Falling Off The Map

Falling Off The Map by Pico Iyer

Browsing through the contents of Pico Iyer’s Falling Off The Map, it struck me that I’d hardly seen photographs about the places he had written about… North Korea? Vietnam? Paraguay? Even in these days of instant photo sharing and obsessive social networking, I don’t know anybody who’s visited these countries. Could it be because they neither fall under the ‘exotic holidays’ category nor are they compellingly unique destinations? Iyer has a simpler explanation — he calls them ‘lonely places’, ‘places that don’t fit in; places that have no seat at our international dinner tables’, and quotes a Paraguayan writer who calls them ‘island surrounded by land’. And yet, he visits these lonely places, spending several weeks in some of them, and comes back with travel stories so vivid, so touching, you feel you’ve visited. But it’s Iyer’s penchant for pointing out each place’s quirkiness that’s the highlight of the book. We learn that men were arrested for wearing shorts in the streets of Buenos Aires, which Iyer calls ‘the first place I’d ever visited where I always felt underdressed’, while Iceland, he decides, is an ‘ungodly wasteland of volcanoes and tundra and Geysir, the mother of all geysers, a country so lunar that NASA astronauts did their training there’.

It works because…

Iyer is not just a brilliant, engaging author, his keen eye for detail opens yours to a world out there that you simply didn’t know existed. Cuba, which one would dismiss as a land of strife and / or cigars, he assures us, is actually ‘a distinctly Caribbean place of lyricism and light, with music pulsing along its streets and lemon-yellow, sky-blue, alabaster-white buildings shining against a rich blue sky’. Reykjavik, he says, ‘might almost be a small child’s toy, as clean and perfect as a ship inside a bottle’. But it’s when he talks about Bhutan (a country that’s so removed from our collective consciousness, that all we knew about the place could be written at the back of one of its lovely stamps) that Iyer really excels himself. A truly lonely place, Bhutan, he says, is a land of snow-capped hills and monasteries ‘tucked into the folds of lonely valleys. No roads inscribed across the hills, no settlements or people; just huge white blocks in a sealed-off world, and shafts of sun-like giant searchlights’. He compares the Himalayan kingdom’s greatest monument with Machu Picchu and declares that it makes the Andean one look workday in comparison. And given that it’s ‘perched improbably on the side of a three-thousand-foot sheer cliff, wedged into the side of the mountain like some bird of prey’s high aerie’, you tend to agree with him. And by the time he works his way to an island ‘5000 miles from anywhere’, you’ll quietly nod that Australia ‘borders nothing and is on the way to nowhere. It feels, in every sense, like the last place on earth’.

Persuasive prose? Oh, yes.

A pleasurable read? Of course.

Must read? Definitely.

And this one stays with you...

On Argentina

‘But the most magical of all Argentina’s pleasures, for me, was Patagonia. The skies are celestial in this no-man’s-land, lit up with unearthly shades I have never seen before. While driving through the desert, as a full moon set above the scrub, sending lavender and pink streaks across the sky, I could see nothing but miles of nothingness. Occasionally, an eagle circling above a carcass. A hut. The rusted shell of an abandoned car. A flock of ostriches. Around them all, stretching everywhere, miles and miles of nothingness.’