Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman

Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven

I’m pretty certain I must have been an explorer—famous or otherwise—in a past life. Reading the globe-trotting adventures of others can entertain me for hours as I practically salivate over the descriptions of the sights, the culture, the food…you name it; hence my interest in Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven. Author Susan Jane Gilman details her story of what started as the trip of a lifetime for two recent college graduates, until something went terribly wrong.

Gilman and Claire Van Houten (name changed to protect the innocent) met as students at Brown University. While Susan was raised in a middle-class family in New York City, Claire had a more privileged upbringing. Despite their differences, the two young women became fast friends and made a pact to explore the world before settling into a more conventional existence.

Their ambitious plan was to take a year off and backpack around the world, making stops at exotic locales including Bali, India, Marrakesh and Katmandu, while also fitting in visits to more popular places like Italy and France. Hoping to leave the tourist track far behind, the two enthusiastically chose China as their premier destination.

As I read a variety of travelogues, I’m often struck by how unprepared and unseasoned the various characters are for what lies ahead. I’m pretty certain though even the savviest of travelers might have been derailed by the China awaiting Susan and Claire. The first problem—a gaping language difference—was followed closely by deplorable living conditions (as compared to American standards). Think holes for toilets, cold water showers, roach-infested rooms and food that looked like it could still be alive. Even for girls who wanted to live their cushy lives behind, the transition was too abrupt and far too extreme.

When Claire begins going off on her own cryptic missions, Susan is overcome with loneliness but doesn’t find her companion’s behavior unusual. At Brown, students were encouraged to think and act “outside of the box.” But by the time Susan does begin to worry about her friend, it might already be too late.