Gestures That Transcend Borders

December 6, 2016   •   By Amalia Negreponti

Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World

Tom Lutz

And the Monkey Learned Nothing

Tom Lutz

TOM LUTZ, professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, is the founder, publisher, and editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He is also on a first-name basis with hundreds of people — from kids to cabbies — all around the world. In these two volumes of travel writings, Lutz chronicles the personal histories of the people with whom he has connected, however briefly and fleetingly, acknowledging them and giving them voice. Leaping from continent to continent, he traverses miles, times, and mores in a paragraph.

Unhampered by preconceptions, he is also undeterred by the impression he makes on others. “These guys looked up at me a bit like I was the neighbor’s cat, just happening to walk by,” he comments of an encounter in Russia. “They didn’t seem to like or particularly dislike cats. They just weren’t interested in cats.” Yet persistently he overcomes this invisibility and establishes a bond of trust with strangers. Waiting at the Bulgarian border, east of Delčevo, Macedonia, he chats with a Romanian official, survivor of the Ceaușescu era: “He looked up at me, the adult minister doing its best to assert itself over the haunted boy, and forced a smile. ‘The past will not come back, he said. And this is good.’ He didn’t sound completely confident.”

Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World is novelistic, filled with a series of vivid adventures, while And the Monkey Learned Nothing is incisive and lyrical. In both books, Lutz seeks the answer to the question of why he travels:

Someone went to a lot of trouble to lay the world out in front of us, to build all these cultures, to create astonishments like Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, and the Forbidden City, to stick those heads on Easter Island, to throw the cathedral at Chartres, as Henry Adams said, up at the sky. It seems ungrateful not to take a look.

“I am a voyeur, a collector, an amateur sleuth into the human condition, a sampler, a taster,” he writes, “and probably, at times, oblivious, thickheaded, rude, greedy, and profane.” This self-deprecation manifests as a compassionate understanding for others. Writing of the prostitutes he encounters in the Dominican Republic, he notes: “I should not, by rights, have been so shaken by this experience, made so sorrowful, but I was. This is normal, I told myself, but it didn’t help.”

He is a commenter on situations and a collector of images:

The pilgrims at the Potala Palace, that fabled, massive, plastered cathedral to nothingness, pray for various things — primarily that the Chinese will all go back to Beijing. Of course that will never happen.

“In almost every room in the Palace, and every room in the Jokang Temple, and in rooms in many other monasteries, a monk sat at a table, counting money”; “A wild, dainty vicuña stood by the pitted road, her thick almond fur fluttering in the wind, staring with her deep black eyes as if she too were drawn toward the blankness.” And he is a riot when writing about marriage, as in his encounter with an Uzbek bride and her husband-to-be: “They both stared straight ahead, as if into the horror of their future together.” Later, while visiting a family in Uzbekistan, he finds himself in the midst of a scene of marital discord that reads like Nabokov in an unusually sweet mood, or Chekov on LSD: “I suspected I had become a pawn in the Great Game of Mr. and Mrs. Amidov […] And, as is often the case in politics, it was already too late to be neutral.”

One of the main threads that connects both books is the concept of The Other, although he doesn’t use the term. Sometimes The Other is the Stranger (Homeric xenos) who can be foe or friend; other times, The Other is the person we ourselves could have been or may yet become.

In Iran, although he is verbally accosted for being American, it is his Kurdish-Iranian friend who is treated with real contempt. In Baku, Azerbaijan, he tries to understand why an employee at a rent-a-car service will allow him to take the car to Georgia but not Armenia. “I caught her eyes. They flashed full of hate, but just for a moment.” Although American-ness does not confine him, Lutz knows that his being American does, to an extent, define him, in the way he perceives things (in Tashkent: “Clinton — Beel Cleenton! — was clearly the guy they loved, and I wasn’t exactly sure why”) and in the eyes of the people he encounters on his travels (“He said, Ah America! and they all seemed extremely pleased”). He is happy to discover that, even in Laos and Latin America, “They do not hate us.”

