Celebrity perks usually amount to a few comped bottles of champagne or courtside tickets. A British railway once set aside 35 miles of mountain track in the Himalayas for Mark Twain to use as a private roller coaster ride. Six-seater car, a handbrake and a long way down if the car jumped the edge. (He expected it would.) He shared that opinion with his wife and daughter just as they boarded.
In 1895/1896, in a mostly forgotten trip, Mark Twain traveled around the world, performing 90 minutes of stand-up in 71 different cities, across the United States and the fading British Empire, in Australia, New Zealand, India, Southern Africa. He spent almost 100 days at sea and 50 days sick in bed.
This most American of authors rode an elephant in India, at a palace owned by one of the ten wealthiest men in the world, the “Gaikwar of Baroda.” (Twain loved the exotic names: the “Nizam of Hyderabad,” the “Nawab of Mysore.”) “I took a ride; but it was by request—I did not ask for it, and didn’t want it; but I took it, because otherwise they would have thought I was afraid, which I was.” The elephant’s gold ankle hoops and jewel-encrusted howdah were worth more than Twain’s entire savings at the time, which then amounted to nothing; the author of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer was traveling around the world to pay off huge debts from failed business ventures.
His travel notes pack many surprises. Mark Twain adored cruise ships. America’s grumpiest author, the wittiest complainer, could not wait to board a luxury steamer and play cards and shuffleboard, to star-gaze, wave-watch, smoke, eavesdrop, and read. (He judged any ship’s library to be a fine one if it had no Jane Austen novels, even if it had no books at all.)
He liked the floating oasis of shipboard isolation: no telegraph, no telephone, no newspapers, no mail, and no creditors. He spent pages trying to capture a silky sunset playing out on the undulating mountains of Oahu. “You want to stroke them as you would a cat’s back.” He saw a school of follow-the-leader dolphins swim at night that in their spirals resembled a 30-foot sea serpent. He compared flying fish to flying silver fruit knives.
But Twain was Twain, and battles loomed. On his voyage from Victoria, B.C. to Sydney, New South Wales, he feuded with the ship’s captain, who didn’t joke or curse or make puns. Worst of all, the man enforced the “No Smoking” rules, prohibiting all indoor smoking except in one designated room. Twain was furious. (The author had brought aboard 500 cigars and 4 lbs of pipe tobacco for a 25-day cruise. You do the math; that’s 20 cigars a day.) What if it rained? what if the decks were slippery?
He was even more furious when he noticed that a little pug-nosed dog, coddled by the crew, had the freedom “to empty his inexhaustible bowels” all over the ship. Twain button-holed the captain and surgeon and said until the dog was forced to obey ship’s rules, he wouldn’t either. So, Twain smoked in his state-room and fantasized about imprisoning the pampered mutt in the “butcher’s keep.”
On another cruise, his shipboard notebooks reveal an almost bizarre range of interests: religious preferences in ant colonies, worst public floggings, the anonymity of executioners, the insecurities of God. Twain deemed it pathetic that “God” in all major religions demands constant praise. “We make fun of poor little vain girls who fish for compliments.”
The Twain/Clemens family, even though they were traveling to pay off debts, chose luxury accommodations wherever possible, such as the Menzies Hotel in Melbourne and Coker’s Hotel in Christchurch, N.Z.. (Performers in that era paid their own expenses.) However, in Palmerston, New Zealand, their only choice was a shabby inn. Surly servants and paper-thin walls led Twain to a near-sleepless night. He wrote in his notebook: “Early in the morning a baby began—pleasantly—didn’t mind baby—then the piano… played by either the cat or a partially untrained artist—certainly the most extraordinary music—straight average of 3 right notes to 4 wrong ones, but played with eager zeal & gladness—old old tunes of 40 years ago… & considering it was the cat—for it must have been the cat—it was really a marvelous performance. It convinced me that a cat is more intelligent than people believe.”
Twain found performing his stand-up act so grueling that he had little time or energy for sight-seeing, that is, until he reached India. Unexpectedly, against all odds, the 60 year old from Hannibal adored India, couldn’t stop filling his notebooks with his delight.
He found himself seduced by the chaos, the nudity, the garish wealth, the sacred cows, the frisky monkeys, the ashes-dusted holy fakirs, the Taj Mahal.
