Pico Iyer Journeys

The Shock of Arrival

In practice, of course, and on the level of one’s official self, our arrivals in a very foreign place are mediated by the St. Peters who guard the gates to their secular heavens. The men in uniform thumbing through one’s passport; the customs inspectors in Havana, taking one’s papers off to read them in a private office; the men in Ottawa looking at the Arabic stamps in my passport and taking the hasty scribbles in my notebook for Quranic sura. Arrivals are among the most bureaucratized, and often anguished, moments in our journeys, as strangers look over one’s identity–one’s possessions–and then release one into a chaos where smiling men are offering taxis, night-tours, girls, and one can’t tell east from west.

Parting, wrote Emily Dickinson, is all we know of heaven, and all we need of hell; but arrival has something of that quality, too, as the natural home of hucksters trying to cash in on our fresh bewilderment.

At the hotel, there are more forms to fill out, passport numbers to transcribe, uncertainties about whether to tip, and how much. Even as one is entering the soul of a place, in its nakedest form, another part of one is tilting against its official side, guarded by paperwork. Part of the special promise of arrivals comes from the fact that one’s making wrong turns and misreading the signs and taking the coil of mosquito repellent by the bed for incense.

The history of travel-writing is, not surprisingly, a history of such encounters–Peter Quennell, say, on stepping onto foreign soil for the first time, finding “a tall gaunt African, stalking down the quayside wearing long linen robes and a round, embroidered cap, while a crowd of ragged street–urchins scurried after him and threw stones”; or the travelers in Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky, left (in the movie version) with their trunks on a vast and empty dock that will prefigure the desert where their identities are swallowed up. Arrivals are the time when we are at our most responsive and most vulnerable.

Yet for those reasons (arrivals take place not in the logical part of us, but somewhere else), they do not conform to expectation. “When we reached Needles,” Christopher Isherwood wrote in May 1939, traveling across America by bus, “a patriotic lady passenger began to sing, `California, here I come!’ It seemed little enough to arrive at, after such a journey.” Three sentences later, he notes, “Towards evening, we came into downtown Los Angeles-perhaps the ugliest city on earth.” The first thing to note here is that he is probably right; the second is that he ended up living in the infernal place for almost fifty years, and finding in it his own private salvation. Yet he never wrote more powerfully of it than on that first day: “I was amazed at the size of the city, and at its lack of shape. There seemed no reason why it should ever stop …what the arriving traveller first sees are merely advertisements for a city which doesn’t exist.”

The first sentence of Lafcadio Hearn’s piece, “My First Day in the Orient,” quotes a “kind English professor” whom he met soon after his arrival in Japan, telling him, “Do not fail to write down your first impressions as soon as possible …They are evanescent, you know: they will never come to you again, once they have faded out; and yet of all the strange sensations you may receive in this country you will feel none so charming as these.”

Hearn confesses that he ignored this advice in his rush of excitement at meeting Japan, and yet nothing he wrote about the country he came to love and immortalize ever matches his description of that opening day, when he was held spellbound by the swarming characters, the “fantastic riddles written over everything,” the presence of “forty millions of the most lovable people in the universe.” He recognizes, shrewdly, that much of what he is seeing is inside his own imagination–“Hokusai’s own figures walking about in straw rain-coats”-—-yet, like an Isherwood in reverse, he is taken by a “romance of reality” that will fade only when honeymoon turns to marriage.

He asks his ricksha-driver to take him to a temple, and ends up back at his European hotel; he finally approaches an altar in a shrine, and what he sees there is a mirror.

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