Excerpt from 'Drinking Mare's Milk...'

Drinking Mare's Milk On The Roof Of The World

Wandering The Globe From Azerbaijan To Zanzibar

By Tom Lutz

OR Books

Copyright © 2016 Tom Lutz
All rights reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-68219-056-2





I tramp a perpetual journey. — Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

'I DON'T WANT TO JUST BE A TOURIST,' a friend once said to me, 'I want to get to know a place, I want to be there.' The tourist — standing adrift in shorts and sandals, a Hawaiian shirt and straw hat — is an object of ridicule, an unserious human, someone who doesn't know where he or she is. My friend's idea was that a sojourner should stay in a foreign land for months, become part of a local community, learn it from the inside. A tourist is the opposite, an outsider, someone the locals either pity or despise, and for good reason: the tourist is oblivious, the tourist is rude, the tourist profanes, the tourist doesn't get it.

But what else would I be, other than a tourist, dropping, as I always do, in and out of far-flung lands at a breakneck pace, well over a hundred countries and counting? I don't have a job that brings me to these scattered places around the globe. I'm not a missionary, not part of an NGO project, not an anthropologist, not a diplomat. I don't go to Luang Prabang or Quito or Maputo looking to settle down, or even to stay for very long. I am not going to visit archives as a historian, I'm not there to interview the local dignitaries. What could I possibly be but a tourist? People ask me, on the road, what I do for a living, and I say I'm a writer, the implication being that I was traveling to write, I was writing about my travels. But until now, I wasn't. I was just traveling.

There are other options, most of which sound better, or at least less bougie than being a tourist: explorer, adventurer, wayfarer, voyager; rambler, gallivanter, gadabout, meanderer, rover, flâneur; gypsy, itinerant, migrant, nomad; drifter, vagabond, hobo, transient, vagrant, tramp; quester, pilgrim — but none of these words quite ring true. Or maybe all of them do.

And others, too: I am, I know, a voyeur, a collector (of experiences, of pins in my mental map, of cultures, of stories, of epiphanies), an amateur sleuth into the human condition, a sampler, a taster, and probably, at times, oblivious, thickheaded, rude, greedy, and profane.

I am inordinately proud of my travels and at the same time embarrassed by my pride in them. I feel alternately overflowing and empty, replete with gratitude for my good fortune, and abashed at the over-entitled, obsessive nature of my need to continue. I feel sometimes like the most interesting man in the world, sometimes like the most obtuse. I am driven onward and yet, even as I chart my next adventure, I remain unsure why I should want to, unclear why I need to.

And I do need to. The road beckons me, and always has. But am I running toward something? Running away? Is there a difference?

Whatever the motivation, the essence of travel is to be somewhere else, to be somewhere distinctly not home — I don't travel to work, I drive to work; I don't even travel to see relatives 3,000 miles away. I just go to see them. Work and relatives: that's just everyday life; work is part of home, my in-laws' place in Baltimore just part of home.

As Pico Iyer says, we travel until we come home, and then, if we are lucky, at home, in stillness, we write.

BUT WRITE WHAT? What does the traveler know? We committed vagabonds know the weary road, we know the airline terminals, both the gleaming hubs and the small town strips without conveyer belts or shops or signage or even taxis — at one airport near the Uyuni salt flats in the Bolivian altiplano, I got off the plane with four others; two of them were locals who walked away from the airstrip, and two Japanese tourists who were picked up by their tour guide in a 4x4. I went out looking for a cab. None were around, and none came. There was a pleasure in that. I was at a loss. I was lost. We journeyman journeyers know how to get places anyway. We know how to wrangle a ride in an unknown language, we know how to figure out the bus stations and train stations and how to push through what look like dead ends. Is that something to write about? We know the misery in the world, and we know its riches — but we know that at home, too. We have heads full of images — mountainsides and mosques, street vendors and empty roads. We read up and know some history, we can make some cultural generalizations that are true enough, we know a few words from everywhere — hello and thank you and where's a bathroom? in dozens of tongues. We see the wonders of the world — the monuments, the ruins, the waterfalls, the peaks. We know the visa requirements and the exchange rates and endless arcane facts. But none of that gets at what drives us, or at least what drives me.

What we carry, years afterward, I have come to realize, are memories of the people we somehow, despite all odds, fell into accidental intimacy with, the people we make some indelible, brief connection with. This book is a record of some of those meetings, as random on the page as they occurred in real time — unpredictable, brief, incomplete, true, and for me, as profound as they are quotidian. For whatever reasons, they don't happen, very often, at home. In fact, they happen most often when I get lost, when I don't know exactly where I am.


