A self-admittedly bumbling tourist, Ayun Halliday shared the travel stories most are too self-conscious to tell in her best-selling travel memoir No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late (Seal Press), which was first published in 2003. As the updated edition is published this month, Halliday reflects—with her characteristic humor and razor-sharp wit—on the ways travel has changed over the last decade in a new foreword.
I wrote this book so long ago that the effects of traveling through Africa and Asia without sunscreen had yet to manifest on my face or in the public consciousness. Even more shocking, the Internet hadn’t been invented yet. That meant no email or social media. No Facetime, travel blogs, couch surfing, or internet cafés. The guest houses I stayed in didn’t have websites; nor were there discussion boards where expats and recently returned travelers could share their experiences, good and bad.
With the internet as yet uninvented, I couldn’t very well double-check the accuracy of whatever information I managed to come by, whether in advance or on the road. Most of it proved dated. Calling ahead was no solution when you consider pre-millennial, pre-cellphone international rates. Once in a country, phones meant long waits in lurid international call centers and massive cock-ups involving the American ambassador’s wife . . . (More about that escapade when we get to Singapore, dear reader.)Unchain yourself from the grid. Stop Instagramming your damn banana pancakes and checking Twitter. Kick it old school.Simply put, inconvenience was built in to the low-budget traveler’s philosophy. It became our creed, the source of a thousand jokes in the second-class carriage.
Our mothers counted themselves lucky if they received a postcard every other week. It was confirmation that we were alive . . . or had been when we mailed the card. (“Dear Mom, I’ve got malaria, but my tent mate’s an Australian nurse. She made me take Fansidar. No worries. According to her, the American medical authorities are overly cautious about blindness and kidney failure . . .”)
I remember the thrill of pawing through the poste restante boxes in a sleepy post office guarded by an old man with a musket. Even then it was a charmingly antiquated system. It made me feel like something out of a W. Somerset Maugham story. After sorting through the Hs, I’d check the As, then flip through the entire alphabet, admiring the handwriting and stamps, imagining how happy the recipients would be when they rolled into town—if they rolled into town. Our itineraries rarely stayed the imagined course. Shortly after I’d touched down after one extended trip, a friend presented me a yellowing Sunday Tribune the Lao People’s Democratic Republic had returned to her after I’d failed to pick it up within the allotted year. Now that’s what I call a functional postal service!
As to postcards, I can’t imagine the tourist industry phasing them out any time soon. How they’ll reach American destinations once our post office does a dodo . . . well, the future’s always uncertain to a degree.
I’d far rather write a postcard, then take it to the post office to be franked in front of me (thus thwarting the nefarious insider who’d peel and resell the stamps) than gawp at the screen of an international SIM-card-equipped iPhone, waiting for my loved ones to reply to an electronic message sent a few seconds earlier.
Not that I didn’t do my share of zombified staring at screens, pretty much every time I rolled onto Khaosan Road, a cafe-lined Bangkok strip luring bush-fried backpackers with complimentary showings of Rambo III. I regarded it as a lotus eating hellhole on my first visit, but the longer I stayed out, the more the place grew on me. Its ridiculous action movies, delicious fries, and abundant pirate goods offered temporary respite that energized us to keep pursuing the bigger escape. Thought who could have predicted that that tawdry scene would also come to feel a bit Maugham-y? The jewels that comprised its booming black-market—bootleg cassettes, tattered English-language paperbacks, extremely-fake-looking fake IDs—have become obsolete to the point of romance.
I know there are parents out there, the same age that I am now, going crazy because their young traveler inexplicably failed to keep their daily Skype date, but I encourage that kid to keep pulling the plug. Unchain yourself from the grid. Stop Instagramming your damn banana pancakes and checking Twitter. Kick it old school. Sit around the guesthouse breakfast table for hours, trading graphic descriptions of your intestinal workings with the people you met last night. Pay attention. It’s either the beginning of a beautiful friendship, or you’ll never see them again. Either way, everybody wins.
This book is a record of what it was like to be young, foolish, curious, unfettered, stupid, hungry, untethered, amazed—and offline.
New York City, 2015