This article is part of the English PEN Between EU and Me project, supported by the European Commission
Translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
I am an omnivorous scavenger, I sniff every object, I trust my intuition more than my eyes, and my most highly developed instinct is to run away. And if I have to be somewhere quickly, I run. At a rate of one breath to four paces, I can run ad infinitum, for hours on end. I can eat and drink without stopping. Absolutely nothing will induce me to get into a lift if I’m not going higher than five floors. I never take the lift down. And I never get lost. My brain has its own in-built navigation system.
I even know how to talk to dogs, though I don’t wish to chat with every dog I meet, because like all the creatures in my house I have my racial prejudices. We can’t stand pit bulls, for instance – nasty muscle-bound dogs, four-footed yobbos with brains the size of a pea. And the scavenging – it’s just a reporter’s metaphor. When I go into the field (as the old reporters say), in other words on a work trip, within Poland or abroad, to gather material for a new article, I stop to inspect every speck of dust, every detail, every scrap of information and every little story – every bit of carrion, rubbish or shit. I might not use it later on, I might not devour it, but I’m sure to pick it up and take it away with me.
The limping dog, or ‘being on the road’ versus ‘travelling’
All this makes me naturally equipped for travelling. Anyway, I love to travel, though I hardly ever say that. What I say is that I love ‘being on the road’, which is hardly surprising, considering that in a former life I was a stray dog.
Please note, I didn’t say a dog ‘with no master’, but a stray dog. For what sort of pleasure is there in being a dog ‘with a master’? In having a master? So I wasn’t a dog with no master, I was just free, independent, a drifter… All right, I was eternally hungry, crawling with lice and fleas, and covered in eczema, on top of which I had cancer of the testicles – by the end of my short life they were virtually trailing along on the ground behind me, but for all that, I was a cheerful, actually a very happy dog. A disgusting mongrel with festering eyes and ears, exuding a stink like a latrine, but proud of all the vigorous, dynamic spermatozoa I’d sent out around the entire world then known to me.
I was lame in a back paw, so it’s probably from my dog’s life that I remember the coarse rhyme I’ve never heard in my present life. My mother says that in her childhood the lowlifes in Sochaczew (the town we’re from) used to bellow something like this at the homeless dogs to chase them away, after tying empty cans to their tails. The rhyme goes like this:
A limping dog ran on the grass
(Screw the fucker, screw the fucker, screw the fucker)
Some bastard kicked him up the arse
(Screw the fucker, screw the fucker, screw the fucker)
Oh you fucker, booted up the bum
(Screw the fucker, screw the fucker, screw the fucker)
I’m grassing on you to your mum
(Screw the fucker, screw the fucker, screw the fucker).
It must be because of my former identity that I get such unspeakable pleasure out of reporting on the homeless – people, not dogs, because a dog can indeed be homeless too, but once he has a home he ceases to be a dog. (That’s what I thought in my previous life, but I shouldn’t be saying it now, because when my own dogs read this, I’ll be the one in the doghouse.)
The three reports I wrote about the homeless were examples of immersion journalism. Two were researched in Warsaw, and one in Moscow. I got myself up in rags and went to live on the streets. It felt wonderful – I hadn’t the slightest doubt it was, or used to be my way of life. I was in no doubt at all that I hadn’t changed, I’d just gone back to my old identity, my old life, my old ways of getting food and drink and a bed for the night.
Like changing the railway points, with a change of dress you get rid of your identity as a journalist, husband, father, owner, or citizen – in short, you stop being a normal person, a Muggle, and you become a tramp, who’s not ashamed to beg, piss in the park, or sleep on the grass below the statue of Adam Mickiewicz. To my excellent fellow reporter Wojciech Jagielski, who doesn’t rate this genre of reportage (or rather this method of gathering material) and says it’s just done for a lark, I reply that he is quite mistaken. The world of the homeless can only be described from the position of a piece of trash lying in the street (or of a stray dog too). You’ll never find out how people (the normal ones) regard a piece of trash that’s knocking about in the street, unless you are one.
So, in a former life, I was a stray dog. I’m doubly fond of the Polish word wałęsać, meaning ‘to stray’ or ‘to wander’, out of respect for Lech Wałęsa. I realised this in the days of the so-called first Solidarity (from August 1980 to December 1981), when folks used to say as a joke that the government (meaning the communists) was wandering – wałęsa się – while Wałęsa was governing.
So why do I prefer ‘being on the road’ to ‘travelling’? Because for me the most important thing is the time before I reach my destination, the before, the going, the slow transfer. When I meet my readers, I often tell them, or write in book dedications, that the most important thing about travelling is being on the road, not reaching your destination.
The Sherpa with a grand piano, or ‘traveller’ versus ‘tourist’
They say travelling is very simple and easy now, accessible and affordable to everyone. I have friends who go to the most far-flung corners of the world, including New Zealand, Swaziland and Patagonia. But are they travelling, even if they ride across the pampas on horseback?