Years later, he would call India “the only foreign land I ever daydream about or deeply long to see again.” That’s high praise from the man whose career was launched by taking extended trips to the Pacific islands, Europe, and the Holy Land (Innocents Abroad, A Tramp Abroad). Twain spent two-and-a-half months in India. He was hooked from his first minutes in his Bombay hotel, Watson’s Esplanade, seeing the arched corridors full of men in fezzes and turbans. He looked out his window and saw snake charmers and jugglers. His 21-year-old daughter Clara wrote, “We were never free from the impression of living in a fantastic dream.”
Twain was so mesmerized during his stay that this impatient man judged it unreasonable even to complain about long waits at train stations. “You have the monster crowd of bejeweled natives, the stir, the bustle, the confusion.” He watched human tides carrying enormous bundles collide as they tried to squeeze through narrow entranceways. When the train at Mogul Serai arrived, he wrote, “The two-hour wait was over too soon.”
Twain caught the tail end of India’s largest religious festival, the Megh Mela, at Allahabad that often attracts two million pilgrims. He sought out the “man who hasn’t sat down for years, another who has held his hands above his head for years & never trims his nails or hair—both very long—& another who sits with his bare feet resting upon a lot of very sharp spikes—all for the glory of God.”
Twain found the Hindu religion intriguing and often challenging. He took a boat down the Ganges at the holiest city of Benares [modern Varanasi] and saw hundreds of pilgrims bathing near the funeral ghats where corpses were cremated. He worried about the bather’s health and hygiene, but did not for a moment doubt their sincerity. He almost seemed to envy it compared to “cold whites.” As a man-in-deep-debt travelling, he certainly envied the nearby loin-clothed priests selling holy fire, holy oil, holy kindling, even holy haircuts. And he marveled at (and seemed irked by) the pilgrim women’s ability to spin out of a wet sari and into a dry one “without exposing too much bronze.”
To get a better view of Benares, Twain climbed the spiral staircase of one of the two slender 142-foot tall/8-foot wide minarets (“fairy candles”) at the Aurangzeb mosque. He stared out and noticed one daredevil gray monkey that was leaping great distances along the rooftops. “He came within an ace of losing his life a dozen times, and I was so troubled about him that I would have shot him if I had had anything to do it with.”
Twain in India repeatedly found himself forced to confront his opinions of another person’s religion. He decided that one obviously couldn’t be expected to believe another man’s beliefs but one should respect their right to have them. He also decided that it was wrong for missionaries to try to impose their religious beliefs on others.
He had heard that various Christian missionaries had achieved little success converting Hindus but that they had scored some breakthroughs with … monkeys. He wrote in his notebook, “In 2 years, at a cost of $60,000, 4 [monkeys] converted & 11 hopefully interested.”
Twain witnessed a Parsee funeral at the Towers of Silence where vultures swoop down and devour the corpse. He attended a wedding of a pair of 12-year olds (“a little elderly as brides and grooms go”) who would be married in a week if still “alive” after the pre-event festivities.
The highlight of India for him, however, was that ultimate celebrity perk up in the Himalayas. In mid-February 1896, he and wife and daughter took a train to the hill station of Darjeeling, elevation 7,000 ft., not too far from Mount Everest. A decade or so earlier, it had taken travelers four days in a bullock cart to ascend the old Hill Cart Road; now Twain did it in seven hours, thanks to the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, an engineering marvel built to serve the thriving tea plantations. The railroad was carved on such steep hillsides that it required 500 support bridges, many at cliff’s edge, and four reverse zigzags and four horizontal doubleback-through-tunnel loops.
Twain admired the safety system the British had devised to protect their celebrity guest during his upcoming descent, as the track sometimes was washed out or an unseen pebble could de-rail a train. The company would send another handcar ahead with its best engineer. “The plan was that when we should see his car jump over a precipice we must put on our brake and send for another pilot,” Twain wrote. “It was a good arrangement.”
The Twain/Clemens family rode down in an open handcar, the “size of a sleigh … so low it seemed to rest on the ground.” They descended and swerved and zoomed. “We started in rugs and furs and stripped as we came down, as the weather gradually changed from eternal snow to perpetual hellfire.” He called it the best day of the entire yearlong trip.
Mark Twain finished circling the globe and in a couple more years paid off his debts and came home a hero in 1900. Editorial writers heralded him as a symbol of American hard work and honesty. Book sales revived. His lecture agent, Carlyle Smythe, who had accompanied him for nine months, described the author as a man “who has been seduced from the paths of high seriousness by a fatal sense of the ridiculous.” Twain’s favorite keepsake from the trip? A stuffed platypus.
Richard Zacks is the author of Chasing The Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round the World Comedy Tour published by Doubleday. Find him at chasingthelastlaugh.com.