Published by Eye Books on 1 June 2017
The life of a global adventurer
Michael Dobbs-Higginson has lived the life that Walter Mitty dreamed of having.
Raised in colonial Rhodesia, he turned his back on Africa as a teenager to roam the world. He paid his way by working variously as a docker, a logger and an encyclopaedia salesman, staying in accommodation as varied as an English stately home and the floor of a Canadian public lavatory.
His ultimate destination was a Buddhist monastery on a Japanese mountaintop, where he conquered gruelling hardship to discover untapped reserves of resilience that would set him up for life.
He built a business career in Japan only to be chased out, in fear of his life, by ruthless CIA operatives. Retraining as an investment banker, he rose to become an eccentric, kimono-wearing chairman of Merrill Lynch Asia Pacific. He then made and lost several fortunes in a string of start-ups.
Now facing terminal illness with calm, he tells his tales of drug-smuggling, bed-hopping and buccaneering business deals with a raconteur’s panache, while expounding a religious philosophy, honed over thousands of years in the East, that prioritises balance over winning and losing.
THE DAWN was shortly to break through the light mist. Wearing only a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops, with neither money nor passport, I trudged along the tracks of the railway, taking two sleepers at a time and doing my best to stay calm. It was four o’clock in the morning and I was alone in the middle of the Gobi Desert. The Mongolian capital, Ulan Bator, was four hundred miles to the north-west, and Beijing was the same distance to the south-east. I had known many frightening, isolated situations in my life, but I had never felt such disquiet as I did now. It was only my second time in China, but I was painfully aware that it had become a ruthless, unsentimental place during the Cultural Revolution, where life was cheap. Anything could happen to me, and nobody would care that I was just a hapless traveller with a potentially fatal sense of curiosity. I cursed the folly that had got me into this predicament.
Up ahead, I heard a light ting-ting-ting sound. It was a sign of life, and it sounded unthreatening, so I hastened towards it. As the sound grew louder, I saw a figure bending over the rails. It was a rail-tapper, dressed in standard-issue Chairman Mao suit and cap, tap-tap-tapping the track to test for cracks in the metal.
I emerged out of the mist and said good morning to him in the best Mandarin I could muster. To my consternation, instead of greeting me back, he screamed in terror, dropped his hammer and ran off as fast his legs would carry him.
Now I had really blown it. I could just imagine him calling the police and bringing out all the local villagers to search for me. Since I had no papers on me, I could see myself being thrown into a bamboo cage and paraded through the town, while the villagers threw rotten vegetables at me. But I had missed my train and there wouldn’t be another one for a week. What the hell was I going to do?
The only other time I had visited China was in 1964, on a fleeting call at Shanghai on a freighter. Now, following the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution, my wife and I had managed to get a two-week transit visa through this magnificent country on the Trans-Siberian Railway. That meant starting the journey in Mongolia, where we stayed with the British ambassador in Ulan Bator. We then embarked on the train ride across four hundred miles of undulating grassland steppes to the Chinese border.
It was around 3am by the time we reached the border, where Outer Mongolia became Inner Mongolia and we were formally in China. We stopped at a small station before the next main station of Erenhot/Erlian. Being of a curious disposition, as well as wanting to stretch my legs, I got off for a wander around the station to see if I could find anyone to talk to. Marie-Thérèse called after me to keep an eye on the train to make sure I did not miss it, because this was only a weekly service. I told her not to worry. There was bound to be a whistle to call any passengers back on board. There was no sign life on the platform but I walked around the back of the station building and found a fellow writing at a desk in an office. He nearly fell off his chair when he saw me, because a white face must have been such a rarity in those parts, but he knew I was a passenger from the train, so he was not too alarmed. We started exchanging Chinese ideograms by way of rudimentary communication. He asked who I was, and I wrote the word for England. We became fairly engrossed in our little conversation, so I completely lost track of the time, and it was with a sudden shock that I remembered my train. I had not heard any whistle, but I had been distracted, and in any case I was now completely out of sight and earshot of the platform. Giving him a cursory bow and wave, I hastened back to the platform. My heart sank as my worst fears were confirmed: the train was no longer there.
I looked frantically around for someone who might be able to help me but as I did so the lights started going out one by one. Trying not to panic, I headed back to the office where I had been talking to this fellow a few minutes earlier, but now that door was locked. The situation was turning rapidly into a nightmare.
