Among Flowers

There is something about Nepal, something a little magical, a little mystical, completely absorbing and intriguing. Sometime during my university days, I joined a group of fellow students (from that other university in Singapore) who were going trekking in Nepal, specifically making the trip to the Annapurna base camp. It was an 18- day trip and as I had been a member of the Outdoor Activities Club in my junior college (that’s kinda like the last two years of high school) where we did plenty of hiking and camping, I thought it sounded great and hoped it wouldn’t be all that difficult.

Alas, it was. All that climbing and steps and steps and steps. Steps into the village and out of the village and in again. But it was also just amazing. The porters and their ability to carry most of our stuff around in gigantic towering packs were just astonishing and the food they managed to whip up in the middle of nowhere – they even made an apple pie and roast chicken once! And every morning, you were greeted by a friendly voice outside your tent and a steaming mug of tea. And at the end of the day as we headed into the day’s campsite (usually almost all set up by the time we arrived – I was usually at the tail end of the group) a refreshing drink of pineapple juice.

Food and steps aside, among my favourite memories of the trip is one as we were leaving one of these mountain-side villages, down a step, and another, and another… And as we treaded our careful way down (these steps, I should add, tend to be larger than your typical stairs – usually requiring both feet to be on the one step, unless I suppose you have really long legs or are just used to these kinda of steps), these two kids in greyish, worn school uniforms, a boy and an older girl, fly past us. They dash down these very steps and head off into the distance, off to school which seemed to be a mountain away. I could follow their journey a little way as they raced down and out of their village and across to the next set of mountains until they were such tiny figures I could hardly see them anymore.

“And it was brought home to me again, that while every moment I was experiencing had an exquisite uniqueness and made me feel that everything was unforgettable, I was also in the middle of someone else’s daily routine, someone captured by the ordinariness of his everyday life.”

Luckily Kincaid has managed to put those similar feelings into far more eloquent prose as she travels Nepal with botanists collecting seeds.

And there are many moments like these in her travelogue, Among Flowers, some pretty little gems that made me reminisce of that time not so long ago when I took was in Nepal. A time when I was younger and more carefree and more willing to put up with nights in a tent and bathing from a pail of water.

However, Kincaid’s voice is at times a bit whiny and the book reads quite like a diary, very personal, pretty honest, and has some mundane details – so it might put some readers off. But I could understand – even that 20-year-old me, so used to outdoorsy stuff, was just completely overwhelmed by Nepal, its beauty, its people, and its lack of plumbing.

Among Flowers is a short enjoyable read and it left me wanting to learn more about the Maoists and the tumultuous history of Nepal (which reminds me – a few days after we returned from Nepal, the royal massacre took place). The book is part of the National Geographic Directions series, which includes books by writers like Oliver Sacks and Francine Prose, definitely worth checking out!

I read this book for the travel section of the Mixing it Up challenge

In Siberia

“‘I’m looking at Siberia.’
‘And what do you see?’ He gestured out of the window. ‘Anything?’ Into my silence he pursued.
‘What did you expect, Nikolai?’
‘Nikolai, it’s too long ago to remember!’ But I had been looking for patterns, of course I wanted their security. I wanted some unity or shape to human diversity. But instead this land had become diffused and unexpected as I travelled it. Wherever I stopped appeared untypical, as if the essential Siberia could exist only in my absence, and I could not answer Nikolai at all.”

Unlike most of the other travel writings I’ve picked up in recent years, Colin Thubron’s In Siberia isn’t that fun armchair travel romp that I’ve more or less learnt to expect from travel-related books. Instead, Siberia strikes me as such a lonely, sad place full of desperation and despair. One that I probably would never want to travel to, and not just because of the blood-curdling temperatures. The people who live there seem to be barely clinging onto their existence, and all the history and culture of times ago is crumbling or has disappeared due to lack of funds (a clavichord cherished by Maria Volkonskaya, wife of a leading Decembrist languishes in a warehouse in St Petersburg where it had been sent for restoration 3 years before as the town cannot pay its bill). Religion seems to be flourishing today in Siberia, and it’s quite remarkable to read of how they kept religion alive within them under Communism. While the subject matter itself isn’t the kind you’d leap into with joyous abandon, I have to admire Thubron’s adventurous spirit, his eye for detail and his seeming ability to chat up and befriend most everyone he meets. These acquaintances, whether those he lodges with or just meets on the train, come alive with his observations and insights. Thubron’s book isn’t exactly what I might know as a travel book but it is rare specimen of brilliant writing, careful observation, great insight and storytelling.