Pico Iyer on the Value of Travel, at Hana Haus, Palo Alto
On April 13, I went to Hana Haus on University Ave., Palo Alto to hear a talk in their speaker series.
First, a few words on Hana Haus, which occupies a special and historic space. It was home to Palo Alto’s iconic Varsity Theater, a single screen movie theater built in 1920. In 1994, it was converted into Borders Bookstore until the company shut down, and remained empty until 2015. Then, the German company SAP, which has a large Silicon Valley office, transformed the unique building into a hub for creative activity.
It has seating in the lovely open courtyard as well as the café inside, free with the purchase of Blue Bottle coffee at the coffee bar. They also offer reserved seating and meeting rooms for a fee. Their website states that their workspaces are intended to foster collaboration, promote learning, and nurture a strong sense of community, as they believe nobody makes real progress without making connections of all kinds. To this end, they host events, lectures, talks.
Pico Iyer was the speaker at the HanaHaus Speaker Series event I attended, and the topic was the Value of Travel. The event announcement had this quote:
“We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again – to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.”
Iyer was wearing black jeans and a slightly rumpled buttoned down white shirt. He stood the entire time, either folding or clasping his hands together occasionally, with one palm at right angles to the other. His shoulders were relaxed. This gesture somehow made him seem more approachable.
Iyer spoke of global citizenry. He was born of Indian parents in Britain, who moved to California when he was a child. He now lives part of the time in Kyoto, Japan, with his Japanese wife, and part of the time in Santa Barbara where his mother lives.
He related a gripping account of a visit to Iran, which led to a side-trip to Yemen, a journey to the North by car, so he could catch a flight to Dubai and then back to the US. The audience was enthralled with the story of this long journey: his communications with the driver, the state of the car, the security checks. He recounted that the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center happened while he was on that journey. As everything was changing for flights into the US, he managed to return.
Traveling to the same place means different things to different people. Iyer gave the example of watching the movie “The Sixth Sense”, the supernatural fim directed by M. Night Shyamalan. and the reactions it elicited in different parts of the world. The plot involved a single mother raising a son who sees dead people, for which he is seeing a psychiatrist. In Japan, Iyer said, people were freaked out by the psychiatrist! Not by seeing dead people. They have lived with spirits for thousands of years. In the Middle East, people responded strongly to the single mother, who was undefended in their view. In Santa Barbara where he watched it again with his mother, they were freaked out that anyone thought Bruce Willis could act. (Ha ha.)
During the Q&A session, a ponytailed, Japanese man seated in my row shared his dilemma: whether he should travel or stay home. As a young man, he had backpacked to 45 countries. Now, maybe because of the children, he travels less. Also he started his own company, and that keeps him busy.
Iyer's response offered comfort with a zen-like economy of words, “I travel to make a living. I stay in one place to make a life.”
There was a question on carbon footprint, given the extent of his travels. Pico responded that in Kyoto, he has no car. Life is as far as he can walk. He doesn’t go out much.
Another listener asked him about his process of writing. Every few hours, he stops and writes. In paragraphs, as though he is writing a letter.
I left very pleased at having heard Pico Iyer, whose writings I have enjoyed and admired for years. He speaks as he writes, with precision and grace. And I was impressed by what HanaHaus is doing: opening minds, building community.