MY FIRST OVERSEAS VOYAGE, like many, was accidental, a fluke. As I was graduating high school — without distinction, to put it mildly — my girlfriend Sandy ended up in Switzerland. She had an errant minister for a father, a brilliant man with a ritzy congregation and a brutal sex addiction. After one of his many Scarlet Letter, Damnation of Theron Ware blow-ups, he was sent away for a year, to the Jung Institute in Zurich, to get his anima and animus worked out. I don't think he ever did. He brought his wife and four of his five children, including Sandy, along with him. I had both an excuse and an incendiary need to see her. Back home, I worked, oddjobbing around town for four months, putting together an Icelandic Airways round-trip ticket, open return, good for a year, and a small pile of cash the size a kid working shit jobs and living at home can put together. Then I flew to Europe, as so many did in those years, by way of Iceland and Luxembourg.

I bought a motorbike in Zurich and swept Sandy away, down into Italy — how dreadful that must have been for her parents, watching her drive off on the back of the tiny bike, rucksacks tied to the side, with my barely conscious, ponytailed self at the handlebars! We had no more sense of what we were in for than toddlers. We were camping, but had no tent; during a storm, we crouched under a tarp, which we thought to buy only after sitting through the first horrible rain under a bridge. At a campground a few kilometers from Venice, a man from South Africa, who had spent his first year of retirement driving around Europe in a small English Ford van he had refitted as a camper, came over to us and asked if we wanted to buy the van. He was leaving for home in a few days and we clearly needed better shelter. I said yes, but that I had very little money. He said he could let me have it for very little, say $500. I said, well, maybe I could do $50.

It never occurred to me that he'd accept, but it soon became clear that he had no other buyers. He suggested we follow him to Trieste, and as his ship's whistle blew at the dockside, where he was still holding up his Van for Sale sign, he gave us the keys, signing the title at the last possible minute on the principle that $50 was better than nothing, and at least he wouldn't be fined for abandoning a vehicle. We were now happy snails, Sandy and I. We sold the bike, and lived on the proceeds for several months.

You might think that having a vehicle with a toilet and two-burner gas stove and sheets and blankets would be conducive to more leisurely travel with lots of comfortable stops along the way. But some fever pushed me on. I drove like an alcoholic drinks. Clocking one hundred kilometers simply meant it was time for 150 more. We drove up and down Italy and then around the Riviera and up into Andorra. (Why Andorra? It was an intense experience, a mountain smuggler's den with plate glass showrooms full of smuggled electronics and luxury goods, completely encircled by peasant culture, milk still delivered in cans strapped to the side of a packhorse, and old women walking cows from one clump of roadside grass to the next. And it was another country to add to the list; I made sure to hit Monaco and Lichtenstein, too, already a collector.) From Andorra we dashed across the peninsula to Lisbon, then down to Cabo de San Vicente, the far southwest tip of Portugal, and that may be the first time I fully, consciously, felt the thrill of arriving at the end of the road. Cliffs of sharp brown stone dropped away on both sides of the narrow highway, and eventually, the road went no farther, and there was nothing before us but a white lighthouse and the ocean's loneliness. We stood at the brink and felt nostalgia for the very land we stood on, surging with Gatsbyesque longing, nostalgia for the present. The wind blew in from the endless ocean, and in that moment, we understood, as Che Guevara said during his own youthful travels, 'that our vocation, our true vocation, was to move for eternity along the roads and seas of the world.'

Then, ten minutes later — I know, it's comic, ten minutes later — we were off again, hugging the curly coast road all the way across the Algarve, along the Costa del Sol, twisting through the fractal inlets below Granada, up the Costa Brava, through the marshes of Aude, across the Riviera once more, back to Genoa, across the Italian plains, and, nonstop, through Austria and into Hungary and the, horse-cart trafficked roads of Yugoslavia and ruined Greece, and immediately back up to Germany, Belgium, and Holland. Did we ever slow down? That turnout in the dry hills above Delphi, or a random downtown parking spot in Budapest, secured with a handful of Marlboros to the curious gendarmes — these were our accidental destinations, our homes away from home. We would sleep until the sun woke us. That was rest enough on our restless road.

