“Scenes from my past sometimes cry out for description. They come back to me time and again, demanding to be put on to the printed page, as if the experiences return to my conscious mind solely to be recorded. Their return also forces me to renew my acquaintance with old friends and to exorcise old demons. Printed on the page, the scenes take on new reality and I relive them to the full, sometimes taking myself deeper into the event than I had originally gone. Everything suddenly becomes more vivid and I look back and think, how did I dare?”
So says the travel writer and scientist Tobias Schneebaum.
I can vouch for it. We writers frequently feel that as we relive stories of our experiences in writing that they sometimes become more vivid and take on a life of their own.
Schneebaum was writing about a trip among headhunters in Irian Jaya (eastern Indonesia). Few of us have done anything quite that daring. I’d rather not take the chance, and keep my head on.
Many readers of ECS Nepal magazine have had some seriously challenging experiences. And some enjoy writing them to share. Do they grow larger and more vivid in the writing? As a general rule, for a story to be interesting and capture our imaginations, it should exude enthusiasm.
Writing about dares and challenges conjures up wonderful memories, and as we spin them out as stories we are bound to enthuse a little along the way. Take my first trek through the Khumbu to Everest Base Camp (EBC). It was New Year’s Day 1966. I was the Number One foreign trekker to EBC that year, and one of only a few dozen for the entire year. I remember clambering up (slowly, at that altitude) another two hundred meters to the Kala Pattar viewpoint. I also remember that it was cold, very cold! But, OMG, what a view! The graceful Pumori peak in the north was like a snow cone. The sheer ice face of Nuptse’s western buttress faced me directly across the Khumbu glacier. And Everest’s wind-blown black pyramid soaring majestically above it all... Breathtakingly marvelous! (literally)
I enjoyed reliving that adventure for years until, one day, I realized that it was “old hat”, as they say. My story by today’s jet set adventure standards is a fossil from the past (from a time “BT- Before Trekkers). I may have been the first one that year, but my lonely excursion to EBC so early in the Himalayan trek-tourism onslaught is totally lost now among the tales that so many thousand others tell. It’s a regular freeway up there, folks.
What’s the fun and challenge of that? Who goes it alone anymore, sleeping out rough and living on dried yak meat, rock hard churpi (cheese), and yesterday’s cold boiled potatoes? Compare what you can get now all the way to Gorak Shep – exotic meals served up in warm hotels that advertise hot solar showers for a fee.
Even the Nepal government has stolen my thunder, so to speak, by holding a cabinet meeting at EBC last December. It was their way of making a statement to the world about global warming and melting glaciers. What a story – enough to make the international press and the January 2010 cover of HydroNepal, Nepal’s own scientific journal of water, energy and environment. I’d like to hear those cabinet officers tell the story, punctuated with heavy breathing in the high thin air.
Going to Everest Base Camp is no longer a novel experience. It only makes a good story if the writer finds some aspect that others didn’t know. Something unique. Something vivid. Something exciting. Headhunters, no. Yetis, perhaps. But just seeing one is no go. If she hugs you and you live to write about it, then we’ll print it! Otherwise, you’ll have to find new challenges somewhere else. Writing about the trek to Everest, like the trail itself, is pretty well worn.
Tobias Schneebaum wrote about headhunters in ‘A drive into the unknown’, reprinted in They Went: The Art and Craft of Travel Writing, edited by William Zinsser (1991).
Don Messerschmidt is a contributing editor to ECS Nepal. Email him at email@example.com.
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