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The Wanderer: The Story of an American Who Left Home and Never Came Back

Photographs by Gueorgui Pinkhassov. The Moscow-born photojournalist has been documenting the world for more than four decades. His sometimes surreal images illustrate how travel can alter our perspective, and he captures the kinds of sublime moments that etch themselves in our memories. 
From the mountains of Iran and the backstreets of Yogyakarta to war-torn Addis Ababa and a hillside roost in Taiwan, this is the story of an American who left home and never came back.

My uncle Frank was something of a legendary figure in my life. As a child, I harbored a hazy understanding that he had trekked his way across the globe and ended up in some mysterious spot on the other side of the world. He rarely set foot back home in the United States, and, on those few occasions when he did return, he would grace our Massachusetts home with just the briefest of visits—an adventurer pausing midjourney, somehow not fully there even as he sipped a mug of coffee in our kitchen. He was gone again so quickly, he seemed to leave no trace. I would receive strange presents from him each Christmastime, bearing the postmarks of far-flung locales. A T-shirt purchased above the Arctic Circle in Finland, a weird little hat from the wilds of Mongolia, a pouch of dried shiitake mushrooms from Japan.

As I grew older, I began to romanticize Frank’s exploits in my head. I hadn’t traveled any farther away than Canada, and I felt both envious of Uncle Frank’s roguish wanderings and ashamed of my own provinciality. When I was in my teens, Uncle Frank breezed through Boston for an academic conference (by that time, he was a university professor in Taipei), and I was delighted when he allowed me to hang out with him one evening. I hoped flecks of dust from his travels might shake off on me. We ended the night smoking a joint in a downtown hotel room with a clutch of his conference colleagues, and as he stood to fill a glass with water from the bathroom sink, he asked me, genuinely uncertain, “OK to drink from the tap in the U.S. these days?” The utter worldliness of that question exploded my head—the realization that, for him, Massachusetts was but one more of the many strange lands he ambled through, each with its own odd set of dangers and customs.

RUSSIA. Moscow. 1996.  In front of  Kazan Station.Among my family, it was oft noted that there were resonances between Uncle Frank and me: certain shared enthusiasms and traits. An absent-minded, dreamy bearing. A thirst for novelty and experimentation. A delight in those heightened moments when—suddenly, unexpectedly—we locate the poetry hidden within the quotidian. I embraced these comparisons. In college, I double majored in English and philosophy, just like Uncle Frank. And, due in no small part to Frank’s example, as soon as I was able, I sped away on my own far-ranging global travels. I ventured into six different continents, rode cargo freighters across endless oceans, lived out of a backpack for half a year at a time. I often thought myself a little bit badass. But after a while, no matter where I roamed or how long I stayed away, I always came home again.

Uncle Frank never did. Unlike me, he had no tether. I longed to understand that difference between us. I decided I needed to see him in his element.

I had never visited Frank in Taipei, where he has been living these past few decades. He’s there to greet my taxi as it pulls to the curb in front of his apartment building, and I immediately see that he has aged since I last saw him, maybe 10 years ago. His potbelly has swelled. His jowls have loosened. The thatch of hair above his bulldog-thick head is more salt than pepper now, and his eyebrows have an older fellow’s thicketish heft. Shortly after I’ve set my bag down in his foyer and had a glass of water, he suggests a hike.PAR277068

Frank’s apartment complex is set on a hillside, overlooking the jumble of city in the valley below—the crazing of lanes and alleys, the spaghetti of power lines, the thrust of skyscrapers. Across the street from his front door is a walking path that leads over the hilltop to the verge where urban gray gives way to a shocking expanse of pastoral green. Here, in lieu of cement and glass, the hill is dotted with swaying trees and moseying hikers and the gravestones of a quiet cemetery.

Having donned his walking shoes and a billowy short-sleeved shirt, Frank looks every bit the professor on a country weekend stroll. As we meander down the slope, I ask my uncle to recount for me the history of his adventures. He launches into his tale, spicing his speech with sundry idioms he’s gathered in his travels, translating for me on the fly from Farsi and Thai and Mandarin.

