Nepal was the eighth and final country of our backpacking trip, and with the end looming like a Himalayan peak, Courtney and I were weary, our bodies worn down by the realities of the road: our heavy packs; the interminable and death-defying bus rides; the pervasive dust; and the sense, unique to travel, that one is always an oddity, literally out of place. And yet Nepal would not let us quit. Travel-hardened as we believed we were, the country softened us again.
We met Herbert on a trek to Ranighat, the so-called Taj Mahal of Nepal: a riverside mansion built by a general in memory of his wife in 1893. As we returned from Ranighat through the lush Barandi Valley back towards the town of Tansen, we came to the village of Aule. We approached a little shop where a large woman was engaged in conversation with a man on a bench. We nodded politely, and the woman beckoned us to stop and rest.
As we did, we noticed that there was something off about this traditional Nepali village scene. It wasn’t entirely Nepali. The man on the bench, upon closer inspection, was lanky, with stringy blonde hair, a scraggly beard, and ghostly blue eyes.
Herbert seemed just as surprised to see us as we were too see him, though we later learned this look of eternal bewilderment was simply his resting face. Nonetheless, he seemed thankful for a couple pairs of Western ears. He began to speak, and the flow was as prodigious as it was engrossing.
Herbert had been staying in Aule for two weeks, he told us. In exchange for farm help, he was given room and board. He was a 40-odd-year-old German who was very into music. He detailed his typical Monday routine back home, whereby he’d listen to nine straight hours of vinyl records. This seemed like a tremendous amount of time to spend listening to music, and he admitted his friends were worried about him. Not because of the music, mind you, but because of the heroin he smoked while listening to it.
Unsure of how to treat this latest piece of information, I said, “Well, it must make it nicer to listen to vinyl.”
Whenever I spoke, Herbert stared at me deeply from the corners of his pale blue eyes, a sidelong bore into my soul from which I was never sure he’d return.
“Yes,” said Herbert, finally. “It lets you dream while you listen. It opens the door for you so that you can dream and listen to music at the same time.”
The Nepali woman’s son woke from a nap and groggily joined our little group. He’d been calling Herbert “Uncle”, and Herbert waxed crazy about how he loved that age, all the while seeming exactly that age, a child trapped in a man’s body. He loved the toys here in Nepal, he told us, because they were so simple. People here had nothing, so they made things. It helped his imagination.
We listened until his imagination ran dry. Then we turned and hiked back to Tansen.
Almost a week later we found ourselves in Bandipur, a beautiful mountain hamlet on the way to Kathmandu – the last stop before the last stop. One morning on our way to breakfast we saw our lanky German friend.
“Hello Herbert!” I called.
Herbert returned my greeting with a bewildered stare. In his eyes we saw zero comprehension.
“Nice to meet you,” he said, finally. He then launched into a story about how since he’d gotten his money stolen in Tansen, he was living on only five Euros a day. We asked where he was staying.
“I am staying in a house. It is concrete. I’m not sure how you say in English. They are still building it.”
“Oh, like it’s under construction?” I offered.
“Yes. I prefer this. I often stay in abandoned house or farmhouse. I do this back home.”
Herbert recommended a walk to us, and was considering it himself, but he had other potential plans.
“I met some Nepali guys and I might drink with them today. I did it yesterday. I have two cassettes of me playing my stuff. I like to listen but nowhere can play cassette. So they said they will arrange it.”
Since Herbert was going to be busy drinking and listening to cassettes of himself, Courtney and I went on his recommended walk, returning to town for a late afternoon snack of masala papad and vegetable pakora. Eventually, Herbert materialised and sat on the ground near us, scratching at rashes on his arms.
Our meal was taking a long time but Herbert waited patiently, moving from the ground to a stool and regaling us all the while. He told us that he believed his money was stolen either by a crooked guesthouse owner or a shady crowd of drug addicts. But this was nothing new to him.
“In Munich my vagon was robbed two times.”
“Your what?” I asked.
“Yes. I live in a vagon outside Munich. It is only 150 Euros for the year.”
