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The Incredible Journey

He'd been dumped, he'd been demoted, so he dropped out and took a trip around the world with his brother. That's when life got good.

January 23, 2005|Robert Salladay | Staff writer Robert Salladay is based in The Times' Sacramento bureau.

The journey spanned two years, with brief stops in Newport Beach to check in with friends and take care of business. For the first leg of the trip, they decided to avoid most of Western Europe--reserving that for when they are old men. They traveled to the Czech Republic, Croatia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey. The second leg would take them through Asia, and the third to South America. They finished in Africa.

At the Syrian border on the road to Aleppo, the brothers encountered only a draw gate. After half an hour of waiting, an astonished guard showed up and directed them to a fluorescent-lighted building where they passed out $20 bills to officials until they were taken to the big office. A man sat behind a desk watching one of the presidential debates between George W. Bush and Al Gore.

"I rose from the couch and reached for my wallet," Wisner writes. Inside was a photograph of the brothers with Bush, taken at a fundraiser at which the Irvine Co. had been a generous donor. Wisner had thought to bring a laminated copy of the photograph on the trip, and he handed it to the border chief--a Bush fan, as it helpfully turned out. The brothers were allowed to enter the country without paying the exorbitant fees required of those driving cars into Syria.

The photo came in handy again in Brazil, where a police officer pulled over their rental car. He kept insisting that they pay a $100 fine for not having proper permits. Kurt pulled out the photo, and the officer's anger turned to delight. "He wants to know if you two can get him a job as a New York City cop," a friend, Tina, translated. The officer and his partner escorted them the rest of the way to Corcovado.

They got rid of the Saab on the Asian leg of the trip--and to Wisner's disdain became cliche American backpackers, like the cliched socks-and-sandals wearing Germans and never-working Australians. He writes that the Third World "sees America through the actions of backpackers. They're our diplomats in places like this, our grungy Henry Kissingers. Those folks must think we're all drawstring-pant-wearing Hacky-Sacking white Rasta freaks. We're doomed."

They got rid of their guidebooks in Vietnam. "I'm sick of the cult of the Lonely Planet. And I'm sick of hanging out with Lonely Planet groupies," Wisner exploded one day. "Plus, how can this planet ever be lonely if we all congregate in the same cafes and youth hostels sipping our teas and patting each other on the back for avoiding tourist traps?"

By the time they left for South America, nothing was planned except a plane ticket to Venezuela. They languished for days at a lush hacienda on the Caribbean, and they hiked to Machu Picchu with Americans who hired children to carry their Patagonia gear up the Andes because they were too exhausted from the thin air. They fell in love with Brazil.

And with women. Wisner's travelogue mentions a "tan brunette with an aerobic instructor bounce" in Newport Beach, an "attractive blond" in Russia, an "attractive, Medusa-haired woman" in Lima, a "gorgeous, latte-skinned cigar girl" and an "attractive young woman with a light brown business suit and bobbed hair" in Costa Rica, a "slender, young woman and an attractive, cocoa-skinned partyer" in Trinidad. A Moscow nightclub contains "hordes of svelte, bored-looking young women in miniskirts."

One woman who gets a name is Jana, from Prague, a "horny starlet" Franz picked up and couldn't shake. On day four of her hanging out at his friend's apartment listening to the same jazz CD and clinging to him, he and his brother pretended to leave the city by packing up the Saab and driving away.

Wisner describes the brief sex scenes in the book as "fumbles," but they come off as mostly sad and lonely. He adds that this should not be surprising after nearly a decade (of monogamy, he says) with one woman. Kurt offers a defense as well: "You were healing for the first six months," he tells his brother.

There must have been a point to this long, solipsistic journey. Was it undertaken simply to provide a farrago of anecdotes without meaning? Was dropping out for two years worth it?

Thrown together every day in alien circumstances, the brothers became best friends. They hit their stride in Brazil, when Franz says he came to understand Kurt's moves like one half of a married couple: He ordered ginger ale on airplanes and nowhere else. He believed that killing a single fly and leaving it on a restaurant table would scare away other flies.

"It was just very basic," Wisner says of their relationship before the trip. "I saw him once or twice a year. We'd talk about sports. He had just gone through this divorce, and if you asked me what was going on in his mind, I would have given you a very weak answer."

Says Kurt: "We really didn't need each other that much, and we both went our separate ways." But now, after the journey, his brother "knows when things aren't good with me and my relationships. He can almost sense it."

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