It’s been far too long since I blogged and I simply must get back on it. I begin today with my love of this book: “Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven” by Susan Jane Gilman. I first discovered Gilman several years ago when I purchased her memoir, “Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress.” She made me laugh out loud so when I saw this new one — the story of her trip around the world with a girlfriend after college — I knew it was perfect for me.
I am a bit of an obsessive reader and let me tell you, I have almost finished this book in two days. I recognized something important while reading it. Being an avid world traveler myself — with a list as long as the sun of third world countries (and more) I want to go to — this story was like dessert for me to dive into.
However, the trip is nothing short of misery in many parts — being lost, getting sick, living in filth, being stared at, the authorities being suspicious of you, dying for American food or familiar faces. I always felt some sense of guilt when I was overseas hating life — dying for a shower or air conditioning. I always felt I should fully enjoy each moment or I wasn’t really a world traveler. But I realized that is not true. Experiencing a third world country is hard and sometimes it sucks. But you stick it out — usually you cry it out — and wait for the next beautiful moment to come along. I cherish every trip I’ve taken — every foreign moment I’ve had. But Gilman wrote something that really stuck out to me. You see — if you give me the option of going to Italy or Papau New Guinea — I’ll pick the third world country hands down. I want to experience things — to see the most primitive of living. But…here is what she wrote:
“We were too young and myopic to recognize the perversity of a logic that equates voluntary deprivation with authentic experience…It never seemed to occur to us that only privileged Westerners travel to developing countries in the first place, then use them as playgrounds and laboratories for our own enrichment.”
This is perhaps why I felt guilty photographing the scenes I encountered in India. The poverty was heartwrenching and the culture so beautiful. But I felt like I was making a mockery of people’s lives by documenting it so frivolously just take back and show my friends photos of the exotic place I’d just been. This was my “experience” but it was their whole world. So I came away with very few pictures of a pretty rough trip to India and really, that was okay with me. I’m conscience now and though my trips aren’t as often as I’d like, I have an authentic respect for the people and the places I go.
Things I’ll never forgot:
— Dipping water out of a well in a Mozambican valley and scrubbing my clothes on the rocks next to it.
— Riding in a hot, stuffy van playing Indian pop music past hoards of people in the city of Bangalore.
— Standing at an airport in Venezuela with a dozen armed guards staring us down while we waiting for a ride that never came.
— Riding in a cable car across the Barcelona skyline at sunset
— Donning a robe that covered me head to foot and moving silently barefoot through a mosque in Lebanon.
— Eating a chocolate chip Belgian waffle in Belgium!
— My only pair of shoes breaking in Holland and having to borrow the neighbor’s actual wooden shoes to wear for a few days.
— Taking a ferry across the England Canal and having “fish and chips”
— Walking past the Red Light District in Amsterdam when I was 13 – with nude postcards accosting me at every angle. Then buying my mom a wooden windmill in a store around the corner.
— A bleary-eyed, surreal cab ride around the city of Dubai in 110 degree heat. The gorgeous architecture towered and sparkled — the tallest building in the world seeming to sway in the wind.
— Singing praise songs in English and Swahili with our African friends on a warm, star-filled night in Kenya.
— Every single sunrise and sunset in Mozambique and nighttimes so full of stars I thought I was lost in the galaxy.
— Being chase by wild dogs on a rainy day lost in the middle of India afraid I would get rabies.
— Laying in a tin shelter in Ethiopia hearing mean people banging on the sides because they didn’t want us there.
–Eating an authentic Ethiopian meal with a table of 10 – all our germs and fingers mixing together. The sour taste of the bread stays with me.
— Standing in the plaza where Krystallnacht took place in Munich – barely believing Hitler himself had likely stepped on the same stones I was.
— Seeing the home where Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews during the Holocaust. The movie about her life I saw that night encouraged me to rededicate my life to Christ.
— Having espresso alone in a little café in Austria –nursing the worst sore throat I ever had in my life. It was like knives and the only thing to soothe it was warm espresso on this cold day people watching and soaking in the moment.
— Eating the world’s best soft serve vanilla ice cream at a carnival in Venezuela and being approached by strange men because we wore lipstick.
— Arriving alone, scared and freaking out in the middle of the night to Bangalore, India airport after 32 hours of travel unaware of who would pick me up, where I would go or what exactly was going on. Arriving to a home where lizards crawled on the walls in my bedroom and the shower sprayed the toilet in one big open room was not fun.
— Eating at an amazing restaurant in Lebanon surrounded by women in beaded burqas, where they served course after course of delicious Lebanese food. I can now simply eat hummus by the spoonful.
But I must say one of the best parts of this book is the title. You wonder — what could this possibly mean? Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven? I will tell you. This Australian man that Susie meets in China kisses her and tells her to meet him at the Great Wall of China in a few weeks. There, he tells her “Aha! Just wait then…I’m going to take you all over Beijing…do forbidden things to you in the Forbidden City and undress you in the Temple of Heaven…”
If you were halfway across the world and a sexy Australian man said that to you, you’d probably meet him like he said and title your book after his words, which somehow tumbled out of his mouth like liquid gold. After reading this, I watched “Under the Tuscan Sun” last night. And guess what? The world is pining after me. I can’t resist her for much longer. Carpe Diem. All cliches are true — and life is short.