One of my regrets is that I did not take the summer (or year) after college off to travel the globe beginning life in the corporate world. Worried about future job prospects, I dutifully took a job which started only 2 weeks after graduation and pledged to take as many trips as possible during vacations. Although I have made good on my pledge to travel and have had the opportunity to go to many far-flung destinations for work, it is not the same as a post college backpacking adventure. So I was immediately drawn to this book when I heard about it - even though the tale it tells certainly blurs the idealistic picture I may have had of backpacking.
Susan Jane Gilman's Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven is a memoir which tells the story of the author and her college friend's post-graduation backpacking trip around the world which begins in China. This is China before it was fully opened to tourists and given an overhaul for the Beijing Olympics so travel there (especially on a budget) was difficult - Gilman and her travel compadre, Claire, faced more than just pollution, putrid smells, bizarre noises - the general assault on the senses - encountered by most travelers to the third world. They also had to contend with the military police tracking their movements and restrictions that the Communist regime had placed on foreigners requiring them to use designated traveler's currency and account for every item they brought into the country upon their exit. Throw in a health crisis or two and Claire's gradual loss of her grip on reality and you can see how this backpacking adventure starts to unravel.
The story is told with the witty, at times snarky, voice of the author and I found myself laughing out loud as I read. From their nightmarish trip to the hospital accompanied by a schoolteacher who spoke little English to their attempts to find an insect-free hotel room, Gilman tells her and Claire's story with smart, funny anecdotes. She expertly describes the emotional rollercoaster she rides as she faces her fears of being away from home, alone in a foreign country and riddled with self doubt:
In China, I was having trouble knowing who I was anymore. There was nothing familiar to reinforce my sense of self: no loved ones, teachers, report cards. While I'd once imagined I was savvy, here in Asia it had become abundantly clear that I was not. . . . Certainly, the primary tool I'd always relied upon for the bulk of my personality - the English language - was no longer at my disposal much. What was really left of me?
It is not all grimy hotel rooms, squat toilets and loneliness; Gilman also describes all the glories of travel - even in the third world. Her description of her trip to the Great Wall and the majesty of the scenery surrounding it perfectly captures one of the true joys of travel - a views ability to make you forget just about everything (even your travel mate's rapid decline into psychosis!)
If you love to travel (or just read about it!) and enjoy funny, smart writing, you will enjoy this one. Makes me want to rush out and plan my next trip . . . and still a little wistful for that backpacking trip I never took!
Thank you to Miriam at Hachette for providing this review copy. This book meets the criteria for the Memorable Memoirs Challenge