Friday, November 30, 2012


A glorious day today.

First a pay it forward story.  The hotel owner stopped by to see if I am happy.  During our chat, he mentioned his father, a brilliant man and a priest who had the ear of the King of Nepal in his day.  The government distributed money through his father, who gave it to the needy through an assortment of programs, bringing very little salary home for himself.  Then, at 42, his father died an unexpected death, leaving his family rather destitute.  At some point soon thereafter, the owner was introduced to a German man who had known his father.  This German became godfather to the owner and his brother, and sponsored them all the way through college.  Now, the owner brings orphaned children from the villages in Nepal to Kathmandu, where he, as he put it, cleans them up and teaches them manners and how to brush their teeth.  Then he enrolls them in a good school and sponsors them as far as they want to go.  He says that the resort I'm staying at basically pays for much of this work.  Wow.  I mean, really really wow.  He invited me to come to the office to see the pictures of "his children."

After he left, I was accidentally locked into my cottage by the manager!  He stopped by with a plumber to check my bathroom for some reason, and then on his way out, he engaged a little wooden latch that keeps the screen from swinging, unbeknownst to me.  Probably just habit.  This is the second time since arriving in Nepal I felt like I'd awakened into a bad slapstick shtick.  First, the elevator at the Yak & Yeti in Kathmandu captured and refused to free me.  Way around the corner from the lobby, being heard is a long shot.  Likewise, my cottage is the farthest from the office, and so in the first case I banged the alarm over and over until someone finally passed by, and today I yelled idiotic things like "Hey, anyone out there>??" and "Help! help!" I really needed a better script writer.

Once freed, I was off to the Ambot Boat Dock, quite a ways down the shore from the Bahari dock where I caught the boat to the Temple yesterday.  Later, it turned out that the trail head to the World Peace Pagoda is directly across the lake from the Bahari dock.  I think the map directs tourists to the other dock just because the Bahari boats are so darn busy.

So, I walked out of the cottage without my water sling, and it's darn hard to reach around behind the back pack and wrestle the bottle out while hiking.   I decided to buy a second sling.  250 rupees, what the heck, right?  Along the way to the dock, I located a sling, but without a buckle for shortening the strap.   The shop proprietor offered to cut the fabric and shorten it on one of their sewing machines.  One of the fellows doing machine embroidery stopped what he was doing to stitch the sling, managing to break three slender machine needles on the thick fabric in the process.  That gave us a chance to talk. When he discovered I was from America, he wanted to know whether I voted for Obama or Romney.  He'd only met one American who voted for Romney.  He thinks Obama is "an OK guy," but noted he was taking a "wait and see" approach.  He was hard to disagree with!  We talked about how Romney and Obama may be different, but it's difficult to change laws and institutions, and no matter who won, the winner would have a tough time.

After the third needle broke, I offered to fix it myself if someone would find me a needle and thread.  The proprietor seemed surprised that I could sew.  I assured him that I can, and offered up that my grandmother was a tailor.  Not that I inherited the skill by osmosis or anything. But I can sew.

I left the shop with my political fix, my new, shorter water sling and a gauzy white scarf around my neck, printed with red ink in a Tibetan prayer flag motif.  No, I was not looking for a scarf. But how many times have you dropped off a prescription and waited for it without picking up a half dozen other items?

Across the street from the shop and next to a police installation, a large park hosted a big map.  I hoped it would say, "You are here" (it didn't).  Behind the sign was Lake Fewa, and a little walkway down to a doc with a Hindu shrine on it.  A round-faced elderly woman, dressed in a black sweater over a purple Indian-style dress leaned over the rail.  Her hair was pulled back into a bun that peaked out from a gray scarf.  I hadn't been looking at the map for more than 30 seconds before she asked me where I was from.  And told me she was from Tibet, lives in the settlement near the Peace Pagoda, and walks two hours every day to get to Pokhara.  I knew what was coming!  Reflexively I asked her why she did not take a bus from the settlement, and she said that it was too much money to take a bus every day, but the walking is good for her. Except her back hurts.

The sales approach of these Tibetan women is really good. They start by acting interested in you, then launch into their own life story.  Soon it feels like you know them a little.  It's really hard to say "no" to someone once you have empathy for their situation. This woman's story: She was two when her mother fled China with babies in tow. She herself does not remember China or the escape, but her mother said they had no food to eat most of the way. She said life is hard for the Tibetans in Nepal because China pressures the Nepali government in regard to the the Tibetans. She spoke, too, of her love for the Dali Llama.

