The Power of Place: 8 Writers on the Destinations that Changed their Lives

Pico Iyer and others recount unforgettable experiences.
Traditional Mexican
A traditional Mexican mariachi band comprises a large, six-stringed bass guitar, called the guitarrón, at least two violins, and a varying number of trumpets, acoustic guitars, and occasionally, harps. Photo: Jeremy Woodhouse/Blend Images/Getty Images

Finding A Lost Soul In Mexico

By Frances Mayes

When I looked out the window and saw a pilgrimage line of shirtless men flagellating themselves with rope whips, I knew I was in alien territory. Flocks of snowy egrets nested in the swaying tops of trees, and kitty corner below was the desolate Benito Juárez park, where women still washed their clothes in a stone trough. After years in a marriage gone sour, I was travelling alone. Like others before me I was an escapee into Mexico, a good place to stand between one’s past and future. I rented a house for the whole summer in San Miguel de Allende. Then it was not full of foreigners and gussied up, as it is now. Then it was more Mexico as you dream it—someone playing guitar on the church steps, stoic faces, women making tamales at the market, battered buses, fiestas with fireworks, blue doors open to leafy courtyards. Let the marriage burn off me, I thought. I will translate myself into a new language, a new place.

I made friends with a woman who had a child by a matador but she did not tell the father. A stream of friends came and went. I didn’t confess to them that I’d seen a mouse run under the guest bed at night. I bought armfuls of tuberoses that scented the shuttered house. A man on a donkey delivered warm milk from a tin jug. I bought it and then, fearing undulant fever, poured it out. My guests and I loved the thermal springs, the mummies in Guanajuato, the promenade in the jardín at evening, the spare beauty of Querétaro. I jumped on and off rickety yellow buses with religious icons dangling from the rear-view mirror.

Every day for five hours I went to Spanish class. My teacher, Raoul, was a tiny man in cowboy boots. Soon we became friends and started taking field trips to practice Spanish in larger settings. He had a friend with a worn taxi who drove us to old churches with elaborate painted walls—and more pilgrims whipping themselves. We stopped at stands selling roasted corn with lime. We drove off road, through hard fields, and searched for pottery fragments from the early inhabitants, the Chichimeca people. I found a terracotta plate with only a pie-slice piece missing. My Spanish, I thought, was becoming fluent.

One day, wandering in an abandoned cemetery, we saw four boys playing. Their ball was a human skull. I grabbed it away from them. The skull was a small child’s, permanent teeth still embedded above baby teeth. The jagged fontanel looked like the graph on an EKG.

Raoul began to confess that he was trapped, would never get out of teaching Spanish to people who only visited like locusts in season. He cried over the fate of the lost-to-time Chichimecas. The house behind mine was torn down, and droves of mice exited the foundations. When I came downstairs one morning, the kitchen counters were covered in mice. Maria, the housecleaner, came in clapping her hands and shouting for poison. We cleaned the house until the tiles gleamed and the wood shone. I was ready to go back to California to face my new life. I packed the skull in the centre of my suitcase and brought that lost soul home with me.

Frances Mayes’s most recent book is Under Magnolia: A Southern Memoir.

Spirited Away In Kyoto

By Pico Iyer

Lanterns in Kyoto illuminate a graveyard during Obon season, a time dead ancestors are said to visit their families on Earth. Photo: Andy Heather

Lanterns in Kyoto illuminate a graveyard during Obon season, a time dead ancestors are said to visit their families on Earth. Photo: Andy Heather

I first arrived in Kyoto Station, with my mother, in 1984: just a three-day layover en route to the countries that had enchanted me the year before, Thailand and Burma. We looked around—a buzzing, labyrinthine swirl of shops, private railway lines, snack bars, ticket machines, escalators; no signs in English in 1984, no obvious information booths—and felt like weeping. Slowly finding our way to the south exit, we got into a cab, the first in a long line, and asked its driver to take us to the New Miyako Hotel. Not to the man’s delight, our nondescript destination turned out to be right across the street.

