Long ago, I used to fall asleep to my mother's bedtime stories of Africa. I would climb under the blankets, hold tight to a pillow and beg her to tell me once again of Fifi, her family dog, who often wandered down to the Mkuzzi river and was one day eaten by crocodiles. Or how she used to march through the coffee fields, beating pots and pans to keep the swarming locusts from landing and eating the crop. My mother spent her childhood high in the Uzambara mountains, in present-day Tanzania, where my German grandparents had run a farm and sisal plantation for over thirty years. She didn't have to wear shoes until she was twelve. Her stories wove themselves inextricably into my childhood dream-wanderings and lent wings to my daytime fantasies, until the breadfruit trees and bougainvillea of her family farm seemed more real to me than the oaks and potted planters in our suburban backyard.
When I was twelve I discovered National Geographic. I spent entire nights under the covers, mouthing over and over the lyrical place-names that sounded like the beating of exotic drums. Bujumbura. There wasn't a photo that didn't seem to be missing that crucial element - me; smoking a pipe with an old man in the Brazilian jungle, roaming the African plains with my hand resting casually on the thick mane of a lion, or high up in the rigging of an Arab Dhow. At seventeen, I surreptitiously applied to the Peace Corps. They said no, my parents said no, and I went to college.
It was Williams, small and private and nestled in the lovely Berkshires. After a semester of anxiety-ridden phone calls home I caved in to the need to be marketable and majored in economics, a subject made only marginally more palatable by substituting an inordinate number of courses with a Africa or Asia in their titles. On the side, I took classes in everything else - from philosophy to physics, calculus to Coleridge. That I would someday have to make use of my economics degree never occurred to me.
Toward the end of my second year, while my brother was busy interviewing for a prestigious corporate internship, I decided to backpack across Europe. To my surprise, my mother, explorer extraordinaire, fearless adventurer, suddenly turned back into a Parent. "It's too dangerous," she said. After several months of wrangling, we agreed that I should find a traveling companion. I asked my boyfriend. "Well," he said after three microseconds of thought, "It would be nice to have done Europe but I don't really want to go there." The relationship ended and I left for England, alone.
"I'll get my revenge," my mother told me, "when your teenage daughter decides to do something just like this."
It was a minor miracle that carried me from London to Macedonia without tragedy. I floated through Europe with the wide-eyed innocence of a ten-year-old. In Yugoslavia I stumbled off a twelve-hour bus ride and found myself in the isolated park of Zablak. There was no guesthouse and darkness was falling. A young man, a fellow passenger, approached me and used hand-signals to invite me to his house. He cut an imposing figure - six feet tall, with broad shoulders and strong arms - but seemed shy and eager to please. He had not harassed me on the bus, as the soldiers often did, and made it clear that a mother and sister awaited him at home. It never even occurred to me to say no.
Two hours later I was still following him up a goat path far from any sign of human habitation. I could see nothing but the burly outline of his shoulders in the moonlight. Sanity dawned; I was an idiot. Before I had time to gather my courage and melt into the darkness we crested a hill and ran smack into a tiny woman with the broad, stocky body of a tree stump. She screamed, threw up her arms, grabbed all six feet of my young man and swung him in a complete circle before setting him down again. It was his mother. Over the next two weeks, while I learned how to knead ten-pound slabs of dough and gather wild blueberries from the mountainside, his family came to mean more to me than all the half-remembered monuments and tourist traps from Italy to England. A country, I realized, is the sum of its people. To see it I had to learn the language and share their lives. And so, when college was over, I joined the Peace Corps.
This time I was twenty-one and ready, or so I thought. Starry-eyed and brimming over with idealism, I rolled up my sleeves and strode forth to better the world. I tackled Filipino society with explosive energy firmly grounded in the belief that I knew what was best for everyone concerned. My village would be a model for the entire Philippine Archipelago, if not for the entire world. I moved into a squatters' village and immediately began to plan - those areas near the palm trees should be fenced off for gardens, a school could be built near the village square and for God's sake, would somebody tie up those pigs before they start rooting around in the latrines?
If one learns through failure then I acquired the wisdom of the ancients during those two long years. Landcrabs snipped off the tops of all my tomato seedlings. My wells dried up. My rice co-operative grew exponentially, then failed even more spectacularly. My clams drowned. I cultivated all the wrong people, and unwittingly ignored the true leaders. I fell into a depression, and recovered only when my mother arrived for a visit.
We traveled to the site of another Volunteer, a young woman who lived in a tribal minority hamlet high up in the mountains. The night before our departure we both ate some bad fish, and the next morning Mom seemed hesitant to join me on the roof of the bus. "What if I need to use the loo?" she asked.
"I'll knock on the roof and the driver'll stop and wait for you," I assured her.
An hour later we were speeding past miles of newly planted paddy field, the three-inch shoots poking through beds of brownish mud. My mother pointed out, with remarkable restraint, that there wasn't a tree in sight, nor any other monument to modesty. I offered to ask an old woman to go with her and spread her skirts to ward off voyeuristic roadside eyes. As I watched them troop off I realized with startling suddenness that Mum was no longer the expert in all things exotic. Somewhere along the way we had become partners in the adventure of life.
Eventually she boarded the plane for home and I returned to my site, recharged and ready to get back to work, convinced that if only I tried harder then I couldn't help but succeed. My village responded with the elasticity of a rubber band, giving way initially but gradually building resistance until my own energy defeated me and the people were allowed to return to what they had always been. along the way they helped start me down the path to a completely different type of learning - about myself - in a new paradigm where nothing is absolute and there are few rights and wrongs, only ways of being.
When it was my turn to board a plane for home I knew beyond the shadow of a doubt that I no longer wanted to be a part of the civilizing machine. I wanted something... else. I donned stockings and became a management consultant.
My salary went up four thousand percent. I put aside the two obscure Eastern tongues that I had learned to perfection and were now of no earthly use to me. I acquired an expense account and joined a gym, where I paid the equivalent of my entire Peace Corps allowance to be allowed to sit on a bicycle and pedal endlessly, going nowhere. Two years later I went to the doctor for a mysterious pain in my fingers and was told that if I continued with the long hours and computer-intensive work of my corporate job, I would lose the use of both my hands. I had chronic carpal tunnel syndrome and flexor synovitis. The eventual surgery took over a year, and left me questioning the endless treadmill of the Wall-street world, with its inflated salaries, empty lives and inevitable ulcers.
But if not that, then what? I had tried the corporate route, and every time I looked at the scars on my hands I knew that I couldn't pay its price. Moreover, although my salary had skyrocketed these last few years, my standard of living had not, and I now had enough savings to keep me for several years, if I stayed true to my old Peace Corps lifestyle.
On the other hand, this was the time when I should be consolidating my career, acquiring seniority, paying my dues; that was the path I had been raised to follow. But I had also been raised on my mother's stories, and they had cast a spell on me that wouldn't let go. To her tales I had added my own, and it was no longer Africa that haunted my dreams - it was Asia. The land of bright paper dragons and orange-robed monks, of emerald rice fields and mud-brown buffalo. I could go back...
Most everyone disagreed. My father, who had watched my erratic career moves with a bewilderment firmly rooted in his orderly Swiss upbringing. My friends, all upwardly mobile and increasingly wrapped up in the joys of summer weddings and happy house-hunting. My dog, who wanted nothing more than me, a Frisbee, and a lazy afternoon. And myself. I had tasted the good life. If I threw it all away then I might never get it back.
But I was twenty-eight, I had neither husband nor children nor mortgage. If not now, then when?
The journey begins...