The fortune cookie said, "Look for new horizons." So we did. We sold our home and just about everything else we owned, left jobs, took the kids out of school and drove 22,882 miles to South America, where we couldn't speak the language and where, according to the newspapers, only earthquakes and revolution takes place. It took eight months and cost $18,752. I ended up catching malaria and having three major arguments with my wife.
I had this crazy dream -- it had been bugging me for years -- where we'd sell everything and go off into the wild blue, leaving all that stuff behind that gave me migraine headaches.
But the more I'd think about it the less attractive it would become. After all, I'd reflect, look at all I'd have to give up. Like my good job as a journalist here in Washington. At a solid salary. And the tidy little house my wife Bobbe and I had spent so much time fixing up. And my daughter and son, ages 8 and 7, would have to leave school and we'd all have to leave behind good friends and family.
No. There was no way I could do it. At least not now. . .
When the waiter brought the fortune cookies on that steamy, early summer day in 1977, I opened mine automatically. But the minute I read it, I knew that it had been directed into my hands by a mysterious yet providential fate. The message couldn't have been more appropriate.
That night I showed the fortune to Bobbe, who smiled a weary smile, kissed me on the forehead, and walked away. She had the same dream -- how many times had we talked over how we'd do it and where we'd go? -- but she had resigned herself to its always being just that and nothing more.
So this night I sat alone in the living room with a pencil and paper. What would it take to do something really off the wall like, say -- I thought a moment -- drive to South America?I looked at our atlas. Yes, you could drive almost all the way, except for a bit of water between Panama and South America proper. Now, how much would it cost?
Gas, food, car repairs, medicines, we'd need a camper of some sort, clothing, insurance, unforeseeable expenses -- enough money for eight months, plus the cost of shipping the car from Panama to Colombia and from Brazil to the United States and air fare from Brazil back home.
It came to around $15,000. Plus a $5,000 fudge factor for emergencies.
I didn't have $20,000. Or $10,000. I confirmed what I already knew by examining our check book and savings account. Total? $42.37. I didn't bother looking in my wallet.
Okay. Sobering. But this time I wasn't going to give up right away.
The next night Bobbe and I talked about it. She soon saw that this time I was doing a little more than dreaming. Against her better judgment she allowed herself to become enthusiastic.
So as the weeks went by we looked at maps and debated what we would need. Books started cluttering our bookshelves with titles like Overlanding and The Ancient Civilizations of Peru and The South American Handbook . We visited car dealerships on weekends to get an idea of what kind of vehicle would suit us. Even the kids became excited.
By the spring of 1978 we had figured out what we would need and where we would go. Now all we had to do was find $20,000.
It was not secret that the only way we were likely to come up with that kind of money was if we sold our home in McLean and a small piece of property we owned in Canada. And we had already decided that if we sold them we had to end up with enough cash to finance the trip and still have $20,000 left over to help us buy a new house when we returned.
It was an easy matter to put our Canadian property up for sale because it wasn't really much of a commitment. We were convinced it wouldn't sell for what it had to to keep the trip alive and were resigned to having the whole thing end right there.
We asked about $1,000 more than what we really needed, and that, we figured glumly, was about $3,000 more than what anybody would want to pay for it. But almost from the minute the ad appeared in the newspapers we were deluged with calls. We ended up selling it for $500 more than we'd asked for in the ad!
We were stunned. For the first time we had to confront the possibility that we just might pull it off. And when that thought sunk in, we suddenly realized there was one other problem that we hadn't considered before.
Putting our house up for sale would be one of the most important decisions we'd ever make, financially and emotionally. We went over all the old arguments against going -- good job, salary, home, friends, comforts, dangers -- and one by one we crossed them off as being secondary to the feelings of personal power and satisfaction that would come with taking control of our lives for once. Perhaps it would be the last time we would have the chance to do so.
The classified ad for our house ran that weekend. In it, we asked $10,000 more than a real estate broker had told us we could get. But we had no choice -- that's what we had to get if we were going to go on the trip. We sold it to the third couple to see it for $500 less than we asked.
I think it's fair to say that, right then, Bobbe and I looked at each other and realized we were going to South America.
Within a week we'd signed up for beginner's Spanish lessons at Berlitz and concluded our search for a camper by buying a VW champagne model.
We also had to tell everyone we were going.
A grandmother: "They have all those Communists down there. Do you really think it's a good idea?"
A friend: "You kidding! What happens if you get some terrible disease?"
A co-worker: "You're in a pretty good position careerwise" -- pause -- "Do you think it will hurt you?"
We'd thought about all those things, and hundreds more, for months. And still, after all that time, the best answer I could give was, "I don't know."
There were really two trips that began at 11:18 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 2, 1978. One can be told in pictures of centuries-old churches, impoverished children, crowded Indian markets, mountains afire at sunset and dank jungle backwaters.
The other has to do with the spirit.
I can tell you that, though we looked deeply into ourselves in ways that we could have never foreseen, we never found some elemental truth that opened deep doors long forgotten or unknown. Rather, what we found out about ourselves were simple things that had gotten lost in the baggage of everyday middle class living.
