Perceptive Travel: Ballad of a Traveling Buddha

After years of faithful companionship, Joshua Berman’s backpack fetish decides to move on.

Traveling Buddha has been with me more than ten years – across continents, over oceans, up mountains. I should say, Traveling Buddha had been with me more than ten years. Buddha’s gone now. He has left the building.

He was about the size of my thumb, my trusty little icon; made of cheap, rose–stained resin, pot belly and man–breasts hanging over loose, carved robes. He had a wide, bald pate above an ear–to–ear smile, his hobo stick slung casually over his right shoulder. TB was a cheerful source of inspiration from his stance on many–a hostel night stand, desk, and window sill. Sometimes, he stood right on my laptop, next to the “Simplify” sticker above my keyboard. There he smiled, channeling muses from the ether.

I don’t remember where he came from, from whom, or exactly when he joined me, but once I realized he’d been with me a few years, it didn’t matter. Wherever I went, there he was – from four corners of the United States to half a dozen Central America nations. Through seasonal jobs, volunteer stints, backcountry jaunts, and the road trips that connected them all – TB did ride, tucked into pockets of successive generations of backpacks, silently offering his blessings.

Once, returning to the U.S. from Belize, the screeners at Houston’s George H.W. Bush International Airport pulled me aside and patted me down while my carry–on was re–screened three times because, they said, of a suspiciously dense item inside. Empty the bag, they told me, then, after sorting through my electronics, books, gadgets and pens, decided the culprit was none other than Traveling Buddha. He cracked a huge grin while I bit my tongue to keep from sniggering at the officials who, needless to say, saw neither irony nor humor in their blunder. In the post–9/11 world, border guards were not looking for enlightenment.

Before I traveled everywhere with my laptop, I traveled everywhere with my guitar, TB all snug in the tattered hard–shell case’s inside compartment of picks, strings, capos, and case liner fuzzies. He would emerge for gigs, sometimes swinging to the rhythm as he dangled from the guitar head, sometimes standing on stage with me, laughing at every lyric, dancing inside his ample body.

Once, after playing the Shannon Irish Pub in Managua, TB was accidentally swept onto the floor and found by the barmaid after closing time, quite content in a puddle of Guinness. That was the same night that the owner berated me for getting too drunk during my set – on my sole payment of free Guinness. We listened patiently to his rant, then made it across the barrio to our $4 room without getting robbed. That’s teamwork, baby, the way TB kept me out of trouble whenever I stumbled into trouble’s way.

Traveling Buddha spent a few years in Nicaragua, then after I got married in New York, he circled the globe with my wife and I, the three of us returning a year–and–a–half later. When it came time to pack up the car and drive to Colorado, I decided that, instead of suffocating deep inside my computer bag, TB should get some fresh air. So I super–glued him to the hood of my car and into the sunset we cruised. Through Indiana rain, Missouri sleet, and Kansas hail, Little Man Buddha guided us o’er fruitful plains until the mountains came into sight and, finally, we pulled into my mother–in–law’s driveway in Littleton, Colorado. The next morning, he was gone.

A circular ring of glue and paint – a ragged, quarter–sized footprint – was all that remained. After ten years, he didn’t even leave a note. My mother–in–law immediately suspected the neighbor’s young troublemakers, but there was no need for blame. In fact, I had to laugh. It was downright funny, I thought, that somebody would disregard the obvious questionable karma of stealing a Buddha – I mean, come on! I also found it funny that, out of ignorance or arrogance, the culprits’ fearless nonobservance of an otherwise sacrosanct object was actually quite a Buddhist sentiment in itself – like the forest monks in Sri Lanka who urinated on tablets bearing images of the Buddha in order to comment on what should and should not be “sacred.” Rocks, images, and icons, they believed, were not. And not only were the wise novices who stole my Buddha commenting on the impermanence of life and everything in it, they were also assisting him to stay mobile, as if TB knew I was, after a decade of movement, coming to Colorado to rest, to even (gasp!) settle down. He, by his very nature – by his very name! – could do no such thing.

The next day, I drove my ornament–less car to see an old friend and music buddy in Boulder. Sean G. is a strong and sturdy kindred spirit and it’d been a long time since I’d seen him, with many travels in between. After greetings on his porch, he declared, “Let’s get a pint!” As I plopped into the passenger seat of his truck, I stopped and stared – at the Traveling Buddha glued to Sean G.’s dashboard. The exact same Buddha.

Sean was a musician in an Irish band and a professional window cleaner. Though I had occasionally suspected he was an undercover Bodhisatva (an enlightened soul who forsakes Nirvana to spread cheer and compassion to his fellow Earthlings), I’d never seen any physical evidence to support my hunch.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked.

Buddha on Sean G.'s dashboard

“From a client,” he said, “After cleaning her windows I commented on her collection of Buddhas; they were standing like an army on her window sill. She asked which one I liked. ‘They’re for giving away,’ she said. ‘Pick one.’ I took Hobo Buddha–Belly because there were two of them.” It’d been on his dashboard for five months.

Serendipity, fortune, kismet, or karma?

I’m not sure. But after years on the road, I am actually unpacking bags and boxes, even while my inner vagabond tells me to leave them alone – that all these acquired objects and possessions will have to be moved or stored again, so why bother? I ignore this indisputable logic and continue with the task at hand. My new Boulder apartment has three small, south–facing rooms with a view of the Rocky Mountains; and as I sort through my things, I wonder when a new Buddha will appear in my life, and if he will be seated – silent and still.

Joshua Berman is an award-winning guidebook author and freelance writer. He is currently working on a book about his recent round-the-world voluntourism honeymoon. His website is


This article originally appeared in Perceptive Travel.

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