One Year Off: Leaving It All Behind for a Round-the-World Journey with Our Children


With three children under the age of nine, the youngest still in diapers, the Cohens decide to do something many dream of, but few actually undertake: sell the house, the cars, and the belongings and take off for a year-long journey around the world. Demonstrating great creativity and tremendous tenacity, David, Devi, and their children create the adventure of a lifetime -- an inspiration to anyone who dreams of leaving it all behind.
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With three children under the age of nine, the youngest still in diapers, the Cohens decide to do something many dream of, but few actually undertake: sell the house, the cars, and the belongings and take off for a year-long journey around the world. Demonstrating great creativity and tremendous tenacity, David, Devi, and their children create the adventure of a lifetime -- an inspiration to anyone who dreams of leaving it all behind.
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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Rarely does a book, let alone an armchair-travel book, delight, inspire, and intrigue me the way One Year Off did. Before I even cracked the spine of the book, I was intrigued by the premise of David Elliot Cohen's story: He and his wife, Devi, gathered up their three rugrat kids and took them around the world for a whole year.

Immediately I was flooded with questions when I glanced at the synopsis of the book, wondering how they afforded such a journey, where they went, what it was it like living out of a suitcase for so long, and much more. As soon as I began reading, the story unfolded in a way that answered all of my questions.

My first concern with One Year Off was that I loved the introduction — the way Cohen grabbed me and made me feel like I was sitting at his kitchen table, watching him make plans for this extensive trip — and I was worried that the book would not be as captivating. But I should have remembered that introductions are never as good as the actual story, and Cohen did not leave me disappointed.

Because this book is a series of emails written to Cohen's family and friends from the road, the tone is familiar, as though you have known this family forever, and very detailed. The reason for being so detailed, I suppose, is that Cohen wanted to give his jealous friends a taste of the family's adventures: their almost-drowning experience, vegetarian diets, and hippopotamus encounters.

Cohen explains that in order to finance this trip, he and his wife closed their business and sold their house. They chose to home-schooltheirchildren: Kara, who was eight years old; Willie, who was seven; and Lucas, who was almost two. Traveling with these kids, who were used to listening to pop music, playing at their friends' homes, and dining on McDonald's, adds to the spice of this story because you get to see the jungles of Costa Rica, the reefs of Australia, and the beggars of India through the eyes of both children and adults.

Along the way, of course, these kids did some funny things that may make you scream "Ugly Americans" at the top of your lungs. Consider young Lucas, who had ketchup all over his hands. His father warned him not to wipe it on his pants. Before the Cohens realized what was happening, Lucas had wiped his hands on a well-dressed Asian woman's expensive trousers in front of the Eiffel Tower. This famous Parisian site will be forever linked to the ketchup incident in Cohen's mind. You don't get stories like that in a typical guidebook; it's the kind of anecdote that only a book like One Year Off can provide.

There were many other charming moments on this trip. The Cohens had dragged their children through museum upon museum in Paris. (Devi came up with a clever of idea of having the older kids pick five postcards each from the gift store before beginning the tour of the Louvre and making it a game to find the actual artwork.) By the time they got to Italy, Kara and Willie no longer wanted to see any more art — until they had the opportunity to visit the Museo di Criminologia Medievale, the Museum of Medieval Criminology. Cohen did not want to take his children to this museum, which was filled with beheading axes, saws for cutting people in half, and spiked interrogation chairs. But Kara and Willie were delighted and asked many questions. Kara, in particular, was intrigued by the chastity belt, which Cohen delicately tried to explain to his curious daughter. After which, she said, "Ohhh. So your private parts don't get hurt in battle.... I'm glad we don't wear those anymore."

The children were obviously enraptured by what they saw and what they did during their trip around the world. But so were their parents. Cohen's descriptions are insightful. After visiting India, he wrote in an email, "For the most part, India was sort of a shocker — loud, crowded, filthy, bureaucratic, disorganized, prehistorically sexist, and wildly inhumane in its distribution of wealth." It is a true statement — and not one that Arthur Frommer will ever include in his guidebook.

