Some people have resolute ideas about how their lives should unfold. As adolescents or young adults, they set goals and chart courses. When they encounter obstacles, they surmount them and move forward. If they stray from the preordained path, they always find their way back again. For better or worse, I’ve never been one of those people. Maybe I’ve never found my true métier. More likely, I just have a short attention span. But whatever it is, life has always seemed far more interesting when there is a healthy element of serendipity involved.
My young adulthood was shaped by this instinct for adventure. An otherwise lackluster career at Yale College was punctuated by two fairly unusual summer jobs – one as an assistant to a member of the British Parliament and another as an intern at the American embassy in Freetown, Sierra Leone. At the time, I didn’t consider these positions great career opportunities. I just thought that listening to constituents’ problems in a dreary Midlands housing project or touring an African bush town were great ways to sample the world.
In fact, when I graduated from college, I didn’t have the slightest idea what sort of career I wanted. If someone had handed me an open air ticket along with my diploma, I would have gladly jetted off to Tibet or Timbuktu. But that didn’t happen. Instead I ran into my father, and with the best intentions, he gently prodded me into law school. (“Even if you don’t become an attorney, it’s great mental training.”) So with a vague sense of dread, I trundled off to law school with the rest of the living dead. I still remember sitting in a huge classroom on the first day of school with 150 or so eager novitiates. The dean – a noted contracts scholar – strutted across the stage like a puffed-up peacock and boomed, “We’re going to change everything about the way you think!”
My first reaction to that was, “Not if I can help it, buddy.” And of course that set the stage for a truly gruesome year, where I proved two theories fairly conclusively: 1) the first year of law school isn’t the preferred venue for contrarian thinking, and 2) you can’t learn torts and civil procedure through osmosis. No one was sorry to see me go.
After that, I served an undistinguished stint as a salesclerk in a Pittsburgh bookstore. I thought it was a great job, since I got to spend most of my time browsing the inventory and chatting with customers. But eventually, my parents prevailed upon me to try something more ambitious, so I bought a copy of The New York Times and scanned the want ads. The very first notice that caught my eye called for publicity director at a small photography book publishing house called Aperture.
Aperture published some of the world’s finest art photographers – giants like Robert Frank, Edward Weston, Dorothea Lange, Edward Stieglitz, and Minor White. I always admired Aperture’s lavish publications when they turned up at the bookstore, and more important, I thought it would be exciting to live in New York for a while. I applied for the position and got it.
Six months later, the talented martinet who ran the place fired me for unconscionable indolence and general insubordination. In retrospect, I’d have to say he was justified on both counts. I believe the breaking point came when he spent half an hour expounding his philosophy of life and art to me, and I replied, “But Michael, that’s just Plato’s Myth of the Cave repackaged.” No one likes a smart-ass, and I quickly found myself living in Manhattan with no job, no income, no prospects, and roughly four weeks’ savings.
You might think this condition would have humiliated and frightened me. (It certainly would now.) But at the time, I wasn’t all that worried. I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t take full advantage of the educational opportunities offered at Yale, but I did learn the most important thing they taught there – baseless self-confidence.
It’s a lesson that can’t be underestimated. Most of my classmates and I departed our graduation ceremony on the Old Campus fully convinced that we were incapable of anything short of rousing success. In fact, the joke among the underachieving set was that if you did manage to graduate from Yale (which is almost a given), you could never become a bum – merely an eccentric. Over time, life’s vicissitudes have convinced nearly all of us that we can fail as well as the next guy. But at twenty-three, I was still well inoculated with Ivy League bravado and roundly sure that if I got fired, it was only because the boss was a cretinous jerk, and something better would turn up the following week.
In this case, it actually did. When I had about $200 left in my bank account and a $292 rent payment due, I got a call from Guy Cooper – a totally hip British picture editor who lived in Harlem and played the guitar like Mark Knopfler. Guy’s wife, Lela, was from my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, and I used to date her sister. Anyway, Guy said he was leaving his position at a small, prestigious photo news agency called Contact Press Images in order to become associate picture editor of Newsweek. Guy’s boss – a roguish, charismatic photo guru named Robert Pledge – told Guy to find a replacement before he left. So Guy ransacked his Rolodex looking for someone, anyone, who might be vaguely qualified for the job. Fortunately, Cohen is near the beginning of the alphabet.
