James is an awesome guy. I met him in Wakai, one of a small group of remote islands in North Sulawesi, Indonesia called the Togian Islands. I was waiting for a boat to a smaller, even remoter island than Wakai. Turns out James was going to the same place. I asked him where he was from and he replied, “Jersey.” Weird, he didn’t sound American. The couple sitting on the grass next to us laughed at my expression. “Jersey is a small country in the UK,” James said, which explained his British accent.
I’d seen James on the overnight ferry from Gorontalo the night before. He looked a bit bare, like he was only just packing the essentials. He lay stretched out reading a paper back, glasses perched on the end of his nose. The wooden prayer beads around his neck hung to one side of his white shirt.
From Wakai, we crammed into a narrow fishing boat with three other people and sailed silently for a couple of hours to our destination, near the tiny island of Katupat. We disembarked next to a long, crooked jetty that stretched out from a deserted white beach into water void of colour. I saw pink coral and dozens of damsel fish several meters below. We padded barefoot across the planked floor through the open air dining area where some locals and three dogs greeted us. I asked for a standard cottage. “No, you want the superior one,” James said, “there are less critters, trust me, you want the superior cottage.” Normally I don’t like people telling me what I want but the price wasn’t much more and I always heed warnings of critters so I took James’s advice. Perhaps he was trying to save me from spiders the size of houses though because “superior” better described the size of the spiders–the size of my hand, swollen. They regularly appeared in my bathroom and made the two-inch cockroaches seem sweet little pets.
James is one of those guys who seems a bit standoffish at first, particularly if you are a rich child or an inauthentic Muslim, but he becomes pure marshmallow fluff when you get to know him. He intimidated me at first. He was wise and opinionated. He had pockets full of stories, the experiences of a long-term traveller. He seemed a guy who would make crumbs of flaky people. What did he think of me and my shiny, 20 kg backpack and history of teaching rich kids? But as we whittled the days away in our hammocks talking about everything under the sun, I became more comfortable with James. He had a playful, squeaky clean sense of humour that made me want to climb trees and chase butterflies. We discovered we have a lot in common, including our bad karma with business machines. “I call all photocopiers Bob Marley now,” he said, “because they’re always jamming.” I guffawed. We also share an inability to makes decisions easily. “I decided once a long time ago to not make decisions anymore but now I can’t decide if that was the right decision,” he said, which reminded me of something my dear late Uncle Ray would have said. Again, I guffawed.
One night as we sat eating dinner, James explained how he quit drinking alcohol and having sex. He hasn’t done either in 10 years, aside for an occasional… beer. I gaped and smacked the table. “Wait a minute, sex and alcohol? Those are like my two favourite things! Why?” I asked.
“I wanted a simple life. Alcohol makes you make bad judgements and do stupid things. Sex just complicates things,” he explained.
“Yeah, but they make life more fun. Both sex AND alcohol?” I asked. “But they go together so well!”
He laughed. “Exactly. Take them both down at the same time.”
“But wait, you haven’t had sex by choice?” Out of consideration I didn’t want to presume anything but my good intentions were wasted.
He cocked his head and looked at me like I’d asked him what colour yellow is. “Yes, by choice. What, you think in TEN YEARS I couldn’t get laid? Gee, thanks a lot! Am I that unattractive that–” I cut him off and tried to reshape my words, explaining that sometimes these things aren’t always a choice. It was a failed recovery but we had a good laugh about it. “Everything is a choice,” he said. “Anything that weighs you down is a bag, Colleen. All you have to do is put down the bag and walk away.” Gulp.
James does have a simple life. He hops around tropical islands diving, exploring, and meditating. Each morning I glanced at James sitting crosslegged on his porch, eyes closed with his head titled slightly to one side, a tiny smile on his face. I hoped to absorb some of his peace and reverie just by watching him. In front of him sat a small decapitated Buddha statue, its pointy head perched at its side, threatening to roll down a wooden plank and plop into the sand. I asked, “tis why he is so silent?”
“It fell off sometime ago and I tried to fix it with strong glue but I think it’s time for a new one.” You think so James? It’s a bit like an inverted cross, a torn American flag in front of a US Consulate, or a slutty Muslim, no?
He reformed his life to Buddhism about 10 years ago, coinciding with his self-induced prohibition and celibacy. He went to a monastery in Thailand and lived with the monks for several months (try saying the previous four words quickly), eating once a day and meditating for most of each day. He said it was where he learned how to love. In the four days he spent meditating in a cave he learned about the misery that desire and aversion create. He told me, “four days and all I could think about was Ken Fucking Ballo from Coronation Street! Seriously, I don’t even watch Coronation Street!” And then I realised that the more I wanted to think about something else, the stronger his image became in my mind. It was better if I just accepted it.”
For a week we met at the end of the jetty to watch the sunset. We’d lay down our yoga mats and sit side by side, commenting on the lemon-coloured sky and each other’s stories. The prayer from the mosque in the nearby village usually came at this time, in a listless, unconvincing tone. James looked at me one evening and said, “doesn’t sound like God’s that great today,” and then swung his head towards the mosque and bellowed, “Excuse me Allah, but we’re having a conversation here!” He turned back to me, “sounds a bit like a saxophone with a tennis ball stuck in it, doesn’t it?” I giggled. It really did.
