December 29, 2004
since I got bad news late last night via email. My friend and fellow traveller Peter Brel was one of the thousands killed in Sri Lanka on the 26th. He was at his home in Kahawa finishing a leisurely breakfast with his young wife Alva when the wave came. Seeing children out on the beach being swept up in the water he ran out to help, was sucked under, and has not been seen again. Alva, safely on the third floor was unhurt but is obviously distraught. She is pregnant with their first child and is currently trying to get back to Holland to be with her family.
How to describe Peter. He was a rascal. A scoundrel of the first order and good friend. The first time I ever met him, he and a lovely Brazilian girl, both naked, were emerging from a sleeping bag on a freezing cold morning. They were camping illegally behind a Mongolian bus station. Even though they had just met the previous day on a bus he had somehow convinced this girl that skin to skin contact was the only way they would generate enough heat to survive the night. Years later, camping in Tibet, I overheard him whispering this technique to an Israeli girl we had met on the road. As we were preparing to sleep I heard them snuggling up, "What about your friend," she asked worried that I would become a human popsicle. "Don't worry about him, I'm trying to save you," he said.
For a few years Peter's base of operations was a horrible Chengdu hotel, The Black Coffee, a renovated 1950's Chinese bomb shelter built to protect against Soviet attack. The door to the street was unmarked and to get in one had to descend many narrow dark stairwells, past solid steel blast doors, and into a maze of low hallways. I would have happily stayed anywhere else but having recently been robbed, it was the cheapest place around and I was holed up waiting for a new passport from the consulate and money from Visa. This was around 1992. Peter cut me a deal on his 50cent per night room. I could have a bed for 20cents per night. Three other down on their luck backpackers had made similar arrangements, but there were no complaints about his profit because the guy was so amusing. Peter was using the hotel as his basecamp taking long trips around Sichuan and knew the area better than any other backpacker. He had bribed officials and had special stamps that gave him virtually unlimited access, unheard of in those days. He could frighten at first sight with his shoulder length hair and wild eyes, but his disheveled appearance masked a European sophisticate-- multilingual (he spoke 9 or 10 languages), incredibly well read, impossibly well travelled, and darned charming. One night he turned the Black Coffee's dark subterranean corridors into makeshift disco and invited 100 of his "good friends from the PSB". He was the guy who always knew the way to get to the place beyond the edge of the map and he always made sure you had a hell of a time getting there. When giving travel advice he would always say something like, "Well you could go that way, but if you want to see something really interesting..." He would never mention that his way might take months and involve several illegal border crossings.
I ran into him several times during my years of backpacking... not only in Mongolia and China but in Vietnam, and in India and we trekked to from Langmusi to Aba on the Tibetan plateau. No matter where I would see him, he would always greet me as if it was not usual to run into someone several thousand miles from where you last departed.
We lost touch as people who meet on the road usually do, but last year another traveller who knew us both gave him my email address and he reappeared in my life In recent years he had put his large family fortune to good use working with a variety of charity organizations around India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka. He favored local projects that have real tangible effects--micro-loans, water pumps, etc. His long hair had long been trimmed, and was greyer than mine, but he was otherwise unchanged. I had missed his wedding by four years, but he sent me long emails waxing poetic about Alva, about his collections of Chinese art and Indian illuminated manuscripts, and about the house he had built by the sea. He had given up smoking and drinking and several other bad habits and was, I think, at peace. "Travel and my wife are the only vices I have left" he wrote, "God help me if I lose a taste for either."
After the birth of my son, I sent an email announcing the news. On Christmas he replied, "Jolly good. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to hear your good news. You must make me a godfather or compadre or some other honorific. I must be more than simply Uncle Peter. I'm sure we can work something out. Let's pray Alva gives birth to a girl child so I can watch her torture your son. The child is due in March, you know, so you must tell me everything to blaze the path. Be well my friend and lets plan a trip together with the kids. I know a few good places."