Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven: Insanity and Adventure in the Glory Days of Backpacking
By Kathleen Broadhurst
Not every story has a happy ending and not every journey goes as planned. Susan Jane Gilman knows this better than most and in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven she shares her outrageous backpacking story for the benefit and entertainment of all.
Fresh out of college “Susie” and her classmate decide to spend a year backpacking the world. They start in China, which in 1986 has just opened its doors to independent tourists and then plan work their way across Asia and Europe. Despite their differences, Susie is a Jewish Libra from New York City and Claire is a wealthy Gemini WASP from Connecticut the two set out intent on “conquering the world.”
Packing Instamatic cameras, film, Nietzsche and Linda Goodman’s Love Signs the two set out for adventure. From the start things are not as planned, or perhaps, as dreamed and Susie is confronted by the stark realities of being a backpacker in Asia, grimy hostels, dirty water, strange food, homesickness and a hacking cough.
But when Claire starts to imagine strange, dark things, seeing spies, and international terrorist organizations in fellow travelers the story turns from your run of the mill backpacker story to one that will risk both characters’ lives, and sanity.
By the end you may wonder why anyone travels anywhere all. Strange and enchanting Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven is a window into a by-gone era of travel, when China was fresh, the war was cold and Lonely Planet was just a bunch of hippies who wrote a book called Southeast Asia on a Shoe-String.
Here’s an excerpt from Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven
When Claire’s mother had died, she’d left Claire a trust fund. I, however, had grown up in a government-subsidized housing project and attended Brown on financial aid. To pay for our trip, I’d had to defer repaying my student loans and work multiple jobs.
That summer I’d answered telephones during the day at a real estate office, then waitressed at a grungy Upper West Side bar at night. The bar was notorious for serving alcohol to minors. The fact that I could get arrested for this didn’t bother me nearly so much as the fact that teenagers never tipped.
By the time the jukebox was switched off at the end of my shift each night, it was close to three a.m. To save money, I walked home. The dark, cracked pavement glittered in the heat. Back at my parents’ apartment, I’d tiptoe into the kitchen and make myself a Kahlua and milk, then carry the clinking glass to my bedroom and sip it as I counted out my tips.
I’d smooth each dollar bill lovingly, fanning them out on my bedspread. On a good night, I earned over seventy-five bucks; on a bad night, less than forty. My parents’ apartment overlooked rows of dilapidated brownstones, their backyards strewn with rusted baby carriages, disemboweled sofas, plastic pink flamingos bleached to the color of an infection.
Beyond these towered ugly, Braque-like buildings like our own. As the sun came up each morning, I’d stare out the window and listen to the sound of jackhammers, to the police sirens ripping by and our neighbors yelling from fire escapes, “I kill you, you dumb fuck,” and I’d think with relief: In just a few months, I’ll get out of here and bestride the world like a goddess.
Now, sitting on a metal bed ten thousand miles from home in a cell the pale blue-green color of chewing gum, listening to two people yelling in Cantonese through a grimy ventilation duct, I realized what a mother lode of stupidity this had been. Clair and I didn’t speak a word of Chinese. What if we got sick? Our guidebooks were full of warnings about parasites, worms, fungi, fevers. What if we were molested or robbed? What if we got lost? We didn’t know one soul in the whole hemisphere.
We’d landed in Asia without a single name scribbled on a napkin. No friend of a friend’s cousin teaching English. No army buddy of her father’s. No Brown alumnus to call in case of emergency. When we’d finally made it into the arrivals hall at Kai Tak, there’d been absolutely nobody waiting for us.
For all my talk about wanting to be a bold, independent traveler, I’d never considered what it would actually feel like to journey halfway around the world with no one to greet me on the other end. The reality of how utterly alone we were was starting to hit me: the loneliness of it was sonic. We could disappear or die here who would even care?
It was, I realize, a Copernican moment. For perhaps the first time in my life, it became viscerally clear to me just how little I mattered, just how much I was not in fact the center of the universe. It was like a swift kick to the gut. I had just spent two thousand dollars on a nonrefundable around-the-world airplane ticket, received a battery of vaccinations against everything from tetanus to yellow fever, and traveled halfway across the globe for what was clearly a hideous mistake.
My teeth began chattering so hard I thought they would crack. Shutting off the air-conditioning, I curled up in a fetal position in my sleeping bag and tried to think of how to break it to Claire that I was sorry, that I just wasn’t that type of girl after all- that this was all wrong- and I had to go home immediately.
Excerpted from Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven © 2010 by Susan Jane Gilman. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.