Yet along with the adventures, the almost-deportation of the baby-sitter they brought with them, and the lugging around of the suitcases, come some revelations that you won't get in a two-week trip to Ireland, let alone a two-month trip through Asia. At one point, Cohen was driving down this narrow mountain road and in front of him was an old truck that stopped every 20 meters to throw a telephone pole onto the ground. Wrote Cohen, "There was no way to pass it, no way to turn around, and no end in sight. Four months ago, this situation would have driven me crazy, but now I wasn't particularly bothered."

Travel provides people with an opportunity to eat new foods, see different types of art, learn a country's history from its own perspective, and meet new people. The trip described in One Year Off offered all of those experiences to the Cohen family, but it also was an adventure that taught patience, a sense of being able to compartmentalize their lives, and an understanding of who and what really mattered to them.

—Soozan Baxter

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nostalgic for his adventurous youth, Cohen quit his job at age 40 and embarked on a year-long voyage with his wife, Devi, their eight-year-old daughter and two sons, aged seven and two. This account of their adventures consists of 23 humorous and gripping e-mails that Cohen (an editor of the coffee-table book series that includes A Day in the Life of America) sent to friends and relatives during their 1996 journey to 14 countries, including Costa Rica, Italy, Greece, France, India and Australia. Having the children along sometimes made the Cohens anxious for their safety, but watching them thrill at the sight of wild giraffes, elephants and hippos on an African safari, for example, offset their parental fears. Although the children did not share their parents' fondness for visiting museums and churches, they were delighted to live on a houseboat and see the Leaning Tower of Pisa. A trip to a Jain temple near Delhi (Devi's father is Indian) so enthralled the family that they got locked in after closing hours. Although this year-long vacation included some harrowing moments, such as when daughter Kara nearly drowned off the coast of Queensland, the author considers the rewards of this unconventional trip for himself and his family well worth any risks or inconveniences they encountered. Photos not seen by PW. Agent, Carol Mann. Author tour. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
The man who created the Day in the Life series now gives us a year in his life — specifically, the year he and his wife sold the house, closed shop, and took their kids around the world.
David Conrads
...[H]ighly enjoyable....Cohen proves to be a very capable writer, filling his narrative with interesting and amusing accounts....[The book] offers a great deal of practical information for anyone contemplating an extended trip with children.
The Christian Science Monitor
Kirkus Reviews
A genial and forthright record, in the form of e-mails, of a year in the life of a San Francisco family who unloaded house, jobs, and possessions to travel around the world together. Fortieth birthday malaise led Cohen (A Day in the Life of America, not reviewed, etc.) in search of the "spirit of adventure," which he felt had disappeared in marriage, kids, and a suburban lifestyle. He wanted to lose the suburbs, but not the wife and children (Kara, eight years old, Willie, seven, and Lucas, two) so he and his wife, Devyani Kamdar, planned an itinerary for the whole family. It took them six months, but by late summer 1996, they were en route to Costa Rica, where rain forests and coatimundis enchanted the children, and Cohen mused on the irony of sipping margaritas in a steaming pool beneath an active volcano. They toured the Louvre in Paris, cruised the Saone River in Burgundy aboard a rented houseboat, and joined Devi's father in Sardinia, where preparing and eating meals is a team sport. Next was Rome, Tuscany, Greece, and Turkey, where the children alternately disdained and enjoyed museums and historic sites, made more palatable by their father's stories and their mother's ingenious games. The children were rewarded at animal parks in Africa (where they escaped a hippo's attack), at a camel fair in India, and at an elephant playland in Thailand. In Australia, they settled down for nearly six months, enrolling the children in school. A quick swing through Laos and Cambodia (the same week that Pol Pot was deposed) ended the trip. Back in San Francisco, Cohen weighed the rewards of the trip against the risks and the ultimate question, was it worthwhile? Yes, in terms of sharedexperiences and personal epiphanies, although there were drawbacks ("there is such a thing as too much family togetherness.") Anecdotes and advice aplenty for families bent on adventure travel. Photographs were taken by the author's wife.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781885211651
  • Publisher: Travelers' Tales Guides, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 4/28/2001
  • Series: Travelers' Tales Series
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 312
  • Product dimensions: 5.14 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet the Author

Bestselling author and editor David Elliot Cohen has created or co-created more than 70
large-format illustrated books that have collectively sold more than six million copies.
Most were in the very popular Day in the Life and America 24/7 photography book series,
both of which he co-founded.

