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‘Therapeutic Misadventures’

Temple: Woman writes about her travels to faraway lands

It was the late ’70s, and Martha Schaefer was living the life of a corporate wife married to an oil executive. It meant a life of world travel, luxurious living and frivolity. But for Schaefer, it also meant a life of isolation and feeling unfulfilled — sentiments she wrote down in her journals, while keeping on a happy face in letters to her mother, describing the countries she was living in and the experiences she was having.

Now, those letters, both the ones Schaefer sent to her mother and the replies, are kept in a wicker box in Schaefer’s Temple home. The collection, as well as the journals she kept formed the basis of her newly published first book, “Theraputic Misadventures,” which she self-published.

In 1978, Schaefer, a New Hampshire native, left her home in southern Illinois to take up residence in Trinidad while her husband at the time, Roger, explored an oil venture there. Schaefer said the experience was jumbled in more ways than one. She could spend an evening at a corporate function, eating at a banquet and sipping champagne, and then travel back through the most impoverished part of the country to their home, where they employed multiple people to provide domestic help.

“It took a lot of getting used to. The population of Trinidad is .02 percent white. There’s a lot of political unrest. For a little girl from New Hampshire, it was a big adjustment,” said Schaefer.

She didn’t have a work permit, said Schaefer. The only job she had was to be happy. But she just wasn’t. She was struggling with feelings of being lost and unfulfilled. She had to make her own way in this new country she found herself in. There were two ways she found to do that: The first was to immerse herself in the culture and explore her environment. The other was to find employment at a local racetrack. She had no work papers, so she wasn’t an official employee there, and wasn’t paid for her work, she said, but it filled a desperate need to be doing something useful.

“I had always ridden,” said Schaefer. “There was an old, broken down racetrack that I found, and I just hung out around the gates until someone finally said, ‘What do you want?’” And so I got a job at the track. I was the only woman and the only white person there. It was intimidating at first, but it also became an amazing home to me.”

Then, after two years making a place for herself in Trinidad, Schaefer had to start over when her husband’s job moved them to Jakarta. Even though she had known while living there that Trinidad was a temporary home, all the strides she had made adjusting to the language and culture, in finding a place where she could feel productive, were all for nothing.

“It was like leaving home all over again,” she said. “The unsettling thing about corporate life is that when they say pack up and go, you pack up and go. There’s no negotiation about whether we could stay. And with Jakarta being on the other side of the world, it was a big step for me. And it seemed like each time we moved, Roger became more and more busy, and was gone more and more, and I was left to chart my own course. I spent a lot of time either alone or immersing myself in the culture.”

On the other hand, Jakarta offered an entirely new culture and language to explore, and a different challenge awaiting her that used a different skill set from her background with horses.

Schaefer had always been interested in photography, she said. It was a muscle that got a lot of exorcize in these exotic locations. She even sold a few pieces to National Geographic. Her photographs eventually led her to collaborating with other artists to create an Indonesian stock photography agency. And that led to a stint with the U.S. television show, “You Asked For It,” where viewers were asked to send in postcards describing something they wanted to see on television. For the first time in several years, said Schaefer, she was earning her own money. “It was huge that I was making money and had a purpose,” she said.

Knowing, however, that her pursuits would always come second to her husband’s was putting a real strain on her marriage, she said. Eventually, those differences became too much, and the two decided to end the marriage, and Schaefer moved back to the United States to start over.

“As the years went by, I kept the idea that eventually we would come home and I’d have a career and that sense of self,” said Schaefer. “And eventually it came down to the fact that he essentially said, ‘If you ask me to choose between you and my career, there is no choice.’ Roger enjoyed his work immensely and was very defined by it. Our travels started as an adventure together, but eventually I became tired of being a tourist and needed to come home.”

Now over 30 years after her experiences in Trinidad and Jakarta, Schaefer sat down with the written materials from that time to complete a longtime ambition of hers: setting it all down in a book. She chose to self-publish, she said, because she wanted creative control over which entries went into the story and which she held back. Decisions ranging from the cover art down to how to place the page numbers all fell to her, she said.

Even though the experiences are 30 years old, it still resonates with people today, she said. Those her age tend to reminisce about the time period. Even those currently in their 20s feel a connection, she said. While the story isn’t a universal one, the emotions tend to apply to everyone in that age range, she said — struggling with identity and self-worth.

Schaefer is currently writing her second book, another memoir, dealing with the subsequent portion of her life, after returning from Jakarta — her second marriage and the birth of her two daughters. It’s a different experience this time, since she’s not using the epistolary style of her first book, she said.

Schaefer will be at the Toadstool Bookshop in Peterborough on Oct. 5 at 11 a.m. to read from “Therapeutic Misadventures.”

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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