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No Touch Monkey!
And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late
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Ayun Halliday may not make for the most sensible travel companion, but she is certainly one of the zaniest, with a knack for inserting herself (and her unwitting cohorts) into bizarre situations around the globe. Curator of kitsch and unabashed aficionada of pop culture, Halliday offers bemused, self-deprecating narration of events from guerrilla theater in Romania to drug-induced Apocalypse Now reenactments in Vietnam to a perhaps more surreal collagen-implant demonstration at a Paris fashion show emceed by Lauren Bacall. On layover in Amsterdam, Halliday finds unlikely trouble in the red-light district — eliciting the ire of a tiny, violent madam, and is forced to explain tampons to soldiers in Kashmir — “they’re for ladies. Bleeding ladies” — that, she admits, “might have looked like white cotton bullets lined up in their box.”
A self-admittedly bumbling vacationer, Halliday shares — with razor-sharp wit and to hilarious effect — the travel stories most are too self-conscious to tell.
Includes line drawings, generously provided by the author.
Things really went to shit in the Munich train station men’s room.
Nate and I had failed to plan carefully for our first trip abroad without parental supervision. My theater degree from Northwestern University still warm, I had spent the summer in Scotland, acting in the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The experience left me feeling worldly, despite the fact that the company under whose auspices I performed was a barely disguised con, casting every starry-eyed undergraduate who auditioned back in the States, provided she could cough up airfare and the inflated rent for a short-term apartment. Ten of us lived crammed in a rundown flat with no phone and no living room. But the bedroom I shared with three others—four if you count Nate, who rarely slept in the B & B where his band was billeted—boasted a romantic view of the Edinburgh Castle, so I loved it. Nate had arrived in Scotland with two hundred dollars, a briefcase of harmonicas, and no backpack. His unpreparedness for our upcoming tour of Europe provoked feelings of anger, which I quickly squashed when he suggested that maybe, since he had no money, he should return to Chicago and let me do the trip alone. What did his reluctance signify? If the shoe had been on the other foot, I wouldn’t have let anything so dreary as underfunding come between me and Eurailing with my beloved. I was a year younger than Nate, but much more advanced in my determination to force reality to conform to the future I envisioned. “Why would you want to back out now?” I argued, conserving our resources by eating packets of unrefined sugar in lieu of dessert in a vegetarian cafeteria near the theater. “Don’t worry about your Eurail pass. I’ll buy it and you can pay me back later. We can save money by sleeping in the train stations. As long as you have a ticket, they won’t arrest you!” Alarmed by Nate’s frown, I pressed hurriedly on, “Or you know, we can work it so we only take overnight trains. That way we never have to pay for a hostel. Look!” I dug in my bag for Europe through the Back Door, a budget guidebook authored by an intrepid, bearded fellow photographed with chopsticks shoved in his nostrils. “According to this guy, Rick Steves, what you do is find an empty compartment, spread out all your stuff, and pretend to be asleep whenever another passenger comes by looking for a seat. Another thing he recommends is pretending you’re a Hare Krishna!”
Nate ran a hand through his already-thinning blond curls. “I don’t think I’d want to do that.” I stifled the impulse to choke him.
“Why not?! If it gets you a private train compartment for the night, it’s worth it. You’ll see. Instead of eating in restaurants, we’ll go to markets and buy stuff for picnics—you know, bread, olives, sardines . . .” Nate wrinkled his nose. “Or not sardines,” I blurted. “We’re under no obligation to have sardines! I only suggested them because they’re nutritious and cheap, but if you play harmonica in the town square, we’ll make enough for an entire day’s food in an hour, easy. I can buy some chalk and do sidewalk drawings for money! Come on, baby, it won’t be any fun if you don’t come.”
