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The Wanderer
The Wanderer

The Wanderer

davidDavid E. Cooper

Edward made his decision on January 6th, a belated New Year’s resolution. Although it was sudden, he had been building up to it for months, years even. It would take several more months, too, to tailor and refine the decision before setting it into action.

Edward’s decision was, for the rest of his life, never to spend more than one night in any given place. Each morning he would move somewhere else to sleep. He was, of course, sufficiently pragmatic to accept that it would not always be possible to abide by his resolution. Illness, terrible weather or transport problems might occasionally force him to spend more than one night somewhere.

He was more worried by the somewhat philosophical question of what counted as another place. Clearly it would be unfaithful to his decision to sleep on one side of a field the first night and the other side on the second night. Edward eventually adopted the following rule-of-thumb: always move at least three miles from one place to a second. If, under certain circumstances, that proved impossible, so be it: it was the intention that mattered.

This was a lesson he had learned from Buddhism – as, indeed, were the reasons behind his decision. Two of the Buddha’s main teachings were that everything is impermanent and that the cause of suffering is attachment to things. After pondering these truths, Edward concluded that they could only be properly honoured through a life of wandering. To be perpetually on the move would be a symbol both of transience and of detachment from everything, from home, belongings, family, friends and whatever else people become attached to.

There were, in fact, some attachments from which Edward admitted he would not be liberated in the foreseeable future. The primary ones were women and alcohol. But he hoped that, once he’d become a wanderer, these desires too would subside and eventually fade away.

It was not only the words of the Buddha that inspired Edward’s decision. He had long been attracted, without understanding quite why, to accounts of wanderers and hermits. The Tang poets of China, for instance, or the Japanese poet Basshō, whose haiku verses were mostly written as he travelled from one inn or hut to another. And he’d always enjoyed the songs of German Romantic composers that celebrated the wanderings of young men averse to a settled, bourgeois existence.

Not that Edward himself, at the age of fifty, was any longer young. He was, however, lean, fit and wealthy enough to embark on his new life. He was well accustomed, from many hiking trips, to sleeping under the stars or in mountain huts. And staying in luxury hotels, in between nights of sleeping rough, posed no financial problem. Thirty years earlier he had inherited a large amount of money after his parents’ Bentley plunged down a cliff on the Amalfi coast. Since then, Edward had never needed to work. This was just as well, since the two jobs he had sampled – antiques auctioneer and assistant to a tree-surgeon – had soon bored him.

For several years, Edward had been tolerably content with a combination of foreign travel and living alone in his spacious Chelsea flat. Reading, playing the flute, watching the world go by on the street below, and enjoying an occasional fling with women he met in local bistros, had made for an at least satisfactory bachelor existence. Until, that is, the last few months, when the desire to become a wanderer, and to be faithful to the Buddha’s lessons, became increasingly urgent.

Edward spent the weeks after making his resolution planning for his new life. Huddled in front of his laptop, he consulted maps, timetables, weather reports, TripAdvisor ratings, hotel availability, emergency services, and so on. His initial choice of a country in which to begin his wandering was Scotland – but thoughts of the weather, and of forbidding looking hotels with dark oak furniture, antlers on every wall, and creamy food in tartan walled dining rooms soon changed his mind.

He settled on somewhere very different – Sri Lanka, of which he had fond memories after a two-month cycling tour a decade earlier. By the coast and up in the central highlands, it wouldn’t be too hot and humid; the people were amiable; and the country was peppered with pleasant, airy hotels that served excellent vegetarian food. Sri Lanka was also home to some of the Buddhist wanderers and hermits he admired – like a former British army officer who became ordained as a monk after the second world war. Nanavira (his monastic name) lived in a hut in a jungle in the south-east of the country, when he wasn’t walking and meditating.

So, two months after his decision, Edward landed at Bandaranaike airport after a business class flight from Heathrow via Dubai. There was only one hotel in Colombo that appealed to Edward – the historic Galle Face Hotel, allegedly the oldest hotel in the world east of Suez. But this confronted him with a problem. He would need three full days in Colombo to prepare for his travels – setting up a bank account, buying things he would require, visiting the UK High Commission, and so on. But to stay at the Galle Face for all that time would clearly violate his principle of one night only in a given place. Edward reasoned, however, that remaining in the hotel for four nights was a legitimate case of what the Buddha called ‘skilful means’ – of, that is, bending a rule in order to achieve a noble objective. In addition, he thought of a way to mitigate the violation.

When he checked into the hotel, a sari-clad woman behind the reception desk welcomed him and assured him that the suite he’d reserved was one of the best in the hotel.