He told me about caring for his mother for two years after her stroke. He didn’t evoke sympathy when he talked about her or when he described how he felt when she died. Rather, he described it matter-of-factly, and with humour. “It wasn’t a decision to drop what I was doing to go home and take care of her,” he explained, “it was just automatic. Thankfully she had enough mobility to soap herself so I didn’t have to touch any unsavoury bits,” he chuckled. “And I finally got my payback for all the times she made me eat my vegetables as a kid.” He has a habit of lifting his chin and widening his eyes, goofy-like, at the height of a joke or when making a point. I felt like I was looking at a bald, masculine reflection of myself whenever he did that. I loved the way he talked about his mother. He mimicked her voice to sound like a cantankerous old British lady, perpetually uptight because the shop doesn’t carry her proper biscuits and how is she supposed to have her tea without her proper biscuits. Over time and with a series of coincidental circumstances involving bed covers, balloons, and bike helmets, James has come to believe that his mom’s spirit exists in Doraemon, a character from Pokemon. It must be why he’d so drawn to SouthEast Asia. The more time he spends here, the more frequently his mother’s spirit will visit.
I told James about my two years in Surabaya and he told a story from his time in the Thai monastery. His room had been overtaken by ants and though he tried to accept the ants in true Buddha fashion, he just couldn’t take it after a few days. So he went to the head monk, explained his predicament, and asked to be moved. The monk gave him the key to room 29 down at the end of the lot. He spent a good hour just clearing the debris and cobwebs from the front step so he could open the door. And then, surprise, everything was inside: snakes, spiders, scorpions, etc. because no one had stepped foot in that room in years. He spent that day clearing it out and making it home. Later that evening the head monk asked James how his new room was so he explained everything he’d encountered that day. “The monk listened to my story and then smiled like a cheeky bugger and said, “but no ants, right?” And it was just the way he said it that got me… when we try to avoid discomfort or displeasure, it will find us some other way.”
“Ha, no kidding,” I replied, “like going to Jakarta to escape Surabaya.”
“Can’t be any worse than a Pakistan prison I suppose,” he said as he debated having one of the Oreo cookies I offered. I wanted to see this desire-aversion thing in action. I asked him to explain his prison comment as I reached for my third Oreo.
Some years ago when he was travelling in Pakistan and walking around looking for a specific market, he was approached by a severe-looking man holding an AK47. The man ushered him into a truck. James was taken to a prison and locked in a cell with about 20 local men. His first thought was, oh dear, I hope I don’t come out of here with a sore ass. But in the four days he spent in that cell he made friends with the men. He taught them a bit of yoga and meditation and they treated him kindly. Finally, he was taken to a holding room where he was interviewed by a panel of officials, asking random, absurd questions.
“They wanted to know how many uncles I had. I told them I didn’t know. They looked at each other wide-eyed, knowingly and said, “ah ha!” as they jotted something down on paper. They did the same thing when they asked how many cousins I had. (The notes might have read “suspicious ignorance of family tree”). And then the questions changed.
“Now Colleen, I’m going to interview you like they interviewed me, to strengthen my point. What is the name of the American Secret Service?” He asked me.
“The CIA,” I responded.
“Okay, what is the name of the British Secret Service?”
“I don’t know,” I said, “should I?”
“Really? Okay, it’s the MI6. Obviously I knew that so I told them. Okay, what is the name of the Russian Secret Service?”
“Oh, I know this one. G-something, no, K-something. Shit, I can’t remember.” I said, fuddled.
“Colleen, you’re killing the interview! The KGB!” He rolled his eyes at me. “You willy wally” (his term of endearment for me whenever my brain failed a thought task). “Okay, what is the name of the Indian Secret Service?” He asked, leaning over the table, his eyes wide, coaxing me to answer.
“Pffft,” I scoffed, “I’ve no idea!”
“Right! Neither did I! But because I knew the names of all the other ones they were suspicious because I claimed to not know the Indian one. Perhaps they would have let me go right then if I’d answered as ignorantly as you. Turns out they thought I was a spy for the Indian Secret Service. Me, some white, bald British dude wandering around Pakistan with a backpack. They thought that was my cover. Later on I glimpsed the notes and saw they’d written “he’s white”. They let me go a few days later.”
I couldn’t help but ask him what the name of the Canadian secret service is. “You have one?” He asked.
A week of James’s stories and I could write a book. He showed up in my life at just the right time, but doesn’t everyone, except maybe Ken Ballo? I spent a week at James’s side laughing my ass off, always good medicine even when you’re not sick. But alas, James had to leave the island to make his way back to immigration on the mainland, which is how I came to refer to any piece of land larger than 20 square kilometres after a few weeks in the Togians. We tucked farewell postcards into each other’s bags, unbeknownst to the other, and then James hopped on the boat and sailed away. I waved at him until he was a tiny dot in the distance. For the few days after his departure I looked forlornly at the empty porch next to me. He was one more unexpected hello and goodbye on the road less travelled–or the sea less sailed. Maybe our paths will cross again but until then I have his stories to recall when I need some comic relief and his wisdom that some bags are just too heavy to bother carrying.