The only thing more painful than remembering the hack productions in which I performed that summer is reflecting on what might have happened had I not been such a naive young monogamist. Barely twenty-two, I was too inexperienced to know that the kind of shoestring travel I contemplated offers endless possibilities for memorable adventures, but only for those unburdened of penniless, fearful boyfriends. If only Nate’s father had prevailed! A successful funds manager, he co-opted the term I used so enthusiastically—“bumming around”—to express disapproval. It really frosted his ass that his son would quit his restaurant job and allow his Chicago acting career to lose momentum in order to gallivant around Europe with no forwarding address, a dozen harmonicas, and a hippy-dippy girlfriend. Maybe if Nate had gone home directly after the Edinburgh festival, he’d be famous and I’d have tales of nightclubs, abandoned seaside cottages, and ancestral villas. Oh, the motorcycle rides I’d have taken with the boy I met at the hostel/on the train/on the steps of the Trevi Fountain: the crazy northern Italian, the adorably sarcastic Welshman, the passionate Greek, the artsy Belgian, the handsome Spaniard whose doctor had given him just two months to live!
Instead, I grew fat and Nate skeletal from a diet composed largely of bread. In less than two months, we visited thirty cities in nine countries. It would have been eight, but we slept through an intended stop, awakening not in Venice, but in Vienna on a cold, rainy Sunday when all of the moneychangers were closed. I have yet to sample the mouthwatering sweets of Vienna’s fabled coffeehouses, but I did eat a sandwich made from half an avocado, the dregs of our peanut butter, and a stolen onion.
Germany started auspiciously enough. The second our train pulled in, we swung by the left-luggage room to check my big backpack and Nate’s little daypack, to which we had bungee corded a now filthy blanket liberated from my furnished Edinburgh flat. Bolstered by the fresh stamps in our passports, we allowed ourselves a sit-down meal, ostensibly to get warm after waiting nearly forty-five minutes for the Marienplatz’s clock tower to chime the hour, triggering its anticlimactic but free-of-charge carillon. I’d never been a fan of Germany’s heavy cuisine, but the monotony of our diet lent an unexpected piquancy to the splurge, further buoying my mood. I even consented to try a bite of Nate’s sausage, rationalizing that one bite didn’t make me not a vegetarian, any more than eating sardines would have. The grudge that increased every time he slunk away to squander some of our dwindling nest egg at McDonald’s evaporated. We were in this thing together! Hand in hand, we set out to discover any part of Munich that didn’t require admission fees or mandatory purchase. “Look, there’s a ferris wheel!” I cried, pointing to a festive semicircle visible above the rooftops of the business district. Navigating by its neon spokes, we found the entrance to the carnival grounds, a lettered arch framed in greenery. “Oh my god, Nate, Oktoberfest!” What wonderful blind luck to hit Munich just as its biggest and best-known festival was going into full swing!
This wasn’t the first regional holiday we’d stumbled upon, but Siena’s Palio—a bareback horse race that’s been an annual Italian tradition for centuries—did not spark imitative shindigs in the American Midwest. I’d steered clear of the annual beer blast in Chicago, but only because I feared legions of drunken Cubs fans in fraternity sweatshirts, the same guys who lurched up Clark Street on St. Patrick’s Day, vomiting green. In its place of origin, Oktoberfest seemed to have more in common with the Indiana State Fair, a Teutonic honky-tonk complete with rides, civic displays and sucker booths baited with inflatable cartoon characters and lurid, polyester teddy bears. We spent a long time admiring the façade of Geisterschlucht, where a ten-foot-tall robotic ape toadied up to a King Kong–type three times his size, who periodically interrupted to boom, “Geisterschlucht!”
“That means ‘haunted house,’ ” Nate told me excitedly, dredging up a not entirely accurate morsel of his forgotten high-school foreign-language training. Fifteen minutes flew by as we gaped, totally infatuated with the German-speaking cyber monkeys creaking in the chill autumn afternoon as they cycled through their limited repertoire of hand gestures. Our pleasure was heightened by the incongruity of jungle creatures pimping an attraction any red-blooded American can tell you has nothing to do with zoos or safaris and everything to do with witches, ghosts and, in some liberal interpretations, hockey-masked chainsaw murderers. The entry fee was nearly half the cost of an International Youth Hostel Association membership, much too high to consider. Had it been less, we would have squabbled over whether or not we could afford to go inside. I squeezed Nate’s arm, warm in the knowledge that nothing inside Geisterschlucht could equal the complimentary animatronic display outside.