‘Yes,’ Edward replied, ‘I’m sure it is, but I want to change to a different room tomorrow.’

‘But, sir,’ said the woman, looking flustered, ‘you haven’t seen the suite yet. I assure you that it … .’

‘Yes, yes,’ interrupted Edward, ‘I’m sure it’s very nice, nevertheless I want to move to another room tomorrow. In fact, I want to sleep in a different room each night I’m here.’

The young woman smiled awkwardly and mumbled something about seeing the manager. When she returned, her smile was more ingratiating.

‘Yes, sir, that is possible, but on your last night we have only a standard room available.’

Edward told her that was fine: he was willing to sacrifice some luxury in order to remain approximately faithful to his resolution. In fact, the standard room was indeed fine, and it was here, on his last evening, that Edward carefully checked the contents of his backpack. Apart from a medium-sized suitcase that he would arrange to have sent on from one hotel to the next, the backpack would contain everything he needed for several months. Swiss army knife, mobile phone, toothbrush, soap, maps, credit card, passport, first aid kit, plastic waterproof, inflatable mattress, blanket, spare sarong, singlet and sandals, rice, dried vegetables and fruit, water flask, small saucepan, matches … they were all there, together with his ‘luxuries’: three books (a Buddhist anthology, a history of Sri Lanka, and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road), a wooden Sri Lankan flute, and two bottles of duty-free malt whisky.

Edward had arrived at the hotel in a lightweight cream suit, silk shirt and handmade shoes. He left in a plain green sarong, a white singlet and plastic sandals. Having arranged for his larger suitcase to be stored in the baggage room, he walked out of the foyer towards the waiting taxi. He first checked that the driver knew his instructions: to drive to the Knuckles mountain range in the centre of the country, drop Edward off by the side of the road, and then drop the smaller suitcase off at a hotel in Kandy. The driver said he understood, though he looked distinctly uneasy, and opened the door of the vehicle for Edward.

The first few days of Edward’s new life set the pattern for the following months. Two or three days wandering and sleeping in unpopulated places – a mountain cave, a river bank, a remote beach. Then a long walk or bus-ride to the best hotel in the area. There he would bathe, have his clothes cleaned and ironed, and enjoy some drinks in the bar followed by a good spicy meal. The next morning, having arranged for his case to be taken to the next hotel on the itinerary, Edward would then take a bus, occasionally a train, to the next area in which to wander.

He soon became accustomed to the worried or amused looks on the faces of hotel staff when an unshaven man in a sweat-stained singlet and dirty sarong checked in, only to reappear in the bar an hour later in his cream-coloured suit and silk shirt. He became used, as well, to the protestations of bus-drivers whom he told to let him off in the middle of nowhere.

Edward’s days and nights in the wild were, in the main, gratifyingly uneventful and regular. Walking, watching birds, playing the flute, boiling his rice and curry and, before going to sleep on his inflatable mattress, sipping a whisky and reading a sermon of the Buddha’s. This was the typical routine.

To be sure, there were some alarming encounters with animals. A wild boar that appeared in a jungle clearing only twenty yards from Edward, but headed off into the trees. Or the elephant striding towards him on a track, but who lumbered amiably past when Edward stepped out of his path. In a country with one hundred and twenty species of them, he unsurprisingly encountered several snakes, but only on four occasions were they venomous ones – two cobras, a Russell’s viper and a krait. None of them, however, came uncomfortably close, and they slid quietly away. Edward wondered if, like the forest monks he’d read about, he exuded a peace that communicated itself to the snakes.

There’d been encounters, too, with human beings. Walking through a forest east of the central highlands, he came to a clearing where there stood an almost naked man holding a bow and arrow pointed towards him. Fortunately the man – one of the indigenous Vedda people – saw it was a person, and not a porcupine, approaching, lowered his bow, and invited Edward to stay the night in the camp that he and his fellow hunters had constructed. The genial man was not at all offended, to Edward’s relief, when his guest politely refused the offer of some barbecued monitor lizard.

The only unpleasant experience with a human being was with a drunken Dutch tourist, at a guest house where Edward was staying the night, who began kicking a harmless old dog that came sniffing around the man’s feet. Edward and the manager of the guest house got hold of the Dutchman, bundled him into his room, locked the door and left him to sleep it off.

Rare incidents like this did not lessen Edward’s conviction that his wandering existence was a success. Moving from place to place deepened his impression of the transience of everything, and it prevented developing an attachment to anywhere or anyone. However beautiful the tumbling river on whose bank he sat, however elegant the hotel room in which he slept, the automatic routine of moving on suppressed any desire to remain there.