I hoped that Pledge (everyone called him just “Pledge”) wouldn’t hold my recent dismissal against me, but he couldn’t have cared less about the blots on my copybook. Pledge worked from the gut, and he figured that we would get along well and I’d work like a campesino if I liked what I was doing. In turn, I saw the blustering, bearded forty-year-old Frenchman as a kindred spirit, and I admired his panache. Pledge worked when he wanted to – which was often all night. He dressed like a slob. He turned down lucrative jobs because he didn’t like the people offering them. And without benefit of any discernible management skills, he commanded a ragtag band of ten highly talented, fiercely loyal photojournalists, who roamed the earth covering stories in the name of truth and justice.
For a twenty-three-year-old kid in search of excitement, Contact Press Images was the best possible place to land. I earned a subsistence wage, but I scarcely noticed because every day was a new adventure and every breaking news story seemed to concern me personally. I loved the little yellow boxes full of slides that were rushed back to New York from Irian Jaya and El Salvador. I loved the adrenaline rush when we landed a scoop or made a magazine deadline by minutes (which, because of Pledge’s management style, was fairly routine). And I secretly relished the late-night phone calls when Pledge would growl in his throaty, accented English, “The Shah of Iran’s been overthrown. Find David Burnett in Manila and get him to Teheran.”
Most of all I liked hanging out with the photographers between assignments. They always knew where to find the best Ethiopian restaurant in New York, and they always had the best possible war stories. It was like having a big dysfunctional family of dashing, larger-than-life older brothers (and one older sister – Annie Leibovitz). Our office was like a clubhouse where the favored traits were quiet bravado, savoir faire, and cynicism.
Once in a while, the photographers even dragged me along when they went on assignment or covered a big celebrity. One of my favorite photographers, Douglas Kirkland, always brought me signed Polaroids of the countless beautiful women he photographed. He convinced various stars and supermodels to write bogus inscriptions to me like, “David, you’re the best lover I ever had, Morgan Fairchild” or “I’d leave Billy for you in a minute, Christie.” I posted these ersatz testimonials on a big bulletin board in my kitchen where they rarely failed to impress my dates.
After I’d been at the agency for about two years, Contact’s youngest photojournalist, a gifted and prodigiously charming con artist named Rick Smolan, asked me if I wanted to come to Melbourne, Australia, to work on a photo book project. Smolan’s grandiose scheme was to bring one hundred of the world’s best photojournalists to Australia, spread them across the country, and have them all snap pictures on a single day. This extravaganza, modeled after a Life magazine special issue, was supposed to produce a lavish coffee-table book called A Day in the Life of Australia.
Incredibly, Smolan had convinced several major corporations to back his scheme, but he said he needed “some management help” to actually pull it off. This turned out to be an understatement. After a grueling twenty-hour flight, I discovered that the A Day in the Life of Australia project headquarters consisted of a bedroom and dining room in a run-down little house in a marginal Melbourne neighborhood. Smolan and his Australian partner had no budget, no workable accounting system, no filing system, and they were practically broke. They did have a Tandy personal computer – which was pretty high-tech for 1981 – but it lost the entire contents of its memory whenever someone switched on the vacuum cleaner – which from the looks of things, wasn’t often.
Still, the project had a rare can-do spirit, and with Smolan in command, we bluffed, maneuvered, and equivocated our way to success. When Smolan and I arrived in the Western Australian city of Perth with no money for a hotel room, we traded the manager of the local Sheraton one hundred copies of our nonexistent book for three weeks’ worth of free lodgings. When thirty-six publishers in Australia and America rejected our can’t-miss book idea, Smolan convinced a bank to lend us $250,000 at 21 percent interest. We used the money to print the books ourselves. Then we sold them through newspaper ads.
