Reaching New Heights

Imagine growing up in Venice, California, in the 1970s, roller skating down the boardwalk at Muscle Beach chewing purple Bubble Yum, wearing leg warmers, Dolphin shorts, a rainbow tie-dyed tank top, and a bright yellow Walkman blasting Falco’s “Rock Me Amadeus.” That was me. I thought I was worldly.

Somehow in my naiveté I knew even the diversity of L.A. didn’t represent the world. I stumbled upon a quote from the French novelist Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.”

Eighteen and idealistic, I didn’t quite comprehend the significance of Proust’s words, but it was as if someone handed me a ladder to the moon and said, “Go.”

Longing to voyage outside the city of Angels, I took my first step up the ladder: college. And one university stood out above the rest: UCSD. The appeal wasn’t the picturesque location of craggy cliffs and Torrey Pines, the talking trees or the architectural delight of the library. I was drawn to the newest college, Fifth College, now named Eleanor Roosevelt. The curriculum was geared toward better understanding the world—a two-year course, Making of the Modern World, language requirements and the opportunity to study abroad. I only had one question: Where do I sign?

Up the ladder I went.

My four years at UCSD, with my junior year studying in England, cemented my affinity for global culture. At the end of my senior year, a Peace Corps recruiter came to campus. “The toughest job you’ll ever love,” the large banner read. “Live abroad, help people, learn a new language,” the recruiter announced.

After graduation and spending the summer traveling across Europe, I returned to an acceptance letter to serve as a volunteer in Zambia in the Peace Corps. I gripped the ladder and sprinted to the next height.

To sustain me for the two-year service, I carried only two duffel bags and a quote from the cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I wanted to be a part of that change.

I learned the Bantu language, Bemba, and lived in a remote village building wells and latrines near a river rife with crocodiles on the border of then politically unstable Zaire. I ate fried caterpillars and discovered the importance of toilet paper and clean drinking water. I lived with a Zambian family, a couple and their child, Cadbury, named after the chocolate. The father’s name was Fewdays, named by his father upon seeing him born frail and ill. He believed the baby wouldn’t survive more than a few days, not uncommon there. But he lived. They kept the name to remind them how precious life is.

The smell of charcoal from cooking in the ground behind the huts, the sight of black mamba snakes slinking through the tall bush and the echo of the village church bell announcing each time a villager died opened my eyes even further.

While my mind and heart opened, illness found me. A Putzi fly infection resulted in maggots in my butt, and a rare form of malaria almost killed me, resulting in my medical evacuation back to the U.S.

Because of my lingering symptoms, I was not allowed to return to Africa, but I longed to keep exploring. Once my health was relatively stable, I traveled to New Zealand. While in Auckland, I checked out the university. Serendipity must have been smiling as I met the head of the Anthropology Department, who happened to be from San Diego and who had attended UCSD. I applied to the Master’s Program, not knowing how I would make it all happen.

Six months later, I climbed up several more rungs and arrived in the majestic country called Aotearoa, meaning “Land of the Long White Cloud.” I completed my master’s degree in medical and cultural anthropology and finally returned to San Diego, but with a different compass directing my life. I had an innate understanding and daily sense of adventure, a souvenir I would carry forever. To realize that we are the outsider and to witness what makes someone else live is transformative—even back at home.

But my newest adventure came barreling at me, knocking me off my ladder. At age 32, I collapsed in my shower, crawled to the phone and called for help. That was the beginning of my arduous journey with a chronic, mysterious illness.

I spent the next seven years searching for answers. I had two goals: find a diagnosis, and try not to die. Plagued with more than 27 symptoms, such as a rapid heart rate–sometimes up to 200 beats per minute, even while resting—I lost my job as a scientific and technical writer and my ability to travel, and my independence was ripped away.

Finally, bedridden, being spoon-fed to stay alive, and hallucinating, I was dying. The worst part: I didn’t even know why.

That’s when the magic happened.

From world travel to the precipice of death, I had only one more place I could journey: inside myself. I emerged with a new sense of exploration. Travel, globally and, of course, just across the street, is the gift of tasting many different lives in this one short one. Life, death, it’s all an exploration. Digging deep, I found a new ladder, one of healing. I smashed the walls of my life, and I began anew. We are part of a global culture whether we are aware of it or not. When that awareness is sparked, that is the beginning of true change within us. But we don’t have to physically travel to transform. Proust’s words come flowing back to me: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

I get it now.

 Cherie Kephart ’93 is a writer, editor and poet. Her memoir, A Few Minor Adjustments, is the winner of a 2017 San Diego Book Award and was featured in the San Diego Annual Memoir Showcase and performed onstage at the Horton Grand Theater. She holds an MA in medical and cultural anthropology from the University of Auckland, New Zealand, and a BA in communications from UC San Diego. Learn more at: