mile-per-hour winds that sent them ripping across the dry brush likemaddened horses. I tried to call the fire department, but the phone was dead. Itried to turn the lights on, but the electricity was gone. I went upstairsagain, to see that the flames, which minutes before had been a distant knife oforange cutting through a hillside, were now all around me, the view through thepicture windows a wall of flames.
I picked up my mother's cat and ran out of the house, with two friends who hadjust arrived to try to be of help (my mother and father were out of town). Butthere was nowhere for us to go. At our feet, a precipitous slope that felltowards the road. On every other side, fires that were rising to a crest. Wejumped into a car and drove down the orange-licked driveway to the narrowmountain road, and saw that we couldn't go up, we couldn't go down. Bushes werebundles of orange, and flames were leaping over the slope beside us like dogsjumping at a fence. The way down led to a blaze of burning; the way up led intothe conflagration.
Beside us on the road was one other vehicle a water truck driven up by a GoodSamaritan who found himself now as trapped as we were, and stood alone in theroad, in his shorts, extending a forlorn hose towards the fire. Already thesmoke was so thick, we could not even see the helicopters above as we sat in anangry orange haze listening to their blades. One friend, and our new companion,stood in the road and pointed the water at every new roar of fire that flamedover the ridge.
I had never known that fire moves so fast, so purposefully. We could see itcutting through the slope across from us as if with a letter opener, andscrambling up my driveway as if summoned to an execution. We sat in the car, thecat coughing in my lap, and for two hours saw and felt nothing but flames andmore flames.
After night fell, at last a fire truck came up, and led us back to a safer spota little down the mountain, from which, as an opera played on the radio, I sawthe fire up above lick at my room, reduce the second floor to a skeleton, chargedown towards the city below.
Along the road, a horse was running madly. A man caked in soot appeared, notknowing where he was going. Below, we could see cars burning placidly along theside of the road.
At last, after another hour, the fire having already shot into the suburbs belowand leaping the eight lanes of the freeway, which leads all the way to Canada,we were free to drive down, through a wasted world of steaming cars and ravagedhouses, the black hills all around wearing necklaces of orange.
I got taken to a friend's house, went across to an all-night supermarket to buya toothbrush, and started my life anew.
The next day, in the early morning, I returned to the road along which I'd beendriving for all my adult life and found it blocked off, exhausted firemensitting on the pavement at the foot of the mountain, bowing their heads orgulping from bottles of water. I was allowed to climb it, as a resident thefire having retreated back into the hills and so, for the first time intwenty-five years, I walked all the way up the road, past houses reduced tochimneys or just outlines of themselves, past occasional houses, just asrandomly, entirely intact. Here and there wisps of smoke still trickled upthrough the asphalt, and beside the hulks of cars along the road, the aluminumfrom their hubcaps had made little pools of silver.
When I arrived at my house, high up on a ridge, two-thirds of the way up themountain, it was to find a smoking ash gray sea. Bronze statues had been reducedto nothing; filing cabinets were husks. All the props of my parents' sixtyyears, all the notes and prospects I'd been collecting for fifteen years, allthe photographs, memories all the past gone.
I'd often referred to myself as homeless an Indian born in England and movingto California as a boy, with no real base of operations or property even in mythirties. I'd spent much of the previous year among the wooden houses of Japan,reading the "burning house" poems of Buddhist monks and musing on the value ofliving without possessions and a home. But now all the handy metaphors wereactual, and the lines of the poems, included in the manuscript that was the onlything in my shoulder bag when I fled, were my only real foundations for a newfin de siècle life.
A little later, California being what it is (a society built on quicksand, whereeveryone is getting new lives every day), just as the final touches were beingapplied to a new house on the lonely ridge, an earthquake shook its foundations,and all our neighborhood trembled. Then, a few months later, as finally we movedback into our old address (and days after an earthquake shook my other adoptedhome, in western Japan), huge rains came down and sent whole parts of the slopeunderneath the house sliding towards the city below.
I, alone and lost in writing at my desk and used, besides, to mud slides thatregularly washed away parts of our road got ready early, and, for almost theonly time that year, put on my only semirespectable set of clothes (blue jacket,gray trousers, white shirt, and tie): I had to speak to a women's club a hundredmiles away in Los Angeles.
As I began driving down the road, I found huge branches large parts of trees— blocking the way. Boulders stood in the middle of driveways, and overhead,ominously, I could hear the whir of helicopters. But such disruptions are notuncommon in the California winter, and so I drove on, swerving past rocks andedging past the debris, until, within a hundred yards of leaving my house, Iaccelerated past a piece of the road that was just dirt and scrabble, tried tospeed through a long puddle, and found myself buried, three feet deep, in amuddy river.
