Have you ever had the feeling the world was laughing at you—or at least smirking—as you bumbled your way through a foreign land? Did time slow down, your face turn red, and sweat leap from every pore as you wished fervently you could just say, “Beam me up, Scotty”? Laugh at these authors in their shame and be glad that you were not there with them as they muddled their way through embarrassing situations and ghastly faux pas.
Notable authors include: Elliott Hester, William Dalrymple, Rolf Potts, Jennifer L. Leo, Laurie Gough, Richard Sterling, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Doug Lansky, and many more.
By Tim Cahill
Introducing this book of humorous travel essays by many fine authors offers me the opportunity to engage in a lot of pious plagiarism. I could very easily climb up on the shoulders of these other writers and give away their best lines, their most outrageous situations: I could, in short, delineate the very circumstances that will often make you laugh out loud while reading the book. In this manner—call it unscrupulous theft—I could make myself appear to be quite an amusing fellow.
There are two reasons why I will not do this.
1. It is morally reprehensible.
2. The editors won’t let me.
In any case, most of these articles do not lend themselves to easy pilfering. This is to say, there are not a lot of one liners here. (Doug Lansky is the reliable exception.) In most of the essays, situations develop, circumstances deepen, plots thicken. In Patrick Fitzhugh’s “The Snake Charmer of Guanacaste” a giant drunken Russian weight lifter encounters one of the world’s deadliest snakes. Doesn’t sound funny on the face of it? I laughed out loud on a crowded airplane.
Even forthright adventures such as riding the rails like the hobos of old present odd obstacles to certain writers, at least to Jennifer L. Leo, who masquerades as a man in the interests of personal safety. Read all about it in “Boxcar Steve.”
Female adventurers abound in this collection. Western readers of any gender will learn that sometimes just buying a bra can be an occasion of exquisite cross-cultural embarrassment as it was for Jacqueline C. Yau, as described in “King Kong in Shanghai.”
I will say, in perfect introductory candor, that not all the stories are outright knee slappers. Every single one, however, is fascinating in and of itself. I especially liked Richard Sterling’s “Saigon Games,” but it didn’t make me laugh. (I gave it to a friend whose taste I admire and she giggled through the whole thing. There’s no accounting for taste.)
Similarly, I would also advise the reader not to give up on a tale. Sometimes it is necessary to comprehend various important taboos and rituals to understand how the writer eventually made a complete ass of himself or herself.
And yes, they almost always make asses of themselves. I suspect the writers, in many cases, wrote these stories as an act of therapy, in the full understanding that only time and the pen can elevate humiliation to humor. I like to think of this process as the revenge of the mortified.
Indeed, I was reading one tale in which Bennett Stevens, a man apparently bereft of any cultural sensitivity whatsoever, resolves to photograph “the single largest gathering of humanity the planet has ever known” and ends up suffering an occasion of mind-numbing disgrace. I’d tell you about it here, but the editors won’t let me.
There is at least one legendary piece in the book, and that is “A Bard in the Bush.” This is the introduction to a memoir by the well-known war correspondent, Thomas Goltz. The book is unpublished for reasons that remain opaque to me. In it, Goltz casts back twenty years to relate tales from his first trip through Africa, which he financed, on the spot, by performing scenes from Shakespearean plays on the street. Turns out you can get arrested for that—“was my Hamlet that bad?”—because, in the end, Shakespeare’s tales of kingly usurpation and assassinations still run uncomfortably close to the truth even in Africa, or perhaps especially in Africa.
Indeed, the best of these stories open up our worlds and our minds. In “Cowboys and Indians, Thai Style,” Rolf Potts purposely goes to a Western-themed “ranch” in Thailand where he is subjected to a dramatic entertainment featuring “drunk man cowboy and his gang.” Lots of people get beaten up, especially those dressed as Indians, and it would be easy, Potts decides, to see all this as a “distinctly negative symptom of cultural globalization.” Well, of course it is, but there’s more to it and Potts finds himself wondering if “Californians who seek solace in Nepali ashrams” are truly experiencing superior cross-cultural authenticity.
This is funny stuff, all of it, but only because it is true, and that is the point of each and every story here.
Tim Cahill is the author of many books, mostly travel-related, including Hold the Enlightenment, Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Pecked to Death by Ducks, Pass the Butterworms,
as well as the editor of Not So Funny When it Happened: The Best of Travel Humor and Misadventure.
Cahill is also the co-author of the Academy Award-nominated IMAX film, The Living Sea,
as well as the films Everest
He lives in Montana, and shares his life with Linnea Larson, two dogs, and two cats.