Like what it's like to be afraid.
When we drove down the driveway that fine October day, we were armed to the teeth with icons -- schedules and route plans and per diem expense calculations and books on how to survive, car repair, first aid -- all designed to keep life as near to what we'd been used to for 30-plus years as was possible. We had addresses of friends of friends in every country we were going to visit so that if something went wrong we could call for help. We had bottles of Chlorox and stacks of tubes of flouride tooth paste and cakes of American soap as if we were convinced no one else was clean or brushed teeth.
Consider too, that, for the first time in our lives all four of us were living together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Our bedroom-dining room-kitchen-office was the size of a small apartment's bathroom.
In this shrunken world made even smaller by our nervousness and uncertainty, little things assumed large proportions instantly. Like the kids balking at doing their school work. Or Bobbe missing the routine of a warm shower every morning. And the diarrhea and car sickness. And my exhausting everyone by trying to keep up with that damnable schedule I'd drawn up before we left so that we'd feel like we were in control at all times.
It didn't take long for the arguments to start.
On the last day of October, in the heat and humidity of the Mexican jungle, we had our first. What it was that started it no one recalls. But somehow I ended up in a rage, standing outside the bus holding a suitcase, with everyone inside raging too.
Then all of a sudden, we all felt like fools.
Sheepishly I got back into the car and for a while we drove on in silence. "I'm going to put that schedule away," I said finally. "We don't need it. Let's just go where we want when we want. I've been beating you people over the head with it for a month now and because of it we haven't had much fun."
Bobbe suddenly laughed. "I think I can get used to cold showers, too" she said. "As long as you wash the dishes now and then."
"Your're on," I said.
It was a significant breakthrough. We had been taking ourselves too seriously, and now we were laughing at the ridiculous things that had angered us before. Because we'd been afraid, we'd built walls of routne around us for support and all they'd done was wall us off from the rest of the world and each other.
If in that moment we overcame our fears that we couldn't survive without routine, we still had another fear to overcome.
Like most isolated and insular middle-class Americans we were convinced that beyond our borders was hostile territory. If something ever happened to put us at the mercy of the locals, we feared the worst. Everybody, we thought, hated Americans. Wrong. While many people we met hated the United States, for some crazy reason they all loved Americans.
We learned that lesson in the middle of the Guatemalan jungle on our way from Belize to the Mayan ruins of Tikal. The sky was battleship gray and sagged onimously like a plastic garbage bag filled with water. The road was mud, the country thick with greens as dark and rich as jade. We were bumping along in our VW bus at 20 miles an hour and resigned to another four hours of wretched driving.
Thrunk! I thought I heard something. Thrunkkk!
I slowed down, hoping I was just imagining it. Nope. There it was again. Everytime we went over a bump -- about 15 times a minute -- something that sounded like a crowbar was smacking the underside of our car. With a queasy feeling growing in the pit of my stomach, I climbed out of the car and slid underneath in the ooze to get a look.
I could see it right away. The stabilizer bar that runs between the two front wheels and does something mysterious to keep the car going in the right direction was badly bent -- creased, almost, right in the middle -- and it was rubbing against the center of the axle, looking as if it were going to wear right through it. Obviously a rock had struck it or we had plowed too heavily through the seas of primeval mud. Whatever. I made a valiant effort to pry it out with a real crowbar but couldn't budge it.
One of our worst fears was coming to pass. It was as far to the next town as it was to the last town we'd passed 80 miles before. I found myself struggling to keep the cork in the little bottle that spurts gooey fear all over my insides whenever it can. Go on or go back? Hell, I said with macho bravado, go on. The road can't get any worse.
The road got worse. The car started slipping and sliding in slick ruts of mud, the bottom of the car skidding along the surface of the road between the ruts frequently enough to make me wonder if soon the wheels would no longer touch the ground. When I tried to drive out of the ruts, the wheels left behind four tracks crisscrossing each other like some crazy cartoon rendition of a car out of control. Even though we had reduced our speed to about 5 miles per hour now, we were still being treated to that maddening "thrunk."
I stopped again.The road of gray mud that clung like cake batter oozed on out of sight. Nothing ahead. Nothing behind.
Just then I heard something down the road behind us. I got out of the car. Around the corner came a beat-up old truck. It bounded from one side of the road to the other at about 30 miles per hour -- it might have been the speed of light, it seemed so fast -- smacking its underside against the clay so hard that the thick mud shot out from either side like splashing water. The driver and two passengers were engaged in animated conversation -- oblivious to the road, to the fact they were ricocheting around the cab interior, and to us.
I ran out onto the high hump between the ruts and began to wave. The truck slowed down, then stopped. The driver leaned out and jabbered something to me.
"No hablo mucho espanol," I replied. "Pero. . . " and I launched into a monosyllabic explanation of our plight that was helped immeasurably by hand and facial action.
