“One funny-bone volume.” —Chicago Tribune
Some of the best adventure stories come from misadventures-the pratfalls, faux pas, and vast embarrassments encountered on the road. These tales share those moments when the best of plans fall to the wayside-replaced by something unforeseen, and leavened by the saving grace of it all, a sense of humor. On this hilarious journey, you will:
- Dine with Bill Bryson as he attempts to decode restaurants’ ever-bewildering food options
- Visit a pub in Ireland with Dave Barry and discover the worst Elvis impersonator in world history
- Redefine the foundation of Christianity in a French class in Paris with David Sedaris
- Overcome “Butt-Mind” on a tropical Mexican beach with Anne Lamott
- Lie to get to the airport early with Adair Lara, and still be the last one to board the plane
By Tim Cahill
Ladies and gentlemen, laugh if you will, at this sincere and earnest collection of twisted travel narratives. I mean O.K., O.K., laugh a lot if you’d like: that’s the point. But the writers here—I know many of them personally—endured the agonies of frustration, terror, boredom, and furious cultural cross currents (not to mention unmentionable toilets) all to bring us unexpected insights into the human condition, which is the writer’s highest calling. Could these fine authors help it if the small part of the human condition that flashed before them in their various torments just happened to be funnier than the time grandma sat on the fart cushion? No, they could not. But, hey, what is hilarious now, was, for the most part, anguish at the time, which is to say, most of what you read here was not so funny when it happened.
This concept—the strange unity of travel writing, the hilarity of the human condition, and fart cushions—arose out of a long running conversation I’ve had over the years with Larry Habegger, who is the big cheese editor of Travelers’ Tales. We both believe that some of the best and most perceptive travel writing is also often some of the funniest. I thought a Travelers’ Tales anthology of humorous travel articles would prove the point.
Some years later, as it happened, Larry sent me a collection of travel narratives he and other Travelers’ Tales editors had selected. They had chosen some familiar but timeless classics; they included stories by the usual culprits (Dave Barry, Anne Lamott, Bill Bryson) along with articles by writers whose work I didn’t know. All of it was funny to one degree or another. I suggested some of my personal favorites (works by Don Katz, David Sedaris, Douglas Adams, and Randy White). We banged these ideas—writers and tales—back and forth for months, discarded some worthy pieces, added a few more, and juggled the sequence. Time passed and, by God, we had put together a book.
In the editing process, I’ve had the opportunity to carefully read Not So Funny When It Happened several times. It gets more enjoyable with each pass.
Some of the pieces that originally merely brought a smile to my face will suddenly graduate to laugh-out-loud status while tales that were absolute knee-slappers on first reading begin to yield up important life lessons. Time is funny that way.
On a personal note: I have included a story of my own, but asked Larry and the editors of Travelers’ Tales to choose which one. I was a little surprised by their selection, because, in fact, I very vividly recall the experience related. It was one fraught with terror, a lot of frustration, a good deal of cultural cross currents, and of course, unmentionable toilets. It really was not so funny when it happened.
How I Killed Off My Ex-Wife
Hold On to Your Lunch
Elliot Neal Hester
Everybody’s Got Glorious Hide Next to Me and My Monkey
Benvenuto a Italia!
Mexican Mating Calls
The Dentist in Cameroon
The Crafty Cousin
Incident at San Antonio
Luis Alberto Urrea
A Train, a Frog, and Aliens
Randy Wayne White
They Tell Me You Are Big
The Transit Lounge Shuffle
Douglas Adams and Mark
The King of the Ferret-Leggers
What I Did in the Doll House
The Copenhagen T-Shirt
It’s a Man’s World
Called on the Carpet in Marrakech
Passing the Test in Silverton
Gary A. Warner
The Fox Hunt
J. P. Donleavy
The Reluctant Chef and Her Rainbow Special
The Elephant that Roared
Faroe Islands, North Atlantic
Speaking in Tongues
Show Me the Money
Welcome to Ireland
Bad Haircuts Around the World
Asia and South America
Fear of Not Flying
Close Encounters of the California Kind
Michael Lane and Jim Crotty
A Past Life
Everybody’s Got Glorious Hide Next To Me and My Monkey
An Australian is brought back to his roots.
By Jayce White
When you’re brought up in Australia, you’re completely fearless. The extraordinary fact that you’re still alive in what is assuredly the most dangerous place on the planet decorates you with a lion-hearted gallantry to rival the most valiant of mythic dragon slayers. News bulletins are emblazoned with constant reminders that Australia boasts the top ten most poisonous spiders and snakes in the world. Indeed, a typical Thursday night pub conversation would doubtless involve mention of the arachnid hit parade, and the minutiae of a red belly blacksnake’s appetite for destruction are scrutinized in football scrums and sewing circles alike. As early as primary school, you’ll learn how the cane toad could render you blind from the other side of the playground. We laugh in the face of North America’s grizzly bears. You haven’t seen grizzly till you’ve snagged a twenty-foot croc on the end of a short fishing line.
The thing is, you don’t come across a hell of a lot of amphibious reptiles through the course of day-to-day life in Sydney. You don’t see cane toads in the classroom or giant bush pigs in the pub and you don’t have to swerve to miss a massacre of cassowaries on the M5 overpass. You live in a totally irrational state of fearlessness. I live in a totally irrational state of fearlessness. At least, I did for twenty-six-odd years. It took a savagely foreign environment and a truly bizarre set of circumstances to rekindle that primal, well-adjusted, white-knuckled spinelessness we’re all born with. That environment was southern Africa. Those circumstances follow.