Four of Cohen’s books—A Day in the Life of America (1986), A Day in the Life of the
Soviet Union (1987), Christmas in America (1988) and America 24/7 (2003)—were New
York Times bestsellers. Seven others, including One Year Off, and Obama: The Historic
Front Pages (2009), were national bestsellers in the US or abroad.

Cohen has been profiled in The New York Times, People and other major periodicals. He
and his books have appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, CBS Sunday
Morning, NPR’s All Things Considered, Oprah and most other major news programs.
His books have appeared twice each on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

Cohen produced four books on a charitable basis: 15 Seconds: The California
Earthquake of 1989, which raised more than $650,000 for victims of the Loma Prieta
earthquake; Requiem for the Heartland (1995), which raised nearly $300,000 for
1995 Oklahoma City bombing victims; A Day in the Life of Africa (2002), which benefits
AIDS education programs in Africa; and Douglas Menuez’ Transcendent Spirit, which
benefits Ugandan orphanages (2007).

Cohen's 2008 book, What Matters, includes passionate photo-essays and written essays
about essential issues of our time. His photobiographies for Barnes & Noble include
Nelson Mandela: A Life in Photographs (2009), Ronald Reagan: A Life in Photographs
(2011), William & Catherine: A Royal Romance and Wedding (2011), The Bush Legacy:
Their Story in Photographs (2011) and The Clintons: Their Story in Photographs (2012).

David Elliot Cohen grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania and graduated from Yale University.
He lived in Manhattan for ten years before moving to San Francisco in 1988. He is
married to corporate attorney Laureen Seeger. They have five children and a really big
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Table of Contents

Prologue 13
Chapter 1 What Have We Done? (Tiburon, California) 31
Chapter 2 We Never Get to Go Anywhere (Stinson Beach, California) 40
Chapter 3 The Sex Life of Butterflies (Arenal Lodge, Costa Rica) 48
Chapter 4 Pura Vida (San Jose, Costa Rica) 57
Chapter 5 Those Lovable French (Paris, France) 65
Chapter 6 Awkward Moments (Dole, France) 74
Chapter 7 Speak French or Die (Saint-Jean-de-Losne, France) 81
Chapter 8 Finding Our Stride (Nice, France) 90
Chapter 9 Gluttony without Tears (San Teodoro, Sardinia) 98
Chapter 10 A Tough Day on the Road (Rome, Italy) 108
Chapter 11 Next Time We Take the Bus (Panzano-in-Chianti, Italy) 118
Chapter 12 The Museum of Torture (Patras, Greece) 129
Chapter 13 Autumn of the Gods (Kusadasi, Turkey) 139
Chapter 14 Your Wife Doesn't Love You (Istanbul, Turkey) 152
Chapter 15 Kara's Shangri-la (Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe) 164
Chapter 16 "In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle..." (Johannesburg, South Africa) 176
Chapter 17 Flight of the Damned (Cape Town, South Africa) 187
Chapter 18 The Most Beautiful Place on Earth (Mumbai, India) 198
Chapter 19 Another Planet (Bangkok, Thailand) 221
Chapter 20 The Middle of Nowhere (Ceduna, South Australia) 233
Chapter 21 Heads or Tails (Sydney, Australia) 243
Chapter 22 Land Mines and Temples (Phnom Penh, Cambodia) 253
Chapter 23 The Lesson of the Buddha Cave (Luang Prabang, Laos) 262
Epilogue: Was It All Worthwhile? 269
Appendixes Four Frequently Asked (and Unasked) Questions 279
Bibliography 285
Acknowledgments 289
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First Chapter

Chapter 15

Subject: Kara's Shangri-la
Date: Wednesday, October 30, 1996
From: (David Cohen)

Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe

Dear Friends:

If Istanbul was cheap, funky, and romantic, then Zurich, Switzerland, was its cosmic opposite. We came to Zurich to catch a South African Airways flight to Johannesburg, and as long as we were there, we decided to stay a few days and see a bit of Switzerland (or "Switcher Land," as Willie calls it).

We began to question the wisdom of that decision shortly after we landed. Devi, who speaks near-native Japanese, struck up a conversation with some friendly JAL flight attendants on the airport shuttle bus, and all they could do was complain how expensive Zurich was.