But it was mid-August, season of the Obon festival in Kyoto, when nearly everyone takes time off work to visit his home and say hello to departed ancestors. The eastern hills of Kyoto were lit up with lanterns leading to sprawling graveyards, their huge wooden gates suddenly thrown open and lit to lead ghosts home on the few days each year when, so it is traditionally believed, they can return to earth to look in on their loved ones.

Jet-lagged, we walked through the lighted fields in a dream. Kyoto’s young girls were in their yukatas, or silk kimonos; a festival air seemed to erase all the modern city’s high-rises and taxis; the straight white-gravel paths between the trees might have been painted by Utagawa Hiroshige. For two long nights we lost ourselves in the illuminated throngs, and then five great bonfires, one after the other, blazed across the tops of the ancient capital’s hills, to lead spirits back to their celestial places.

I’d always felt that Japan was my secret home. But going there during the festival of returning ghosts, at the age of 27, made me see that this was true. The realisation was so piercing and powerful that, two years on, I left my glamorous-seeming job writing about world affairs for Time magazine in New York City and moved to Kyoto. A quarter of a century later, I’m still quite close to its eastern hills, in the suburbs of nearby Nara, looking forward to the next Obon and reminded daily that I recognise this foreign place—know it at the core— in a way I do not know the street on which I was born or the California house that’s been my official home since boyhood.

The place that changed my life was the one that had been awaiting me since birth.

Novelist Pico Iyer’s most recent book is The Art of Stillness: Adventures In Going Nowhere.

La Bonne Vie In Paris

By Don George

A timeless Paris café scene plays out under an arcade along the Cour Napoléon near the Louvre. Photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis

A timeless Paris café scene plays out under an arcade along the Cour Napoléon near the Louvre. Photo: Peter Turnley/Corbis

I first moved to Paris as a French literature undergraduate on a Princeton summer work-abroad programme. Living with an aristocratic French family in shabby 16th-arrondissement splendour, I sipped the simultaneous thrills of inhabiting the past, surrounded by 18th-century family portraits, armoires, and settees, and rewriting the present in a foreign tongue. My providential presence provided the twenty-something heir of the family and his exuberant fiancée with the perfect excuse to concoct elaborate picnics and parties, and by the middle of the summer, I had a new answer when people asked me what I was doing in Paris: “J’étudie la bonne vie française,” I’d say—I’m studying the good life, French style.

When I moved back for a second summer on the same programme, everything was different. This time I had the confidence to tackle the city on my own, and having just graduated, I felt exhilaratingly untethered; life stretched before me like a grand boulevard of possibilities, all intriguing alleys and archways. After a withering week looking for lodging, I discovered a dream place on the fashionable Rue de Rivoli, just opposite the glorious green Jardin des Tuileries. I was supposed to stay confined to the former maid’s rooms in the interior of this sprawling apartment, but after a few days the owners left for a month on the Mediterranean, and that evening I found a way to unlock the door into the main salon. Towering French windows opened onto the Tuileries deepening into twilight, and as I gazed in wonder, the summer Ferris wheel’s lights began to blink like fireflies and the majestic sounds of an open-air orchestra swelled on the breeze.

Hungry in a way I’d never been before, I gorged on Paris. I watched Molière at the Comédie Française and the Béjart Ballet in the park; I idled among the secondhand shelves at Shakespeare and Co., eavesdropping on poets and poseurs; I immersed myself in Manet and Monet in the Musée d’Orsay; bobbed on a bateau mouche along the Seine; got lost in the ancient alleys of Montmartre and the Marais; stood stunned in stained-glass silence in Notre Dame; savoured the open-air theatre from a sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées; conjured Hemingway on Rue Descartes and Les Deux Magots café; and found my own dinner table at a boudoir-size bistro around the corner from my apartment, where I knew I’d arrived when the owner brought me my bifteck-frites and demi-carafe of house red wine without a word.

In the City of Light, stately apartment buildings line a leafy street with a majestic view of the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Scott Stulberg/Corbis

In the City of Light, stately apartment buildings line a leafy street with a majestic view of the Eiffel Tower. Photo: Scott Stulberg/Corbis

One evening I was walking home from work and came upon two college students from Alabama who were clearly lost. I helped the young women find their way back to their hotel, which turned out to be the hallowed Ritz. In gratitude their parents invited me to join them the next two nights, first for the famous duck dinner at the opulent Tour d’Argent—“one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris,” my envious colleagues told me the next day—and then for the flashy, fleshy fete at the Moulin Rouge, which somehow led to a Champagne-fuelled soiree back at the Ritz, until the bells rang in the rosy dawn.

It was that kind of summer. I fell in love a few times, but of course, my real love was for Paris. I would wander its streets inebriated with the inexpressibly elegant avenues and facades, the arching bridges and graceful streetlamps, the laughter spilling out of bistros and bars, the musicians in the metro, the soft-lit windows in the grand apartments on the Île Saint-Louis, where I yearned to join the soigné citizens and their sophisticated repartee.

One morning halfway through my stay, I took my apartment building’s rickety old filigreed elevator as usual from the fifth floor to the hushed shade of the ground-floor entryway, then stepped through the massive wooden doors into the street—and stopped. All around me people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out “Bonjour, monsieur-dame” and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.

Until that summer, I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that six-month European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: this was the classroom. Not the musty, ivy-draped halls in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.

In that moment, the seed of my future sprouted. Rather than write about literature, I would write about life in the world, beginning with a graduate course in la bonne vie française.

Don George is the author of The Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing and the editor of numerous travel anthologies, including A Moveable Feast and The Kindness of Strangers.

Finding Peace In South Africa

By Alexandra Fuller

Friends in Soweto gather for drinks and soak up the outdoor vibe at Sakhumzi Restaurant on historic Vilakazi Street. Photo: Bram Lammers/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

Friends in Soweto gather for drinks and soak up the outdoor vibe at Sakhumzi Restaurant on historic Vilakazi Street. Photo: Bram Lammers/Hollandse Hoogte/Redux

I had gone to South Africa in October 2009 in advance of the 2010 soccer World Cup, on assignment from a magazine to cover the preparations. But instead of touring the new calabash-inspired stadium, I spent my first morning in Soweto at the Hector Pieterson Museum, in the Regina Mundi church where rioting black students had fled from police during the 1976 Soweto uprising, and touring the house once lived in by Nelson and Winnie Mandela on Vilakazi Street. “The bullet holes from attacks on the house are still visible here in the wall,” one sign read.

I’d been raised north of the Limpopo River in neighbouring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where we’d had our own version of apartheid and where the black population had undertaken its own struggle against minority rule. My parents had fought with Ian Smith’s government to keep Rhodesia white-ruled. So although Soweto—even the very word—evoked all that had been most unjust and violent about those decades in South Africa, this was my broken history too, as seen from the other side.

Walking out of the Mandelas’ house, I came blinking into the bright sunlight, feeling shattered. I appreciated the bullet-pocked buildings for what they said about conflict: that regardless of intent, innocent people will become its victims, and because of this, there is no undoing violence. It has a forever afterlife.

I returned to my small bed-and-breakfast. It was steamy hot, and thunderclouds massed on the horizon. I fell asleep and dreamt deeply in the stillness of the afternoon, dreams electric with memorialised violence. But I awoke to the familiar noises and smells of my rural Rhodesian childhood: dogs barking, cockerels shrieking, the owners of the inn making tea in the kitchen.

That evening I chatted with neighbours until some of them invited me to a nearby café for stew and cold beers. Soweto—the place that had borne the brunt of so much horror—felt much safer than Johannesburg. It’s not perfect, of course. There are still illegal settlements and ordinary badness. Seeing that a version of suburban tranquillity can be built on the bedrock of such oppression and violence made me realise there is hope for people everywhere. We don’t need to live in our past, or accept the present. We can create a singular future of peace and optimism. It’s a choice. 