Tearing ourselves away from one of the great sights in Europe, we decided to take a peek inside a beer hall. It seemed that every brewery sponsored its own building. After cruising past the possibilities, we settled on the Hofbrauhaus, a cavernous barn filled with long, sparsely occupied tables. An oompah band played on a bare stage as waitresses in dirndls ferried an astonishing amount of beer by slipping their hands through eight mug handles at once. For decoration, a papier-mâché cherub with the face of a sixty-year-old alcoholic was suspended from the rafters, swiveling his oversized head, a bleary smile on his face. “It seems silly to be here and not have a beer,” I ventured. “Find out how much they are. Maybe we could split one.”
Nate consulted with a beefy waitress and came back grinning. We could swing a mug, no problem, especially since our accommodations wouldn’t cost a dime. There was a train to Salzburg at 11 P.M. We could board the moment the train pulled into the station, log a few hours of shuteye, cross the platform in Salzburg, and slumber all the way back to Munich. The brilliance of the plan called for celebration. Timidly, we took a seat on a long bench, joining an older couple decked out in full Tyrolean regalia. The man modestly fessed up to speaking a little English. Introductions were made and our travels briefly described, but conversation dwindled almost immediately. Our tablemates hadn’t visited any of the places we’d been, nor did they seem wildly envious, the way I am, talking with someone recently returned from St. Bart’s. More importantly, they didn’t want to get in too deep with scuzzy vagabond kids, the kind of bad element they’d raised their children to avoid.
When our mug arrived, Nate and I praised its contents to the heavens, licking our lips lustily in a courteous attempt to include the non-English-speaking Frau. They nodded politely before tucking into the steaming piles of sauerkraut, potatoes and sausage the waitress placed before them. The manner in which they glared at their food made it clear that eating time was not talking time. I took small sips of our beer, trying to look not too Oliver Twist–like.
Unfortunately, our restaurant meal had produced an effect akin to culinary foreplay, and I was getting blue balls for lack of my own heavily laden plate. One glance told me Nate was experiencing the exact same thing. The husband had to have a fat wallet secreted in his lederhosen, full of crisp deutsche marks organized according to denomination. If we had been schoolmates of his kids, he’d have asked if we were hungry, ordered schnitzel for the table and brushed off our insincere offers to pay. Just because we were strangers whose appearance betrayed our hard-traveling lifestyle, he felt it wasn’t rude to fork up all those calories in front of us, not volunteering even the tiniest taste. So what if it was a commercial establishment? The muscular waitresses kept banging out of the kitchen, hauling beer mugs and more food, none of it destined for us. Behind us, a trio of wide-bottomed ladies waddled off, groaning, leaving plenty of half-eaten grub on their plates. If only propriety would allow me to pounce on their scraps like a house cat—it was criminal that perfectly edible, paid-for chow would be scraped in a rubber dishpan while two young Americans starved nearby. After a month of roughing it, sanitation barely entered the equation, but regardless, the pantsuit-wearing matrons who had forfeited their membership in the clean plate club were dead ringers for my grandmother’s sisters, Ina, Ruth, and Edith. The odds of contracting trench mouth from their leftovers seemed pretty low.
Fortunately, before I could make a move, the band struck up a prototypical German drinking song, and our tablemates, obeying some national impulse, linked elbows with us to sway for the duration of the number. This segued into the “Chicken Dance,” in which the husband dutifully instructed us, correcting us when we wiggled our tail feathers instead of flapping our wings. Apparently, the bandleader, a cutup in knee socks, Alpine hat, and wraparound New Wave shades, was the only one allowed to play fast and loose with Oktoberfest tradition. The moment this awkward exercise ended, I encouraged Nate to chug his half of our beer so we could flee before I disgraced us by snitching a roll from the unbussed plate behind me.
