Thomas Hummitzsch in conversation about "Was kostet ein Yak" With a backpack and pencil through Asia
In search of inspiration for his thesis, Philip Cassirer travelled through Nepal, India and Bangladesh. He processed his experiences in the graphic novel, ‘How much for a yak?’ A conversation about the process of drawing in foreign worlds.
Your graphic novel, ‘How much for a yak?’ is a kind of travel journal. To what extent did the French Carnet de Voyage inspire you?
It didn’t inspire me at all. A Carnet de Voyage is more about collages of illustrations, texts, old bus tickets and other material. My book is more of a graphic novel in the traditional sense. Although I must admit that there are some parallels. Some of the panels draw attention to what is special about the places, independent of the story. These explanatory illustrations that are typical of the Carnet de Voyage.
There are many self-deprecating references in the novel, for instance when you describe the position of travellers in overland buses in Asia, address the problems of constipation and drug use or simply illustrate their bewilderment when faced with cultural differences.
A trip through threshold or Third World countries is defined by such situations and circumstances. Your expectations when travelling there are different from the expectations you would have when travelling in Europe. You undertake a completely different, unusual and adventurous form of travel in these countries. Even a situation in which you are suffering from constipation in the mountains, medical care is poor, and that you are fortunate enough to be close to a pharmacy, is a situation that is rare or non-existent in our part of the world. Even though I can’t deny that I did worry occasionally, the difficult situations are the ones you are most likely to laugh about when you look back. And which are the most enjoyable when narrated.
One always sees you immersing yourself in everyday life – spending a day working in a rickshaw workshop, playing football with local children or showing a street artist what a real portrait looks like. How important were these experiences?
Very important! Without these impressions, something meaningful would be missing. How can one obtain a real insight into a culture without the people who live there? If one were to only observe everything, but divorce oneself completely from the people, the trip would be more like a visit to a museum rather than the experience it was for me. In any case, it is absolutely impossible to avoid people in Bangladesh, India and Nepal. Walk through Dhaka as the sole European and try not to get caught up in a conversation...
What do you think makes backpacking different?
The spontaneity with which one decides to do or not to do something. The freedom with which one moves in a country. How once chooses one’s means of transport, or the places to which one travels. One divides one’s time spontaneously and never ends up taking the route actually intended.
In these spontaneous journeys, where is the dividing line between recklessness and reasonable caution?
The line is unclear. Of course, as a solo traveller you must be more careful than when travelling in a group. Nevertheless, you still have to weigh things up all the time. If you exercise too much caution, you run the risk of missing out on interesting situations and encounters. Often, you have no option but to expose yourself to risk. When you encounter nothing but old, overloaded rust heaps on your route, you have no choice but to travel with them. Unless you walk!
Most backpacking tourists travel with their digital cameras ready. You are always drawing. What is the difference between drawing and photographing?
The process of drawing requires you to spend more time in a particular spot and that is precisely what is also interesting. You become part of the place that you are drawing and are, by and large, noticed by the people around you. They often peer over your shoulder, want to see what you are doing. And that’s how you sometimes strike up a conversation.
Nepal and Indian have become the places for Western backpackers to visit. What is so fascinating about these countries?
I am enthralled by the landscape and its diversity, but of course also by the culture of the country per se. I have yet to see a country where religion is more alive and more universally practised than India. But also the extreme contrasts between picturesque landscapes and the colourful, crazy hustle and bustle in overcrowded cities, the stench and filth have a special attraction.
Innumerable panoramas and wide-angle shots testify to your fascination for the landscape. Can you pinpoint what captivated you?
The wide, clear view that opens up. We West Europeans don’t know that any longer. In Germany, you have to spend a lot of time searching for a vista like this, in India and Nepal it’s always there. You get onto a bus, travel for a day, and when you get off the bus, you think you are on a film set.
Did you have any role models before you started out as a comic book artist?
As a child, I liked reading ‘Tim and Struppi’, which also deals a lot with faraway countries and alien cultures. Hergé’s drawings have influenced me indirectly, I think. My sketches from the trip played a huge role in the graphic novel.
Why does the novel carry the subtitle: ‘Of Holy Cows and Holy Mountains’?
All the cows that appear in my book are holy cows. But of course, the holy cow is also a synonym for the Western understanding of Indian culture and religion. One often speaks of the holy cow with a smile. As the motto goes: Indians worship cows instead of gods, while Abraham himself condemned the golden calf as blasphemous. The creatures obstruct traffic and nobody does a thing. But Indians don’t only worship cows, they also worship gods, monkeys, rats, lakes, rivers, people, mountains and much more. One cannot help but be amused by all that is sacred in this country, more so as an atheist. For the West, the cow is only the placeholder for what we see as an alien world religion.
Which story in the graphic novel is your personal favourite?
My favourite story is the one about the trip over the Rohtang Pass, the highest motorable road in the world. A driver strung out on amphetamine drove us towards the mountains. We knew that he would be driving us on icy roads at a height of 5,300 metres. I must admit that I have never been so afraid during a car ride. But it was by far the most visually stunning drive of my life.
Philip Cassirer: How Much For A Yak? Of Holy Cows and Holy Mountains; published by Carlsen Verlag, 2013, 64 pages.