20 January 2004

Not a Hazardous Sport

'Anthropology is not a hazardous sport.' I had always suspected that this was so but it was comforting to have it confirmed in black and white by a reputable insurance company of enduring probity. They, after all, should know such things.

The declaration was the end result of an extended correspondence conducted more in the spirit of detached concern than serious enquiry. I had insured my health for a two-month period field-trip and been unwise enough to read the small print. I was not covered for nuclear attack or nationalization by a foreign government. Even more alarming, I was covered for up to twelve months if hijacked. Free-fall parachute jumping was specificially forbidden together with 'all other hazardous sports'. But it was now official: 'Anthropology is not a hazardous sport.'

The equipment laid out on the bed seemed to contest the assertion. I had water-purifying tablets, remedies against two sorts of malaria, athlete's foot, suppurating ulcers and eyelids, amoebic dysentery, hay fever, sunburn, infestation by lice and ticks, seasickness and compulsive vomiting. Only much, much later would I realize that I had forgotten the aspirins.

It was to be a stern rather than an easy trip, a last pitting of a visibly sagging frame against severe geography where everything would probably have to be carried up mountains and across ravines, a last act of physical optimism before admitting that urban life and middle age had ravaged me beyond recall.

In one corner stood the new rucksack, gleaming iridescent green like the carapace of a tropical beetle. New boots glowed comfortingly beside it, exuding a promise of dry strength. Cameras had been cleaned and recalibrated. All the minor tasks had been dealt with just as a soldier cleans and oils his rifle before going into battle. Now, in pre-departure gloom, the wits were dulled, the senses muted. It was the moment for sitting on the luggage and feeling empty depression.
SOURCE: Nigel Barley, Not a Hazardous Sport (Henry Holt, 1988).

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