We attempted to walk around Munich, but I couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion that only squares wander around in near-freezing temperatures, pretending to admire the half-timbered architecture when the rest of their generation is whooping it up just a few short blocks away. Watching some Guatemalan street musicians, I hatched a brief fantasy in which they invited us back to their snug flat, ladled spicy bean soup into hand-thrown crocks, and insisted we spend several nights sleeping on a pullout sofa under colorful woolen blankets they’d brought from home. I angled for an in, but nothing I could say would coerce Nate to pull out a harmonica and join them. “It’s not the right kind of music,” he scowled. “Besides, I’m too cold to play. Aren’t you freezing?” He cast a critical eye at the closest thing I had to cold-weather gear, a flea-bitten green sweater I had picked up in a Scottish thrift store. It had been knit with someone much taller in mind. When it was new—to me, anyway—it was vaguely flattering in a Little Rascals, sleeves-over-the-hands sort of way, but now it was unraveling, and the chewing gum I had inadvertently slept on in Charing Cross Station had turned black and hard. I jumped up and down irritably as a cold wind entered via my frayed elbows. “What do you want to do?” Nate demanded.
“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”
“We could just bag the whole thing and push on toward Belgium or something.”
“I thought we were going to Dachau in the morning!”
“If you want to.”
“Yes, I do, since you asked. My friend Lisa Beadles said it was very moving, although she was only there for like a half-hour or something before a bee stung her on the eyelid and she had an allergic reaction and some other travelers took it upon themselves to take her to the hospital, which is a good thing, since her throat started swelling shut. The whole reason I wanted to come to Munich was to go to Dachau. You can get there on the subway.”
“Okay, we’ll go to Dachau. No need to bite my head off.”
“I didn’t bite your head off—I’m just cold! And I don’t want to go hang around the train station for five hours, waiting for the train to Salzburg to roll in.”
“So, what do you want to do?”
“I guess I wouldn’t mind going back to Oktoberfest so I could get a picture of Geisterschluct.”
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves back in the Hofbrauhaus, now packed with young people, waving cigarettes and hubcap-sized pretzels as they shouted over the oompah band. Recklessly, we ordered two beers and squeezed in opposite some pleasant Irish guys, next to some gussied-up local girls who didn’t seem particularly thrilled to have us horning in on their territory. In short order, our shared mother tongue sent the girls off in search of other quarry. Our conversation veered from the early Rolling Stones to the playwright Brendan Behan to the atrocities of the Nazi regime. “I’ll be fucked,” Jim declared. “Sure I wouldn’t of figured they’d know the name of Brendan Behan back where you come from.”
“Our school did a production of Borstal Boy,” I told him. “A friend of ours played the transvestite.”
“Did you hear that, Pete? They know fuckin’ Brendan Behan!”
“There’s a great bar near where I lived,” Nate intimated. “O’Rourke’s. They’ve got these giant blown-up photographs of Brendan Behan, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett . . .”
“O’Rourke’s, Jesus,” Jim laughed, pretending to reel off of his bench. “Who’d’ve thunk it?”
Our new friends flagged down a waitress to order four beers and Wiener schnitzel all around. The food came out of the kitchen ungarnished, meat cakes the same shade as Pepto-Bismol. I could tell from Nate’s expression that he’d been expecting links, too. Oh well, down the hatch! It was delicious in a livery, Braunsch-weigery, goes-good-with-beer-and-didn’t-cost-me-a-dime sort of way. I polished mine off and started on Nate’s. “Ayun’s a vegetarian, as you can see,” he remarked dryly.
“So, is it mostly meat the people eat where you come from, then?” Jim inquired.
“It’s mostly McNuggets,” I said, making a face. “The national cuisine. Nate loves it, but I think it’s disgusting. People call it Mickey D’s.”
“Mickey D’s,” Nate crowed.
“All right, here’s something I’d like to be knowing,” Jim said. “What’s in a goulash, anyway?”
“Goulash?” I asked, blinking.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” Pete snickered. “The truth is we know fuck-all about your country.”
“What’s there to know?” Nate shrugged. “Mickey Mouse. New York. MTV.”
The Irishmen roared in disbelief. “Mother of God, you’re a Yank?” Jim cried.
“Where the fuck did you think we were from?”
“Her too?” Pete asked, jerking a thumb at me.
“Of course, isn’t it obvious?”