It all began, in his telling, back in the spring of 1973. He was nearing the homestretch of a doctoral program in philosophy at Boston College. He’d been married for two and a half years. He seemed on course to find a tenure- track job at some U.S. school and embark on a traditional academic life. Then, lingering in a university hallway one day, his eye happened to settle on a small notice tacked to a bulletin board.

It was a listing for a job teaching at an international high school in Tehran. “I didn’t know anything about the Middle East beyond Lawrence of Arabia,” he says now, lifting the edge of his hand to his mouth to make this conspiratorial, sotto voce confession as we round a switchback carved into the hill. “I can’t really explain why I applied for the job.” He notes he’d been to Germany during college and had gone to Mexico. He had driven across the States a couple of times during grad school, Kerouac style. As he puts it, “I guess the wanderlust was growing in me. The itchy feet.”

TURKEY. Istanbul. 1997.His young wife accompanied him to Iran. But she quickly found she wasn’t happy there. Perhaps it’s no shock that an American woman would feel less than at ease in 1970s Persia. Whatever the underlying cause, within a year— swayed by her mother, who was no fan of Frank—she wanted to go home.

Frank refused to leave. He was smoking wads of hashish with his hip Iranian students, and—here another sotto voce aside—had begun to discover Tehran’s brothel scene. He bought a motorcycle and would escape for roaring sorties up the nearby mountains, or take a bus north to the shores of the Caspian Sea. He didn’t miss America. “I’d come to think it was a rich, racist, asshole country,” he says. “Nixon. Vietnam.” And so he stayed in Iran. His marriage was over, and his new, unencumbered expat life had begun.

After another year at the school, he and a couple of the other young American teachers quit their jobs and sallied forth into what they imagined was the “Wild East.” They made their way across the border to Afghanistan, “before the Russians were there,” which felt akin to time-traveling a few centuries into the past. They took buses to Kabul, their days and nights a miasma of diarrhea and drugs. They reached Kathmandu, and here the others gave out and went home, their wanderlust fully sated. But Frank pushed on. He hiked by himself for three weeks, through Nepalese villages 15,000 feet in the air. Then onward to Kolkata, Yangon, Bangkok, “smoking the bong down by the khlong.” Penang, Sumatra, Jakarta, mescaline on the beach in Goa, bar girls in discos.

He had no plan, no expectation of what came next. One day as he wandered through the streets of Yogyakarta, Indonesia, he paused to admire an image of Garuda—the Hindu mythical, birdlike creature—carved into the wooden door of a building. As he stared, the portal creaked open. A man invited Frank inside, where eight people were gathered in a circle. They told Frank he was “supernatural.” They led him to a shallow river, where they had him stand by himself in the rushing water for an hour without talking. He stood in this river, in total silence, every day at noon and midnight. It became clear it was a cult. Frank stayed for a week.

REPUBLIC OF MONGOLIA. 1990.Gobi desert.We are nearing the bottom of the hill now, sweating in the glare-bright Taipei sun. We’ve wandered through a Buddhist cemetery, and then a Confucian cemetery, and now we’ve reached a grove of aboriginal Formosan statues from the island’s precolonial era. Perhaps it’s this glimpse of the mélange that is Taiwan—the traditions of its indigenous peoples blended with the cultural impositions of China and Japan—that has Frank contemplating the intertwining influences in his own life. Whatever the reason, it occurs to him now that there was an inflection point where it all could have gone in a different direction. A moment at which he might have proceeded down another path. Deep into his 1970s tumbleweeding across Asia, Frank’s savings began to run out. He realized he would need another job at some point, and he really wanted to finish his dissertation. His travels had triggered an academic epiphany of sorts, and he decided his thesis would limn the common ground between the Western philosophy of Heidegger, early Greek philosophy, and the Eastern philosophy of Lao-tzu. He flew back to Boston, wrote his dissertation, defended it, and began applying for professorships. He planned to stay in America. “I thought maybe I’d done enough crazy traveling,” he says. Frank recalls that he was sitting peacefully on a bench by a reservoir in Chestnut Hill, outside of Boston, in 1980 when, as he interprets it, the universe fatefully intervened.

