National Geographic : 2017 Jul
last honey hunter 97 the honey, says Jangi. Two to three teaspoons is usually the correct dose. After about an hour you are overcome with an urgent need to defecate, urinate, and vomit. “After the purge you alter- nate between light and dark. You can see, and then you can’t see,” says Jangi. “A sound—jam jam jam—pulses in your head, like the beehive. You can’t move, but you’re still completely lucid. The paralysis lasts for a day or so.” “I will give you some honey,” he says, “and you can try it for yourself.” the honey hunters are sitting on benches around a long wooden table while hailstones pummel the tin roof above them. The sound is deafening but not loud enough to drown out their animated voices as they argue about whether they will leave for the honey harvest in the morning or cancel. A battered jug of raksi, a clear, millet- based alcohol that tastes like Japanese sake, makes the rounds. The next morning it’s still raining. The deluge overnight has started a landslide across the river. Through breaks in the fog, we watch refrigerator- size boulders crash down the hills to the river. The honey hunters gather to talk. The approach to the honey cliff—a steep and exposed climb up a grassy slope and moss-covered rock—would be suicidal in these conditions. Perhaps Rangkemi has spoken. The honey hunters find a jug of raksi and pick up where they left off the night before. It’s 7 a.m. A few hours later Mauli, reeking of raksi, is making his impossible climb in the rain as large, angry honeybees swarm and sting his face. By whatever force—his skill or perhaps Rangkemi’s benevolence—Mauli, now obscured on the cliff face in a dense cloud of bees, makes it across to the hive. He carefully places his bundle of smoldering grass on a tiny ledge and wipes the bees off the hive with his bare hands. The swarm falls, almost as if it is a single being, and becomes a stinging, writhing fog. Mauli pokes two wooden pegs through the comb and fixes them to a thin bamboo rope that has been lowered from above by helpers. He pulls the long bamboo pole off his shoulder and presses its sharpened end against the comb and begins sawing it from the rock. After a few minutes the hive breaks free and swings on the rope, just missing Mauli. He cries out, the first loud noise he has made since he left the village hours before. The two men tending the fire at the foot of the cliff cover their heads as a gooey dark rain and a black hail of dead bees fall upon them. Mauli’s son sits alongside a small river at the base of the cliff, waiting to help carry loads of honey, wax, and tools back to the village. The honey hunters appear in the mist—wet, exhaust- ed, swollen. As Asdhan carefully pulls a few remaining stingers out of Mauli’s face, his son pulls out a phone and takes photo after photo. He has a Facebook page; later he may post a shot. As with much of rural Nepal, there is cell reception. All the teenagers in Saddi know when to gather on the appropriate rock so that they can catch a weak 3G signal with their inexpen- sive Chinese smartphones. These portals to a separate reality, which exists far from the fields in which their parents toil, have instilled in them a desire to see the world and to earn wages. “Children these days don’t value the culture,” Mauli says. “If this continues, our culture is going to disappear.” The elders know it’s the reason no one has had the dream—or if they have, why they won’t admit it. As the loads of honey and wax are distributed, the never-ending bottle of raksi again makes the rounds. No one mentions what we’re all thinking: that we’ve likely witnessed Mauli’s last honey hunt, the end of an era. Mauli puts the jug to his lips and drinks deep- ly. He takes one last look at the cliff, shoulders his bamboo pole, and moves silently up the trail toward home. One by one the other honey hunt- ers, like worker bees following their queen, fall in behind. j Mark Synnott wrote about Uzbekistan’s Dark Star cave system in March 2017. Renan Ozturk was part of an expedition in Myanmar in “Point of No Return,” published in our September 2015 issue.