"Where do you live?" Devi asked in Japanese.

"Tokyo," replied one of the flight attendants.

"And you find Zurich expensive compared to Tokyo?"

"Oh, yes, much more costly."

Since Tokyo was the most expensive city we'd ever been to, we naturally began to worry. These fears were well founded, because the prices in Zurich were simply breathtaking. A T-shirt in the hotel gift shop ran $45. A ten-minute train ride into town cost the family more than fifty bucks, and a McDonald's Happy Meal was more than $9. In short, everything in Zurich was three times as expensive as America and about five times as much as Turkey.

This compelled us to adopt some drastic cost-cutting measures -- one of which backfired badly. After spending more than a hundred dollars for a run-of-the-mill pizza dinner, we decided to prepare some of our meals in the hotel room -- like Devi's mom did during her round-the-world trip thirty years agockage of ravioli and she was standing right behind me.

"Thank you again," I said, and before that sentence was out of my mouth, the cashier snatched the bag and dragged it over the scanner.

"You really are an idiot," Devi said, as we walked out of the supermarket.

"Don't worry," I vowed. "We're going to eat that ravioli if it's the last thing we do."

Back in the room, I made several feebleminded attempts to boil water that included, among other things, mounting a hotel water glass on top of our travel iron. Needless to say, that didn't work. So the next day I tried to give the ravioli to one of the hotel porters as a tip.

"It's excellent ravioli," I said. "It cost more than ten Swiss francs." The porter just said, "Nein, danke," and looked at me as if I were trying to poison him.

The chicken ravioli became an albatross around my neck the whole three days we were in Zurich. Even on the way to the airport, I made one last-ditch attempt to foist it off on our Indian shuttle bus driver -- who was probably a vegetarian, anyway.

"No, I am very sorry," he said, "but I cannot accept this gift."

"Oh, go ahead," I said. "It's great ravioli, and I can't take it with me on the airplane."

He shook his head vigorously, then studiously kept his eyes on the road.

As we got out of the bus, Devi said, "Please do me a favor. Don't try to give that ravioli to anyone at the airport."

At that point, I knew the jig was up, and I dumped the bag into a trash bin.

If that story seems like an odd way to sum up three days in Zurich, let me just add the following: Zurich is a lovely, prosperous city of stately buildings and meticulous streets set on a picturesque Alpine lake. It is surrounded by t idy farms, emerald-green meadows, and snow-capped mountain peaks. The trains run on time. The museums are impressive, and everything else generally seems to function perfectly. If you happen to have excess funds, I'm sure you'd enjoy shopping for Fabergé eggs, Mont Blanc pens, and other fabulously expensive gewgaws in the posh Bahnhofstrasse shops. And you can certainly get a superb meal here for the price of a used car. Still, it's easy to see why Lenin, while living in Zurich, dedicated his life to toppling the capitalist system. And I have to say that this is the only city in the world where we were cheered to see graffiti. If your family is on any kind of budget whatsoever -- or if you prefer vacationing someplace that isn't defined by money and decorum -- you might want to give Zurich a pass. Believe me, no one here will miss you.

When we boarded the plane in Switzerland, it was cold and gray with a light dusting of snow on the ground. Eleven hours later we disembarked in Johannesburg, South Africa, where we were greeted by a glorious spring day. The skies were an electric blue; the air was fresh and warm; and the streets were lined with jacaranda trees ablaze in a riot of orange and purple. Our brains were addled by the long, brutally crowded flight and the radical change of climate, but nothing could quell our excitement. We were finally in Africa -- the segment of the trip that everyone in the family looked forward to the most.

We stayed overnight in a Johannesburg suburb, then headed straight back to the airport for a short flight north to Victoria Falls. We were met at Victoria Falls Airport by a compact, reserved young woman in khaki named Susan. Susan was a white Zimbabwean whose family has lived here for generations. Devi had phoned ahead and hired Susan to take us a hundred kilometers across the Botswana border to Chobe National Park, reputedly the best place on earth to watch elephants.