Fortunately, A Day in the Life of Australia was a great success. One hundred top photojournalists from twenty countries all showed up in Sydney. Their photographs were inspired. The book won several awards and eventually became a number one bestseller in Australia. This enabled us to retire our debts – as opposed to going to jail for fraud. But when the dust settled, everyone involved swore up and down that they’d never, ever do anything remotely similar again. (Our office manager actually ended up in the psych ward of a Sydney hospital for two weeks.)
But a year later, in 1982, the state of Hawaii called and offered Smolan and me a free trip to the islands if we would consider doing A Day in the Life of Hawaii. We ended up spending eight idyllic months there, and Smolan invited me to become his partner in Day in the Life, Inc. From that point forward, our small Day in the Life crew adopted a nomadic lifestyle, traveling from country to country, producing a new book every year. By 1986, we had four moderately successful projects under our belt and were casting about for a fifth. I wanted to go for the brass ring – A Day in the Life of America. Smolan agreed, somewhat reluctantly, and a few months later we announced the project. The day our press release went out, the phone lines in our Denver office lit up like a Christmas tree. At one point, our publicist, Patti Richards, breathlessly announced that she had all three major television networks on hold simultaneously.
It only got crazier from there. None of us believed that A Day in the Life of America was the best book we ever did, but with Reagan in the White House, the stock market booming, and America feeling its oats, a book celebrating the U.S. of A. was the right product at the right time. All the cosmic tumblers fell into place and A Day in the Life of America became the first coffee-table book ever to hit number one on The New York Times bestseller list. It settled on the list for fifty-six weeks, selling more than 1.4 million copies – one of the best-selling nonfiction books of the decade. Shortly thereafter Collins Publishers bought Day in the Life, Inc., and Smolan and I became young millionaires (barely) with profiles in The New York Times, a piece on 20/20, and a feature story in People magazine. (People wanted to photograph us with dollar bills falling out of the sky, but we managed to convince them that was bad taste – even for the eighties.)
My long-suffering parents were shocked and vastly relieved that their chronically underachieving son had staged what had to be characterized as a remarkable, Prince Hal sort of turnaround. But my mother, upon seeing A Day in the Life of America at the top of the bestseller list, said something strangely prescient. “I wonder what happens,” she said, “when the pinnacle of your career occurs when you’re only thirty-one years old.”
As things turned out, her concerns were justified. I wouldn’t say that a huge early success ruined my career. But trends come and go, cut-rate competitors move onto your turf, and new corporate parents have a way of institutionalizing and dumbing-down even the most entrepreneurial of projects. Smolan reacted by withdrawing to his computer screen and the conference circuit, where he was a stunningly good speaker, and I was left to tend the nuts and bolts of the nouveau régime. Over time, Smolan became increasingly alienated, and I felt as if I were doing all the heavy lifting. After a while our very successful, symbiotic partnership faltered. Smolan left first, and a year later, I followed him out the door.
As my career unraveled, my home life improved. Back when I was in Tokyo doing A Day in the Life of Japan, I met a beautiful American translator named Devyani Kamdar. Devi (pronounced “Davey”) was a recent Stanford graduate who was using her fluent Japanese to earn enough money to backpack around Asia. Her father was Indian, her mother American, and the first time I saw her, I experienced a hormonal frisson. We met at one of our famous Day in the Life group dinners. (At the time, we tended to graze in herds.) The bad news was that I got blazing drunk on Japanese potato vodka and ended up in the back of a Shinjuku taxicab singing “We Are the World” at the top of my lungs. The good news was that one of our young interns, Torin Boyd, noticed the chemistry and showed enough initiative to get Devi’s phone number for me. (I believe he also offered up some plausible excuses for my boorish behavior.)
After a first date at a very elegant Japanese restaurant where they served elaborate little seafood dishes on huge antique imari plates, we became a couple and spent most of our free time together. In fact, we were so compatible that I could often sense, telepathically, when she was near. I used to amaze Smolan by saying, “Devi’s here,” and a few minutes later she’d walk through the door. Unfortunately, Devi was in Tokyo only long enough to assemble her travel fund. And even if she could have stayed longer, I had to rush back to New York for post-production work on A Day in the Life of Japan. We left Tokyo about the same time, and I figured I’d never see her again.