There seemed to me no alternative but to start walking along the railway tracks in the direction of Beijing. There was a road at the front of the station, but I was mindful of the paranoid atmosphere in China: anyone seeing me wandering the highways might assume I had been dropped in by the CIA, and there was no knowing what might happen to me. Sticking to the track seemed the safest policy.
My encounter with the rail-tapper confirmed all my worst fears about the situation where foreigners were concerned. As this poor chap ran off into the dawn, I decided in my jittery state that the best thing was to return to the station, which might have opened again by now. But when I got there, it was still locked. I decided then to set off the other way along the tracks, the way we had come. Four hundred miles was an impossibly long distance on foot, but moving back in the direction of Ulan Bator felt better than staying where I was.
For as long as I could remember, I had woken up every morning and wondered what adventure the day would hold. The taste for it is in my blood. An ancestor on my father’s side, despite being a wealthy landowner in Barbados, decided to become a pirate and was subsequently known as the Gentleman Pirate. He became an associate of the infamous Blackbeard and ended his life on the hangman’s scaffold in Charles Town, South Carolina. My father, the son of a British army officer, was born in Tianjin, China, and my Anglo-Irish mother’s family distinguished themselves in London, Ireland, the Americas and India. I myself was born in a farmhouse with no electricity, in the isolated British colony of Southern Rhodesia – now known as Zimbabwe. From my mother, a free-thinking quasi-mystic, who cut a striking figure in our remote colonial outpost, I had learned not to fear being an outsider, and to take risks at an early age. Had I now taken one risk too many?
Nearly twenty years earlier, I had abandoned the country of my birth and set off to be a medical student at Trinity College, Dublin, with which my mother’s family had been involved since it was founded in 1592. After a year of studies, I decided that I was both not patient enough to deal with sick people for the rest of my life, and far too curious about the rest of the world to be restricted to this profession. So I left and began a six-year odyssey around the world. It took me from a cultural college in Germany to a Vancouver logging camp, from a stevedore’s job in San Francisco to a mountaintop Buddhist monastery in Japan, from a jail cell in rural Oregon to an opium den in Laos, to crossing the Atlantic in a seven-metre sloop with no GPS to some serious climbing in the Canadian Rockies – and my accommodation ranged from one of the finest stately homes in England to the freezing floor of a Canadian public lavatory.
At every turn, I was driven by intense curiosity and had learned not to be daunted by physically difficult or emotionally isolating challenges. I had built up five businesses in Tokyo and then lost everything when the CIA threatened my life. Having been ordained as a lay Buddhist monk, I had learned to control my emotions by trying to minimise the demands of my ego, and I had never fallen prey to panic or despair.
But my current situation was as testing as any I had ever known. Where was my wife? Would we ever see each other again? If we did not, it would be entirely my fault.
After I had stumbled on for about three miles, I saw a large railway shed ahead of me with tracks going into it. The interior was brightly lit and full of noise, and my heart lifted, because now at least I might find some people to whom I could explain my predicament.
As I walked in, I saw an astonishing sight. On the train track in front of me sat a row of bogies – effectively the chassis and wheels of a train and nothing else – from which the carriage itself seemed to have been stripped away. I walked further into the shed and saw that the train itself was suspended ten feet o the ground, carriage by carriage, on a row of cranes. And there, at one of the windows, to my amazement and huge relief, was Marie-Thérèse, looking down at me, equally flabbergasted and delighted to see me.
The shed, it turned out, was a rail gauge-changing station: the Chinese use the standard international gauge but the Mongolians use the Russian one, which is about three and a half inches wider. That means that all carriages much be lifted off their bogies in a procedure that can take several hours. Because it was so laborious, it was no wonder that they ran so few trains on that line, but as my wife and I were joyously united, and I prepared my speech of abject apology for not heeding her warning, I thanked my lucky stars that it all took so long. If the train really had gone off to Beijing without me, I am not at all confident I would have survived to tell the tale.
“I have spent my life since my monastic sojourn attempting to be a raindrop in the ocean. I have had a lot of enjoyment along the way, and the process has never been less than fascinating. Having learned to be fully engaged by life, I have not been bored for a very long time.”
“Michael Dobbs-Higginson is a Rhodesian farmer's son – and a Buddhist monk, who became an international financier and independent entrepreneur, traversing the globe from fast-developing Asia Pacific to the capitalist West and back. He is all paradox, which worries him not at all – powered by curiosity while dogged by ill health, a devoted family man who was rarely at home, a self-reflective soul and an adventurer and risk-taker, who has enjoyed plunder and survived shipwrecks like his pirate ancestor. 'A full life' is an understatement.”