Susan's vehicle was an enormous four-wheel-drive Land Rover, so I figured the drive from Vic Falls to Botswana might be pretty rough. But the road turned out to be a smooth strip of tarmac that cut through the flat dusty bush of western Zimbabwe like a black ribbon. It was burning hot as we barreled down the road, and I was astonished how desiccated everything looked. I knew October was the end of the dry season, but the foliage -- what little there was of it -- seemed dead, and nearly every tree had either been charred black by fire or completely reduced to white ash.

"Is it normally this...burnt?" I asked Susan.

"Yes, it's usually pretty well parched by October," she said in a quiet Rhodesian accent. "But in the last few years, it's been a lot worse than usual. All of Southern Africa's been hit by a drought, and this particular area has suffered several major bush fires."

As Susan described the water shortage, Kara suddenly shrieked -- as only a nine-year-old girl can. "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!"

"What is it?" I asked with alarm.

But Kara couldn't talk, only point.

I pivoted around to see what she was pointing at and spotted an eighteen-foot giraffe loping gracefully down the shoulder of the road.

"Did you see that?" Kara cried breathlessly. "It was just running around free."

"I did, honey. It was wonderful."

"I'm going to like Africa a lot," Kara said, and her face was lit with wonder.

Shortly after the giraffe sighting, we pulled up to a small cin der block shack with a blue and white flag that housed the Botswana border control. If you think the Turkish border guards were baffled by Betty's Guatemalan passport, you should have seen the Batswana.

"I've been at this post for five years," observed the inspector, "and I have never seen anything like this. Where in blazes is Guatemala?"

Betty was slightly offended by that remark, but I pointed out to her that the passport inspectors in Guatemala probably didn't know where Botswana was either.

"I know," she said, "but Guatemala is an important country."

Anyway, when it looked as if we might be headed toward another sticky visa predicament, Susan motioned the rest of us to step outside and discreetly intervened. Five minutes later she emerged from the shack with all our visas in order.

"Any trouble?" I asked.

"A little," she replied, "but we have a good arrangement with these fellows."

"Do you have to pay them or something?"

"Oh, no, nothing like that. They just don't have any place to get lunch around here," she said, sweeping her hand across the wide panorama of desolate bush, "so we bring them a loaf of bread from time to time."

"I'm glad we didn't try to do this without you," I said.

"No, your friend would have probably been turned back."

Once we crossed the border, we detoured a few miles off the main road and drove our vehicle through what looked like a long, shallow concrete mud puddle.

"I'm afraid you'll all have to get out and walk through this," said Susan. The kids thought that was a wonderful idea and immediately splashed in.

"What is this stuff?" asked Devi.

"Oh, the water is supposed to contain chemicals that kill any hoof-and-mouth disease you might carry in from Zimbabwe on your shoes or on the tires of the vehicle."

"You mean this is full of chemicals?" Devi asked, as she watched the kids cavorting in the brown soup.

"Ostensibly. But I wouldn't worry too much," replied Susan. "It's unlikely that anyone's actually put the chemicals in."

After that, we skirted the border town of Kasane and eventually came to a small turnoff marked "Chobe Game Lodge." At this point, Susan shifted into low gear and said, "You better hang on. This may be a little rough."

Now I understood why we needed the big Land Rover. The road to the lodge was little more than a sandy track, and the vehicle fishtailed back and forth in the soft dry earth. When we were about a mile up the path, Kara yelled, "Elephant! Elephant!" and we all turned to see a young male stripping leaves from a tree.

"Do you mind if we stop here for a moment?" asked Devi.

"Not at all," said Susan. "I'll just find some solid ground." She pulled the Land Rover forward and switched off the engine.

"He's so beautiful," Kara said, watching the young elephant intently.

"Everyone be very quiet," Devi said to the kids. "We don't want to scare him off."

"I wouldn't worry about that," said Susan. "That young fellow weighs around four thousand kilos, and he isn't the least bit afraid of us."

Susan then directed our attention to the other side of the car where there was a break in the bush. Through the gap, we could see the broad floodplain of the Chobe River, which forms the border between Botswana and Namibia's Caprivi Strip. The river was at its lowest level of the year, and its wide grassy banks were teeming with wildlife. There were herds of sleek black waterbuck and muscular kudu, several her ds of elephant -- many with young calves -- and a pod of rotund hippos grazing at the water's edge.