But over the course of the next several months, I started to think about Devi more and more, and eventually I decided to track her down. I called her mother in Eugene, Oregon. She didn’t know where Devi was, but she thought maybe she’d show up in Bali sometime in the near future. I wrote a letter to Devi saying that I was desperately searching for her and addressed it to:
Theoretically, the Balinese post office would hold this letter and give it to her if she ever showed up asking for mail. I had my doubts about this scheme, but a few weeks later I got a crackly phone call from halfway across the globe. I told Devi to stay put, and I’d meet her in Bali within a week.
Before it was fully developed by the tourist trade, Bali was a magically romantic place to court. Devi and I holed up in a thatched cottage at the old Tanjung Sari Hotel overlooking Sanur Beach. We spent hot days exploring the island and turning brown on the sand. In the cool evenings we lay in bed listening to the exotic gamelan music that wafted through our hut on scented breezes. Eventually, I had to go home, but Devi promised to join me in New York when she finished her Asian tour.
We lived together in Manhattan for several months. Then, one day, Devi decided to take off on a tour of Europe with three of her girlfriends. She was gone only about three weeks, but given her proclivity to wander, I began to worry. The day she returned I got down on one knee and proposed. We eloped to Hawaii and were married on a thirty-foot sloop off the beach at Waikiki.
Ten months later, our daughter, Kara, was born. Devi hated the freezing New York winters, and neither of us wanted to raise children in Manhattan, so I persuaded HarperCollins to let us move its new Day in the Life division to San Francisco. Soon after we arrived, our second child, Willie, was born. When Lucas arrived five years later, we were comfortably settled in a big brown-shingled house in leafy, suburban Mill Valley.
By then, I’d more or less left HarperCollins, but I was still producing coffee-table books from a small cottage next to our house. The books weren’t big bestsellers like A Day in the Life of America, but as long as I kept churning out titles, I could make a pretty good living. Devi paid the company bills and balanced the checkbook each month. She drove the children to their myriad activities, played tennis, and gardened. We had three wonderful children, two Labrador retrievers, a sport-utility vehicle and a thirty-five-inch TV. And that should have been that – a reasonably smooth and successful transition from a wild and adventurous youth to a mature, content adulthood with all the suburban trappings.
Or so I thought. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I began to experience the first twinges of spiritual uneasiness. I suppose you could call it a midlife crisis or nostalgia for the swashbuckling days of my youth. Whatever it was, slowly and inexorably, the old spirit of adventure reasserted itself. I quietly began to dislike the big house and the sport-utility vehicle and the mediocre coffee-table books I was making. I started to realize that it was pretty stupid to work all the time making money to buy things we didn’t particularly need. I couldn’t have put it into words at the time, but in retrospect, I think I began to mourn the loss of the free spirit that once roamed the world, worked for passion, and ran off to Bali on a moment’s notice.
Of course, I knew I couldn’t turn back the clock, so initially I tried to suppress these seditious sentiments. I said to myself, “Grow up. Be sensible. This is a natural process. You get older. You have kids. You settle down. You work for a living. Passions dim. People change. Life goes on.” But over the course of several months this very sane, very rational line of argument lost its fizzle, and I realized that I liked the old spirit better. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that the only truly sensible thing to do was to embrace the old spirit and strike back out into the world in search of new adventures and fresh experience.
Then came the reality check. I mean how was I going to do this big adventure travel thing when I had a wife, an eight-year-old daughter, seven- and two-year-old sons, a mortgage, and a business to run? I couldn’t just close everything down and yank the kids out of school, could I? But if I didn’t sell the house and close the business, would I really be cutting the ties? Wouldn’t that just be a long vacation? That wasn’t what I was trying to achieve. What I wanted was a clean break, a blank slate, ground zero. A new start with no preconceived plans, no itinerary, no time limit. Somehow, in this agitated state, I decided that the only way to truly purify my life and reclaim my old spirit was to sell our house, close down the business, liquefy our possessions, and take off around the world for an indeterminate length of time.