Alexandra Fuller’s most recent book is Leaving Before the Rain Comes.

Letting Go In Uganda

By Ann Hood

Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to a few hundred mountain gorillas that are typically shy and gentle. Photo: Michael Poliza/National Geographic Stock

Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is home to a few hundred mountain gorillas that are typically shy and gentle. Photo: Michael Poliza/National Geographic Stock

For 18 years, whenever I looked beside me on a plane or car or train, my son, Sam, was there smiling up at me. I wanted to raise him to be adventurous, curious, a world traveller like me. Together we climbed temples in Cambodia, sailed Lake Titicaca, gazed at the Taj Mahal.

In that spirit, to celebrate his high school graduation, we went to Uganda to volunteer in schools in its capital, Kampala. Just before we left for our trip, college acceptances began to arrive. Sam had been by my side for millions of miles, yet he was about to embark on a journey where I naturally had to be left behind. We had travelled a lot of emotional miles too. Nine years earlier, his sister Grace had died, and Sam and I had navigated that journey together.

Now that his departure for college was imminent, I wondered how I could ever let him go.

Our weekends in Uganda were spent out of the city at national parks, tracking chimpanzees and stopping our Land Rover to allow a herd of elephants to pass. We saved our biggest adventure for last: a trip to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, home to half the world’s population of remaining mountain gorillas—about 340.

It was raining hard the night we arrived. “Tomorrow morning,” our guide told us, “you’ll hike for six hours through mud. The ranger will have a machete to cut through the vines and a gun to protect you from lions and poachers.” He smiled. “But then you will see the gorillas.” As soon as the guide left, I told Sam that this was a bad idea. We’d seen everything from baboons to warthogs. It would be okay to skip this. “You’re the one who taught me to go everywhere and try everything,” he said, disappointed. “You can’t back out.” How could I explain my fear to him? Not just of the danger in the jungle but of sending him into the world without me?

The next morning, in a steady rain, we spotted mountain gorillas within minutes. The ranger pointed to a 400-pound male, known as a silverback, approaching us. Our group squeezed close together as instructed. The gorilla walked down our tight line, pausing, then moving on. Until he reached me. He began to grunt and stomp. Then he walked behind me and punched me in the back, hard, sending me airborne. In the chaos that ensued, I heard Sam yell, “Mom!” Before I hit the ground, my son’s strong arms caught me and held me close before carefully letting me go. Our eyes met, and we both began to laugh. In that moment, I knew that Sam would be fine. and so would I.

Ann Hood is the author of the best-selling novels The Knitting Circle and The Red Thread and the memoir Comfort: A Journey Through Grief.

My Grandfather In Tangier

By Tahir Shah

Morocco, 1963—A boy guides his sibling along a narrow street in the Tangier medina. Photo: Roger Wood/Corbis

Morocco, 1963—A boy guides his sibling along a narrow street in the Tangier medina. Photo: Roger Wood/Corbis

My earliest memory is of an overpowering scent of orange blossom and of sunlight filtered through palm fronds, in my grandfather’s garden in Tangier. It’s one of those memories that formed the bedrock of my childhood, something so powerful that it’s nailed to my soul.

My grandfather was an Afghan writer and savant who moved to the north of Morocco in the early 1960s. His wife had just died of cancer, and he yearned to be in a place where they had never been together. With a panorama out over the Strait of Gibraltar, and a hazy view of Spain, Tangier was a crossroads between East and West and the perfect place to escape.

There was a sense of danger, of faded grandeur, and of immense possibility. Back then, Tangier was a haven for stoned beatniks and hippies, for draft dodgers, fugitives, and philosophers.

We would visit my grandfather often, swapping the sedate security of the English countryside for the enchanted lanes of Tangier’s labyrinth. Clasping his hand tight, I would stumble along beside him, wide-eyed and spellbound by the frenetic stew of humanity. He would take me to the bazaar, which he said was a keyhole into another time.