I had no choice but to get out, of course, and as soon as I did, I washeart-high in mud. My clothes were waterlogged, my shoes were thick with gunk,and my broken umbrella seemed only to protect the elements from me. Thusencumbered, I began slipping and falling and rappeling my way towards thenearest house on the desolate mountain. Below me I could see the red roof andSpanish-style white walls of the only house that had survived the fire (thanksto a swimming pool and capacious water tank), and so, my umbrella bouncingagainst me in the wind, my trousers soggy and thick with mud, half-sliding downa brown liquid slope, I made my way through groves of avocado trees across tothe distant place of calm.
When I got to the landscaped driveway, it was to find it empty in the rain, withall its gates closed, and no answer to my bell. A security system winked abovethe door to remind me that I was an intruder (a postmodern neighbor, that is,who'd never even been to this house maybe five minutes from my own), and Irealized that my only hope lay farther down, through another ravaged orchard,where I could see some figures moving.
I began slipping, shoes all brown and legs stiff with mud, my umbrella extendedlike some contraption ready to take off in the wrong direction, down the squishyslope, over fallen branches, and tangled up in trees, reckless now, and hardlycaring what got torn, until I came to a small white trailer sitting precariouslyin the shadow of a slope that looked ready to collapse. The owners of the housewere far away, I heard in Puerto Vallarta, for all I knew: their full-timelaborers, now, were trying to carry their few possessions out of the two-roomtrailer before the hillside crashed down upon them.
My neighbors, unmet for more than twenty years I hadn't even known of theirexistence here, or of this temporary house welcomed me into their room andhanded me a cell phone with which to call the women's club. The lines were allcut, though fourteen inches of rain had fallen in less than a day in thisarid, subtropical town and so there was nothing to do but sit there and catchmy breath for a moment as the men, in sturdy galoshes and thick sweaters, wentuncomplainingly about their evacuation.
There were a couple of mattresses on the floor, an empty can of Yuban coffee,and a couple of tapes of John Sebastian singing Spanish songs. A crucifix hungon a wall; a Mexican movie star smiled back from a frame; a comic book told thestory of Estephania, Defensor de los Indios.
"We were five," an older man explained, the traditional civilities in place ashe took it upon himself to make me feel at home. "But now only four. My sisterand two brothers in Jalisco. The other died when I was young. An epidemia is that what you say?"
He had nine children of his own, he went on, but six of them were girls. "Mydaughters are too old now," he said, though he looked to me as if himself onlyin his forties. "Thirty and thirty-one. My youngest he is the boy you saw onthe hill."
We looked out to where the younger ones were putting their lives into a pickup;they moved as efficiently as if mishaps were a fact of life.
"Always my daughters tell me, 'Come back to Mexico,'" the man said. "'Live here.Take it easy. We'll take care of you.'" He looked up at me almost helplessly."But I cannot do it. It is my duty, my obligation, to take care of them."Sometimes a hundred dollars saved up to send back; sometimes two.
The rain was still coming down in torrents, and the small dirt road was a tangleof fallen trees. The stables, my host explained, would be safer: down a slopefrom the trailer, they were a set of gated, white-walled buildings Spanish-style that looked fit to withstand all the calamities in the Bible.
"I want to improve my English," the father said as we retreated into the warmthand shelter of the stalls. "Is terrible."
"No," I said, thinking of my Spanish.
"I try," he said. "I want to try."
He'd lived here, my unknown neighbor, for twenty-eight years now, more than halfhis life, I figured, "here" being Texas and Arizona and all kinds of otherplaces from which he was able to visit Mexico for two weeks every year. His eyeslit up when he spoke of "our Mexico," of the village rituals of his place, ofthe beauty of Guadalajara, of the international airport not far from where heowned eighty acres in Aguascalientes. Here, of course, he had next to nothingexcept neighbors he'd never met and a trailer that looked perilous.
"You must miss your country, your family?"
"Is sad." We heard shouts, excited cries, as the boys finished loading up thetruck and began making plans for walking into town to party. "I am buried here."It sounded ominous until, reflecting, I realized he'd said "bored."
"At night, I've got this" he pulled out a brand-new copy of the 1995 WorldAlmanac in Spanish, though this was only the tenth day of January 1995.
"You don't have a television?"
"We do. But is broken. Two months already. I don't like to watch thetelevision."
The man wanted to be an American, though. "I had an interview, last September,"he said, the two of us shivering a little in the chill, dark stables, "Septemberfourteenth. But I missed it."
Outside, the sky had begun to clear a little, and I'd grown almost used tolooking like some member of an Amazon tribe whose notion of dressing up wasputting on coat and tie and smearing himself in mud. The young workers, bearingspades, suddenly began walking off into the rain, tramping up the tree-crushedslopes, and the man smiled out at them.
"Every night they go to town. Even walk. Is three miles to the supermarket."
Below us, though we couldn't know it yet, waters fourteen feet high wereactually burying underpasses, and kids were surfing on the transcontinentalhighway; the heaviest rains in five hundred years, people were saying (assumingthe Chumash and early Spaniards kept records of these things). But my host wasstill anxious to make me feel welcome, and he asked me about India, aboutwhether it was in Europe, about whether there were many poor people there.