Now there was just the small matter of telling my wife of nine years that I wanted to stop working, sell everything we owned, and drag the whole family off on a rambling trip to God knows where. I thought it might be too great a shock to spring this on Devi all at once. So over the course of several weeks, I began to propose increasingly ambitious plans. First, I talked about a trip to Australia. Then gradually, over time, I started adding countries. This strategy turned out to be completely unnecessary, because when I finally worked my way up to the big casino – the part where we got rid of everything and became global vagabonds – Devi listened patiently to what most wives would consider a masterpiece of insanity and essentially said, “Yeah. That sounds like a pretty good idea.”
Initially, I was amazed at her reaction, but then I remembered who it was I married. Of course this sounded like a good idea to her. I mean why would Devi, the original free spirit, be any more enamored of suburban quotidia than I was? She missed her old life, too. She wanted to roam the world the way she did before we met. And as she reminded me, her own formidable mother had taken her – and her three siblings – on a low-budget round-the-world trip when Devi was only six years old.
So I discovered that my wife actually liked this deranged concept. I also discovered that we could pay for the trip with proceeds from the sale of our house and cars, and that we could legally take the kids out of public school and home-school them on the road. (And, of course, the journey would be a great education in its own right.) Interrupting my career wouldn’t be a problem, because I didn’t care about my career anymore. So other than a sudden illness in the family, there was only one possible stumbling block: losing our nerve. I mean it’s one thing to dream up a scheme like this and quite another to maintain your resolve. And if there was ever a plan that lent itself to chickening out, this was it. I figured the best way around this pitfall was to boldly announce our agenda to all our friends and family. That way we’d be too humiliated to call it off. So in December 1995, Devi and I dispatched a holiday e-mail that went like this:
Subject: Ready, Fire, Aim
Date: Friday, December 15, 1995
From: email@example.com (David Cohen)
Mill Valley, California
Devi and I are writing to you for three reasons. First of all, we want to wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Hanukkah, and joyous dewali. (That last one’s for Devi’s Indian relatives.) Secondly, we want to tell you a little bit about the kids and how they’re doing this year. And finally, we want to tell you about a big decision we’ve made.
First the kids. We can’t believe it, but Lucas is nearly two already. He’s now a roly-poly little guy with a husky voice and an infectious laugh. He recently sprouted a riot of curls that make him look like a cross between Lyle Lovett and a Raphaelite angel. He’s also learned to say a few dozen words, and some – like “Hay-lo, Man” (Hello, person of either sex) and “Ni-Ni Wawa” (Good night, Kara) – appear to be English even to the casual observer. Others, like “Ma-dai” (food), “Ya-yee” (liquid), and “Dow” (motor vehicle), don’t seem to derive from any of the major Indo-European language groups. Still, we all manage to communicate with Lucas on his own terms. When we eat in a restaurant, we say things like, “Give Lucas some ma-dai and put some ya-yee in his cup,” and people at neighboring tables think we’re Romanian.
Our big boy, Willie, is now nearly seven. He has large eyes the color of semisweet chocolate, and he’s the spit and image of his mother. Willie has a sweet, cuddly nature punctuated by flashes of temper that always land him in trouble. He’s slightly small for his age but very intrepid. He skis black diamond slopes with abandon, and stands on his toes to evade the height requirements at amusement park roller coasters.
Kara recently turned eight. She’s fair and slight – somewhat pixieish – with a bright, happy face and a quick wit. She’s painfully shy around strangers, but she now has a trio of best friends and an active social life. Kara recently conned her grandmother into buying her a speaker phone with speed dial. So now she trades second-grade gossip and fashion tips at the touch of a button. (“What are you going to wear?” “I don’t know.” “What are you going to wear?”) Fortunately, she hasn’t shown any interest in boys yet, so I’ve put off buying a firearm for at least another year.