He was there to meet one of his old Tehran backpacking pals. When his friend arrived, he grabbed Frank by the shoulders and shared a vision: They must go together to Northern Africa. And so they went. Casablanca, Algiers, Tunis, Cairo.

Within a few months, Frank’s friend had freaked out under the typical hardships of foreign travel—the 17-hour rides on rickety buses, the unidentifiable, stomach-curdling foods, the bewilderment and cultural isolation—and decided to go back home. Again, Frank stayed. Again, Frank wandered, this time to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where he smoked opium in the midst of a raging tribal war.

It’s my second day in Taipei and Frank is giving me a tour of downtown. In the basement of a discount shopping mall, we buy three-dollar rice-and-vegetable plates and scarf them down amid crowds of Taiwanese retail workers. Properly fueled, we stroll to the edge of the city, where the foothills begin. Frank walks us down a quiet, narrow alley that wends alongside a mountain-fed canal.

There is a tiny temple here—a few worshippers sit in silence in the cool shade of its courtyard—and Frank seems fascinated by the stillness of the scene. The downtown skyline continues to loom above us. In the space of a few blocks, we’ve gone from Taipei 101 (the tallest tower in the world when it was built in 2004) to the Taipei of yore—a place thick with actual bamboo stalks, not a skyscraper shaped to evoke a giant bamboo stalk. “You find these little moments that are so peaceful,” he marvels, peering into the courtyard from outside.

Looking in from outside remains Frank’s default posture here, even after more than three decades in Taiwan. Now that he is nearing 70, with a hefty slice of his life spent working in Taipei, his Mandarin is good but still not perfect. His skin is of course an immediate marker of otherness. I notice how he’s treated by his colleagues at the National Taiwan Normal University, where he is winding down his teaching career. When we stop by his office on the brick campus of NTNU to pick up his mail, his department chair evinces a disproportionate amount of respect and deference to a man whom she outranks. When we bump into a fellow teacher amid a hallway packed with hustling students, she gushes in broken English about Frank’s superior intelligence and wit. These kind words do blossom from a seed of truth—and are surely in part a show being put on for the benefit of the out-of-town nephew—but I also can’t help but get the sense, from the manner in which it’s expressed, that this reflexive submission flows from the fact that Frank is a Western man. I also have a strong inkling that Frank has grown accustomed to it.

We visit the National Palace Museum later that afternoon. The imposing structure sits up on a hilltop, shrouded in altitudinal fog, with rich red carpets lining its cavernous entrance hall. We are admiring an exhibit that honors the beautiful calligraphy and ink painting of Shen Zhou, the Ming Dynasty master, when a man taps Frank on the shoulder. It turns out to be one of Frank’s former students. He is middle-aged now and is a hobbyist ink painter himself. As we stand together before a collection of Shen Zhou’s drawings, the man (who is Taiwanese but tells us his English name is “Bruce”) explains the nuanced beauty of the ancient brushwork, the delicate herding of ink into the shape of a crab or a cat. I turn to Bruce and ask him what he does for work. He tells me he is a teacher, then looks at Frank. “You inspired me,” he says with a touching earnestness. “You were a great teacher for me.” Frank nods, grins uncomfortably. He accepts the compliment, but he has no urge to connect.

One evening, I suggest we get out of the house and splurge for a night at the original Din Tai Fung—which, from a four-story restaurant in central Taipei, has now spread to dozens of locations across the globe on the strength of its incredibly scrumptious soup dumplings. I have a mission: I want to ask Frank what’s kept him here, since he appears to harbor no more allegiance to this country than to any other place he’s ever been. Though he’s a longtime resident and a home owner here, he has barely assimilated. He pays little attention to roiling Taiwanese politics. He can’t vote in local elections. He remains a solitary stranger in a strange land. Amid the bustle of waitresses and the click of our chopsticks, across the pungent steam rising from wooden dumpling baskets, I delicately inquire as to why—after all those years of rootless wandering—Frank came to settle here instead of, say, Phnom Penh, or Cairo, or Rabat, or nowhere at all.