He shook his head when I said it took twenty-four hours to fly there, and toldme that his nephew-in-law the boy on his way to town now was on his way toBaltimore.
"America must be hard."
He shrugged. They didn't get much money, but they could eat a big meal for$1.50, and they had security. After you'd been working five years in this place,you could take a three-week vacation. Life wasn't so bad; they just neededpapers. "They studied in California," he said of the boys; "they speak English."
We looked out through the sludge and drizzle to a nearby house, rebuilt sincethe fire. "Is a Spanish word," he said, a little proudly, holding it gently onhis tongue. "A-do-be."
When I decided the storm had broken enough for me to clomp back up to my house(my clothes so caked in filth that I ended up stripping naked at my front door,and leaving all the sodden clothes outside), I turned to my new friend and said,"íQué lástima!"
He waved and smiled. "Is a nice word."
. . .
It is a classic story in a way, of fire and flood and migration; the two momentsI've just described could almost come from some Old Testament parable. The wordsthemselves, of exile and homelessness and travel, are old ones that speak tosomething intrinsic to the state of being human. But it is a modern story, too,of a person with an American alien card and an Indian face and an Englishaccent, on his way to Japan, meeting a neighbor who lives down the street in auniverse that has never touched his own; and a man coming to a country where hecan scarcely speak the language and passing twenty-eight years as an "illegal"to support a family scarcely seen. Two kinds of cross-border experiences meet,one postmodern and fueled by technology, the other tribal almost; over theAtlantic and under the border fence.
The other truth is that they are crossing all the time these days the new andthe old and producing encounters seldom seen before. Two different worlds arecoming together now, and both of us, aliens and unofficials for twenty-eightyears in the great immigrants' Land of Promise, were being tossed about in thefast, driving winds that were blowing the world all around.
The century just ended, most of us agree, was the century of movement, withplanes and phones and even newer toys precipitating what the secretary-generalof the UN's Habitat II conference in 1996 called the "largest migration inhistory"; suddenly, among individuals and among groups, more bodies were beingthrown more widely across the planet than ever before. Therein lay many of thenew excitements of our time, and therein lay the pathos: in Cambodia recently, Iheard that the second city of the Khmer people had been a refugee camp; even inrelatively settled Central Europe, the number of refugees is greater than thepopulations of Vienna and Berlin combined.
For more and more people, then, the world is coming to resemble a diaspora,filled with new kinds of beings Gastarbeiters and boat people andmarielitos as well as new kinds of realities: Rwandans in Auckland andMoroccans in Iceland. One reason why Melbourne looks ever more like Houston isthat both of them are filling up with Vietnamese pho cafés; andcomputer technology further encourages us to believe that the remotest point isjust a click away. Everywhere is so made up of everywhere else a polycentricanagram that I hardly notice I'm sitting in a Parisian café justoutside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend aboutbiculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piecehe's just delivered on TV on St. Patrick's Day. "I know all about those Irishnuns," she says, in a thick patois, as we sip our Earl Grey tea near signs thatsay City of Hong Kong, Empress of China.
Up the hill, in my hotel, a woman named Madame Nhu is waiting in a corner of thelobby to talk to me.
"Are you from Vietnam?" I ask as we introduce ourselves, following theimplication of her name.
"You never lived in Vietnam?" I press on, not very diplomatically (and mostlybecause I want to share with her my enthusiasm for her country).
"I'm from Hue."
"But" I don't want to make it hard for her "you left when you were young?"
"Yes. I never lived there; I am American."
I feel a little uneasy about this line of questioning, knowing that I wouldsquirm just as restlessly if someone asked the same of me: those of us who livebetween categories just tend to pick the nearest (or handiest) answer so we canmove the conversation along. In any case, "Where do you come from?" is coming toseem as antiquated an inquiry as "What regiment do you belong to?"
"I remember once, in Vietnam," this highly cultured woman goes on,understanding, perhaps, that I'm only looking for a point of contact and, infact, that I probably have more in common with her than someone from Hue or fromthe Berkeley Hills might, "the chambermaid at my hotel finally picked up thecourage to ask, 'Are you one of us?'"
"No, in Vietnamese."
"And you must have found it difficult to answer?"
"No. I said, 'Yes. Definitely. Yes, I am one of you!'"
"Even though, when I asked just now, you didn't sound so sure. Maybe it dependson whom you're talking to?"
Unfair again, though doubtless true: after all, nearly all the cultures of whichshe'd been a member had been at war with one another during her lifetime, andwherever she was, whether it was Paris or English boarding school, New York orSan Francisco, she must have felt that many of her lives were far away. Theprevious night, I'd met a man at dinner who'd told me that he dreamed inSwedish, English, and Italian (though only his Italian dreams were in black andwhite).
The surprising thing about such encounters, really, is that they don't seemsurprising any more. Already we're taking yesterday's astonishments forgranted.