The Austin Chronicle


Reviewed by Marion Winik, November 21, 2003, Books

No Touch Monkey and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late

By Ayun Halliday

Seal Press, 288 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Traveling to exotic places with very little money presents many, many pitfalls, and author Ayun Halliday has encountered every one of them. Fortunately, she never leaves home without her solid gold sense of humor. Halliday is the polar opposite of the gloomy, anxious road companion who makes a missed rail connection or closed museum into a day-wrecking disaster. For her, no injury or misunderstanding, no bad drug trip or vile toilet facility, no nauseating camel ride or attack by crazed prostitutes is too unpleasant. Her collection of travel stories is not just a sweet read, but an object lesson in what to do when, as they say, "shit happens." The answer: Enjoy it. If you can't enjoy it at the time, look forward to what a great story it will make.

Halliday's knee went out while she was stalking apocryphal flying dogs in Sumatra, and therefore she spent her whole visit to Bukittinggi in bed. As her boyfriend set off to explore the fascinating matrilineal culture of the village, she was stuck in the guest house reading Somerset Maugham, fending off the weird ointment and vigorous knee massage suggested by her Indonesian host, and trying heroically to get to the outhouse. Meanwhile, kids from the neighborhood watched her entire ordeal through the window beside her bed as if it were a reality TV show.

Later, in Saigon, she and her companion decided to buy some weed. "Smoking pot is a good vacation activity for me," she explains, "as it amplifies my natural inclination to lie on my side, eating." Unfortunately, the stuff they wind up with this time is so powerful they can barely unlock the door to their room. "Within seconds, we were pinned to separate twin beds and the curtains were speaking to me. Steerumphed, they taunted in a maddening singsong. Don't be steerumphed." But by the next day, she's back in the saddle, and actually tries to convince her friend not to flush the rest of the stash down the toilet. That's my kind of girl.

It's not just Halliday's psychotic experiences, diarrhea, and malaria that make the book such a treat; it's her ironic way with a sentence. After signing up for a group tour of Tanzania, Rwanda, and Kenya, she is faced with the problem of which of her unappetizing tourmates to pitch a tent with. "Deborah seemed like she could get the job done. Elsie did, too, but she was so formal. I wanted to share my tent with a booty-shaking funmaker. Experience had not yet taught me that the booty-shaking funmakers are inevitably Australian."

By the end of No Touch Monkey, experience has taught her this and much more. In the final chapter, we learn that she and her favorite travel companion have had a baby and have taken said nursing infant along when invited to attend an avant-garde theatre workshop in Scotland. This circumstance tests her good spirits far more critically than the public restrooms of Munich or the rip-off artists of Kashmir. Which might be why travel books are considered literature, while parenting is strictly self-help.

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