An attachment Edward knew would not disappear at once was to women. Still, he found that an itinerant life that provided much less temptation than did the bars and bistros of Chelsea was helping to reduce his susceptibility to being distracted by thoughts of women. He had anyway decided on a policy consistent with his resolution never to stay in the same place for more than a day or night. If he did find himself sleeping with a woman, there would be no repeat: he would be off the next morning.

Only twice so far had Edward needed to implement this policy. The first of these occasions was unproblematic. He met a divorced Sri Lankan woman, travelling alone, in the bar of a coastal hotel resort. After a walk on the beach, he went to her cabana, where he spent the night. When he left the cabana and the hotel before breakfast, he left a note explaining that he had been called back to Colombo on business.

The second occasion was more awkward. This time it was a French woman staying in the same hotel as Edward near Kandy. He repeated his earlier behaviour: checking out of the hotel very early and leaving a note of apology. The trouble was that, three nights later, he bumped into the same woman in the foyer of his hotel near Yala National Park. Would the doctrine of ‘skilful means’ justify him in spending another night with her? A further night’s pleasure, he concluded, was insufficient reason to violate his ‘once only’ principle. Accordingly, he explained to the French woman that his conscience wouldn’t allow him, for a second time, to ‘use’ her in an attempt to get over the breakdown of his marriage to someone he still loved. She challenged his reasoning but, when he seemed about to burst into tears, she shrugged, muttered something about ces hommes anglais, and strode off to her room.

It was shortly after this escape that Edward was compelled to interrupt his wandering. He’d been lucky, he knew, not to have been bitten, mauled, charged or otherwise injured by some jungle creature or another during three months. But one morning his luck ran out. While clearing away his bowl and saucepan, he felt a sharp pain in the back of his left heel. It was in the grip of the forcipules of an orange-legged tree centipede. Edward had read of the great pain these insects can cause: even so, he was taken aback by its intensity.

He managed to hobble along a track to a road where he waved down a lorry. The driver proved sympathetic and took him to a hospital in the next town, where he was given antibiotics and pain-killers, and told to rest the leg for a few days. Edward booked a room at a local hotel and had them send a car to collect him from the hospital. He also phoned the hotel he should have been going to, near Tissamaharama in the south east, to explain that he’d be a couple of days late.

The centipede bite hadn’t been Edward’s fault, of course, but he still experienced pangs of conscience at interrupting his travels and deviating from his resolution. Would a disciple of the Buddha, he wondered, have let the injury and pain deter him?

After three nights, however, he was on his way. He took a bus to Tissa, but got off near the Bundala National Park, famous for its teeming, technicolour bird life. The road he’d intended to walk down was, however, blocked by a crowd of people and machinery. A film was being shot. Just as Edward was about to turn back, he heard a man shouting at him, in English, to stop. It was the film director, up in a kind of cherry-picker from where he could survey the scene he was shooting. When Edward stopped, the man was lowered to the ground and jumped out.

‘Do you speak English?’ he shouted, as he ran up to Edward.

‘I am English.’

‘Even better. Marvellous,’ said the director, ‘You’ll do perfectly.’

The movie, it emerged, was about the life of a famous Sri Lankan author, who in the 1960s was searching for a purpose in life. Inspired by stories of devout forest monks, he’d come to Bundala in order to catch a glimpse of an eccentric English monk who was living as a hermit in the jungle.

‘Nanavira?’ enquired Edward.

‘Yes, you know of him?’ asked the director in a surprised voice.

Edward replied that he did: but he wasn’t inclined to elaborate and explain that Nanavira was, in fact, one of his heroes, an inspiration for his present mode of existence. In the scene being shot, the central character is supposed to meet Nanavira in the street, kneel down and receive the monk’s blessing. Unfortunately, the director explained, the actor hired to play Nanavira hadn’t shown up, and was probably drunk in some bar. But Edward, he excitedly proclaimed, would be a perfect replacement: he even looked like Nanavira, lean, weather-beaten, and unmistakeably English.

Edward accepted the invitation. How could he not? He’d be playing the part of a man whose life he was, in part, wanting to emulate. It would almost be as if he were playing himself. After three takes, the director was satisfied and thanked Edward.

‘We can’t pay you much, I’m afraid. But we can put you up in a local hotel. You may have to share a room with some of the film crew, but better than sleeping in the street, no?’

Edward thanked the director, said that he didn’t want paying, and that he’d already booked a room at the Hilton in nearby Weerawila, by the lake.

