And the Monkey Learned Nothing
Dispatches from a Life in Transit
(Sightline / University of Iowa)
Tom Lutz seems to have been to all the continents, and we have here sixty-eight dispatches, all a page or so long, what the French call feuilletons, little leaves - - - in this case falling from trees in Lhasa, Mozambique, El Salvador, Iran, Gibraltar, Tunisia. We get chronicles of crowds on a train in India, where, at each stop, "the car is full, but a hundred new people get on and only ten exit."
Like a sophisticated machine, everyone adjusts an inch. Calmly, automatically, the air between each of us is narrower. It doesn't matter, we're fine.
"It seems we could not sardine it any further, but we do, and nobody gets aggravated, nobody panics, nobody even seems to notice."
Lutz's mood is mostly mildly forgiving, effortlessly curious, quietly amused. He has the ability, apparently, to converse with everyone: those he meets on the plane, taxi drivers, car-rental people, young hustlers, waiters, functionaries.
He will do an aside that captures the reader in his web of geniality, makes us feel genial too. Talking about the remarkable supermarkets in Suriname, the old Dutch colony just north of Brazil, he informs us that they are all called the Chinese because they are owned by "Chan Lu Supermarket" or "Qiang Ji Market" or "Hung Long" - - - the last of which offers the reader an aside: "sorry, true."In Seoul, the airport is "swooping . . . gleaming, prodigious awe-inspiring." He chats with a Korean woman on the subway, she evidently likes to practice her English, and when he gets off to eat she goes with him, and, on the escalator, he tells her goodbye. She goes with him to the restaurant, and he tells her goodbye again and she goes along with him to the booth and sits down with him, and when the food comes, she eats "with the speed and intensity of a contest eater."
Long after I had finished, she was still at it, unrelenting, unconcerned with appearance of really anything but efficient shoveling. It was a remarkable performance, and she was a small person, five feet tall, maybe 105 pounds, maybe less, at least before her dinner.
When they leave the restaurant, out on the street, he says goodbye again, and "Once again, she fell into step alongside me." He goes back to the subway, and there she is beside him, going back to the hotel, and we begin to think, "We know how this is going to end. How odd . . . and yet not unlucky for him (we hope)." For in all of these stories, in whatever part of the world, Lutz has been alone, and we believe it's about time he had some company.
But not so. At the elevator, he says goodbye and bows, and backs into the elevator. Is that what did it, that touch of Oriental courtesy? The doors close, and he is alone, and "As the tiny elevator rose, I wondered whether she'd be there in the morning."
§ § §
Lutz is one to note the odd details in his apparently endless travels. In Antigua, Guatemala, for Semana Santa, the boys carry "ridiculously oversized floats" going through the streets for hours. "The floats are the size of a house trailer, lit up by gasoline powered generators pulled by teams of young boys." The show stopper are the alfombras - - - "literally carpets: made from pine needles, flowers, fruits and colored sawdust." These complex, carefully constructed "carpets" show pictures of the Christ or the Virgin. They are the width of the street, and extend over all of the path of the upcoming parade.Lutz compares them to Tibetan sand mandalas, and reports that, like them, they are constructed to be destroyed immediately afterwards.
The procession demolished the flowery carpet . . . tromping across it and leaving it unrecognizable. Behind the last berobed marchers came men with shovels, brooms and wheelbarrows, unceremoniously sweeping up the remains. Following them, a garbage truck, into which the wheelbarrows were emptied.
"The Buddhist sand paintings are swept away the minute they are completed: the alfombras are trampled as soon as they achieve their beauty and then dumped up into the garbage." For those of us who live in this part of the Americas, it all makes sense, for we find here the Orientalist sense of impermanence. This is wedded into the fabric of these peoples, for it is said that hundreds of years ago, immense barges from China approached the western coastline of present day Central America. These schooners were powered by large, delicate silken sails on which were painted but one single giant eye.
The boats with their ophthalmic visions appeared suddenly, rising up in the evening sky, alarming the indigenous society. But when they understood that the new visitors had come in peace, blessed, too, with a gentle if formal curiosity, they were welcomed into their villages. They were certainly less gluttonous than the marauding barbarians fanning out from late Christian Europe.
These quiet visitors from the East ultimately became as one with the inhabitants of these parts, the ones that were to be named Oaxaca, Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica.
Thus the origin of the present-day zygomatic arches in faces, the high cheekbones - - - complete with the slight epicanthic fold that indicates a delicate mix of the two cultures.
They say that even these days, if you listen to the sounds of the Quechuan languages, you will detect a musical sonority, not unlike that of the Min or Yue dialects of coastal China.There are times in the course of this book, if you read it straight though as I did, where the ever-enthusiastic Lutz seems to flag. In his visit to Egypt, he was exposed to the Cairo traffic; then a visit to the lackluster Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, which was then topped off by a drive through a sandstorm in the Nile Delta: have you ever driven through a sandstorm? Worse, by far, than a snow blizzard, and just as slippery. Lutz's inability to see more than a few inches ahead or behind, the wheels slipping, hitting patches as if snow, "floating, driving by feel," helped to sour him on the Nile Valley, and got him to thinking about how human beings were not all that different than grains of sand
It seemed impossible that people could breathe. And teeming! So many people! It seemed impossible, too, that millions had left to swell the two cities. The ground was thick with people."
The suceeding chapters find him minus his usual enthusiasm: the "ramshackle" Stone Town, Zanzibar; Morija, Lesotho with its poverty and its plague of AIDS; the desolate landscape - - - only one tree - - - at the west of Mozambique; the women of Maputo, dressed for what seemed like a session of Hee Haw.
It isn't until he finds himself in late-night in Moputo that he is able to return to his curious, interested, seeking self . . . at an alt-pop bar where people just danced in "funky, hardcore expressions of bodily joy. I was inspired to dance in ways I had never managed before."
§ § §
Lutz is at his best when he is not trying, when he lets himself go, as he was, filled with his simple joy in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. What does it? It's the sheer size of and number of elephants. The park was originally in colonial times built as a hunting preserve, one so good at conserving the health and lives of elephants that they are like a flood of great, gray beasts. But "the devastation wreaked by the elephants is easy to see. In the Mopane woodlands, the trees are reduced to shredded stubs."
In the Kalahari woodland, major tree loss and erosion are visible everywhere. Biodiversity suffers as a result. Species disappear. There are as many as twenty times as many elephants per square mile than can be sustained without environmental damage.
The question of culling is brought up, but the tourists shout it down. Impish Lutz says to them that we need to cull the humans instead. "This was greeted by applause by the Americans."
The author is sterling when, too, he serves as the conscience of the reader. His visit to Laos is a shocker, both to the readers and to the author. He visits the caves at Vang Vieng-Nong Khiaw, where the people of Laos hid for years to save their lives during the carpet-bombing of that gentle land - - - a gift of Nixon, Kissinger and our military in the 1970s. It was supposed to punish Communists, but it punished Laotian men, women, and children.
I tried to imagine that torrent of flame and terror. Two hundred and seventy million bombs were dropped, a planeload every five minutes for nine years.
Yet when he asks the locals what they think of this ruination of their land and their lives, they shrug it off. "They must have asked who was doing this to them," he observes to a Laotian lady. "One day the bombs start falling," she responds, "and they hide in caves . . . Then bombs stop and they come out. The farmers here, they still don't know what U. S. is really."
And you? he asks.
I was born after no more war. Everyone born after no more war.