Excerpt from Book 1
The author travels with his first travel companion in Bulawayo, Southern Zimbabwe. They met at a hostel. The excerpt is a good introduction to the story as a whole and the communication and feel of traveling.
The next day, wearing shorts and bandannas, Jeff and I hitched into town. It was eighty-five degrees with a slight breeze, which reduced the impact of the humidity. Miniscule bubbles still popped on the skin and our T-shirts got wet under the armpits, but at least we weren’t actually dripping. I hadn’t hitched since college. Walking slowly along the narrow two-lane modestly paved road, Jeff showed me how to make a cap out of a bandanna. Youth and a bushy beard gave his cap a more natural flavor, yet still I felt like a hippie blowing with the wind.
Cars were scarce on this major road. Blacks who didn’t stop used their hands and eyes to pantomime the reason why, while whites drove by looking straight ahead. Finally, a black man gave us a lift to the City Park.
As we sat comfortably on warm, dry grass under a leafy oak, locals would stop to look at us or ask for money. This is when I began to think about rules for treating beggars, since they were part of the landscape. One man, his fingernails cracked by common labor and eyes slowed by the sun, sat next to us for a while.
“How is President Clinton?” he inquired with concern.
“He is doing well, I said. It is a tough job.”
This was enough to satisfy the man. Then, he asked if I had a big family in America. I unzipped my daypack and pulled out pictures of Kathi and the girls. I’m a Leo, so my pride was glaring. The man was interested in details, such as why my girls were laughing or what the print on Chimene’s shirt meant. After we looked at seven or eight photos, he pointed to my hiking boots: “How much you paid for those shoes? They are very good!”
I considered a comment Rayford dropped the night before: “White tourists are targets. When a black sees a white, he thinks of three things: white, rich, and superior.” I would have added that the locals were also very curious people.
After the man left, Jeff began to open up about his reasons for coming to Africa. In addition to exploring the world, he wanted to get out of his parents’ way for a while and establish his personal space. He described his mom and dad as solid.
“But they struggle to stay connected to each other,” he said. “Mom always has things to do and places to go, and my dad seems to have lost interest in everything but work. I mean, we go fishing together on the odd occasion, but he’s listless. I think his sense of excitement is gone.”
As much as I was interested in Jeff’s family, he was taken by mine. He grabbed the pictures lying on my lap and pointed to my daughters. “Wow! Maybe I should plan a special trip to California—a redhead and a brunette. They’re babes. And I like their smiles.”
“The strawberry blond is Shannon. Chimene’s the younger one. Doesn’t she have the most beautiful eyes?”
“That’s your wife, Kathi, right? You mentioned her earlier. She has a very feminine look about her. Looks like Shannon got your coloring and Chimene her mother’s. You’re a lucky man.”
“My trial in life! I’ve always been surrounded by strong, beautiful women. You should meet my cousin Sharon. When it comes to zest for life, Zorba had nothing on her! If there’s something interesting or fun going on in town, Sharon’s there.”
“Tell me about the personalities behind the pictures,” he asked.
Stretching my legs on the grass, head pillowed in my hands and looking up at twittering leaves, I conjured up a vignette that would do them all justice. “One Saturday, when the girls were in their mid-teens, I rose from my desk in the den, walked into the living room and saw Kathi engrossed in a book, studying psychology. After a while, I asked in all seriousness, ‘Kath, what are you going to do when you get the impossible patient?’ She looked up, briefly acknowledged my presence, and then continued to read. ‘There’s nothing you can do with this patient!’ I persisted. ‘You treat him and treat him, but there’s no visible improvement. You could tell him what a schmuck he is, you know, destroy his self-esteem, ravage his male dignity. It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t matter what you say.’ I paused. ‘He’s driving you crazy! You come home and make my life miserable because you can’t get him out of your mind! Our marriage is becoming mush. Tell me, what are you going to do with this patient?’”
“What did she say?”
“She looked at me like she was brushing a pesky fly off her shoulder, and said: ‘Are you bored? Why don’t you watch a game on TV?’ Then she went back to the book.
“A little while later, I was sitting on the pillow-couch in the TV room, when Shannon walked by on her way to the kitchen. I grabbed her leg. ‘You’re a psychologist,’ I said. ‘You have this impossible patient.’ I went through the whole routine. ‘There are three things you can do. You can continue to treat him. You can tell him to get out of your office, that you want nothing to do with him. Or you can raise the price. What would you do?’ She frowned and in an exasperated, humanistic tone said: ‘Dad, everyone can be helped. Of course I’d treat him.’ Then she continued into the kitchen.