Still, he remains ever aware of his difference and his privilege. Talking to young nomads in the Tunisian desert, he observes: “I had come five thousand miles to see a monument two or three hours drive from where they wandered every day, and they have never seen it. They might never see it.” At times, he experiences a dislocating sense of his own foreignness: “In Tangier in 1995 I felt the most foreign I had ever felt […] All along the road, every negotiation, whether I bought something or not, ended badly, with nobody satisfied.” The same at the Great Wall of China: “After all, these salespeople can’t save up their seven-dollar victories and hop on a plane to the Grand Canyon, and they know it, and you know it.” Yet Lutz also has a shrewd eye for the ubiquity of human types, as in this perfect description of a preacher in Mozambique, a character we all recognize:

He seemed relaxed and perhaps even sincere, but he was running a fairly large business […] Perhaps he was an honest fee-for-services provider. Perhaps he was just beginning to be bored with his own act, and I was seeing a late-career version of it — maybe when he was younger he would have betrayed his own damage. Now he was impenetrable.

What drives Lutz to despair is encountering situations he cannot change. In Moamba, Mozambique, he sees “a lone tree several hundred yards away, and it had drawn a human family to it […] In all my travels I have never seen a more obvious image of rural poverty and isolation […] I didn’t have the heart to go talk to them. I’ve always regretted it. Two minutes later, they had been dissolved by the desert.” In Zanzibar, the social inequality distresses him so much, he simply leaves. “There are a few old Portuguese buildings, and there are the toiling poor. And somewhere, miles down the coast, there is tropical beach paradise […] It is unpredictable, I find, when the misery in the world will turn from an object of study and compassion into a sense of defeat and futility.” The history of colonial violence is never far from the surface.

Although Lutz is not political in the narrow sense, he believes fundamentally in the values of justice and humanity. In Beijing, he mourns the pervasive repression: “it was not just anonymous but invisible, it worked by erasure.” In Japan, he experiences an urge to atone for the horrors of the past:

You wouldn’t have to be a detective to peg me as an American in my sneakers and shades. I was the lone tourist, standing in the middle of a crowd of atomic bomb blast survivors. For a moment, I felt a kind of consternation […] and then a pure sorrowfulness, followed by a desire to drop to my knees and say I’m sorry, I’m sorry.

“Everyone I asked had lost family members,” he comments in Cambodia,

None of them spoke about it in the languages we might expect — no mourning, no signs of trauma beyond the distrustfulness. They said it as a simple fact — let’s see, yesterday I had fish for supper, no, noodles, and the Khmer Rouge killed my mother, and tomorrow is Tuesday. Like that.

Yet these books are also filled with human gestures that transcend borders, moments of hope that require no translation. Often these moments are inspired by music, from a jazz group in Santiago to a tango in Buenos Aires, where the dancers “embodied not only their own deep longing but ours, and it almost seemed, in the intensity of the moment, all of humanity’s.” Another common language is food and drink: “Coffee is one of the most international words — the o gets rounder or flatter, but the rest stays the same. Like kindness, it is easy for everyone to recognize.” 

Throughout both books, an emblematic figure surfaces: the German tourist. This figure takes on many shapes and sizes. In one tale, he is the victim of a monkey’s cunning mania; in another, the gullible mark of criminals in Santa Fe. In Quito, he is a wise permanent resident; in Turkey, an archeologist who does not pay the native workers enough. One gets the sense that Lutz has displaced onto this figure all the tragicomic dislocation of travel itself.

These volumes are more than travelogues; they are peripatetic essays seeking to answer the fundamental question: What is the meaning of it all? In the United Arab Emirates, a migrant worker comments: “I make a living […] Is this not enough?” In El Salvador, a young boy implores: “You are a writer […] Tell them the truth, that this is a beautiful place, a good place to be a tourist.” On a trip to Finland, the land his great-grandmother left behind for the United States when she was still a teenager, Lutz struggles to understand “the fear, the sense of displacement, and the extreme destitution necessary to lead her and her parents to think throwing her on a transatlantic boat, alone, at that age, to never see her again, was a good idea.”

This casting forth into the unknown is what impels Lutz’s travels. “I love to get lost,” he writes. “I love that moment of slight panic — the feeling that I don’t know the way back, that I don’t know the way home.” In Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, he describes a perilous crossing: “The tourists jump off the bridge, freefalling for what must feel like forever but is only less than a minute.” He could be talking about himself: his voyage, his life.


Amalia Negreponti is the author of three books. She has worked as a journalist for a variety of media, including the BBC, La Règle du jeu, the Huffington Post, and Ta Nea.