“Evoking the rugged individualism of Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Thoreau’s censure 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation', Michael Dobbs-Higginson seeks the unfamiliar and the challenging. His restless journey leads us around the world, not as a spectator, but as a participant. He embraces uncertainty and loneliness for the awareness and richness of life they can bring. Read this to your grandchildren; there is hope some of them can become true individuals.”
“Michael Dobbs-Higginson embodies the global citizen. Curious, prepared to subvert convention when convention defies reason, and profoundly engaged with the world – its sublime highs like its imperfections. In the era of “post-truth”, Dobbs-Higginson’s story offers an antidote to cynicism and detachment.”
Iola Lenzi, Singapore
“An entertaining tale of Michael, with his insatiable curiosity, keen wit and irresistible charm, travelling around the world, exploring places and enjoying people, handling the peaks and valleys on his journey with great spirit and balance. What better way to live?”
Chris Tan, founder, Ivory Capital, Singapore
“Michael, in our minds, will forever be dressed in a dhoti, kimono, longyi, barong or some other exotic garb. From the first page of his memoir, his life appears as truly extraordinary and exciting, revealing the variety and uniqueness of his and his family’s lifelong global adventures. Great reading for intimate friends – and for strangers, who will soon be caught up in the fascination that is Michael.”
Reuben and Arlene Mark, former chairman and CEO, Colgate Palmolive, USA
“Michael is one of those larger than life fellows; driven by an insatiable curiosity and desire for adventure that took him from a mountaintop Buddhist monastery in Japan to the board rooms of the most prestigious investment banks in the world. It has been a privilege and an honour to meet him, and I hope that this book will help others like myself to benefit from his wisdom and passionate thirst for life.”
Thierry Capelle, director, Shell Chemicals UK
“Michael’s memoir presents a fascinating and incredible life journey from colonist farming, adventures on four continents, eccentric human encounters and the mental strength of a Buddhist monk to high risk-taking entrepreneurship, the haute finance of investment banking and his frequent fights to overcome health problems. I am grateful for his warm friendship.”
Onno Ruding, former Finance Minister of the Netherlands
“Michael Dobbs-Higginson’s action-packed and free life has been turned into a lively, picturesque memoir. From his provincial Rhodesian roots to becoming a monk, sailing the Atlantic before GPS, trying out drugs, and entering banking, and much more, he reveals himself to be an honest, curious and daring performer in a book where you hear his voice talking directly to you.”
Professor Jason Wilson
“The book richly confirms Michael Dobbs-Higginson as a deeply original thinker and creative actor. The range of his experiences is extraordinary. Of particular importance, the book underlines the significance of Asia to our national future. Overall a gripping read.”
Sir John Boyd, former British ambassador to Japan
“Michael was always one to tell a good story, and I am delighted that he has now decided to share his many lively and at times outrageous anecdotes in this fascinating memoir. I used to see him fairly often while he was living in Hong Kong, but even I did not know the half of his remarkable life. Michael was a larger than life character at a time when you could dream big dreams, and see them come true. This book will tell you more about entrepreneurship than a year at business school.”
David KP Li, chairman and chief executive, Bank of East Asia
“A Raindrop in the Ocean is a fascinating account, taking the narrator (and the reader with him) from the African bush on a global journey of discovery and intense personal experiences. The author’s immense curiosity, paired with deep spirituality and astonishing fearlessness, transpires on every page, and showcases beautifully what life may have on offer if we just embrace the challenge. A wonderfully inspiring life story, especially for young readers – to awaken the desire for real experiences and discovery...and to switch that smartphone off.”
Britta Pfister, managing director, Rothschild Trust, Singapore
“I have read my share of post-colonial stories. But Michael Dobbs-Higginson's story of the bush boy of good lineage takes us on a journey of self-discovery that is both moving and fascinating. The story includes throwbacks to an ancestral buccaneering spirit, but also shows how that spirit can adapt to the risk-filled world of money. It is told with a raw honesty that comes from knowing that he has little time left to live, and draws on the ego-freeing principles in Zen Buddhism that he has internalised. It is a story I commend for those who are not afraid to brave our turbulent world.”
Professor Wang Gungwu
“Stories maketh the man, and Michael Dobbs-Higginson's voyage – from Africa to Japan, to Mongolia to Hong Kong and so on – truly outlines what kind of man he is, and what kind of life he has led. A worthwhile read for any strong-willed, independent individual looking to make something of life – the way Michael has.”
India du Cann