The Illustrated Insectopedia - Hugh Raffles (2010)

Nepal

And then, on waking one morning, as if in a dream, I left London with my friend Greg, headed for north India and Nepal. We planned to travel together for several months, but Greg returned after just a few weeks and I went on to Nepal with another friend, Dan, who, like me, had earned his ticket money as a porter in the local hospital. In all, I was away for six months but am surprised to realize now that I have no photographs from that trip and not many memories. Perhaps this is what happens when you travel without purpose, or at least when the only purpose is a hazy sense of adventure derived from a hazy sense of privilege. I do remember that Dan liked his drugs and that once he arrived, the two of us smoked more or less continually from the time we woke up until bedtime. We lived in a state of sensuous, if not analytic, clarity.

In those days, the town of Pokhara was little more than a main street, at one end of which the breathtaking mass of Annapurna rose vertiginously above all else. When the clouds cleared, it felt as if the mountain would topple over and bury everything. We stayed there in a sort of workers’ dormitory for one or two nights and then decided to go to the hills. Somehow, I’m not sure how, we made a Nepalese friend of about our age who agreed to accompany us, and we set off walking. I have no photographs, letters, or journals of any of this, but if I fix on an object and move from there to another and then to the next, I create memories. A plunging waterfall in the side of a cliff and our bodies afterward covered in black leeches that we burned off with cigarettes. A woman killing a chicken for our dinner and our embarrassment because it was too big a thing and she wouldn’t take payment. A wooden house on a hillside where, after dinner, a young boy tried to sell me his sister for the night. Fried bread and salted buttered tea. Broad stony valleys. Strings of flapping Tibetan prayer flags. When I first saw the breathtaking opening scene of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Wrath of God, I remembered the mule trains we passed picking their way along the sides of the mountains. When I heard on the BBC that the Maoists had finally entered Kathmandu and national government, I remembered the women who pleaded with us for money for their sick babies, who explained that the health post was closed, who showed us their children, listless, pot-bellied, and covered in sores, who made us feel helpless, stupid, ignorant, and out of place, as we were, who made me swear to myself I would never do this again.

Tonight, thirty years later, sitting near the back of the M5 bus on Seventy-second Street in Manhattan as the driver turned onto Riverside Drive and we sped along the darkened road with its grand doorman buildings on our right and the shadows of the park on our left, with the river and the highway below and out of view, I suddenly remembered, I can’t say why, the completely different feeling of rounding a curve on the brightest of mornings, high in the mountains, the three of us striding carelessly along the gravelly path, the valley stretched below us, the peaks rising around us, the snows of the Himalaya so crisply unreal above us, and a group of children tumbling, laughing, along the road toward us, on their way to collect wood, we guessed, and a girl, maybe ten years old, I remember, the biggest of the little group, stopping in front of us, her arm outstretched, holding out her closed fist, palm-side down, telling me to hold out my palm under hers and all the while giggling so hard that we were giggling too without really knowing why, until she opened her hand and dropped into mine a ball, a closed-up living ball, something multicolored and alive that sat there still as stone, hiding in that sharp, sharp light, its segmented shell like a rolled-up sea creature or a special jewel, something very rare, and after I’d looked at it a few moments without comprehending what it was or why it was there in my hand, she plucked it back, still curled tight, and giggling still, swung her arm in the widest arc, and before I could get the words out, she had flung it high and far, causing it to spiral off the side of the mountain into the thin air and down, dizzyingly down into the gray-brown valley below, and had run off laughing, twirling around but staying upright, little friends, carrying their bundles, laughing and not looking back.