NOVEMBER 15, 2021
THE TRAVEL DIARY, or travelogue, is a genre at least as old as Pausanias, who wandered Greece in the second century CE and recorded his many observations and thoughts. Such books aren’t interested in guiding tourists toward any sites. Rather, they recount the author’s journey, the unpredictable sort, that which, in the words of Pico Iyer, “whirls you around and turns you upside down.”
Tom Lutz, the founder of the Los Angeles Review of Books, is partial to this mode of travel and has been writing about his excursions abroad for several years. The Kindness of Strangers, the last installment of a trilogy he calls At Home in the World, takes the reader to some of the farthest reaches possible. Lutz has visited some 150 countries, a lifelong project to push himself into new terrains, fall into new experiences, and catalog his memories. In Kindness, he visits nearly two dozen countries: from techno-futurist places like Hong Kong to isolated places like Madagascar, from exploited places like the Marshall Islands to tightly controlled places like Bhutan.
It’s a dizzying experience to read these essays straight through, one minute strolling the narrow streets of Cuzco, Peru, and the next in rural New Zealand. But that is not how Lutz necessarily wants you to read them. He originally conceived a “thousand-page” book that “no one would ever read cover to cover,” and instead “would just dip into […] haphazardly,” as one does with a bedside companion, an anthology of poetry, say, or an encyclopedia.
Channeling the Oulipo, a loopy group of 1960s French writers who produced, among their many concoctions, a novel without so much as a single letter e, Lutz gave himself rigid constraints, calling the practice “generative”: he begins (and ends) each section in the middle of action. He leaves out hotel, restaurant, and other pertinent names. In other words, he bucks against the imperatives of travel journalism, which is, above all, writing to inform consumption.
The result is immediate and experiential: lyrical passages that read more like short stories than essays. Lutz keeps his reflections sparse. He recreates long conversations he had with whatever cabbie or fellow bar patron he met that day. One wonders if Lutz keeps a recorder in his pocket, capturing the sounds of the city all day, or if he waits until a worthy moment to clandestinely hit record, or if he merely refashions these scenes from memory and notes.
In a sense, it doesn’t matter how the sausage is made. In each of the essays, you learn something new about the world, large and small. History is folded in. And the telling is always honest. Strangers see this American, and they are often intrigued and eager to help him along. “Perhaps the kindness I am proffered by strangers is the knowledge that I do not have a dog in any of their fights,” writes Lutz as he ponders his reception in Taiwan. “I do not know the game, and I do not know the players.” He can read about how the Han have displaced Taiwan’s indigenous population, about a country’s politics or the customs of its people, but he cannot know their lived reality, “cannot feel the facts of their history.”
This limitation is, for Lutz, another invitation to try to understand anyway, and to convey, in simple terms, whatever he concludes to the reader. If he doesn’t always know the answers to his questions, he’s happy to ask around, and it’s enjoyable to witness these casual investigations. If that doesn’t produce an answer, Lutz doesn’t mind speculating on the page. While in Kazakhstan, for example, in perhaps my favorite essay of the book, Lutz attempts to make sense of the reckless endangerment he notices all around him. One day, he stumbles upon a Nowruz festival, where children “as young as six or seven” are horseracing bareback, rounding a track “at breakneck speed.” Later, he catches a cab, and his driver is more interested in watching a soap opera on his phone than watching the road. “[A] certain fearlessness was endemic” there, Lutz writes. “As in most places in the world, the way people drove was an expression of culture, and as in most places, the economic incentive to avoid actual crashes ameliorated the worst consequences.”
His speculation does get him into trouble from time to time. In Nicaragua, he waves off a security guard who suggests he take a cab to the shopping mall that is in clear sight. Lutz instead heads there on foot and is suddenly attacked. “A hand reached out of the darkness and grabbed my leg: a horror movie event,” writes Lutz. He manages to escape, and his assailants turn out to be severely impoverished children. It’s a painful and jarring reminder of egregious global wealth disparity.
But Lutz is honest about this as well. While in Taiwan, he’s invited onto a radio show in which the host asks him about his privilege. He explains that he travels on a shoestring, often off-season, and typically spends less than he would back home in Los Angeles, where he is a professor of creative writing. Still, Lutz admits that “[i]t is impossible in poor countries not to feel the entitlement involved in having arrived there, when so few of them had the ability to visit the US, and not to feel it constantly, impossible not to understand the gross inequity my being there represents.”
Time and again, he turns his critique inward. Lutz records his broken Spanish or French verbatim, making fun of his fumbled communications. He recounts a museum tour in Kazakhstan, when he mansplained to the guide about how to do her own job, telling her it is better to qualify local legends with phrases like “people say” rather than stating them as facts. “I sounded like a priggish know-it-all,” he writes. “I could see she pitied me.” It’s one of the moments when his Americanness is most pronounced.
In all of his radical honesty, Lutz occasionally includes a judgmental aside, some interior thought recorded for the reader but not spoken aloud during his travels. When Lutz wanders into a wedding at a hotel in Ethiopia, a proud event manager asks him what he thinks of the hotel. In the moment, Lutz evades the host’s question, but he makes sure the reader knows that “everything about the hotel, except perhaps this guy’s suit, was barebones, economy-style, minimal, adequate, Motel 6.” These slippages aren’t frequent, and it’s unclear whether Lutz knows how they come off, but they create a distancing effect, one that makes me question my own “adventures” abroad as a white American man.
How should we feel about traveling to poor countries? How much of a culture are we allowed to see, and how much is kept guarded by the locals from foreign, prying eyes? Are we indeed interlopers if we go where taxi drivers say it’s dangerous, even if we fill the pockets of shopkeepers and guides along the way?
I have no answers to these questions, but that is a mark of a good book: it gets you to think. I, too, have experienced the kindness of strangers on the road. They’ve assured me, like they’ve assured Lutz, that we are welcome, that their economies rely on our foreign dollars. This is the complicated reality. For the vacation-hesitant, these essays are a guilt-free, vicarious vacation experience. And Lutz travels lightly. He doesn’t arrive with fixers, interpreters, and camera crews, like international travel TV hosts. He isn’t living out a neo-colonial fantasy like big game hunters on the African savanna. He is simply compelled to travel to new places, encounter other cultures, and record what he sees. And the reader gets to share in his rewards.
Jason Christian worked in carnivals and fairs for nine years and lived in squats in Barcelona for nearly four. He has written for The Bitter Southerner, Gulf Coast, The New Republic, and other publications. He lives and teaches in New Orleans.