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If you ask Pico Iyer, travel has two purposes. “We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves,” the author and speaker once wrote.

This intercultural global soul, who was born in Britain to Indian parents, is well known for many other memorable lines from his 15 books, four TED talks and various Leonard Cohen collaborations, including liner notes and his 2008-2010 world tour program essay. His latest book, The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise, continues his eloquent exploration of the globe, from Jerusalem to Sri Lanka, Koyasan to Varanasi, and beyond.

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Author and speaker Pico Iyer.Derek Shapton/Handout

Over Zoom from his home in Nara, Japan, the 65-year-old Iyer spoke with The Globe and Mail about his enduring enthusiasm for travel and life itself.

What does paradise look like today? Does it need to be on a beach that’s thousands of miles away?

Paradise isn’t a site, I believe, so much as a way of seeing. One reason the Dalai Lama sits at the centre of this book is that he’s had in many ways a harder life than anyone I know. Yet all he radiates is joy and confidence, even in the midst of suffering and loss.

So no, I don’t think paradise has to be on the far side of the world; in fact, placing it far away, in time or space, is the surest way of never being able to find it!

The Half Known Life is dedicated to Nandini Iyer, your recently deceased mother, a philosopher and professor of comparative religions. What were some of your most delightful trips together?

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The Half Known Life: In Search of Paradise by Pico Iyer.Handout

As soon as she was widowed – when she was only 64 – I asked her which places she’d most wanted to visit ever since she was a little girl. She mentioned Easter Island, Angkor, Syria and Jordan. So every year, around January 1st, we took a trip to one of the places she’d always dreamed of. It proved a wonderful way to enter a new kind of relationship. Suddenly, we were no longer mother and son, stuck in the same dialogues we’d been having for decades, but fellow travellers, on the same side of the table, sharing adventures.

Then, though I’d been a cruise-ship skeptic, I started inviting my mother on cruises every year. I can still see her in her gold silk sari, after 40 years of teaching religions, so excited to see Patmos and Jerusalem and other sites she’d long lectured about. And in her 80s, walking for hours through the blazing streets of St. Petersburg on a late-summer day.

We were lucky to see Palmyra in Syria at the turn of the century. I gather the recent fighting has left much of it in ruins, or pillaged.

When I visited, I received such a generous welcome in that part of the world. Did you?

In 2000, when I visited twice, Syria was among the most welcoming places I’ve ever been. Every morning I’d go out before dawn to Damascus’s old city, and walk around the mosques there, where devotion burned so brightly I actually started a novel, Abandon, set right there. To see men chatting in the tea rooms outside the Umayyad Mosque, just as they might have done centuries ago, gave me a sense of unbroken tradition that was beautifully extended when I went to Iran, a central location in The Half Known Life.

Iran and Ladakh are two striking destinations you write about in the book; your walks around those places are evoked in crisp images. One of my favourite lines was this: “As soon as we set foot in Shangri-La, it suddenly doesn’t begin to look so much like Shangri-La anymore!” Could you elaborate on this insight?

I’m not sure that human beings and perfection were ever meant to go together. So if ever I find myself in a place that truly seems at peace and self-contained, I wonder what I can possibly bring to it other than corruption.

As I describe in the book, when I arrived in the beautiful and pristine Himalayan society of Ladakh, I did feel as if I’d stumbled into a kind of Shangri-La. But the wise souls all around assured me that the real Shangri-La was that place called Santa Monica: a place with many of the comforts and amenities they can barely imagine.

I love The Half Known Life’s idea of paradise/happiness being right now and right here, despite all our disappointments and difficulties ...

You know as well as I that life is never easy and seldom flattering to our plans. So the pandemic seemed the perfect time to ask how we could find what we need even in the thick of uncertainty, while unable to leave home, with sickness and loss hovering over every one of us.

During lockdown, I was mostly with my mother in California as she drew ever closer to death. Getting to spend all that time in one place unlocked many more treasures, inside the world and inside myself, than I could ever have found while racing around.

In your 1998 essay, Why We Travel, you wrote: “if travel is like love, it is, in the end, mostly because it’s a heightened state of awareness, in which we are mindful, receptive, undimmed by familiarity and ready to be transformed. That is why the best trips, like the best love affairs, never really end.” Two-and-a-half decades on, what is at the top of your yet-to-see list?

There are so many places I’d love to see for the first time – from Saudi Arabia to Mali and Afghanistan to Prague.

But if I never see any of them, I’ll feel content. Partly because I’ve been lucky enough to explore the treasures of Iran and Cuba and Antarctica and so many other places. But mostly because I hope to find everything I need simply in this two-room, $800-a-month apartment in the Nara suburbs where I’ve lived with my wife, Hiroko, for more than 30 years.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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