Drinking Mare's Milk on the Roof of the World



“Move over Pico Iyer: Tom Lutz has returned to town with an irresistible book of true stories about accidental intimacies in unexpected places. His encounters on the road, described in gorgeous prose, are brief but intense. Lighting out for the territories has never seemed so enthralling.”
—Jon Wiener

"He rarely travels for work. He simply must keep moving forward. His is an inquisitive and self-depreciating mind reminiscent of Geoff Dyer’s." —The Times Literary Supplement

"'We'--you and the reader who identifies--come out of it fine, invigorated, happy to be alive in such an interesting world." —Annie Dillard

“In these provocative and personal travel essays, Tom Lutz walks the seam between memory and landcape, finding traces in the physical that illuminate the inner life. Smart, pointed, funny, and surprising, Lutz's journeys reveal both the writer and the world he navigates, offering not epiphany so much as engagement, which is, of course, the only thing that counts.” —David L. Ulin

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About the Book

“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 overentitled, 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?” —from the foreword

Tom Lutz is addicted to journeying. Sometimes he stops at the end of the road, sometimes he travels further. In this richly packed portmanteau of traveler’s tales, we accompany him as he drives beyond the blacktop in Morocco, to the Saharan dunes on the Algerian border, and east of Ankara into the Hittite ruins of Boğazkale. We ride alongside as he hitches across Uzbekistan and the high mountain passes of Kyrgyzstan into western China. We catch up with him as he traverses the shores of a lake in Malawi, and disappear with him into the disputed areas of the Ukraine and Moldova. We follow his footsteps through the swamps of Sri Lanka, the wilds of Azerbaijan, the plains of Tibet, the casinos of Tanzania, the peasant hinterlands of Romania and Albania, and the center of Swaziland, where we join him in watching the king pick his next wife. All along the way, we witness his perplexity in trying to understand a compulsion to keep moving, ever onward, to the ends of the earth.

Publication July 21, 2016 • 254 pages
Paperback ISBN 978-1-682190-56-2 • E-book 978-1-682190-57-9

About the Author

tom lutz author photo

Photo © David Walter Banks

Tom Lutz is Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books and teaches creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. His previous books include Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums and Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears.

Read an Excerpt

This book is an essay towards understanding my obsession with travel. Made up of the same elements that fuel any tourism—simple curiosity, a yearning for adventure and exoticism, the quest for enlightenment, scopophilia (a love of seeing—my namesake, Doubting Thomas, needed to see the wounds), wanderlust, a yearning for wonder—it is, I sometimes think, not odd at all. The desire to see everything, to know one’s own world—isn’t this not only perfectly reasonable, but also almost our human responsibility? 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, Macchu Pichu, or the Forbidden City, to stick those heads on Easter Island, and to throw the cathedral at Chartres, as Henry Adams says, at the sky. It seems ungrateful not to take a look.

Many of us also travel because we want to feel worldly, cosmopolitan, to know the world the way the worldly people know it, to not feel left out when someone mentions Paris or London or Rome (or Angkor Wat, Macchu Pichu, or the Forbidden City). Something like this eggs me along, too. It’s less attractive as a motive, I know, and makes me feel like a social climber, a kind of status whore. But let me just say it: I wanted to know the world as the well-travelled know it. I wanted to be like Graham Greene or Marco Polo, T.E. Lawrence, Amelia Earhart, or a foreign minister—or maybe a shadow foreign minister. Imitative, I suppose, and reeking of the snob, of one-upsmanship, and childish pretense: Harriett the Spy wandering the globe pretending to be Hillary Clinton.

Marx famously said that the need for new markets ‘chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe,’ and in the process us bourgeois folks transform the world in our own image. Even in 1848, Marx saw the world’s local cultures being swamped by the tide of cosmopolitan uniformity, the very sense of loss Levi Strauss shares a hundred years later. Fifteen years or so ago, a sailor in Greece told me that he loved his long-distance work in the merchant marine, and one of his favorite things, whenever he approached landfall, was to tune into the port city’s radio and hear the local music. But part of the thrill was gone. Now, he said, wherever you go—Africa, Asia, South America—‘always the same: Michael Jackson.’

But he and I, of course, help spread that global culture, and perhaps the very desire to be worldly. To go to the ends of the earth and revel in its difference helps destroy that difference, helps flatten the earth, and extinguish the exotic. The bourgeois traveller literally consumes the world’s diversity.

Indeed I often think I’m enacting some bizarre psychological imperialism: I run around collecting countries like a European monarch amassing colonies, and I may as well admit it, I keep count (111). That’s silly enough, but I also cheat. I drove to San Marino, a tiny country in the hills of Italy, just to add it to my list. There’s not much to see. I don’t think I was out of the car for more than five minutes. I include in my total three countries where I only walked through the airport to change planes; since I have a rule in this game that airport terminals don’t count, I stepped outside in each place, walked past the loading and unloading zone, into the most minimum of interiors—a 30-second Kurtz. What kind of foolishness is that? I don’t plant flags, I take photos, but at bottom it is an unseemly kind of collecting. Making possessions of other countries at 100 kilometers an hour. I assure you, I know that it is odd.

But as aliens are fond of saying, I come in peace. And lest my urge to circumnavigate descends into self-flagellation, I should say that the stories here are not designed to make me out as the bad guy. They are stories about people: the Amidov family in Tashkent, my driver in Bagan, Francine the housekeeper in Pretoria, an old man in Albania, a young man in Jordan, my hapless guide in Sri Lanka—these are people I crossed some habitual boundary with, and I am the better for each, and perhaps these people even feel something similar. In each case the world shrank just a little, sympathy expanded, understanding increased. Such chance meetings mean the world to me, in every sense of the phrase, and leave me wanting more. Sweetness, and adventure, and awe, and revelation, and sublimity—doesn’t everybody want these things?

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