Up until that point I thought that an African wildlife safari involved driving around in the bush all day trying to spot a few stray animals. And apparently it can be like that during the wet season when the bush leafs out. But in October, the water holes were dry, the foliage was almost completely gone, and every beast within two hundred miles was gathered by the banks of the Chobe, the only perennial water source in these parts. This meant, among other things, that thirty thousand elephants -- one out of every twenty in Africa -- were rummaging around in the immediate neighborhood.

"Look at that," I said, gazing out over the Chobe floodplain. "There must be seven or eight different species down there."

"I know," Kara said, almost reverently. "This is the best place you ever took us."

By the time we got to the lodge, the children were in a frenetic state. They wanted to get out and see the animals, and they didn't want to waste one extra minute loitering in the room. While it did our hearts good to see the kids so enthusiastic, we had to tell them that we couldn't go game watching in the middle of the day.

"Why not?" asked Kara indignantly. "There are animals all over the place."

"I'm sorry," Devi replied. "But it's more than 100 degrees outside. You're not used to the heat yet, and you can get sunburned or heatstroke. Besides, according to the guidebook, a lot of the animals, like lions and hyenas, are either nocturnal or crepuscular."

"Crep...what?" asked Willie.

"Crepuscular. It means they're only active at dawn and dusk -- so we'll see a lot more species once it cools down a b it."

The kids were naturally disappointed but they found it easier to be patient once they found out that the animals would come in to see them. Apparently, the only thing they had in the way of a fence around the lodge was a low barrier along the river that was supposed to keep crocs out. Otherwise, the bountiful African wildlife had free access to the grounds. We soon got used to seeing the vervet monkeys and baboons cavorting on the lawn outside our room. But the kids were slightly taken aback when they stumbled across a mother warthog and her baby rooting around next to the pool. And you should have seen their faces when a fifteen-foot elephant crashed out of the bush and strolled casually down a hotel path.

"Do you think this place is safe?" Devi asked when the elephant passed.

"I don't know," I replied. "It's sort of like letting the kids play inside the enclosures at the zoo."

"Maybe they shouldn't go outside without an adult."

I agreed, and after a big baboon leapt from the roof of the hotel and landed directly behind them, Kara and Willie did, too.

When four o'clock rolled around, the kids were waiting by the door with their hats on and their cameras ready. We trooped to the front door of the lodge, where we met a thin, muscular Motswana game ranger named Steve. A quiet friendly fellow of about thirty, Steve was our game guide for the day. As we pulled away in an open four-wheel-drive vehicle, Willie asked him if we would see a lot of elephants.

"I promise you," Steve said in a thick African accent, "you'll see more ellies today than you have ever seen in your life."

That was no exaggeration. While elephants may be an endangered species in other parts of Africa, there wa s clearly a population explosion in northeastern Botswana. The minute we pulled onto the track alongside the Chobe River, we saw herd after herd of the lumbering beasts. There were breeding herds of mothers and babies, bachelor herds of adolescent males, and old rogue bulls roaming around by themselves. There were so many elephants, in fact, that they'd thoroughly ravaged the landscape, stripping bushes of whatever little greenery they had and toppling large trees just so they could reach the leaves at the top. The entire area looked like some sort of combat zone.

"They sure do a lot of damage," commented Devi.

"Oh, yes," replied Steve. "The farmers across the river in Namibia hate these beasts. They rip down fences and eat their crops. And if a farmer is foolish enough to leave some sugarcane or a bag of oranges on the seat of his car, the ellies roll the car over and over until the windows break. Then they fish out the bag with their trunks."

"You're kidding!" Devi said.

"Not at all. They can be very aggressive."

Not to mention stubborn. We soon learned that there's no way to move an African elephant that doesn't care to be moved. Several times during the drive, we had to wait patiently while twenty recalcitrant pachyderms milled about in the road for no discernible reason. In fact, the elephants had a lot more luck moving us. At one point, a young bull trumpeted a warning, flared his impressive ears, and charged our vehicle. That got everyone's attention -- especially Steve's. He blasted down the road in reverse.

"He wasn't serious, was he?" I asked Steve.

"Probably not," Steve replied. "He was probably just showing off for the other ellies. But it is best not to take chances." Ever yone agreed that was good policy.