Introduction — Tim Cahill
When Fists Flew on the San Juan Special — Elliott Hester
I Am an Englishman — William Dalrymple
The Snake Charmer of Guanacaste — Patrick Fitzhugh
Good Dog! — Mary Noble
Disturbing the Peace — Craig D. Guillot
It’s Dar es Salaam and I Am Not Dead — Jono Marcus
The Monster Dildo — Lisa Alpine
Disbelief of Wonder — Erik R. Trinidad
Cowboys and Indians, Thai Style — Rolf Potts
More Ketchup than Salsa — Joe Cawley
Bushwalk — Eugene Sigaloff
Crossing Borders — Laurie Gough
Losing My Cool in Calcutta — Cam Mcgrath
Beijing Fish Tales — Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Snap Happy and the Nagas — Bennett Stevens
Hungry? — Bradley Charbonneau
Life in the Oncoming Lane — Kendra Lachniet
Sleepless in Florence — Mark St. Amant
The Curse of Monolingualism — Larry Habegger
Egypt, Day One — Jim O’Donnell
Kayaking for Weenies — Juliette Kelley
King Kong in Shanghai — Jacqueline C. Yau
Ravioli, French Style — Rikke Jorgensen
A Bard in the Bush — Thomas Goltz
Underpants from Hell — Ken Vollmer
Beating the Water with an Expensive Stick — Doug Lansky
Boxcar Steve — Jennifer L. Leo
Saigon Games — Richard Sterling
By Mary Noble
What was that sound in the night?
As a new Peace Corps volunteer in a village in Mali, West Africa, I was prepared for any calamity that could come my way. I was ready for snakes, scorpions, malaria, motorcycle accidents, and countless parasitic intestinal guests. Bring it on! All of these, plus a number of other unanticipated challenges, were hurled my way in two years of living in the village of Kangaba. Yes, I was fresh out of college, and ready for my AFRICAN ADVENTURE. I liked to think of it in all caps, just like in A Prayer for Owen Meany. That way, it was sure to be significant.
About three months into my service, I had adjusted to eating millet every night (you know it more affectionately as “birdseed”); squatting over a pit toilet with the cockroaches; eating goat innards with my hands out of the community bowl with my host family; working hard in the fields all day, and not speaking English for weeks at a time. All this, I thought, would impress the folks back home and was not really such a big deal, because I felt so at home already with my friends in the village.
One night, as usual, I was reading in bed in my mud hut, under a mosquito net. I was also taking care of a dog that belonged to another volunteer while he was away from the village traveling. The dog, Che, was a medium-sized plain Black Lab type of dog. Not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, but a faithful companion, and I liked having him around. Each night, I would take my eyeglasses off (I don’t need them for reading), put them on the bedside table, grab my book, and tuck myself into the mosquito net, armed only with a fifty-cent flashlight from the local market. Ah, I was all tucked under my net like a cocoon, reading a well-worn, yellow-paged Barbara Kingsolver book that had lovingly been passed from volunteer to volunteer. I was remembering that in the height of the Malian empire, books traded for more than gold in Timbuktu, and I thought of history repeating itself among the Peace Corps diaspora. We loved books.
I suddenly became distracted by Che’s actions. He had been lying next to my bamboo bed quite contentedly. I sat up to observe him, with foggy focus because my glasses were outside the mosquito net. He was standing at attention with perky ears, body in geometrically perfect alignment, one paw raised straight. It was pointing toward an area right underneath my bottom, under the bed. Hmmmm…I thought. I guess there is another mouse, or a lizard under there. Ah, well, back to the book. I dismissed Che like an underpaid lackey.
But Che was still pointing, like an English hunting dog, and I wondered admiringly where he had learned that trick. I decided to slowly pull the straw mattress back, so I could peek under the bed frame and scare the mystery critter out. As I peered about four inches under my precious buttocks, I saw a very large, beady-eyed, not-very-friendly looking rat the size of a camel. Like me, the rat became startled, Che became consumed by instinct, and my heart hammered against my ribs at an alarming rate. After that, as they say, it was all a blur. Literally. My glasses were still outside the mosquito net on the table, and I could not see beyond the distance of a book. I was too terrified to risk putting a limb out of my cocoon. I shook my flashlight, cursing the faltering life span of the batteries. The weak golden glow emanating from the cheap plastic torch was illuminating just enough of the drama in front of me to keep me curled up fetus-tight, protecting my buttocks and other extremities, my heart pounding.
I heard pig-like squeals, wolf-like growls, baby-like cries, and Hitchcockian screams. The two producers of this cacophony made their way to the corner of my bedroom, over to my makeshift concrete-block shelves in the corner. Whoa! There went three pair of underwear and a few pairs of socks, airborne over the rat-dog cyclone below. I squinted to see more of what was going on, and I caught a blurry glimpse of a small stuffed teddy bear, dressed in a lacy smock my mother had sent me in a recent care package. How embarrassing that she did that to her twenty-three-year-old hippie daughter, I thought at the time. But now that Teddy was turning to shreds as it did acrobatics in the air above the scuffle, I became enraged at the rat for violating a symbol of love from my mom so far away. I was pissed. “Go, Che!” I cheered like a WWF wrestling fan. The screeches grew louder, undergarments still flying in the air. I was still squinting, and my hands clenched harder on the flashlight as it sputtered and ran out of juice.
Darkness. Silence. I waited, hearing my own accelerated breath. I heard Che’s paws on the concrete floor coming closer to me. Courageously reaching a hand outside the mosquito net, I retrieved my lantern and eyeglasses. I struck the match to inspect the aftermath. O.K., my Peace Corps recruiter did not tell me about nights like this. My bedroom was a disaster area! Torn-up underwear and socks, a de-stuffed, de-smocked, de-headed teddy bear, and rat blood in puddles all over the floor.