‘The Hilton!’ exclaimed the director. ‘That’s $150 a night, no?’

Edward nodded, smiled, wished the movie well, and walked slowly in the direction of his $150 a night hotel. There, after an excellent curry eaten by the lakeside and a few glasses of an equally admirable malt whisky, Edward reflected on the pleasant coincidence of playing the role in a film of someone you are to a degree playing in real life. Nanavira himself, in his final years, was largely confined to staying in a hut in a jungle clearing, plagued by intestinal troubles and powerful sexual desires. Edward could sympathise with the latter, at least, and felt that if the monk had been sufficiently healthy to have kept on the move, these desires might have been quelled. And he might not, either, have taken his own life by putting his head in a polythene bag through which he inhaled chloroform.

Edward need to return to Colombo – to renew his visa, deal with some financial matters at the bank, and look for a couple of books he needed. He paid the Weerawila hotel almost as much to take his case to the Galle Face Hotel as for his room. He himself would go to Colombo by foot and bus.

On the second evening of the journey, he decided to eat and sleep on a beach a few miles south of the outskirts of the capital. He was just finishing his rice, lentils and jack fruit when, to his irritation, a man emerged from a nearby path through the trees and onto the beach. Despite the fading light, Edward recognised him as a monk – who was now hitching up his robe to paddle several metres out to sea. When he returned, he greeted Edward and came over to join him.

The monk, a young man, asked in excellent English where Edward was travelling to and why. Edward’s first inclination was to reply monosyllabically, but there was something about the monk – an air of intelligence, serenity and empathy – that made him want to explain why he’d become a wanderer. The monk listened carefully as Edward expounded on his ambition to live according to the Buddha’s teachings on impermanence and detachment, and how he had come to love this life of freedom from the fetters of ordinary existence.

‘You’re quite wrong, you know,’ said the monk, politely and quietly, when Edward had finished.

‘What do you mean?’ asked Edward. ‘I thought you’d admire what I’m trying to be.’

‘Just now,’ the monk continued, ‘you spoke of your ambition and of loving this itinerant life. So where is the detachment? You’re as attached to your way of living as much as ordinary people are to their families, friends, jobs …’

‘But, hold on , I …’ Edward intervened, but was in turn interrupted by the monk.

‘Please, let me finish, sir. Let me ask where, too, is the impermanence you seek to achieve. Your pattern of life is very regular, repetitive – three days on the road, one in a hotel, three days on the road, one in another hotel … and so on.’

Edward was about to argue back, but he realised that the monk’s words were beginning to make sense.

‘You see,’ continued the young man, detachment isn’t something you can act or play. It’s a state of mind – an attitude to whatever it is you are doing. You’re always at a distance from it – whether it’s living in a monastery, in a family house, or, like you, on the road. The important thing is not to let anything take hold of you. That’s what counts. And it’s the same with impermanence. It doesn’t matter if you’re always on the move or remain in one place. What matters is your perception of the world: your recognition that everything – yourself included – is constantly changing.’

The monk stood up, smiled, pressed his palms together by way of saying farewell, and walked slowly back up the path through the trees. Edward also stood up, walked towards the edge of the water, breathed in the warm, salty air, and tried to lend order to the stream of thoughts that the monk’s words had set in motion.

The following evening he walked into the foyer of the Galle Face Hotel, his grubby clothes attracting the familiar concerned look from the doorman and floor manager. He went up to the reception desk and gave his name.

‘Yes, sir, it is very good to see you again, sir,’ said the smiling, impeccably suited man behind the desk. ‘We have reserved a suite for you this evening and, as you instructed, two different suites for your second and third nights with us. I think that you will … ‘

‘No, I don’t want those any more,’ interrupted Edward, ‘I’ll keep the same suite – and I also want to extend my stay.’

The receptionist checked the screen of his computer.

‘That should be possible, sir, but for how many nights?’

‘I can’t be sure,’ replied Edward. ‘You see, I don’t know how long I am going to live, how many nights it will be before I die.’

The smile on the face of the man behind the desk faded.

‘I’m not … not sure what you mean, sir.’

‘What I mean, young man,’ said Edward, ‘is that I intend to reserve the suite for the rest of my life – let’s say, at an optimistic guess, around thirty five years.’

The smile on the receptionist’s face returned, but it was a horribly forced one.

‘Please excuse me, sir, I think I’ll need to check this with manager. It may take a while.’

‘Certainly,’ said Edward, ‘I have plenty of time to wait. I’ll be in the bar.’

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david
David E. Cooper
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11 Sep, 2021
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