At Loon Tao restaurant, beachside; Mt. Lavinia, a quiet southern suburb of Colombo, Sri Lanka. It is evening, the surf loud, the air cool and breezy after a cool, grey, sometimes rainy day. Over the waves, I can hear the papery shush of the coconut palms in the wind. I spent the day in my underwear beneath the ceiling fan in my room, banging out place-reviews for work, then took the train up into Colombo in the afternoon for a beer on the marble verandah of the five-star Galle Face Hotel, sipping crisp cold draft in the open air and catching a pleasant buzz, reading a novel with the waves rolling in just 40 meters away, blue and white, the ocean breeze delicious as it dried the sweat beading my arms and forehead.
Tonight, I eat salt-and-pepper prawns, cheap and tasty seafood of a truly freakish size, the moon just an ivory sliver in the sky above, and wash them down with more crisp lager, walking the beach afterward in the deep indigo tones of twilight, my favorite of the day, as they linger on the waves. I let the warm surf wash over my feet as I walk, feeling replete and content, and feeling, as I do most at these times, quite guilty.
Other people, when they travel, volunteer, build roofs on dilapidated schoolhouses in rat-haunted urban slums, teach English to Tibetan refugees, take cooking classes or study meditation. I, on the other hand, do not even sightsee. What is Sri Lanka to me after the hard intensity of Kashmir, but ease – delicious seafood, leisurely drinks in the afternoon? Sea breezes, cool showers in the heat?
Ah, the oracle, Theroux, grumbler and guiding star: “Travel is at its best when it becomes indistinguishable from living your life.” I relish in long coffee in the mornings, in deep meditation afterward, in the leisure to read and think and write, in running minor errands across a pleasant seaside town beneath a parasol, in a swim before the sun sets, golden on the water in the late afternoon. And yet I feel guilty, that life should collapse to this luxuriously sensual mode, that I should feel so fully the satisfaction of simply living, and living well.
Yet isn’t it a statement of some kind as well, a proof? Against the mode of living that takes as its central fact a kind of drudgery and obligation – particularly in my native country, which disdains productive leisure and makes a kind of sainthood of dumb toil – that a life is possible which embraces freedom and sensuous enjoyment, as ripe and sweet as mangoes, as easily plucked, the proverbial low-hanging fruit? And that, just as importantly, one need not make some social statement to justify living, but only to LIVE, as consciously and happily and freely as possible?
I am many things, I realize – aesthete, blusterer, sometimes glutton – but amongst these things I am also a person who knows his pleasures well. A grand cathedral will be wondrous to me on the proper day, but often the most vulgar pleasures – and people – will do me just as well.
Thusly, my final night in Unawatuna, on the south Ceylon coast, I spend with Ravi – the town drunk, or more properly the most colorful and talkative of the town drunks – downing beers on a quiet corner of the beach as the sun glows red and is absorbed into the western sea. He is 50, wearing a Bob Marley hat and a blue plaid dhoti, his face pockmarked by ancient acne scars, a beer in his fist as he takes a swig and then passes the bottle, which I have paid for, over to me. He’s beautiful and sad, with his battered bicycle and his plaintive mooching and his dissolute air, his total comfort in being exactly the creature that he is.
“What you want, Matchoo? You want mari-ju-juana? Girls?”
“Nah, that’s okay.”
“What? Mari-ju-juana and girls, very good. All the world people coming here – Italian, German, single womens. Even single womens wanting sex. We can go to disco, smoke mari-ju-juana, find girls.”
I stand up to pee and the ground reels pleasantly beneath my feet, the light on the water like candleflames in liquid glass, and I know that I’m happy just where I am.
“Nah, go ahead, though.”
“What? You think I’m drunk?!”
“Of course you’re drunk. We’ve been sitting here drinking Lion Strong for two straight hours. I’m drunk, you’re drunk, drunk is what we are. But go, have fun.”
He shrugs, then takes the beer that I have paid for and stumbles off with his bicycle into the night, pursuing a debased version of bliss strangely congruent with my own. I take a walk to the wine shop across the road and buy a final beer, then sit alone beneath the starry sky, drunk and completely joyful, my body spinning like a top as the waves crash all around.