Meanwhile, Che, all of a sudden, was a proud, A+ student who had just completed his final exam of Smart Dog Academy. The limp, lifeless rat at my feet was the assessment. He looked at me, begging for praise, and hoping for some sort of treat for his efforts. “Yeah, that’s just frickin’ great,” I heard myself say out loud to him. “Good job. Now get that thing out of here! Out, out!” He was all of a sudden dunce dog again. He laid it closer to my feet and smiled a stupid smile. I think he drooled on purpose. “Arrrrrgggh!” I marched to the next room and got inventive. I returned with my rudimentary garden hoe and the dustpan. I scooped the rat up, tossed him into the dark yard for now, and returned to mop up the blood-soaked teddy-bear stuffing.
As I was cleaning the room, thinking what-an-independent-strong-adventurous-woman-I-am-and I’m-in-the-middle-of-Africa-in-the-middle-of-the-night-all-by-myself-and-I’m-just-fine-cleaning-up-rat-blood, no-problem, I-am made-for-this-kind-of-challenge, but-I’m-getting-a-little-lump-in-my-throat, Che came back inside. He was portering the limp rat, and laid it at my feet as if to say, “I don’t think you had your glasses on last time, so maybe you didn’t see what a good boy I am.” I noted the size of the rat. Big. I took a deep breath, patted his head, and tried to be sincere. “Good boy, Che.” I tossed him a hunk of stale bread, and he happily trotted to the corner. I chucked the rat outside again, and locked the door.
Somehow, I managed to clean up the room, put away some non-shredded clothes that survived the battle, have a good little homesick sniffle about the teddy bear, wash my hands about ten times, then curl back up with my book. I kept my glasses nearby this time. I slept well.
The next morning, I realized the rat did not just vaporize into rat heaven, and it was squarely in my path on the way to the cockroach-inhabited latrine. Hmmm…I went over to my host family’s hut across the dirt path from my hut for a much-needed intervention. I was surprised how much Bambara I knew, and couldn’t believe I had acquired the vocabulary to explain the night’s events satisfactorily to my host family’s comprehension. I felt quite proud for a moment. They asked me if I was O.K., had a little laugh at my expense, then sent one of the older brothers over to my yard to take care of the rat.
Now, this older brother seemed from time to time to delight in shocking the new, naïve,toubab woman. This was one of those times. As he reached down to pick up the rat, he said casually, “Lunch.”
“Lunch?” I choked out. I wanted to be sure I understood his Bambara. I eat lunch with the family every day.
He made sure to make eye contact with me, which is rare for gentle Malians. He locked onto my eyes and said essentially, “Yup, and this is the best part.” He held up the rat corpse, yanked off the testicles and held them up in his palm for me to see. I smiled back, trying as hard as ever not to show the complete horror I was sure was all over my face.
“Well, then, bon appetit,” I said, and sent him on his way.
I stood there for a minute in my hot, dusty yard in Kangaba, Mali, where I felt so strangely at home, trying to figure out what lesson, what great meaning this event could bring to my life. I was feeling very sure that something profound was happening out of all this.
But then I shrugged my shoulders and strolled over towards my hammock to take a nap before lunch. “If it’s not a good time, it’s a good story,” I told myself. That would be my mantra for the rest of the two years I lived in Mali, which were, absolutely, the most profound and magical years of my life.
Mary Noble got hooked on travel during her time living in Africa. She currently teaches at an international school in Thailand and spends summers in Alaska and Michigan. This is her first published story. If you want to send her advice about not using mixed metaphors, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sean Joseph O’Reilly, editor-at-large and director of international sales for Travelers’ Tales, is an editor of many Travelers’ Tales books, including The Road Within, Testosterone Planet, The Ultimate Journey, Pilgrimage, and The Spiritual Gifts of Travel. An active member of the Society of American Travel Writers, he is also the author of the shocking and controversial book How to Manage Your DICK: Redirect Sexual Energy and Discover Your More Enlightened, Evolved Self. He lives with his wife, Brenda, and their six children in Arizona.
Larry Habegger, executive editor of Travelers’ Tales, has been writing about travel since 1980. He has visited almost fifty countries and six of the seven continents, traveling from the frozen Arctic to equatorial rain forest, the high Himalayas to the Dead Sea. In the early 1980s he co-authored mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner with James O’Reilly, and since 1985 their syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” has appeared in newspapers in five countries and on WorldTravelWatch.com. As series editors of Travelers’ Tales, they have worked on almost seventy titles, winning many awards for excellence. Habegger regularly teaches the craft of travel writing at workshops and writers conferences, and he lives with his family on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco.
James O’Reilly, president and publisher of Travelers’ Tales, wrote mystery serials before becoming a travel writer in the early 1980s. He’s visited more than forty countries, along the way meditating with monks in Tibet, participating in West African voodoo rituals, and hanging out the laundry with nuns in Florence. He travels extensively with his wife, Wenda, and their three daughters. They live in Palo Alto, California.