For my good friend Antony–having lived the first four years of his life in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia)–a return pilgrimage was well overdue. With a reputation for being a bit of a ladies’ man, he was determined to leave his indulgent lifestyle and hedonistic routine back in the airport lounge bar and not be content to merely tour the stock postcard sites. His was on a mission to explore the real Africa, the wild Africa. Mostly he went looking in nightclubs.
Antony’s cousin Michael, a professional hunter, was to be our guide for most of the trip. A true Zimbabwean through and through. A real man’s man.
Me, well, I was neither a ladies’ man nor a man’s man. More your straightforward, run-of-the-mill everyman. Just a regular guy. Joe Average. Smithers Jones. John Q. Citizen. No, I wasn’t into credit card fraud–just eking out an existence of utterly soul-destroying, spirit-crushing tedium. Blinded by light so flourescent, suffocated by air so conditioned. So when the opportunity came along to wake up and smell the coffee in a refreshingly unfamiliar surrounding, naturally I seized it with both nostrils.
I woke up in a round thatched hut at Victoria Falls, not to the smell of coffee but to the sound of baboons vandalizing round thatched huts, swinging from light poles, and bashing out industrial dance beats on garbage lids and barbecue amenities. While this is not an experience one would expect from a stay at The Hilton Vienna Plaza, it was a relatively civilized affair. A fridge and a fan by the door, table and chairs in the center, and three beds that dovetailed out to the ever-thinning walls. A steel- framed door with full-length glass panes afforded me the occasional glimpse of a passing primate. I had never felt so at peace, so at one with nature. I had the awesome wonder of creation frolicking just outside my door.
Then it happened.
A baboon the size of an adult wookiee pressed his face against the glass-hands shielding the reflected glare of sunrise. Was he looking for Jessica Lange? She wasn’t with us. I wished she was, he might have accepted her as a sacrifice and left us alone–a sacrificial Lange. But no, seconds later Chewbacca swings open the door like he owns the place and pulls up a chair at the breakfast table, just centimeters from the foot of my bed. (Now I don’t know how many baboon asses you’ve seen up close but let me just say that if the folks who ran this establishment showed any sense of social responsibility they’d have burned that chair and buried the remains at the first available opportunity.)
I froze for a moment, gradually started breathing again and tried to collect my thoughts, consider all possibilities. The side effects brought on by malaria tablets I was taking included vivid dreams, but so far these had mostly featured starring roles by one or more Spice Girls, so I was forced to resign myself to the fact that this was probably reality. When Antony stumbled home in a drunken haze an hour or so earlier he must have forgotten to lock the door behind him (against the ever so vehement advice of the groundsmen) because the awesome wonder of creation was no longer just outside. It was now inside and appeared to be dauntlessly feasting on our left over spaanspek sudsa and boerewors. Was it not enough that we should share a substantial portion of our genetic make-up with this hirsute brute? Must we also share equal measures of delicious, albeit scarcely pronounceable, traditional Zimbabwean dishes?
As always, the others were sleeping like tranquilized logs. I pulled myself together and shrieked as politely as possible, “Get out! Go away!… %*@# OFF!”
Well, apparently baboons have little or no understanding of the English language or its affiliated colloquialisms because this one didn’t so much as flinch. My emotional fervor did, however, manage to bring Antony into some sort of semi-conscious state. “Go back to sleep,” he mumbled, not noticing there was someone in the room who had failed to put his $100 Zim share into the accommodation kitty.
“But there’s an ape sitting at the table,” I whispered so as not to offend our visitor.
There was silence, aside from the devoted munching sounds and my occasional high- pitched yelp. Someone had to take some decisive action. I reached for my Walkman (I was getting sick of that Deep Forest/Enigma compilation tape anyway) and hurled it roughly in Kong’s direction. Sadly, the headphones were wrapped around a lamp, a glass of water, and a travel clock, so my projectile stopped well short of its target and an avalanche of paraphernalia came crashing to the floor.
While Michael slept on, Antony was once more distracted from his dreams. His glance turned to me, then following my line of sight, toward our guest. His heavy squint then turned to a wide eyed gape. “rrRRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAH…” He charged forward, pillow in hand, shouting and waving and swiftly chased the sorry-assed beast out of there. Then, without a word of post-match commentary, went straight back to bed, head gently resting on his implement of warfare-back into Spice World, “ZZZ…ZZZ…ZZZ…”
Michael later told us stories of how baboons have teeth like those of a lion and how they’ve been known to kill leopards. While it was some comfort to hear this, it didn’t change anything. From that day forward I was hyper-aware of the coward I really was. I developed fears of peaches, poodles, car seat covers, coconuts, brown suede shoes, and certain varieties of cheese. Basically, anything furrier than Laminex throws me into a frenzied panic attack. The collective drone of mastication in fast food restaurants sends cold shivers down my spine.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see it as a bad thing at all. In fact, it’s given me a new lease on life as I no longer take unnecessary risks. Sleeping with the door barricaded, intoning witch doctor-prescribed hexes on a daily basis, carrying tranquilizer darts at all times. All sensible precautions bestowed upon me by my newfound phobias. I’ll probably live decades longer than my pre-baboon-confrontation self could have imagined.
Yes, it was a morning I shall never forget. The tepid air, the slant of light. And Antony’s confused words, just after waking:
“Who ate all the boerewors?”
Jayce White is a writer who has most of his wildlife encounters in Australia.
Tim Cahill is the author of seven books, mostly travel related, including Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Pecked to Death by Ducks, Pass the Butterworms, and Dolphins. He describes his travel writing as “remote journeys, oddly rendered.” Reviewers have been overwhelmingly kind, though some have accused him of having a sense of humor. Cahill is also the co-author of the Academy Award nominated IMAX film, The Living Sea, as well as the films Everest and Dolphins. He lives in Montana.