“We thought you were starving Hungarians,” Jim howled. “Because of the looks of you, see. No offense, but I’d never heard tell of an American as dirty as the two of you. And that big hairy sweater and your long hair and the little wire specs. Are you sure you’re American?” Flushed with the pleasure of being mistaken for a European, I had to fight the impulse to tear off my shoes to display the blackened, cracked soles of my feet. I was dying to tell them I hadn’t shaved my pits in years.
“I wondered why you complimented us on our English,” Nate said.
For the next few hours, Peter and Jim plied us with one mug after another, refusing to let us reciprocate, telling us that, for all they knew, we had spent the last decade behind the Berlin Wall. I lost count of how many beers I had drunk, as I staggered happily back and forth from our table to the ladies’ room. The later it grew, the less I wanted to travel all the way to Salzburg and back just to get some sleep. If only one of the guys would offer us the keys to their rental car so we could crash in the parking lot of their motel. I didn’t want to come right out and suggest it, afraid they might think I was fishing for an invitation to spend the night on their floor. The car would have done fine, but neither Peter nor Jim took the hint. Maybe our shoddy hygiene made us look untrustworthy as well as Hungarian. Getting us totally blitzed was no assurance that we’d refrain from stealing their ride. Before I knew it, we were exchanging open invitations to spend a few weeks in Chicago and Dublin, me forgetting that I had given up the apartment that went with the phone number I scrawled on the flap of Jim’s cigarette box.
We made it to the station with minutes to spare, just a few steps behind several hundred crocked Austrians hoping to make it home to Salzburg before their hangovers hit. The left-luggage room was closed for the night. No matter, we’d be back in a few hours anyway. “Shit, it’s packed,” Nate groused as we boarded the train. We walked through several cars, sliding open the metal doors to every unreserved compartment. They were all stuffed to capacity with sloppy, singing drunks. Finally, we came upon a trio of girls who had claimed an entire compartment for themselves à la Rick Steves, their backpacks and sweaters fanned across the unoccupied seats. “Pardon,” I gurgled with a crisp French intonation. The girls gave no indication that they had heard, though their eyes were squinched shut with more energy than a genuine sleeper would expend. I begged their pardon a little louder. The one nearest me produced a seven-part sigh, fluttered her eyelids and curled into fetal position. What an actress! Shrugging impotently, I turned to Nate.
“This is bullshit,” he said, shoving past me into the compartment. “Excuse me, can you move your legs please? We need a place to sit down.” The girls flicked open their eyes to glare. “Do I need to get a conductor? The train’s full, so deal with it. You want to give us some room here?”
Muttering darkly, they consolidated their belongings, their hiking boots thudding accusingly as they swung their feet down from the seats. Trying to take up as little space as possible, I meekly thanked the girl opposite. She flared her nostrils in reply. The one next to her dropped her head onto her friend’s shoulder, a petulant frown on her kewpie-cute face. I was glad when a few minutes later they had to move the rest of their stuff to accommodate a gangly Brazilian, even though my own legroom was severely impinged by his gargantuan backpack, which sat between us like a coffee table. The train chugged out of the station, sending the revelers still partying with hip flasks and open containers sprawling against the outer walls of our joyless compartment. Someone kept farting silently. The world spun when I closed my eyes.
I was awakened some time later by the mournful blast of the train whistle, a sound I never grew sick of, even when the only air available was poisoned with hostile strangers’ breath. I’m not saying I didn’t contribute to the oppressive atmosphere. Flatulent rodents nested in my mouth. I cursed myself for failing to pull our toothbrushes from our bags when we checked them at left-luggage. The sinks in the tiny toilet cabinets claimed l’eau non-potable, but this was an emergency situation. If I couldn’t brush, at least I could swish and spit. Still lurching a bit from the Oktoberfestivities, I fumbled toward the door of the compartment, treading on several unidentified insteps in the process. The corridor was bright but eerily quiet. Bracing my hands against the walls on either side, I started toward the WC, keeping my eyes fixed on a point in the distance, a tip my mother had taught me years ago, when I used to get nauseated from riding in our station wagon. Suddenly, my feet hydroplaned out from under me as I stepped in a generous puddle of someone else’s vomit. “Could be worse,” I told myself as I took a moment to recover on hands and knees. Somebody could’ve witnessed my disgrace. I could’ve broken my arm in the fall.