Elephants weren't the only game in abundance. Within a three-hour period we saw herds of kudu and sable grazing by the riverbank, timid impala darting through the bush, and a colony of several hundred four-foot-high meerkats migrating en masse across the plain. The kids also witnessed a lurid tableau when we stumbled across an eviscerated elephant carcass being picked apart by more than a dozen ugly vultures. And they learned how perilous the bush can be when we drove around a bend and found ourselves smack in the middle of a herd of Cape buffalo, considered one of the most dangerously aggressive species in Africa.

As we carefully picked our way through the Cape buffalo, Steve's radio crackled to life and another ranger alerted him that there was a pride of lions in the area. Steve advised us to hold on tight, and we bumped and jolted several miles down a rutted track until we spotted five lions sauntering away from a gnawed giraffe carcass. The lions settled beneath a tree by the side of the track. Then they yawned and stretched gracefully. We pulled within ten yards, and Kara and Willie breathlessly snapped a dozen photos each. Devi kept a taut grip on Lucas -- just to make sure he didn't become dessert.

By the time we returned to the lodge, Kara was, without doubt, the happiest child on earth. As far as she was concerned, you could keep every cathedral, museum, and ruin in Europe. For that matter, you could keep all the amusement parks, video arcades, and television sets in the world. Just give her the plains of Africa with its elephant herds and lion prides, because that's where her happiness lay.

The next morning, we took a small motor launch out on the Chobe River to get a close-up view of the crocs, hippos, and other riverine animals that dwelled along its muddy shores. Our guide was another young Motswana ranger named Thomas. Thomas surprised us when he said hippos were the most dangerous creature in Africa.

"More dangerous than lions or crocodiles?" asked Kara.

"Certainly," replied Thomas. "More people are killed by hippos each year than any other animal."

"I thought they were vegetarians," Kara replied.

"They are, but the males are very protective. They circle around the females underwater, and try to capsize any boat that comes too close to the pod. Sometimes they capsize boats for no apparent reason. Then they pick up the swimmers in their powerful jaws and crush them or they hold them underwater until they drown.

"The most important thing," continued Thomas, "is never to get between a bull hippo and his females. That's when he feels threatened. Also remember that a hippo is most dangerous when he dives. If he dives, it means he's trying to come up under the boat and roll it."

This ad hoc seminar gave me a whole new respect for the ungainly hippopotamus. Even though they look clumsy and harmless on land, they're apparently very aggressive and lightning-quick in the water. Five minutes later, we found ourselves circling a pod of females. After shooting some videos of the ladies, I looked around through my viewfinder to see where the male was. About fifty yards off I noticed a small gray object in the water. I zoomed in. It was him, and only his eyes and ears were above the water line.

"Hey Thomas," I said. "I thought we weren't supposed to get between the male and his pod."

At that moment, Thomas also spotted the male, an d he suddenly gunned the engine. Through my lens, I saw the beast drop beneath the water. At that moment, I knew this four-ton behemoth was headed for our little twelve-foot motorboat.

"He's diving!" I yelled at Thomas. "He's diving! We better get out of here!"

But Thomas already had the engine going full bore. "Hang on," he yelled. The kids all grabbed the nearest adult as the boat thrust forward, and after that, it was only a question of relative speed.

More in the next installment,

Copyright © 1999 by David Cohen

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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 Liebovitz). 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 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 best-seller 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 best-seller 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 best-seller 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:

Devyani Kamdar
Poste Restante
Denpaser, Bali

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 ch

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  • Posted February 15, 2012

    Captivating journey, and a BIG temptation to follow in Cohen's footsteps!

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading David Cohen's One Year Off, and as a father myself, I have always wondered what it would be like to abandon the responsibilities of daily life and leave everything behind to travel and experience adventure. Many parents, including myself, are likely to think that sort of thing cannot be done once you have kids, but Cohen convinced me otherwise, even if he did have some trouble getting the kids to stop fighting all the time! This book was really a great read, and I am now contemplating doing something similar! Five Stars!!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 27, 2006

    You'll be hooked

    There is no way you can read this book, and not be inspired to sell everything you have and take off on a journey like the Cohen family. This book has been on my shelf since I picked it up on a whim about 6 years ago. I have read it at least 10 times. Fifteen bucks is cheap fare for a trip around the world.

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