Pico Iyer’s Rituals of the Fast–moving World

Every five days, legendary travel writer Pico Iyer gets on a plane. Here he explores all the things that keep him grounded in the age of frequent flight.

Only six hours before I walked along the carpeted shopping mall that is Singapore’s Changi Airport, past a koi pond and a signboard for a free movie theatre, I was at Kansai Airport in Osaka, Japan. There, elderly locals were raising their palms in thanks for the burgers they’d just devoured and young waiters were hurrying out to the entrance of their coffee shops to bow customers off to their departure gates. I couldn’t help but think of the time, years ago, when I’d spent a bright summer morning in the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport, watching an eager young man holding a bunch of yellow roses as he waited for a long–lost love to emerge through the door from customs. More recently, after I landed in Calgary, to head to the forested silence of Banff, I saw clutches of fresh–faced visitors from China posing for selfies in front of a statue of roaming bears.

Rituals like these are what turn the scattered notes of our lives into a symphony. They reassure us that we haven’t lost ourselves – or what we most value – as we speed across oceans. But what surprises me still, as I get off a plane after witnessing a sky burial in Tibet, or wave to friends as they fly toward the Camino that leads to Santiago de Compostela, is how rituals are ever more prominent in this new age of acceleration and displacement.

September 25, 2019
An illustration of a green and white digital camera

In 1957, the year I was born, few people had ever flown across continents in an afternoon or left Toronto in midsummer to touch down, a few hours later, in wintry Tierra del Fuego. But by the end of October this year, I’ll have taken 58 flights and landed in 60 airports – climate–controlled 21st–century spaces that somehow still seem rich with the ancestral rites of village or of desert.

We’ve always needed rituals to give continuity to our lives, to offer protection and even meaning to our hours, to humble and exalt us with the reminder that our days are not as random as they seem. Ritual is what turns chaos into a kind of order, and ritual is what joins us in community. But in the age of the frequent flyer, ritual may also be especially welcome as the way we create a frame for our lives away from home.

All of us, of course, have our own rites and special habits to make us feel comfortable and like ourselves. And since I’m in the air once every five days, many of mine involve trying to ensure that the person who exits the flight will bear some resemblance to the one who took off.

Long before I leave for my local airport, I back up the files on my laptop. I count the medicines in one corner of my carry–on. I place my passport – proof of my identity – in the right–hand pocket of my jacket and survey my shelves to make sure nothing’s been left behind.

Then I check for the temple charm that my wife, who’s Japanese, has slipped into my wallet, and I call the number I know by heart so that the kindly woman from Guatemala can pick me up from my mother’s hillside home at 4 a.m. and take me by taxi to the terminal for my next rite of passage.

An illustration of an open passport book with stamps from the New York, Venice, South Dakota, India, London, St. Louis, Istanbul, Egypt, Prague, Paris and Beijing

Airports have long been a second home to me, since, by the age of nine, I was flying alone across the North Pole six times a year between my school in England and my parents’ home in California. I know to find a place where I can sit in the sun between departure gates – a dress rehearsal for the ritual of jet lag — and, if I’m lucky, to find the quiet room in a lounge. I board the plane and install myself in a right–hand window seat.

If I’m visiting my uncles back in India, I’ll route myself through Singapore, so I can enjoy the airport’s butterfly garden and rooftop pool and even the foot massages administered by nibbling fish as I wait for my connecting flight. The minute I arrive in Mumbai, I’ll head out to update my own private map, with my own homemade set of rituals: Over here’s the coffee shop where I’ll get strong English tea several times a day, and over there is the chapel where I can go to collect my thoughts.

Yet even as I’m observing rituals that can make an alien place feel familiar, the rites I’m observing among the locals have the opposite intent: They’re ways of making home feel transcendent. Not far from the shiny new Mumbai shopping mall, my cousin’s children are bowing to kiss their grandma’s feet and someone else is chanting so the gods will bless their house.

A short taxi ride from the super–contemporary airport in Bangkok, monks are rowing from house to house in the early light, collecting food from the faithful, much as the Buddha might have done. In high–tech Japan, I watch my wife get up before dawn and make tea to place on her household altar for her late father before going out in a leather jacket to sell high–fashion European dresses in a department store.

An illustration of an orange teapot with a green flower on it with a green teacup full of steaming tea

One beautiful feature of the modern globe is that we can see the rites of so many cultures all around us. The challenge, occasionally, is that so many traditions, each with its own beliefs and assumptions, criss–cross on every street corner now – or in row 44. One person is picking at the special meal her religion requires, and sipping water, while the man sharing her armrest is requesting more champagne. A man gets down to kneel on the floor in a quiet corner of Terminal 3. I solemnly recite to myself my New Year’s resolutions, and my Persian neighbour reminds me that the New Year doesn’t begin for him till the first day of spring, 10 weeks from now.

He has his rituals, and so do I.

That’s one reason why newcomers in Vancouver’s gleaming terminal are greeted by totem poles and birdsong, a powerful introduction to the local sense of the sacred. It may even be why the brand new TWA Hotel at JFK offers guests rotary phones and cans of Tab, copies of Life magazine and a shoeshine stand: If we can’t be rooted in the timeless, at least we can be anchored in a time we recognize and share. And sometimes this is doubly important for those of us who think of ourselves as global nomads, since we may be exposed to many traditions and yet feel firmly held by none.

Next winter, when I fly from Vancouver back to Osaka, I know that I’ll count the items in my pocket as soon as we land. I’ll station myself next to the far door in the sky train so I can beat the crowded rush to the immigration counter, and I’ll be greeted by high–pitched public–address announcements, as in a Handel choir, when I finally head out into the sun.

An illustration of a shrine decorated with flowers and a rope

Then I’ll slip the 10,000–yen note I always carry with me into a machine for a bus ticket. On entering our tiny flat, I’ll call out “Tadaima!” (I’m home!) as my neighbours do every time they return from the outside world.

Soon after I’ve set my bags down, I’ll head off on a 20–minute walk to the nearest shrine. There I’ll rinse my left hand, then my right hand and then my mouth. I’ll pull the rope that rings a bell and clap my hands twice and fling a coin into a wooden box to summon the local gods. I didn’t grow up in the Shinto tradition, and I don’t really have any formal religious commitment at all. But I’m glad to be home, and there seems no harm in thanking the spirits who, my neighbours assure me, fill the cricket–seething forests.

Ritual is as welcome when I step back home into my apartment as it is when I take off again. It tells me that, even in an age of change and speed, some things remain part of a comfortingly changeless order. It reminds me, in truth, that I’ll never be alone.


Pico Iyer is the author of 15 books, including three that came out this year: Autumn Light, A Beginner’s Guide to Japan (about the country where he’s been based since 1987) and This Could Be Home (about Singapore).