Life is full of opportunities. The problem is to recognize them when they present themselves, and that isn't always easy. Mine, for instance, had all the marks of a curse: "Beware! You run a grave risk of dying in 1993. You mustn't fly that year. Don't fly, not even once," a fortune-teller told me.
It happened in Hong Kong. I had come across that old Chinese man by sheer chance. When I heard his dire words I was momentarily taken aback, but not deeply disturbed. It was the spring of 1976, and 1993 seemed a long way off. I did not forget the date, however; it lingered at the back of my mind, rather like an appointment one hasn't yet decided whether to keep or not.
Nineteen seventy-seven . . . 1987 . . . 1990 . . . 1991. Sixteen years seem an eternity, especially when viewed from the perspective of Day One. But, like all our years (except those of adolescence), they passed very quickly, and in no time at all I found myself at the end of 1992. Well, then, what was I to do? Take that old Chinese man's warning seriously and reorganize my life? Or pretend it had never happened and carry on regardless, telling myself, "To hell with fortune-tellers and all their rubbish"?
By that time I had been living in Asia solidly for over twenty years first in Singapore, then in Hong Kong, Peking, Tokyo, and finally in Bangkok and I felt that the best way of confronting the prophecy was the Asian one: not to fight against it, but to submit.
"You believe in it, then?" teased my fellow journalists especially the Western ones, the sort of people who are used to demanding a clear-cut yes or no to every question, even to such an ill-framed one as this. But we do not have to believe the weather forecast to carry an umbrella on a cloudy day. Rain is a possibility, the umbrella a precaution. Why tempt fate if fate itself gives you a sign, a hint? When the roulette ball lands on the black three or four times in a row, some gamblers count on statistical probability and bet all their money on the red. Not me: I bet on the black again. Has the ball itself not winked at me?
And then, the idea of not flying for a whole year was an attraction in itself. A challenge, first and foremost. It really tickled me to pretend an old Chinese in Hong Kong might hold the key to my future. It felt like taking the first step into an unknown world. I was curious to see where more steps in the same direction would lead. If nothing else, they would introduce me, for a while, to a different life from the one I normally led. For years I have traveled by plane, my profession taking me to the craziest places on earth, places where wars are being waged, where revolutions break out or terrible disasters occur. Obviously I had held my breath on more than one occasion landing with an engine in flames, or with a mechanic squeezed in a trapdoor between the seats, hammering away at the undercarriage that was refusing to descend.
If I had dismissed the prophecy and carried on flying in 1993, I would certainly have done so with more than the usual pinch of anxiety that sooner or later strikes all those including pilots who spend much of their lives in the air; but I would have carried on with my normal routine: planes, taxis, hotels, taxis, planes. That divine warning (yes: "divination," "divine," so alike!) gave me a chance in a way obliged me to inject a variant into my days.