Devi and I are also doing reasonably well – both at home and at work, but we recently decided to make some – how should we say it? – radical changes in our lifestyle. I know this is going to sound insane, but we’ve decided to sell our house, close down Cohen Publishers, Inc., take the kids out of school, and travel internationally for a while. At this point, we’re not sure exactly how long we’ll be gone – maybe a year, maybe more – or even where we’re going. Devi wants to take a train across India and a riverboat up the Amazon River. I’d like to visit the annual elephant rodeo in Thailand, and Kara and Willie both want to go on an African wildlife safari. I suppose we’ll try to do all of these things and just knit them together as we go along.
Now I do realize that many people – perhaps even most people – resolve to quit their jobs and take off for foreign climes at some point in their lives. I also realize that good sense usually prevails sometime before they leave, and they have second thoughts about the whole affair. Believe me, Devi and I have had second thoughts, too – about the cost of the trip, about its effect on our marriage, and about spending twenty-four hours a day with three young children. We realize that the trip could go horribly wrong. And then we’d have to come back to no house, no job, no school. (Not to mention the fact that we’ll be completely mortified.)
That being said, we do have a few things going for us. First of all, Devi and I are both committed to this idea in fairly equal measure. In other words neither of us dragged the other one into this. Secondly, we’ve both traveled very extensively, so we have a reasonably good idea of what we’re getting into. Finally, we have a comforting precedent. Thirty years ago, Devi’s mom took Devi and her three siblings around the world all by herself. She used standby tickets, stayed in inexpensive hostels, and made meals on a hot plate. Somehow, she managed to find her way through India, Iran, Turkey, Austria, France, and Denmark. And aside from losing one kid for a while in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, there were no major mishaps.
If Devi’s mother could do all this by herself thirty years ago when international travel wasn’t so commonplace, Devi and I figure we have a fighting chance now. And if we can make this work, we believe the rewards will be worth the risk. We’ll have the opportunity to spend a long period of undistracted time together. We’ll see the world through our children’s eyes. And with luck, we’ll expand their horizons for the rest of their lives.
Of course, much of this edification will be lost on little Lucas. For him, a safari in Zimbabwe isn’t that different from a trip to the Safeway. But the timing’s right for Kara and Willie. As they get older, they’ll be less willing to abandon their friends and activities for a long trip with Mom and Dad. At this point, at least, Willie’s all gung ho and Kara, though skeptical, seems willing to be convinced.
Anyway, that’s our big news for the year. I know this all must sound fairly bizarre. It does even to us. But we know that if we consider this particular leap of faith too long or too carefully, we’ll never do it – and someday we’ll regret that. Of course, we want to keep in touch with you while we’re gone, but since we won’t have any fixed address, we’ll have to rely on e-mail. If you want irregular updates from the far corners, let us know, and we’ll stay in touch.
Best wishes, the Cohens
The response to this letter was distinctly mixed. Some of our friends thought it was a wonderful idea. A few even seemed jealous. Others – generally the ones who told us how brave we were – actually thought this was the single stupidest thing they ever heard in their lives. One PTA mom said to me, straight out, with a horrified look on her face, “That would be my idea of hell.” But for the most part, the response was positive. I was heartened by the fact that older people – folks in their sixties and seventies whose kids had left home – were the most encouraging. I think they wished that they’d done something like this when they were younger. But no matter what people thought about our expedition, everyone was curious how it would turn out, and they all signed up for our periodic progress reports.
In the end, I wrote twenty-three of these e-mail updates. They described our travels by airplane, ship, bus, car, van, train, camel cart, oxcart, and elephant howdah through sixteen countries on six continents. They recounted the times we got hopelessly lost in Rome and Cape Town, how we rushed our daughter to the emergency room in Bangkok, how we escaped a charging hippo in Botswana, how Kara nearly died in Australia, and how I stumbled upon a bit of enlightenment in a cave in rural Laos. They described what it was like to live out of a suitcase for more than a year and how we managed to coexist as a family in tight quarters twenty-four hours a day.
As you read these adventures, anecdotes, and minor epiphanies, I hope you get the sense that these letters were sent to you, or better yet, that you traveled with us during our one amazing year off. If you have any questions or comments as you read these letters – even before you finish them all – send them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would love to hear from you.