Have you ever been to Salzburg? If it’s anything like its train station at four in the morning, I’d say give it a miss.
By the time we got back to Munich, I was a mess. Every time I thought back to the night before, an involuntary abdominal contraction threatened to push a tidal wave of bodily fluids out of every orifice, including my eye sockets. The station was alive with commuters, fortifying themselves against the Monday morning frost with pastry and coffee. “You want some breakfast?” Nate croaked.
I shook my head miserably. “I just want to go to Dachau.” I pulled my sweater tight against my cramping guts, hoping to truss them back toward solidity. “But first I’ve got to spend some time in the bathroom.”
“Poor baby,” Nate crooned. “You should clean up. You’ll feel better.” I nodded, desperate to believe that soap could erase the previous night’s excesses. We waited for the left-luggage room to reopen and then repaired to the main entrance to divvy up our communal toiletries. “Here,” he said, squeezing some Pepsodent onto his toothbrush, “you take the tube.” While he poured shampoo into my rarely used camping mug, I divided a packet of shower gel I’d taken from the cheap hotel room we’d splurged on in Paris. “Okay, I’ll meet you back here in a little while.” He strode toward the men’s room, while I crossed the terminal in search of the ladies’.
A hulking attendant stationed at a card table near the entrance saw my toiletries and waved me toward a doublewide stall with a real door. It cost nearly a dollar to enter, but seated on the clean toilet, my head on my knees, I felt I was getting my money’s worth. Every time I thought it was safe to stand, I realized I was mistaken. Staring woozily at the black crescents below my nails, I swore I would never drink again. Had I made a fool of myself in front of Peter and Jim? I had trouble recalling the last hour of our acquaintance, let alone how we made it to the train station. Oh, if only I could spend the whole day in my little rental bathroom. It was cold, but clean, cleaner than it would have been in one of the sunny Mediterranean countries. Maybe I could curl up on the floor the way I would at home. Groaning, I nuzzled the toothpaste tube like a teddy bear.
Eventually, I struggled to my feet, slowly stripped off every stitch above the ankles and wedged my head beneath the taps of my private sink, attempting to wash the cigarette funk out of more than a foot of hair. The water was tepid at best, and when I straightened up, rivulets from my tangled locks raced for my socks, raising goose pimples in their tracks. Shit, Nate had the towel. Moving very slowly, I crouched alongside my pack, hunting for something that could double as a washrag. A crinkly gauze skirt seemed like the best bet. It hadn’t been washed since Florence, but at least it would dry quickly.
I was glad the only mirror in the stall was a small square mounted at face level. I knew I was not a pretty sight, gingerly swabbing my flabby, sour-smelling body with a sopping hippie skirt. Through the thin walls, I could hear other American backpackers, chattering brightly as they tried to decide what outfits to change into.
“Oh my god, that is so cute! Did you get that here?”
“No, the Gap.”
“You are kidding me!”
- "Halliday's irreverent, sarcastic and occasionally scatological style will remind you of a phone conversation with your best friend."—New York Magazine
- "I laughed hard on nearly every page of this shockingly intimate travel memoir and deeply funny book. Ayun Halliday lives an interesting life, and it's the good luck of us less daring types that she writes it so well."—Stephen Colbert
- "A fearless traveler with a great sense of humor, Halliday recounts her experiences with gleeful zest..."—Chicago Sun-Times
- "No Touch Monkey provides plenty of vicarious adventure for readers who prefer domestic beach hotels to malarial diarrhea and flip-flop-stealing primates."—Bust magazine
- "From her dog-eared journal, Ayun Halliday extracted the funniest scenarios and created this self-effacing rant on the humiliations of shoestring travel...Prepare to laugh out loud while commiserating with her new challenges."—Toronto Globe & Mail
- On Sale
- Aug 25, 2015
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Seal Press