NEAR PODGORICA, MONTENEGRO, my first time behind the Iron Curtain, still a very real thing, we found the Cold War still very much alive. Having driven in from Greece across a gray land with gray skies, the vestiges of peasant life — shepherds walking their flocks across the hills — jumbled up with industrial wasteland, we went into a grocery store that had what looked like pointedly denuded shelves, six inches of empty space, then three cans of goulash, then ten inches of empty shelf, then a can of sardines. My first non-consumer society. Titograd, as Podgorica was called then, seemed particularly grim, all smoking factories and mining tailings, and it made me wonder why the Yugoslavian dictator would want this particular town to bear his name. I knew Tito as the guy who had kept disparate and eternally warring populations — Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Bosnians, Slovenes, Montenegrins — tamped down through force and charisma. I imagined him as a backwater Khrushchev.

But I didn't think of him much, really — I was young and unconcerned with facts until they were at hand. I was callow youth incarnate, awake to spectacle — look! oxen! — but otherwise the world was too big a puzzle for me to think I might put it together, might collect enough facts and frames to make sense of it. The world was still as endless and unknowable as my own future.

Between Titograd and the Adriatic coast, high in the flaky, iron Dalmatians at dusk, we pulled over onto a patch of gravel, either a rough scenic turnout or part of some slow construction project, and a perfect place to hole up for the night — flat, untrafficked, starkly beautiful. I set about cooking our dinner over the propane burners. Around us the slate mountains rose dark and wet, and below a small river frothed at the bottom of a steep ravine. A few pine trees clung to the rock. As the stars came out and our breath became visible, Sandy and I got into the bed I had built in the back of the van to replace the South Africans' single cots, and had sex with as little forethought or afterthought as we did everything. It was still spring, and still cold in the mountains. We bundled up and fell asleep.

In the early light I woke, attuned to some movement outside. An animal? The gravel was crunching, and whatever it was sounded large. I heard some other sounds: twigs snapping? A bear? A person?

Then the front window, on the driver's side, was opened from the outside — the van was built for deliveries, and had a driver's-side window that slid back on tracks rather than rolling up or down. Suddenly a man's hand appeared through it. I experienced a shock of adrenaline — I had my girlfriend to protect, but had no idea what to do, and as is always true at moments like that, everything happened too fast. But then, it became clear, the hand was holding not a knife or a gun, but instead, improbably, a bouquet of pine branches, arranged artistically, and tied off with a piece of string. A wordless offering of friendship. I reached forward and took the bouquet, said thank you, got dressed quickly, and went out the back doors to meet the gift-giver.

He was a tall thin man in his late thirties, wearing a uniform of sorts — a military-looking jacket, with epaulets and a name tag — and his face, like the thick, roughly finished wool of his coat, was out of date, a face from the past, long, thin, with gray eyes, and an American Gothic–like lack of animation. He was a Great War photograph come to life.

I CAME TO UNDERSTAND that he was Montenegrin, spoke Montenegrin, as well as some Serbian, and that his job was to take care of the stretch of highway where we were standing. The main task this involved was walking his length of the road and removing the rocks that fell, day and night, off the sides of the cliffs. I asked how much road he took care of, and he explained it to me by pointing toward what I think were landmarks of some kind, out of sight to the east and out of sight to the west, but since we had no language in common, I couldn't piece it together — maybe a few kilometers, maybe more. He seemed content in the work.

Since we were close to Titograd, I asked if that was where Tito was from. No, he said, followed, perhaps, by the information that Tito came to this area to go fishing. He mimed casting a rod, at any rate.

He was interested in our van, our mini-home, and in the meantime, Sandy had gotten dressed, and was making coffee. I opened the back doors, and he was appreciative of the layout, the small propane tank, the chemical toilet. We all had some coffee, and then we packed up the kitchen and shook hands goodbye. I couldn't tell whether it was sadness I saw in his eyes, but I thought it was, and I couldn't quite sort out what had made him sad, but some part of me decided, then and there, that I wanted to travel always and forever. He picked up rocks, and had a deep soul, and I was, and still am, glad I met him. His generosity and his openhearted gesture with the pine branches, were part of it, but the sense of sublimity came from the way the experience fell through the cracks of everyday categories: we were strangers, yet instantly intimate; we had one word in common — Tito — and yet communicated worlds; we spent minutes together and yet I am still thinking of him decades later.


Excerpted from Drinking Mare's Milk On The Roof Of The World by Tom Lutz. Copyright © 2016 Tom Lutz. Excerpted by permission of OR Books.
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