And it was.

There were fishermen laying out the morning’s catch, their baskets of glinting sardines circled by expectant cats. And there were melons as big as cannonballs, cages crammed with frantic chickens, and heaps of contraband from across the strait.

On the way back through the twisting lanes, we would pass the magicians’ shops. I liked them best of all. Dried chameleons were being weighed out, sold in twists of newspaper to a huddle of veiled women who couldn’t get enough. And we would pass the endless cafés, each one packed with a clutch of grizzled old men in hooded djellaba robes. They’d be playing cards, telling tall tales, or drawing slowly on slender ceramic pipes, oblivious to the world outside.

My grandfather’s villa stood at 71 Rue de la Plage. It was small and elegant, with a pair of twin staircases spiralling to the second floor. The gate to the street was rusted iron, a canopy of fragrant honeysuckle and blazing bougainvillea running between it and the house. We would sit in the courtyard garden’s shade, intoxicated by the heady scent of orange blossom, my grandfather telling of his journeys in Arabia half a lifetime before. From time to time he would get up and saunter into the house, re-emerging with a random object. One day he opened his palm and showed me a nugget of twisted bronze, the size of a hen’s egg. “Here’s a piece from a Spanish galleon that I picked up down there on the beach. Keep it safe always, and it will always keep you safe,” my grandfather said.

Three weeks later, while he was fumbling for his key at the rusted iron gate, a Coca-Cola truck that was backing up knocked him down. He died instantly, leaving me feeling hollow inside.

Last April I drove up to Tangier with my own children, from our home in Casablanca. Those first memories of Morocco had worked their spell, luring us to move to the kingdom eight years ago.

We took a chance and knocked at the iron gate on Rue de la Plage. As I was pulled inside the courtyard by an elderly maid, I caught the pungent fragrance of orange blossom and honeysuckle. My eyes welled tears, not from the scent but from the memory. In my pocket was the lump of twisted bronze my grandfather had given me 40 years before. As I crossed the threshold, I held it tight.

We toured the house, and I pictured the silhouette of an old man sitting in the garden, palm fronds throwing shadows over whitewashed walls. My little son, Timur, asked why I was so quiet. “Because I have come full circle,” I said.

Tahir Shah is a British novelist who lives in a haunted mansion set in the middle of a Casablanca shantytown. His bookThe Caliph’s House: A Year In Casablanca chronicles his move from London.

Reborn In The Bay Area

By Ellen Gilchrist

Patrons at the Foreign Cinema in San Francisco enjoy an alfresco candlelight dinner and a film projected on a wall. Photo: Susan Seubert

Patrons at the Foreign Cinema in San Francisco enjoy an alfresco candlelight dinner and a film projected on a wall. Photo: Susan Seubert

I was in my 40s and living in Arkansas when I made my first trip to the West Coast. Until then I didn’t understand why anyone would want to sleep anywhere but in her own bed or her grandmother’s house. A friend, painter Ginny Stanford, moved there in 1980 and began to write me letters full of brilliant descriptions of San Francisco and Berkeley, tales of bookstores full of art and poetry, of movie theatres that played films from all over the world, of a new boyfriend who had built a house powered by solar panels, of bridges like palaces, and flowers that bloomed year-round. She begged me to come visit, to see the Asian Art Museum, the teahouse in Golden Gate Park, and Peet’s Coffee and Tea.

She sent me photographs of her new paintings, people dressed in fantastic kimonos she had bought in Chinatown.

In Fayetteville, Arkansas, we had one theater that sometimes showed films by Federico Fellini or Alain Resnais, but the projector wasn’t very good and you couldn’t always read the subtitles. We didn’t have a theatre that showed foreign films nonstop and into the wee hours of the night. “You must go,” my Jungian psychoanalyst kept saying. “There is a statue of Shakyamuni as an ascetic in the Avery Brundage Collection that is the most perfect statue of the Buddha in the world. It is very small,” he continued. “only ten and a half inches tall, but you will never forget it.”

