SinhaRaja Tammita-Delgoda, in Sunday Island, 26 July where the title is “ A Seeker after Many Truths, The Lives of Eduard Hempel”
The canoe nudged its way through the deep brown water. It was thick and heavy, like treacle and the boat inched towards a tree trunk on the river bank. The boat sat low in the water, barely a few inches above the river. “Closer, closer,” said the voice at the stern. “I can’t really see it.”
“Well I can,” protested the voice from the bow. “Its close enough, isn’t it?”
” No, its okay. It doesn’t seem to be moving.” All of sudden the tree trunk moved. Coming suddenly to life, it slid down the river bank, crashing into the water.
“Don’t worry, they are much bigger on the Zambezi. It’s probably scared of us. That was why it was rushing into the water. Look they are all doing that.”
There was a series of splashes, each one louder than the other.
The salt water crocodile is one of Sri Lanka’s most dangerous reptiles, an aggressive, ambush predator, it haunts the inlets of Sri Lanka’ great rivers. For Eduard Hempel, it is merely a part of the fascination of Sri Lanka, one of the many things which had drawn him to the island.
“I wanted mountains, I wanted oceans, I wanted culture, I wanted beaches and bio diversity…, Sri Lanka has everything. The only thing Sri Lanka doesn’t have is snow.”
Eduard Hempel and his family arrived in Sri Lanka in 2003. They made their home in the seaside town of Galle, deep in the south of the island. Built by the Dutch, Galle is one of the best preserved colonial cities in Asia. At that time you could buy a beautiful old mansion steeped in history for next to nothing. All his friends shook their heads and told him he was mad. Fifteen years, later prices have gone up by as much as fifteen times. What were crumbling colonial relics are now some of the most valuable properties in this part of the world.
At six thirty in the morning, Eduard Hempel is already at work. Seated on his terrace overlooking the Indian Ocean, he in a three-way conference with Toronto and Singapore. Beneath him stretches the bay of Talalla, a long gentle, golden curve. The fishing boats are coming back into the bay and the light is seeping into the sky. By the time the conference is over, the sun is overhead and the waves are washing over the stairs at the bottom of his house. He closes his lap top and puts down his mobile phone. Hauling out his surf board, he wanders down the steps and out into the sea.
Eduard Hempel is a man of many worlds. He has lived and worked in England, Australia and the Middle East. His grandfather was German, his father grew up in Ireland and Eduard was born in England, where he grew up. Property was always in his blood. As a little boy, one of his earliest memories was driving around with his father to the different houses that they were rebuilding and restoring in London. They were always moving home, because they kept buying houses, developing them and selling them.
Eduard was named after his grandfather, Dr. Eduard Hempel, who in turned was named for his grandfather before him. There are at least half a dozen Eduard Hempels in the family’s history, each one of them a grandfather. During World War II, Dr. Hempel was Germany’s ambassador to Ireland. A personal friend of Éamon de Valera, one of the great figures of Irish history, he was allowed to stay on in Ireland after the war had ended. In 1950 the family finally returned to Germany, where Dr. Hempel helped rebuild the new West German diplomatic service.
Eduard’s father, Constantin Hempel, stayed on in Ireland, where he married Eduard’s mother. In the 1960s he moved to England where he began to buy and sell property. In London he met his second wife, Anouska Hempel. One of the ‘Angels of Death’ in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, a model and an actress, Anouska Hempel was to become one of the world’s most celebrated interior designers. Together they transformed a row of run down boarding-houses in South Kensington into the world’s first luxury boutique hotel. Blakes Hotel quickly became one of London’s most iconic destinations and a magnet for celebrities from every walk of life. Blakes was very much of Eduard’s early life; he remembers eating there, staying there and playing in its rooms and corridors.
Instead of going to university, Eduard travelled round the world, working his way back to England through Asia. His first real job was as a building contractor in Egypt. Living and working next door to the Pyramids, he remembers sitting on top of the Great Pyramid listening to the Grateful Dead playing in front of the Sphinx. It was a total eclipse of the moon, a night that he will never forget.
In 2003 when he arrived here there was a lull in Sri Lanka’s war with the Tamil Tigers. Everyone thought there was going to be peace. The country was so beautiful that it was easy to attract investment. Immersing himself in the world of property, Hempel has become a bridge for people looking to invest in Sri Lanka’s real estate. As a foreigner in a completely different culture, working in an uncertain and troubled environment, it has not been easy. However, over 15 years, he has built up a thriving business and has established a strong foundation in Galle. In Sri Lankan style, he smiles at everyone he runs across. His smile widens everytime he is stopped by the police for his Sri Lankan driving, leaning out, he beams “Mama Galle”, I’m a man from Galle.”
