Friday, August 12, 2011

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

I first read about this book on Oprah's website, something about travel books.  I thought this sounded like something I would enjoy because I love to travel, and am always searching for travel books to learn about other people's experiences with travel.  This is the story of two young women, just out of college who decide to visit China in the mid-80s, when people are just being allowed to visit. 

The story intrigued me because when I was younger, my plan had been to travel the world as soon as I finished college.  That didn't happen.  I instead got a job right after college and was 28 the first time I left the country, much too old to  have any desire to do the backpacking/hostels, student budget sort of traveling.  I'm a grown-up, I only stay in nice hotels.  But I've always been curious about what I missed by not traveling when I was younger.  This book provides a glimpse into one of those adventures on which I missed out.

I couldn't put this book down.  The story is so interesting and very well written.

I admire the courage these two women had, even if they were terribly naive and had no idea as to what to expect when they arrived in China.  They were determined to discover the "real" China.  No Holiday Inns or Hiltons.  This was before the internet and the ever so valuable TripAdvisor.  They had only a Lonely Planet guide to provide recommendations.  Based on the descriptions of some of their lodging choices, it sounds absolutely miserable, and I was glad I was reading about it, and not experiencing it.  Gave me a whole new appreciation for my own travel choices - my style being, the more modern the better.  I enjoy learning about the history and seeing the locations and such, but when I'm in my hotel room, I want to be very much in the present.

As if navigating through a foreign land, with no real plan or understanding of the language wasn't difficult enough, the real problem, the author eventually discovered, was her companion's mental health.  They didn't know each other very well before they took this trip.  They were college friends -- you know how that works, you hang out together, you think you have lots in common because, well, you're at the same school, you take the same classes, you have the same brave, bold ideas about conquering the world, but once you enter the "real world" - set off the college campus, things change.  Claire begins to show the classic signs of schizophrenia, but Susie (the author) is in denial, thinking it's just mood swings, the discomforts of foreign travel and homesickness.  Then she can't deny it anymore.

What I liked most about this is the way the author presents her surroundings and the people she meets along the way.  For me, as someone who travels alone quite a bit, the kindness of strangers is what rang most true in this story.  My philosophy is that if you take the initiative to actually step out of your comfort zone and attempt to discover the world, the Universe will help you out along the way when you get in trouble.  (Of course, news stories will confirm this is not always true, sometimes awful things happen and there isn't anyone there to help you.)  But in my experience, I find that anytime I've been lost or confused, someone takes the time to point me in the right direction, and anytime I've been lonely or feeling abandoned, someone seems to appear and next thing I know I'm spending the evening with a new friend.  Someday I hope to write my own collection of travel stories, but until then, I will happily read stories like this.

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