A few weeks later I caught a morning flight to San Francisco. As soon as I landed, Ginny threw my bag into her small station wagon and we took off to Berkeley to eat dinner and then drive 30 miles to a theatre that was playing Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore, the 11 p.m. showing.

The next morning we had coffee at Peet’s and began to walk around Berkeley. I was walking very slowly. I had to stop and read all the telephone poles, with their posters and notices and poems, invitations to join protests and groups I didn’t know existed. We visited all the great bookstores in town. We saw films by Fellini,  Michelangelo Antonioni, Marcel Pagnol. We saw Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, and Chinese films. We went to the de Young Museum, and Ginny wept when she saw “Still Life: Vase With Irises Against a Yellow Background” by Vincent van Gogh, on loan from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

We went to see “The Buddha Shakyamuni as an Ascetic,” and I was not disappointed. It is emblazoned in my mind, the back of the statue as beautiful as the front and sides.

It was being in the presence of the statue of Buddha that made me begin to like to travel. Of course it was also the people and voices and smells and weather and mountains and oceans that I needed to experience. It has made me a better and deeper reader and writer. Now that I’m 77 years old and pretty much back in my stay-at-home mode, it is a great joy to me to remember having seen so many cities and countries. The world is so big. I wish I had seen more of it.

Winner of the National Book Award, Ellen Gilchrist is the author of more than 20 books. Her most recent book is Acts of God.

Steppe By Steppe In Mongolia

By Stanley Stewart

A nomadic herding family traverses a grassy plain in search of water, which will be transported on their bullock cart, in the north of Inner Mongolia. Photo: Palani Mohan/Getty Images

A nomadic herding family traverses a grassy plain in search of water, which will be transported on their bullock cart, in the north of Inner Mongolia. Photo: Palani Mohan/Getty Images

Outer Mongolia shaped my life years before I set foot in the country landlocked in Central Asia. In a long travelling career, across more than 50 countries, Mongolia was the journey that I had always wanted to make, and for a long time never quite reached.

I had the excuse of legitimate enterprise. Mongolia was a rare place—virtually the last place—where nomadic life still thrived. Across the vast grasslands of a country nearly two-and-a-half times the size of Texas, horses and tents and seasonal migrations remained a way of life. But my real impulse for Mongolia was more personal. I saw the journey as a matter of loyalty to my 12-year-old self. This is the journey he had dreamed of making: by horse in a virgin landscape. Other destinations came and went, but the dream of Mongolia persisted.

I was in my 40s when I finally came to Mongolia. I had decided to cross the country by horse, a thousand miles from the mountains of the Altay in the west to the forests of Hentiy in the east. I travelled in the spirit of the emissaries of Genghis Khan, changing horses and guides every three or four days, carrying all I needed on a packhorse, enjoying the open hospitality of the nomads when it was available, camping alone in high empty valleys when it wasn’t.

I had made horse journeys before—Wyoming, Argentina, India, Spain—but here at last was a place where such a journey was entirely natural, where horses were still the primary means of  transportation, where you could ride for days without encountering a town or a road or a fence. The landscapes had a startling simplicity; Mongolia seemed to have been sculpted by winds. Here and there across the unfolding grasslands, round white tents sprouted as mysteriously as mushrooms. Between them horsemen cantered on distant horizons.

Childhood dreams can be dangerous things. But Mongolia was everything I had hoped, a dream journey. In the end I think it was a question of timing. I had waited half a lifetime for Mongolia only to arrive, fortuitously, at the moment I was best equipped to appreciate it. Any older, I might have found five months in the saddle too arduous. Any younger and I would not have taken such pleasure in those innocent landscapes, in the grasslands’ wonderful solitudes, in the rich hospitality of nomads. Nor would I have understood Mongolia as a kind of homecoming.

British writer Stanley Stewart is the author of In the Empire of Genghis Khan: A Journey Among Nomads.

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