“Later, Chimene comes home from playing basketball, a little sweaty. ‘Hi Dad’ she said, and gave me a peck on the cheek. I followed her into the living room. She gave her mom a kiss. I recited the spiel to her: she’s a psychologist, has this impossible patient, blah, blah, blah, and then the three choices. She said: ‘And there’s nothing I can do with this patient, right? He’s ruining my married life.’
“‘Yes!’ I say.
“‘And no matter what I do, he’s never, ever, going to get healed?’
“She shrugged. ‘The answer is simple, you raise the price!’”
Jeff gave a hearty laugh and said Chimene and his sister would get along great. He nonchalantly went on to ask, “What does your wife think about a year-long absence?”
I should have been good at answering this question, but people’s perceived judgments made me uncomfortable. “She supports this trip,” I said. “If she didn’t, I probably wouldn’t have gone. As a matter of fact, she told everyone about it. Then, of course, I had to go.” We laughed. “She said she could use the time alone to juggle an internship and write her dissertation.”
“What does she really think?”
“She’s nervous about being alone, although the house is rarely without visitors. Also, I think she’s quietly excited that the removal of my shadow will allow her finally to be the center of her universe. I like that idea, too. At the same time, I think she’s melancholic.”
“Yeah, a year’s a long time. My mom would never let my dad go. Dad was excited at the thought of my trip—you could feel his vicarious pleasure. But he’d never attempt it himself. So, what caused you to jump ship?”
What caused me to leave? I found myself opening up to this relative stranger—even if I still side-stepped the incident that triggered my flight. The wanting to share with him came easily. He was eager to hear. I told him about my meeting with Zolfo, about the grind of achieving, my fatigue, and about feeling unappreciated.
“After the meeting, I started my own company, figuring I had twelve years to be successful in business. I also began to save for a round-the-world trip with a friend to purge the rebellion and exhaustion I felt. This is not to say that my family didn’t make me feel special, they did, but it wasn’t enough. Anyway, as I began to close in on fifty the notion of escape to live the simple life of Buddha became my mantra. I guess, I needed to rewire who I was—change a few habits.”
“Well, how I spend my time, for instance, or being a better listener with Kathi. I asked myself the age-old question: what’s the purpose of life? Should I endure, or change?” Given the direction of the conversation, I felt compelled to add an afterthought. “I’m sure your parents have had their tough times, too.”
“They were going through them, but I’m not convinced they were facing them. My mom makes the major decisions, but my dad makes the money in my family. Funny, I never really considered how he thought about his role, or his pressures. Dad doesn’t talk about those kinds of things. He talks about fishing.” Jeff was pensive for a few seconds. “I think underneath it all, Dad’s bored with life.”
He paused again, and then smoothly changed the subject. “Did you feel guilt at the thought of leaving your family?”
“I felt relief. Relief that I could finally purge a growing rebellion against aspects of life that had been so vital to me, without anger and bitterness. My kids didn’t really need me anymore, and I was disillusioned about features of my marriage. But the trip wasn’t a surprise to anyone. A friend and I had been squirreling away money for it for years.
“How about you, Jeff, how did you feel about leaving home?”
“Sure I suffered bouts of nostalgia being away from the family and everything dear to me. But the homesickness was accompanied by seductive thoughts of having time to meet fascinating people and visit exotic places. You must know what I mean?”
“I know exactly what you mean.”
“How about your daughters? What did they think?”
“They were enthusiastic about my journey. They had traveled a lot, like you. Both had studied abroad and traveled extensively around Eastern and Western Europe as part of the family’s plan for their enlightenment.
“We shared the excitement of comrades. They knew I was frustrated. They helped me prepare and pack, and inspired me. At my going-away party, Chimene said, ‘Dad, consider this trip your mid-life quest. And don’t worry, we can take care of ourselves.’”
“Okay,” Jeff said, going for the bull’s-eye, “What about sex?”
“What about it?”
“Do you plan on … You know …”
I laughed. “My friends all wondered the same thing. Sex is the spice of life, and people want to know how spicy you like your food. ‘What did Kathi think?’ was often their way of priming the pump. My response was that a year is a long time to be away, and whatever happens, happens. What’s the sense of lying?”
