How my exotic global odyssey began in Dublin
A Trinity College dropout’s journey from global adventurer to become a Zen Buddhist, head of Merrill Lynch Asia, entrepreneur and author
The author, right, with his Dublin-born mother and his brother in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe
At the end of the 1950s I abandoned the isolated British colony of Southern Rhodesia, now known as Zimbabwe, where I was born, to embark on a six-year odyssey around the world.
It took me from a Vancouver logging camp, running a surfing concession in Waikiki, to an opium den in Laos. My accommodation ranged from one of the finest stately homes in England to the freezing floor of a Canadian public lavatory. After studying Buddhism in an ancient monastery on a frozen Japanese mountaintop, I eventually ended up as an ordained Zen monk with a black belt in kendo. But I began my adventures in Ireland, from where I proudly traced half my roots.
On my father’s side I was of English origin. My grandfather commanded a battalion in the first World War and then took up a British land grant to settle in Rhodesia. His father was a coal merchant in Liverpool and their most exciting direct ancestor a plantation owner in the Caribbean, who decided that becoming a pirate would be more interesting. He was called Stede Bonnet, nicknamed the Gentleman Pirate, who ended his life on the hangman’s scaffold in Charles Town, Carolina.
But on my mother’s side I was Irish. (One of her ancestors became High Sheriff of Co Antrim and built Castle Dobbs, an elegant mansion, where a cousin lives and which still stands near Carrickfergus. Another was appointed Surveyor of Ireland in the 1720s.) She was born in Dublin in 1914. At 19, she set out for the United States on her own, which was an extraordinary undertaking for a young woman at that time. She trained as one of the world’s first osteopaths in Kirksville, Missouri and then decided she wanted to see Africa. On the voyage to Cape Town she met my father’s mother, which led to an invitation to visit the family farm in Rhodesia. My mother was the one who proposed to my father.
A free-thinker who campaigned against racial segregation in Rhodesia, she cut a striking figure in our remote colonial outpost. I learned from her not to fear being an outsider, and to take risks at an early age. She was also very religious, and devoted a lot of time to prayer. Although she was an Anglican, she had a great interest in comparative religions and philosophy, and she imbued in me from an early age a desire to travel to the East and learn about Buddhism.
By the time I left school, Africa was in ferment. It seemed obvious to me that the privileged world in which the white population lived could not last, and when change came, it might well take a violent form. I did not particularly want to be there to see it. Plus I was intensely curious about what was both happening, and possible, in the rest of the world. Securing a place to study medicine at Trinity College, Dublin, I left the country of my birth behind forever.
The Ireland of the late 1950s was as exotic to me as southern African was to a European. Even the grey skies were not as bad as I had expected: every sunny day was a revelation, because I had never quite believed that such things were possible in Ireland. The main cultural adjustment for me was having to wear so many clothes in a world where short trousers were spurned by anyone over the age of 11.
My home city of Salisbury – now called Harare – had been founded barely more than half a century ago. Now I found myself in the Georgian quadrangles of Trinity College, an institution dating back to the reign of Elizabeth I. History was everywhere in the city, from the stately old merchants’ houses to the down-at-heel Victorian tenements, and Dublin was tight-knit and dense compared with the relaxed, largely single-storey sprawl of the Rhodesian capital.
Growing up in the bush, I had matured early. I had been getting drunk, smoking and going with girls since I was 12 or 13, so these pursuits held no illicit thrill for me. Unfortunately, the same could not be said for my fellow first-year students straight out of, for the large part, English public schools for either boys or girls. They pitched themselves into these new experiences with great enthusiasm but with little interest in anything else. Having no desire to join them, I turned to the older students.
The second-year students were more grown up. They were the last generation to have done their National Service, which meant they had already engaged in the real, adult world. They had stories to tell of the Malayan Emergency or fighting the Mau Mau. They at least could engage in interesting late-night discussions about why we were here and similar questions that students have for centuries asked themselves.
However, the biggest disappointment of Trinity was the course itself. We had to begin by studying pre-med, which was little more than a rehash of my science A-levels at school. Furthermore, now that I had medic friends in the years above me, I could see that they had a level of commitment and dedication to medicine that I could not match. I could see that many of them were cut out to be healers in a way that I was not.
I resolved to leave Trinity at the end of my first year. I was fascinated about what was there for the taking out there in the world and hungry for as diverse a range of experiences as possible, so I now set out on my odyssey proper. As well as introducing me to Zen Buddhism, it would set me on a path to an entrepreneurial career in Tokyo, which was shattered only when I was chased out of Japan by the CIA thereby losing a fortune, and then a second one in investment banking, which would take me from government ministries and corporate boardrooms throughout Asia Pacific to the highest-class bordello in Abidjan, Ivory Coast and to facing down Australia’s most famous entrepreneur.
But without my first adventurous step to Ireland, none of those later successes and failures would ever have been possible.
A Raindrop in the Ocean by Michael Dobbs-Higginson is published by Eye Books, at £16.99