The Shock of Arrival

1 January 2009 Appear in Conde Nast Traveler - A  A +

Slowly, the plane begins to descend, lower, still lower, till the pattern of fields and roads, visible from above, becomes a particular tree, a slow-moving car, a figure on a sidewalk. There is a sudden bump, a violent deceleration, and then you are out, in a slap of tropical air, the smell of clove cigarettes and frangipani piquant, the heat palpable and strange.
There are figures waving from inside the airport building, and when you come out the other side, you are in a car, driving through the dark, the sound of gamelan music in the trees, a chattering all around, occasionally a sudden face lit up by the headlights.

Then out into the streets, at dead of night, or just before dawn (you hardly notice), and everything seeming brighter, more vivid than it will ever seem again: the little lights, the streets without names, the stalls selling mangoes, the men calling from the shadows. In those early, virgin moments, you are wide-open, ready (in all senses) to be taken in.

No drug I can imagine, few love-affairs I might dream of, can match that simple, shocking excitement of arriving in a truly foreign place. It is akin to the first kiss, the first date, all the firsts that have an intensity and life disproportionate to their duration; the first moment is worth a thousand others. Even now, after twelve years of living on and off in Japan, what I remember most, with the fiercest ache and pang, and what changed my life irreversibly (and brought me here, in fact), is just the one-night stopover, on my way to Southeast Asia, that was my first taste of Japan. The quiet, slightly melancholy autumn morning, the scale of things–shoes laid neatly outside tatami houses–the elegance of calligraphy on white background and temple spire against blue sky, the whole unexpected shine to the air, impressed themselves on me with a force that can never (by definition) come again. You can never, as Heraclitus (or, perhaps, one of his followers) said, step in the same river twice.

Arrivals come in a rainbow of colors–the sight of the ancient city across the plains, the slow drawing into a harbor as the figures on shore grow larger, and larger, till they’re human-scaled, the night-time wander through a gleaming labyrinth of airport passageways, the flight along the Himalayas, snowcapped under blue, blue skies, as you come into Kathmandu. And all are given shape and texture by where they sit in the topography of your life: an arrival back home, or in a lover’s arms, an arrival at the place you’ve dreamed of for too long.

But nearly all of them, in my experience, come with an exaltation of novelty and wonder, outpouring and relief, that nothing else can quite efface; they are the foundations for one’s perception of a place, which subsequent events and understandings will only revise, refine and perhaps correct. My unfailing rule, whenever I want to write on a place, or truly to experience it, is simply to walk and walk and walk, wherever whim summons me, for as much of the first twenty-four hours as possible, in that state of first encounter when I will take in everything–my feet scarcely on the ground–and everything will seem new and strange to me. Few events, if any, in the next twenty-four days, will make so deep an impression.

This shock of first meeting does not have to be a pleasant one. I remember once, years ago, flying in over the thick jungle, to Suriname, as a teenager alone on the road, and seeing nothing but an unbroken canopy of trees. We touched down, I looked around, and realized I’d arrived at a dead end: jungle everywhere, a small unlit town in the middle, and almost nowhere for a solitary boy to go or stay. I quickly tried to leave Suriname, but each day I was bounced off the one departing flight, in favor of some more prosperous V.I.P. Day after day, I sat in the airport–I’d never arrived, in some sense–and when it closed, hauled my suitcase out to the jungle and spent the night there, waiting for release.

There is a quality of dream, ideally, to arrivals after long journeys, and with all that has been lost as carriages and ocean liners and long-distance trains have given way to supersonic planes, something has been gained, in the simple jolt of flying from New York, say, to Bangkok, in a few hours, and changing seasons and centuries in a moment. We lose a part of our rational faculties, the wide-awakeness that is our usual guiding light; but something else in us, closer to the dark, comes awake. Bleary, confused and not sure if we are here or there, we walk without defenses through a province of the imagination. Part of us is in mid-air, and the rest is not quite sure what to make of the whispers from across the street, the generous smiles, the coins that could be pounds or could be pennies.

Later we will return, and photograph for the neighbors the Taj Mahal by moonlight; first, though, and unforgettably, we will encounter the bodies along the road, the campfires in the unlit night, the urchins grabbing at one’s sleeve outside the Taj Mahal Hotel.

All the photos on this site, other than the one on the Welcome page, are taken by Pico Iyer.