That evening we walked to Tundikel, a flat and ancient trading ground on the outskirts of town, for sunset. On the way back to our guesthouse we saw Herbert, walking happily with three middle aged Western ladies as if this evening stroll was their nightly constitutional. He was gesticulating wildly about something or other, the ladies laughter fading in the dusk.
The next morning was our last encounter with Herbert. As we left our hotel, we noticed that the cloud cover of the last few days had evaporated. The Himalayan peaks were visible, looming again on the horizon. We walked to Tundikel and sat in the radiating sunshine. A lanky figure soon strolled across the field and joined us. We talked idly, or just sat and stared at the majesty before us, struck dumb in the best possible way, a look of bewilderment on all our faces.
A young local girl, Munkamari, joined us. When Herbert heard her name he repeated, “Montgomery?”
Munkamari pointed out things around us and gave us the Nepali words for them: the peaks, “Himal”, a massive eagle, “cheel”, the sun, “gom”. Though the end of the trip was near, less than a week away, sitting in the sun with Herbert and Montgomery made it seem unfathomable, like something on the other side of Himal.
A group of sari-clad women approached us and began to chat with Munkamari. After a few moments one of them said, “Come dance.”
They led us to their picnic, where 20 ladies sat on a mat, singing, clapping and jangling bells, while two men cooked. They beckoned Courtney to dance, pushing and pulling and pleading until finally she rose. It was the second time since we’d arrived in Nepal that Courtney was forced to dance, and I’ll never forget the expression on her face: all pursed lips and pleading eyes. She twirled shyly for a few moments, her bemusement matched only by my amusement. Munkamari got up and danced with Courtney, wiggling her skinny wrists with elegance, and when I showed Munkamari the video I took with my camera she exploded with delight.
The ladies beckoned Herbert and I to dance as well but we refused, me with an embarrassed smile and Herbert with a steadfast stubbornness that seemed to belie a deep terror. They gave him a hand drum instead. My only picture of Herbert is of him, sitting cross-legged on the ground, the drum in his lap. He is squinting down at the drum with that quizzical expression of his, looking like he’s not quite sure whether he should bang on it or bite into it. Visible, just beneath the blond shag of his beard, is a faint smile.
The ladies wanted us to stay and eat, but we respectfully declined. Munkamari bounced away to another group of tourists and Courtney, Herbert, and I returned to town, where we had a snack at Swayama Baji restaurant. Over chai and pancakes Herbert marvelled at the luxury of our $20-a-day budget. Courtney mentioned how much Coca Cola we’d been drinking and Herbert said back in Germany he had a coke every month and a half, like clockwork. His McDonald’s clock, however, was every 10 years.
Then it was time to say goodbye. I captured this moment for posterity in my journal:
“As we parted ways he did a good job this time, saying, ‘Okay, maybe we don’t see each other again.’ We shook hands and he wrote down his number in Munich, in case we’re ever in Germany. Then he explained in incomprehensible detail how to dial that number. We shook hands again and parted. I enjoy his company. He was one of those insane people who’s really saner than all the rest. When we got back to the room we both washed our hands thoroughly.”
One of the videos from our trip is of me lying on our hotel bed in Bandipur. I am writing in my journal and Courtney, bored, starts filming me.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Writing in my journal,” I say.
“About Herbert,” I say, “the craziest German man ever.”
“Tell me one thing that Herbert said.”
“Herbert said that the reason he has rashes all over his arms is because he eats four chilies every day.”
We didn’t have the heart to tell Herbert that his rashes were probably not chili-induced and more likely came from sleeping in abandoned houses and refusing to bathe. And maybe Herbert, with his rashes, was telling us something. Maybe he was telling us that the itch won’t ever be scratched because, as travel teaches us time and time again and as we time and time again fail to learn, we never really know what makes us itch in the first place.
On a bus ride to Pokhara we met a couple – he British and she Norwegian – that had also gone on the trek to Ranighat. They recounted how on their return from the mansion, they had stopped at a cave dedicated to the god Shiva. They had to slither through narrow tunnels that eventually opened into a cavern where children frolicked in the dark. They shined their flashlight from smiling Nepali face to smiling Nepali face until, to their surprise, the light landed on the quizzical, pale blue eyes of a scraggly German. It is an image that still makes me smile.
Cover by Anjali Mehta, inset by the author