Enraptured by the beauty of Sri Lanka, Eduard has explored his forests, canoed down its rivers, played with its snakes and dived its coral reefs. He has also discovered phosphorescence and watched it glow in the sea at night.
“I’m a city person, I grew up in a city but I have always had a vision of how we should live in harmony with nature. Sri Lanka teaches the world how to live in harmony with nature. I discovered philosophy through nature.”
In 2019 Eduard was part of an expedition to rediscover the Malwatu Oya, Sri Lanka’s most historic river. The only member of the team who could swim, he played a pivotal role in negotiating the first part of the river. The expedition evolved into a documentary film and Eduard has appeared on Sri Lankan television, as one of the main characters of Malwatu Oya Soya, In Search of the Malwatu Oya.
Although fascinated by Sri Lanka’s ancient past, Eduard is also a dreamer and futurist with a passion for invention and technology. For him, Sri Lanka is also a place of the future. In The Fountains of Paradise, Sri Lanka’s most famous foreign resident, Arthur C. Clarke, describes the construction of a space elevator rising from the ground. Although the rocket industry is becoming more and more efficient, it is hugely expensive, consuming more and more fuel and more and more money. A space elevator could raise payloads to orbit without using rockets. Eduard believes that Sri Lanka is ideally positioned to become an elevator into space. A space elevator needs to be close to the equator and it needs to be near a deep water harbor. Lying at the hub of the Indian Ocean, Sri Lanka has both.
When the war broke out again in 2005, Eduard stayed on. He is convinced that Sri Lanka is on the cusp of major developments. “Values go up in advance of development. People know Hambantota is coming. The Port City is happening. It will push values up.”
With an investment of 1.4 billion dollars, Colombo’s Port City is the largest foreign direct investment in the country’s history and its biggest infrastructure development. It could be South Asia’s next international financial centre. The much talked of southern port of Hambantota could also change everything. At the hub of the sea lane that connects the East to West, it is only 10 miles off the world’s busiest shipping lane.
To Eduard there are many of truths. He is a follower of the Buddha, St. Patrick and the Indian Tantric master Padmasambhava, who brought Tantric Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. All of them seem to share the same story, taming the demons that they met on their journey and turning them into allies. The influence is sometimes clear, Eduard seems to make friends and blend in wherever he goes. His greatest inspiration however, is the Russian born mystic and philosopher Georges Gurdjieff. One of the founders of today’s self-awareness movement, Gurdjieff advised his followers to take the understanding of the East and the knowledge of the West and then seek. He taught that self-transformation could be achieved through self-knowledge; this would uncover the path to the mountain top. It is a journey which Eduard still feels that he is on; echoing his teacher, he tries to profit from every experience that he comes across and is constantly seeking.
On April 22 2019 bombs went off all across Sri Lanka, killing 258 people, 45 of them foreign nationals. Although Sri Lanka had endured three decades of terrorism, it was the first time that foreigners had ever been targeted. Hempel however, remains undaunted. For him, this is not just a Sri Lankan problem. It is a global problem.
“It could have happened anywhere and it does. I have lived here when things were much worse. Every day I feel that I am far more likely to be run over by a bus or knocked out by a falling coconut. Things can only get better.”
One of the greatest influences in Eduard’s life was his friend Larry Switzer. A true Sixties child, Switzer was a Californian, an entrepreneur and a hippy. He was the first man to cultivate Spirulina. A blue green algae which grows in fresh and salt water, spirulina was one of the first life forms on the planet. A wonder food, bursting with multivitamins and proteins, it cures tumours and various other diseases. “If my dreams came true, I would grow it on a vast scale and we would all be eating Spirulina…. the only thing is it tastes like duck shit.”
From Larry Spitzer, Eduard inherited a book about the Chinese poet Li Po, the acclaimed poet of the Tang Dynasty.
Quiet Night Thoughts
Before my bed
There is bright moonlight
So that it seems
Like frost on the ground:
Lifting my head
I watch the bright moon,
Lowering my head
I dream that I’m home.
“I flew in to Sri Lanka on a Poya day, with the full moon shining down on me.
I felt that I was coming home.”