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Lions Roar : November 2006
SHAMBHALA SUN NOVEMBER 2006 91 WE TRAVEL, SOME OF US, to learn how to pay attention. The very act of movement—out of our habits, more than out of our homes—propels us into a state of wide-awakeness in which our eyes are fully open and our senses are moved to the setting marked on. And if we are alert enough to the world, we come to see the mists and delusions that muddy the eye. External observation becomes the catalyst, the companion piece, to inner understanding. You don’t have to call your trip a pilgrimage or quest. But whether your name is Basho or Jim Harrison, whether you are Allen Ginsberg wandering around India or the Buddha himself searching for awakening, you have to be driven by a hunger for what you cannot and may not ever be able to understand, and an interest, perhaps, in precisely what you can’t see, or even say, to yourself or others. I’ve been trav- eling in recent times to Syria and Beirut and Oman and Yemen, as well as to the poorest places in the world, but the point of doing so, I think, is not just to learn more about cultures I only knew at secondhand, but also to better understand North America, and the value (or non-value) of such distinctions. Traveling into the Other is a way of beginning to see just how much is universal and how much is particular, to this pair of eyes or that piece of soil. In England, where I grew up, travel has always had an air of diversion or amusement, a gentleman’s holiday that allows him to sample the world the way people today may surf channels or websites. But even there it’s hard not to think that travel, as Em- erson put it, is a false paradise, if you believe that you will find anything abroad that you could not find at home—or that you will ultimately see any more than what you bring with you, in your assumptions or projections. The point of travel, deep down, is to effect some transformation within that will allow you to understand peace or plenty or possibility a little more clearly. The first words the Fourteenth Dalai Lama said to his younger brother when they crossed into India from Tibet, leaving behind their homeland for what is now more than forty-five years, were, “Now we are free.” And over and over, in the years since, the head of Tibetan Buddhism has said that his flight out of his country, which so many of us associate with displacement and loss, can also be opportunity, because it has brought him and his people “closer to reality. We can’t pretend.” Such thoughts came back to me this summer as I read Rory Stewart’s brisk and consciously fearless book, The Places in Be- tween. Stewart’s first book, it describes a decidedly old-fash- ioned, even imperial venture, and reads like a classic Victorian diary of an Englishman performing a service for king and coun- try by going where no sane man would want to go, and telling us what he sees. In January of 2002, six weeks after the Taliban had been pushed back, Stewart, a sometime British diplomat in his twenties, decided to walk across Afghanistan, continuing the path he had laid down during 16 months of walking (for 20 to 27 miles a day) across Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal. It was a crazy journey, really—no government had had time to settle in, the Afghans he spoke to all predicted death at every turn, and The Last Victorian Adventurer THE PLACES IN BETWEEN By Rory Stewart Harcourt, 2006; 297 pp.; $14 (paper) REVIEWED BY PICO IYER REVIEWS With his walking companion in Afghanistan, the mastiff Babur PHOTOCOURTESYOFGUARDIANNEWSPAPERS,LTD.,2004PHOTOCOURTESYOFRORYSTEWART PICO IYER is the author, most recently, of the Islamic novel Abandon and a set of travels into questions, Sun After Dark. Rory Stewart