from The Size of the World
© 1995 / Jeff Greenwald
Whenever an O approaches in my life, I get an irresistible urge to jump through it. The ’round-the-world overland journey I envisioned was my gut response to a long-anticipated need – as March 6, 1994, crept ever closer – to perform a worthy and appropriate ritual. What better way to celebrate the circle, as cycle, shape and circus hoop?
But there was something else, even more compelling. In Indo-Tibetan Asia, performing a kora – a clockwise circumambulation around revered shrines, holy cities or sacred mountains – is considered a supreme act of pilgrimage. This, then, was my goal: To perform a kora around the Earth itself.
The idea had looked great on paper. As I plotted my route, though, and fathomed the lonely logistics of such a voyage (weeks at sea, days on trains, hours on oxcarts), my heart sank. Six months was a long time. It was a very long time. It was more time, I realized, than I could bear to spend with myself.
Finding a less familiar companion proved difficult. Friends who had money had no time, friends who had time had no money, and everyone else had children. Also, I felt that my ideal partner should be a woman. It seemed self-evident that a man and woman traveling together would have access to a greater variety of people and social situations than two men. A single man cannot always approach single or married women in Africa, India or the Middle East, but “couples” are acceptable currency wherever humans tread.
The frustrating thing was that I already knew who I wanted to travel with. My consort of choice was Sally Knight, a beautiful Australian who’d entered my life two years earlier, when Coriola was off in Dharamsala. I’d been hired to edit a book about the political turmoil in Burma, and Sally was assigned as my research assistant. If intelligence is the ultimate aphrodisiac, a day working with Sally was like an oyster banquet at a lingerie party. As the project progressed we’d moved our chairs closer and closer together until, one afternoon, she was close enough to bite me. This appetizer was followed by a six-course meal; and though we stopped sleeping together before Coriola’s return, our appetite for each other’s company remained insatiable. We still got together at least once a week to study Tibetan, collaborate on magazine articles and compose, among other dreams, the proposal for this very book.
I was sure she’d be perfect. For one thing, we had traveled together before. The previous January we had met briefly in India, spending a few days exploring the sights of New Delhi before journeying off to meet her guru – affectionately known as “Papaji” – in Lucknow. Though young by conventional standards (she was twenty-two), Sally had been deeply immersed in meditation and Eastern philosophy since her teens. Her centered and stable approach would be the ideal complement to my manic-depressive psychosis. To ice the cake, Sal was supernaturally lucky: If the IRS ever decided to audit her, Stephen Hawking would show up to balance her books.
Unfortunately, like Coriola, she was dead broke. Sally’s budget for a big night out permitted Star Trek, take-out Szechwan and a scratch-off lottery ticket.
As the weeks ticked by and a solo voyage seemed ever more likely, I launched a desperate ploy. Ignoring the advice of my friends (“You’ll be swamped by crackpots!”), I ran an ad in the Personals section of the local weekly:
Writer with book contract seeks female companion for ’round-the-world overland trip. I’m 39, and a seasoned traveler. My partner must be fit, adventurous, adaptable and engaging. I’m looking for someone who’s always dreamed of making such a journey, and has her own vision and motive for the trip. Some expenses will be covered, but self-sufficiency is required. Note: This is not a relationships ad! Sexual orientation or marital status are no bar.
I braced myself, expecting to be buried beneath an avalanche of responses. There were eight.
During the next two weeks I met each of my potential companions for lunch at King Yen – a bow to the old Jewish proverb that you can learn everything you need to know about someone by ordering Chinese food with them.
The first candidate, a professional storyteller at the Oakland Public Library, was eager to collect local folktales from around the world. I was intrigued until, to my horror, she ordered pork-flavored gluten in oyster sauce. The second woman was the recently widowed wife of a famous yacht racer, and a renowned carnivorous plant breeder in her own right. We were having a great time until, allergic to prawns, she accidentally blew her nose into our last mu shu pancake. I actually did hear from one married woman: a feisty, green-eyed pet liability lawyer whose husband had eagerly welcomed the suggestion of a six-month hiatus. The comic potential of such a tryst grew on me, but her fortune cookie – “You will soon survive a great natural disaster” – compelled me to reconsider.
After six more episodes of trial by sizzling iron platter, I had narrowed the field to two. The finalists had absolutely nothing in common, except that (a) they had exactly the same birthday, and (b) both had been crazy enough to answer my ad.
Lucy showed up for lunch in a ten-gallon hat and frilled leather vest with a vintage sixties button pinned above her breast: Feed Your Head. Blond and petite, she made a good living providing manicures and conversation to bedridden elderly women. One of them, a San Francisco art collector, had recently passed away, leaving Lucy a small Degas sketch. The drawing had fetched a bundle at auction, and Lucy had earmarked part of the money for travel.
And Lucy needed a change of scene. Her condo was stale with portraits of Elvis, dog-eared Shirley MacLaine books and the pet-shop smell of hamster droppings. She’d come home from work the previous evening to find her ex-boyfriend changing the lightbulb in her bedroom. He was standing on her pillow, in his boots.
“I knew then and there,” she said, “that your ad was destiny speaking.” Her fortune cookie seemed to concur. “This marks the beginning,” it declared, “of an unforgettable vacation.”
Lucy had no qualms about circling the globe with a total stranger; her main concern was finding her precise shade of lipstick in Senegal or Tibet. This thorny obstacle was removed when, at our third meeting, she located a San Francisco body-piercing salon that would tattoo her makeup on for her.
“It lasts five years,” she gleefully declared. “The savings practically pay for the entire trip.”
Zelda, on the other hand, was a professional magician. She’d been performing since the age of twelve, entertaining audiences from Tokyo to Madrid. Any doubts I had about her talent were dispelled at our second encounter, during a heated argument about the “psychic surgeons” of the Philippines (I believed, she didn’t). To make her point, she “extracted” a roll of breath mints from my spleen.
The Great Zelda had other impressive attributes as well. She was a martial arts expert, with a street-tested ability to defend me from irate rickshaw wallahs, drunken sailors and rabid temple monkeys.
There was just one problem: We bickered. Warning lights flashed at our very first encounter, when we nearly came to blows trying to decide between pan-fried string beans and Mongolian chicken.
“I’m not a team player,” she warned me, narrowing her eyes and twirling her chopsticks like kung fu weapons. “I’m used to having my way.”
This gave me pause. Though the thought of roaming the globe with a magician was nearly irresistible, I could imagine any number of situations in which she might decide to make me disappear.
I told Lucy and Zelda that I’d make my decision by ten P.M. the following Friday. As the hour drew closer, however, my doubts grew. Both women had their attributes and idiosyncrasies. Both had charisma and charm. Either would be a colorful character in my book. And either one, Sally sagely pointed out, could just as easily turn out to be a total nightmare….
Several minutes before ten I picked up my world globe, placed it on the dining table and gave it a dizzying spin. I closed my eyes, and pointed. If my finger touched land, Lucy would be my companion; if it touched sea, Zelda.
I looked down. My finger rested squarely on the Panama Canal.
Five minutes later the telephone rang. I hesitated, still debating what I’d say to either of the hopeful candidates.
To my great surprise, it was neither. Sally was calling from a restaurant in Marin; and I could tell by her tone of voice that someone’s wish, for better or worse, had come true.
“Pack your bags,” she commanded. “I’ve just won the lottery.”