He wiggles his fingers in the air to express uncertainty. The unknowableness of life’s random journey. As he sees it, his expedition simply came to a natural terminus in Taipei. He aged and slowed. Out of weariness and inertia, and the realization that he’d found a pretty decent gig at NTNU, he stayed in a job instead of quickly quitting. The clinching development: After a few years, he began dating a younger, Taiwanese woman—Doris, one of his former university students—and she pushed him to marry.

PAR312482Yet this spin is a tad disingenuous, I’m forced to point out to him. When he and his wife had a child, and that child grew to school age, my Aunt Doris took my little cousin, Luna, to live in Seattle, so that Luna would get an American education. One might well have expected Frank to follow, returning to the States with his new family, finding a job at a college in the United States and settling down. But, as he had when his first wife left Tehran, or when various friends fled from various backpacking locales, Frank stayed behind.

He rushes to describe himself as “selfish” in this story. He made efforts to see his wife and daughter during breaks in the university calendar, but he acknowledges that in many ways he abandoned them so he could stay here in Taipei. He notes it was my aunt who insisted on American schooling for their daughter. He acceded to her wish, but he decided he personally could not brook a return to the U.S. “The wide grocery aisles,” he says, shaking his head. “America is so proudly bourgeois.”

He is my uncle, and I love him, and far be it from me to judge him, but truth be told, Taipei is looking fairly bourgeois these days, too, full of gleaming shopping malls that feel like suburban New Jersey. In the end, I think the barbs that Frank directs at America are just a smoke screen. I think he stayed here because he likes to be alone, craves total autonomy, and shies away from responsibility and attachment. (The fact that he chooses not to wear a wedding ring—though he is still married to my aunt— suggests saucier motives as well. Many of the stories Frank has told me about his youthful travels have lingered wistfully on memories of the local ladies he met.) But he could have lived a perfectly solipsistic life in Boston, too. Why stay here—thousands of miles from family, from nation, from personal past?

Frank’s expatriate urges aren’t just about a yearning to be unencumbered, or an inability to emotionally connect, or a distaste for American culture, or even the lure of Taiwan’s particular attractions. What Frank craves, at heart, is the exhilarating thrill of foreignness. He takes delight in molding himself as a square peg in a round country. In forever being the outsider. Back in the United States, he’d be just another aging white dude. But when he’s abroad, he is instantly “other” and is treated as such. Frank is special here, and his mere presence piques others’ attention. He’s loath to relinquish that.

Along with these extrinsic rewards there comes an intrinsic sort of excitement: the traveler’s high. You’ve no doubt felt it, upon disembarking in a realm where all is unfamiliar. Travel is a drug. It reboots reality, tweaks the senses, and becomes addictive.

Frank, in his academic way, likes to speak of “defamiliarization.” He quotes Emily Dickinson’s advice on how to render the frightening corners of the world more anodyne—“As Lightning to the Children eased/With explanation kind”—and he remembers from his boyhood the sense of heightened experience. “Trees were these monstrous, alien creatures,” he recalls, “lightning was this insane, terrifying thing.” We grow inured to the wonders all around us. But as travelers we can, for a time, see things anew, with that same childlike awe.

Expats like Frank, who keep an arm’s length between themselves and their adoptive homes, can experience that defamiliarization even after decades spent in the same city. “I still get the travel buzz,” Frank tells me, “even though I’ve been here for a long time now. I’ll feel acutely foreign, all of a sudden. Or sometimes I catch it vicariously, when I see the Western backpackers coming through Taipei. I can make it linger.”

It’s the buzz I love about travel. But I can only take it in finite doses. I need to come down,TAIWAN. 2011. The Red Lantern Festival in the Pingxi region. to shimmy some roots into the ground, to become local—of a place, part of it. Frank doesn’t need or want that. His thirst for the travel buzz never ends. He can’t get enough.

This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue.

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