The men briefly resumed their explosive conversation and then clambered out of the truck to look under the car. My diagnosis was confirmed. I nervously asked them where I could find help. The three huddled and then the driver turned and, pointing to his car, indicated that we were to follow him.
Then he smiled. It seemed to leap from his face. White teeth in mahogany, the hair Indian dark, dark large eyes. He shook my hand with his own hard callused hands and leaped into his truck and drove off.
I had this crazy feeling that I was following the Lone Ranger (Who was that man?). From time to time in the next hour he pulled out of sight and Bobbe and I were convinced he had left us, but then he would be waiting around the next corner.
It was during one such moment of fear that we came around a corner and found him standing n the midst of a dozen other men. Huge dump trucks and heavy construction equipment littered the roadside. I had to laugh. They were obviously repairing the road ahead -- having just finished "fixing" the section we had been wallowing through for the last six hours.
We stopped and the crowd of men shyly surrounded us. The Lone Ranger introduced us to one of them who was his cousin or uncle as well as a "mecanico." They would ask the boss if he could fix our car.
The boss -- a huge black man who dressed like a construction chief with big boots and a short-sleeved shirt and metal-rimmed Foster Grant sunglasses -- looked so American that when he walked over I expected him the say, "Hi. What's the problem?"
He beamed and said, "Buenos dias." Even though he couldn't speak English, we soon had permission for the mechanic to fix the car.
About a half dozen men seemed to dive under the front of the car while others stood around, curious about the loco gringos who had appeared from nowhere. While I watched the repairs, Bobbe slid open the side door of the camper and showed the workers how we folded out the beds, and our stove, sink and refrigerator. I found myself answerin g as best as I could questions such as how much our car cost. They were amazed how "cheap" it was and told me the car would cost three or four times more in Guatemala.
When the "tour" was over Bobbe decided to make us lunch and began cooking grilled cheese sandwiches. The men, astounded at the miniature kitchen, peered inside to watch.
"Quiere un sandwich?" Bobbe asked them.
The men smiled shyly and refused. Bobbe insisted. Soon about two dozen men were milling around our camper munching on squares of grilled cheese sandwiches ("grreeld chayse saoundweech?"), laughing and telling stories we couldn't understand. One rolled up his sleeve to reveal an armful of wristwatches and launched into an intensely unintelligible sales pitch, all the more amusing because it was being given in the middle of a jungle rather than on some busy street corner.
When the damaged part was repaired, I offered to pay the men who had done the work but they indignantly refused. Instead they accepted grilled cheese sandwiches, shook our hands politely and stepped back.
"Huasto luego," they said. And with that the man turned away and went back to work waving over their shoulders.
We drove for a mile or so before Bobbe suddenly whispered for me to stop. I followed her eyes.
On a tree limb beside the road, a toucan perched, surveying us solemnly. It shifted its lime gren beak, lemon throat and obsidian body from side to side to watch us.
When we started up again, it hopped from tree limb to tree limb following our tortuous route.
"Why don't you give it some 'grreeld chayse saoundweech'? Jennifer quipped from the back of the bus. We burst out laughing, frightening the bird to flight.
"I think I'm going to like this trip after all," said Bobbe.
Eventually you reach a point where the barriers between thought and action are so eroded by living a nomadic life that you think you've discovered The True Self. You no longer hestitate. You no longer struggle aginst yourself. You stay or you leave and because you do so, you think you are mastering your life.
But there is always more to learn.
Once, in Argentina, when I felt most in touch with myself, I found discarded on the floor of our camper a scrap of notebook paper on which my daughter had written a poem. It must have been written as we drove some back country road, so shaky is the hand. I started to wad it up to throw it away when the words caught my eye. 5 meters Down Fall all the way walk in dark Find me die in Pain! What am I?
The more I thought about it, the more distressed I felt. I stepped outside the camper and looked down on the beach below where my daughter, my wife and my son stood watching the slate gray sea.
The long slow sea, casually embracing the sand, sliding around the feet of my children and my wife. Hadn't we come on this trip to find out who we were? Hadn't we found out something about ourselves? Had life been going on around me and I not seen it?
I looked uneasily up and down the wide barren beach. I wanted to see something -- real, familiar. Something old and comforting. A hot dog stand. Kites. Teen-agers and radios. . .
But there was only the sea, flinty and unctuous, the sand, and my family.
Some things never change.
Today I sit in the living room of the new house in Arlington we bought when we returned. It is a lovely old home with a porch out front that has a swinging bench, just like Bobbe always wanted.
I've been back at work for 4 1/2 months. I work harder now and enjoy the work more. Bobbe has signed for piano lessons -- she has always wanted to learn to play the piano -- and a photography course. The kids have made new friends and started school. And the old VW bus has been sold -- to a Vietnamese family who wants to use it for weekend fishing jaunts.
I also went to my favorite Chinese restaurant, had some shrimp in ginger sauce, and then opened my fortune cookie to see what I should do next.
The fortune said, "A comfortable home is a great source of happiness."
I can't argue with that.