I doubt it. When I’m preparing for each trip, I read innumerable accounts of such exploits on the internet. The level of ignorance about the place the person has gone to is staggering. But does he need to know more? Of course not. People are free to do as they like. But they can’t say they’re travelling. What they’re indulging in is tourism!
A PE teacher from Świdnik rides his motorbike solo all the way across Siberia to Magadan in Kolyma – an extraordinary exploit, but the question is, what for? For nothing. For pleasure, because he likes riding his motorbike, and here on the Eurasian continent that’s the furthest you can go.
But he too is a tourist, as are the clients of all those adventure travel agencies called things like ‘Tingling Spine Trips’ or ‘Cupful of Adrenaline’. For these companies nothing is impossible. After all, tourists are taken up Mount Everest, or sent off to the North or South Pole. A good Sherpa can carry a grand piano up Everest. There is no limitation – not even disability disqualifies you. Sightless or legless tourists have conquered the world’s highest peak. You can sail down the Amazon on a raft, ski across Greenland, cycle over the Gobi Desert (I have this particular exploit to my credit), kitesurf across the Red Sea or swim the Bering Strait, and you’ll still just be a tourist. Because if you ask these people why they go to the Poles, they’ll reply: to conquer them.
What for? They’ve already been conquered. So what’s the difference between a traveller and a tourist? The objective. The traveller is a geographer, geologist, cartographer, missionary, reporter, film-maker, naturalist, or glaciologist who has been commissioned to research the rate at which the glaciers are melting in the Pamir range. The traveller goes abroad for a reason. The tourist goes because he likes going, out of curiosity. And thus for no reason.
All the travel festivals, of which we have at least a dozen in Poland, and I’ve even been to some, should be called tourist fairs, because all their participants’ incredible expeditions and exploits are frankly quite pointless.
The bike and the estate car, or give luck a chance
Your form of transport – that is one of the most important decisions an itinerant reporter has to make. The subject you’re working on determines the way you’re going to have to move about in the field. And vice versa – your form of transport will have an effect on the sort of material you gather.
The rules are quite simple. The more outlandish your idea, the more likely it is to happen. Sometimes my dear colleagues at Gazeta Wyborcza’s foreign correspondence section raise an uproar, crying: ‘It’s just not possible!’ And that makes my blood boil, because I wouldn’t be going to the other end of the world if my idea were impossible; so I come up with a bicycle, hitchhiking, a canoe, or else I buy an old jeep to make the possible happen – in an ordinary way, any old way, by making something out of nothing. I do all this purely to give luck a chance, to get it to start working.
Małgorzata Szejnert, who for many years was my boss and mentor at the newspaper’s reportage section, used to say a reporter who has no luck shouldn’t really be in this profession. So I do everything I can to improve my luck.
And I must admit you get the most luck (or at least some) on a bike. It’s the best form of transport for a reporter. It only has one drawback, which is that it’s slow. In a country as big as China, for instance, it didn’t work for me, because I had too little time to do my job, to gather material. I was always behind.
But apart from that, the bike has nothing but advantages. Best of all, you don’t miss anything, not a single apricot – in Uzbekistan they dry them on the asphalt. You can’t miss anything because you’re going so slowly. With full saddlebags, a tent, and some supplies of food and water your speed is at best 20 kilometres per hour. You only have to stop pedalling and put a foot on the ground, and people spring up around you. It’s always like that. Then they start asking questions, you patiently answer them, and when they ask what now, you say you have to find a place for the night. In Central Asia there has never been an occasion when somebody hasn’t shouted: “Come and stay at my place!” Can anything better happen to a reporter? Before bed, we have supper together, then we chat away half the night, if not the whole night, and by morning I’m a local. I know all about this town, village or district.
On the other hand a car is wonderful, because it gives you an incredible sense of freedom. You can move about the entire country at the speed of light and nobody can stop you, and you also have a roof over your head. I love to sleep in my old Volvo. Of course, a reporter should have a big estate car, big enough to unroll a mattress and stretch out comfortably even though you’ve got a bike next to you in summer and a pair of skis in winter. I once wrote a long article about the Suwałki region of north-eastern Poland, but there was such a big dump of snow that I could only get about the place on cross-country skis.
I love this dog’s life. When I’ve got a topic I can cover at home, meaning in Warsaw or somewhere in Poland, I always choose the smaller places – Łomża, Krasnystaw, Czarnków, Dzierżoniów… I love the dog’s life, hotels, roadside bars, and inns. I love being on the move, on the road.
- You can download an alternative and larger version of the piece here.
- Jacek Hugo-Bader will be talking to Susan Hitch at Oxford Literary Festival about Kolyma Diaries: A Journey into Russia’s Haunted Hinterland on Friday 28 March, 4-5pm, Christ Church: Festival Room 2. Tickets are £11. Book online and b
uy the book.
- This event will be in Polish with translation into English provided by the translator of Kolyma Diaries, Antonia Lloyd-Jones.