When I was in my third year of graduate school and getting ready to write my dissertation proposal a good friend and I decided to borrow a van and drive to Alaska. We picked up AAA Guidebooks for every state and Canadian province we would hit and decided to rough it by camping in National Parks, staying with friends, and sleeping in the van when necessary. Note that I am an urban girl from New York City who until then had never really camped and never spent significant time out of a city.
It was all good until the van broke down in the middle of nowhere in the Yukon Territory, between Destruction Bay and Whitehorse, capital of the Yukon. Needless to say we had an interesting time camping for nine days in Whitehorse while waiting for the only GM dealership around to fix the van. No night time (it was summer) and an interesting mix of fellow campers (let’s just say some of them lived in this Yukon campground permanently) almost made me lose my mind.
So it was with great interest and trepidation that I picked up Susan Jane Gilman’s Undress Me In The Temple of Heaven, the tale of two recent ivy league Brown University graduates who decide to travel the world, starting in China of all places, for fun and adventure. It is important to know that Gilman is a more upper middle class girl whose parents worked and saved to send her to Brown, while her friend Claire is from an extremely wealthy family. Of course they decide to rough it and only stay in hostels and cheap dorms.
This was the eighties when little was known about Communist China and very few people visited there. Other than the Lonely Planet guidebook, Nietzche’s greatest works, and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs the girls did very little preparation for their adventure, naively believing that they would be just fine and romanticizing their upcoming trip around the world. Then they arrived in Hong Kong, where just finding a place to stay where there were no men in diapers masturbating in the hallway (really) became a challenge.
- From overhead came the sizzle of of mosquitoes frying against the flourescent bulb. I looked around. Without any windows, it was impossible to get oriented. I sat on the edge of the metal-framed bed, trying to catch my own breath. It was the first time I’d ever been alone in a foreign country. It didn’t feel triumphant or glorious at all.
Dogs, cats, and gophers sat in cages in front of restaurants awaiting certain death. Every part of an animal was served, including whole uncleaned cooked fish on a plate. No signs were in English, so the girls had no way to orient themselves. Beijing was full of horrible air pollution that left everyone coughing. Hotel rooms often had no “western” bathroom or hot water and were full of ants and roaches. And there were, as you might expect in China, a whole lot of Chinese people who have never really seen Americans but really wanted to go to America.