Travel books: The second round (1958)

[…….] The newspapers had it that the Dalai Lama had escaped from Tibet and set up his residence in India. That was an opportunity for me. I took the train to where the Dalai Lama was supposed to be, in Dharmsala, in the Himalayan Mountains and asked for an interview. This was denied and so was any other contact with him. And so, since I was already in the Himalayas and not far away, I decided to visit Nepal.

Today Nepal is on the tourist main road but in 1959 there was no tourism in Nepal. It was less than a year since the country had opened up to foreigners. I crossed the border at Motihari, where a railway line with close rails and small train compartments, as if it has been dismantled and taken from a children's fairground, ran to the plateau from where the base of the Himalaya Mountains started to rise. Here was the end of the railway line. I left the train, made a deal with a lorry driver and got into his lorry that delivered provisions to Katmandu, the capital of Nepal. The lorry climbed slowly, in first gear, up the slopes of the Himalayas. It was hot, smelly, noisy and dusty. The meandering road was not yet covered with asphalt and the dust billowed with the wind before entering our nostrils.

It started to get dark when we reached the summit of the mountain. Now we were descending into the Katmandu valley. Soon it got dark, very dark. The driver stopped at a village and after a short chat with the occupier of a house, we were ushered into a room to spend the night. It was bare. No bed, no furniture, just the naked floor. I spread my sleeping bag and got in. The driver slept next to me but before he closed his eyes he told me that we would have to start very early, at 3.00 am.

Since it was dark, I wondered where I could put my spectacles in order to find them next morning. The most secure place I could think of putting them was in my shoe which I did. Next morning I was woken up by the driver. The first thing that I did when I was woken up was to put my foot in the shoe in which I put my glasses and broke them. This was a disaster of the first degree. I did all that journey by lorry just to be able to make sketches of the Himalayas and of the road to Katmandu and now my glasses were broken and, because I am short sighted, I could not see the scenery to make sketches. I checked the damage. The frame was broken and was now in two pieces. One of the lenses was OK but the other was completely cracked.

When we stopped for breakfast I tried to mend my glasses. With a heated needle I made holes in the plastic bit of the frame and then fastened the two pieces together with a wire. The shattered lens had no hope but the one that was not damaged could be put back into the frame. So, I was able to put my spectacles on my nose again. It was not perfect but it worked, at least for one eye. "When I reach Katmandu" I said to myself, "I must find an optician."

I reached Katmandu, asked for an optician and was directed to the market where, in one of the niches, there was an optician stand. He replaced my broken frame with a new one. As for the lens, he pushed a box full of lenses of different foci and different sizes towards me and told me to choose one. I took a lens from the box at random, held it in front of my eye and looked through it. I tried many lenses this way until I found one that presented a sharp world in the near and in the far view. That was the one that I thought would fit me. The optician fitted the new lens into the socket of the frame and I had a new pair of spectacles.

During this operation I became friendly with the optician's son who was about my age and spoke a bit of English. He showed me around town and helped me hire a bicycle with which I was able to tour the valley. He also told me about his dad's business. What I was interested in was that big box which contained hundreds of lenses of different sizes and different foci. How could one accumulate so many lenses in that remote part of planet Earth? The optician's son told me that his grandfather, who originally came from Tibet, started this business in Katmandu market. He got hold of lens catalogues published by European companies and every few years requested samples. When the samples arrived, they were thrown into this box. He also showed me the catalogues. Every company that had already been asked for samples was crossed out. Business acumen, as we can clearly see, was not invented at Harvard.