“A good way of stepping around the question. I hope I’m not prying,” he said, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. “That question is going to travel with you.”
“Looks that way.”
How do you say what you feel when you are used to being an authority figure and the answer is ambiguous and changing? Secretly I dreamt of an intimate love affair on some warm secluded island. I sighed, unsure about how to arrange the words. “Fidelity is such a touchy aspect of marriage. I don’t endorse screwing around indiscriminately or falling in love with a third party if you want to be in a long-term relationship. Neither do I think fidelity is the cornerstone of good marriages.”
“That’s not a popular philosophy. I’m sure most people count on fidelity.”
“It’s the best I’ve got on the subject. Right now I don’t want restrictions.”
“How about you?” I said, “How has traveling affected your sex life?”
“I had a couple of experiences that were unique looking back. Sex is harder to come by than you think when you’re on the move.” Then a grin surfaced, slowly spreading from his mouth to the outer reaches of his face, like the ripple a pebble makes when dropped into a glassy lake. “There was this place in Nairobi … You should go there. It’s called the Modern Green Day and Night Bar. Been open twenty-four hours a day since 1967. The Modern Green is a trip, man! A grab fest, African women over you like locusts. I don’t think most of the babes are prostitutes. Just want a white body to hold because we’re different, superior maybe in their view. Or maybe they want a nice place to stay for the night.”
From the park, we walked to the city center. With a quarter of a million residents, Bulawayo was the second largest city in Zimbabwe. But it looked like a farming town—no building taller than two stories and dusty streets used mostly by pedestrians. Not enough cars to pollute. No one hurried. People threw everything on the ground or in the street, but it was all biodegradable—mango skins, cornhusks, and so on. No plastic yet. Bottles were recycled because the glass was worth more than the contents.
As in Harare, I had noticed that males held hands with males. Rayford said that this was normal in Africa, and Africans like him would be shocked at the suggestion of homosexuality. “Our handshake, for instance, is totally different from Western handshakes,” he said. “It is soft, and denotes intimacy and friendship as opposed to power or weakness. Like many Africans, I received lessons in the art of the Western-style handshake. We were taught to hold the hand firmly, and then to jerk it away quickly.”
We found a small African restaurant with eight empty tables and dangling beads for a door, like in an old Bogart movie. We ordered crocodile tails, beans, and a couple of bottles of beer. While we pecked away at the crocodile, which tasted like the offspring of a chicken and a fish, Jeff gave me a few pointers on traveling. “You can drink the water in most of Africa, Denis. People will advise you against it, but I didn’t have a problem. Be careful of mosquitoes, you don’t want to get malaria. Pills are good, but not getting bitten is better. And don’t forget to wear long pants after four, that’s when mosquitoes hunt.
“And another thing: If you catch someone stealing, make sure your loss is important before you yell, ‘Stop thief!’ Africa is instant justice. Once in Zaire, I shouted at three dudes who ripped off my daypack. They clipped it right outside the bus. The locals chased them down and beat the guys to death, then casually threw a piece of canvas over the bodies. As long as I live, I’ll never forget watching one of the legs sticking out still quivering. Man, I was in shock for days. It’s like everything in Africa moves slow, except for the kill.”
I observed how the conversation flowed easily between us. “Traveling does that to you,” Jeff agreed. “People travel to explore the environment and the mind. We want to see the world for ourselves, not read about it in papers, and we want intimacy.”
“In your exploration, Jeff, what struck you the most about Africa?”
“The pace. Like I said, everything moves slowly—from eons of exposure to the sun. There’s a feel to this place, like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. The sheer space, the smell, the people, the animals. You’re constantly in nature and your genes recognize it.”
DENIS C. HICKEY ran his first business at 26 and retired at 48. He raised his family in Silicon Valley where he was a successful manager and entrepreneur with companies on the leading-edge of 4 technologies. Later he co-founded the crisis management firm, Hickey & Hill.
A man happy in his own skin, Denis traveled the world for 10 years after retirement, and employed his talent for drawing people out to uncover amazing personal stories and insights.
He writes and lives in Warsaw, Poland with his wife, Malgorzata, and son, Sean.
Learn more about Denis and his books by visiting breakingfree-thebooks.com
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