Yesterday I met two incredibly interesting men. They were both Anglo-saxon and both between 70 and 80 years old. One was a true Scottish gentleman, and the other a true subversive north american. Apart from the kindness, and the interest in different cultures that was common to both that was nothing else that made them alike.
The Scottish man was gentle and spoke softly. Everything about him was soft. He dressed like what I imagine british civil servants doing safaris to dress like. He was a patient man. And did not mind waiting for my slowness, nor the fact that other people were taking all of my attention. As a true British gentleman he waited in total stillness. When i was finally able to help him I was mesmerised. Not so long ago I had helped here a very nice Canadian couple that had taught in Morocco and in the UAE for 10 years. they were now teaching in Thailand and they had nothing really of positive to say about the UAE. This Scottish gentleman, close to his 80 had taught English in Saudi Arabia decades ago. As I asked him about it his face lit up. ” It was wonderful. The hospitality! I was invited to houses, and when the women would hide away their fathers and husbands would tell them to not be silly because it was me.” I was moved, he did not feel entitled to be invited to houses, he did not feel people should be behaving in that or that way. He talked like someone who was thankful for having had the chance to be there. I asked a thousand questions and as he spoke I could see the excitement of a little boy. I kept wondering about what makes someone leave Scottish mountains to go to the desert of saudi arabia but I did not ask. Even at almost 80 years old keep going learning about different cultures.
The second man was completely different. All that the first one was slow the second was fast. Million thoughts and million words. He was a physicist and had worked in many different projects. As a child he had had a Buddhist vision but at that time Buddhism was not popular in the West as it is today so he did not know what it was. In fact, he used to think all children had these Buddhist visions but simply did not talk about. This man moved in fast speed, carried a Buddhist monk bag and knew all that I possibly could want to know about Buddhism. I was amazed. He could actually answer all of my doubts about the lines of Buddhism, about the separations, about the different Buddhist, mystic and Tantric practices practice… All that had never remained clear from my conversations with lamas and monks he could answer. As we talked and talked I discovered he had been studying with the Tibetans for the past 40 years. He had been a monk, and considers himself a mystic. He had met the holiest of the lamas and had no respect for tradition. ” because something is tradition it does not mean is right. It simply means it has been practiced for a long time.” although he identifies much closer to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism ( of which Tibetan Buddhism is part), he had also lived with the Theravada monks in Thailand as a monk for a year. He has an absolutely brilliant mind. One of those that is hard to follow because can think in abstraction just as well as in concrete terms.
What makes people like these two men keep crossing borders? Is it the life that they lived that made them this way kind of accidentally? Or is something they could not escape? Have they chose this life or has this life chosen them? They seem happy, and have lived intense lives. Would they do it again? Are they happy? What is the price they have paid to see other words from within? Everyday I wonder more and more about these questions. Does happiness come from belonging or from detachment? Where does it come from? I look at these two older men healthy travelling and living abroad in fascination. I look at them half mesmerised, half terrified. I want to see all they have seen, I want to see it all in the hope to dissolve all boundaries that separate me from others, but while I am successful in daily braking a little bit more these arbitrary language and cultural separations, I simultaneously feel more alone.