Early one morning in the late 80s a penniless, sleep-deprived, filthy Ayun Halliday propped her foot up on a sink in a Munich train station restroom–“the better to wash my malodorous vagina,” she later wrote. It was a low point of an ill-starred Eurail excursion with her musician boyfriend, Nate, who’d crossed the Atlantic carrying only $200 and a briefcase full of harmonicas. Oktoberfest was in full roar, and the two “scuzzy vagabonds” had spent the previous evening in a beer garden, scavenging food from abandoned plates and trying not to think about trench mouth. Later they boarded a train carrying drunken revelers. While walking down the empty corridor Halliday slipped and fell into an immense puddle of vomit. “Could be worse,” she told herself. “Someone could’ve witnessed my disgrace.”
Halliday, a Northwestern grad and former member of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists, goes public with this and other humiliations in her new book No Touch Monkey! and Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, which recounts a decade’s worth of international misadventures animated by the author’s hunger for “authentic experience” and her interest in regional varieties of hashish. While hiking the highlands of Sumatra, Halliday was pelted with clods of earth by five-year-old highwaymen who wanted her cigarettes. On a trek through India’s Thar Desert, she was slimed with “a prodigious stream of camel snot,” then subjected to several days of motion sickness by the same mount. A case of malaria she contracted in Tanzania flattened her “like a lion-felled gazelle, erupting at both ends.”
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Halliday dates her wanderlust back to her sophomore year at Northwestern, when, having decided that “Janis Joplin, gauze clothing made in India, and incense held much more appeal than McDonald’s, The Preppy Handbook, and sorority rush,” she morphed into a committed bohemian. After graduating in ’87, she divided her time between fringe theater in Chicago and low-cost junkets to Pushkar, Ubud, Paris, etc. “It’s the same impulse that propels me under the Manhattan Bridge to root around the untouristed grocery stores and street vendors,” says Halliday, who moved to New York with husband Greg Kotis (see Days of the Week) in 1995. “The possibility that I might discover something tasty, cheap, exotically packaged, and wholly unknown. What a rush!”
Her Birkenstocked wanderings were interrupted by the birth of her daughter, India, in 1997. As new motherhood consumed Halliday’s life, Kotis began to attract notice for Urinetown, the musical he cowrote with Mark Hollmann. Seeking a creative outlet, Halliday began pouring her reflections on the joys and miseries of parenting into a handwritten, hand-drawn quarterly zine called The East Village Inky in 1998. In 2002 the Inky won a Firecracker Alternative Book Award, and Seal Press published Halliday’s first book, a collection of essays entitled The Big Rumpus: A Mother’s Tale From the Trenches, which was glowingly reviewed by Time and New York magazine.
Halliday says her publisher asked her for a sequel to The Big Rumpus, but that she felt a need to break out of the parenting section. “Some idiot has coined a new phrase, ‘a momoir,’ and it really rankled to hear it applied to me,” she says. “I think of The Big Rumpus as being in the tradition of David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, and David Rakoff, but I get shuttled to the stupid, boring section that no one in their right mind visits willingly, except the newly pregnant or the parent of someone with attention deficit disorder.”
A travel book seemed the obvious alternative, especially since she’d already published travel pieces in the anthologies A Woman Alone and The Unsavvy Traveler. For Halliday, the graphic descriptions of traveler’s maladies and feminine hygiene on the road in No Touch Monkey! are a measure of how far she’s traveled from her uptight Hoosier roots. “It’s the liberation of the me who couldn’t bear the thought of my high school boyfriend hearing me pee or knowing that I had my period,” she says. “I’ve come a long way, baby.”
Halliday will read from and sign copies of No Touch Monkey! at 7 PM Thursday, December 11, at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North. It’s free; call 773-342-0910.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.