I knew as I listened that I would buy her jewelry, whether I liked it or not. What a hard life for this grandmother, walking in from the settlement every day, making her spiel to strangers day in and day out. I picked out four bracelets that were more or less identical and a locket that I had no intention of buying. She asked for 2700 rupees, of which the locket was 1000.  Using Nanette Kroupa's bargaining techniques, I haggled until I knew exactly what she was willing to part with them for, and then declared that I did not want the locket and would give her 1500 rupees for the bracelets. This was a smoking deal for her because it was only 200 rupees less than the 1700 she originally asked for the bracelets - though through watchful negotiation I learned she would have parted with them for about 1000. She looked at me like she'd pulled off the world's biggest heist. I wanted to laugh, but I just handed over the gelt and got out of there with my bracelets.  By the way, all these women, no matter the time of day, tell you, "Good price.  You my first sale. First sale good luck."  Later in the evening, I would walk by this woman again, sitting on a bench with a blond-haired tourist, showing her wares, telling her story, saying, "First sale good luck."

By the way, I was interested enough in her tales of Napali persecution of the Tibetans to google it. The people here are so kind that I did not want to believe, but it's apparently true. Check this link for the whole story.

From there I took a dirt path down the side of the police station to the dock.  Unlike Baharai dock, where throngs of tourists jostled to be first into the boats, I was the sole tourist at Ambot.  Four or five guys sat on benches or in their boats looking pretty bored.  One - tall, skinny, dark-skinned, wearing a red shirt and wild black hair - got out of a boat - his "up" as we used to say in the used car business. He Namaste'd me. Did I want to rent a boat? I asked whether this is the place to get a ride to the World Peace Pagoda trail head. Yes. He let me know it's about a 45 minute boat ride to the trail head, maybe an hour or more to climb and walk around, 20 minutes or so to come down, another 45 minutes back to the dock. In other words, at least three hours, for which he wanted 700 rupees or $2.66 an hour. I could have bargained, but I did not. I wanted him there at the trail head when I got down.

His name is Jhap, the "p" pronounced softly, almost an "m," instead of with the hard pop of an American "p." Jhap gets to the boat dock at 7 a.m. every morning. During high season, he makes four trips across the lake a day.  If they are all round trips, it's a $32 dollar day. During low season, maybe only one - an $8 day.  I did not ask him how much of that he has to turn over to the boating company.  During the 45 minutes across the lake, Jhap pointed out to me the different villages on the hills, the four highest Annapurna Range peaks visible when the clouds move off, the King's Palace, now an armory (yes, they still have a king who is important in the same way that England's queen is important).  We talked of America, the Arizona desert, his village. His English is astonishing. He taught me a few Nepalese words. Words for things we saw - water, poinsettas, boats - and simple phrases like "thank you" and "how are you?" I've forgotten all of them already, except "Rumrun" means "I'm ok" or "Everything's good." Na rumrun means the opposite.  Only reason I remember that one:  he would ask me "Rumrun?" a dozen or more times up the steep path to the Pagoda, each time I stopped to catch my breath.

When we got to the trail head he offered to walk up with me. On the way, Jhap pointed out baby buffalo, an owl (oluu in Napali), gardens of garlic and onion, terraced farms, rice sheave huts, a huge wild poinsetta. He explained the Hindu religion to me, told me which God was being worshiped in each of the shrines we passed along the way, and let me in on which of the gods "that is really only part of the One God" he favored. He wanted to know about my religion, so we talked about Judaism for a few minutes. He knew that Israelis are "Jewiz." He had never met an American Jew. We spoke of the similarities and differences in our faiths.  He mentioned all the Christian "advertising" in Nepal.

He also told me about his family. Jhap is not a kid. He looked late 30s or early 40s. He is Hindu, from a village two days' walk into the mountains. He has an older brother and sister. His sister married a Muslim, converted, and moved to Calcutta. He took a long, difficult bus ride to see her once since.  His parents are still upset, both that their only daughter is so far away, and that she has become a Muslim. Jhap officially lives with his family, but stays with friends in Pokhara so that he can find work. He has never married because it is expensive to marry. He would still like to, though.

Jhap was not my "guide" and he wasn't being paid for anything other than rowing me across the lake. Yet, he was attentive and kind and patient when I needed to stop for breath.

The Pagoda, as we emerged from the forest, rose before us in all its white marbled majesty. Steep white steps led up to the Pagoda, but the sheer beauty of the structure drew me in and up as if by flight. Four gold statues were set into the structure at intervals around its circumference. Plaques in English and Napali described the sculptural representations. I was, to put it mildly, blown away.

Below and just behind the Pagoda is the Tibetan settlement I was told about the day before. I thought of the old woman, walking all the way from the settlement into town each day. I wondered how they could live in the shadow of this amazing testament to world peace, and yet be persecuted. Of course, it's only marginally different than the way Arizona has been treating our Latino friends.

The downhill trek was stony but fast. At the bottom a concession sells ice cream.  I asked Jhap if I could buy him one and he readily accepted.  Crossing back, Jhap took his time, rowing in close to the jungled shore, where he pulled leaves off a wild lime for me to smell, and where we spotted turquoise birds he said are kingfishers, a dusky blue bird with a red head that neither of us recognized, and an entire family of monkeys playing at the water's edge. I captured as much of this as I could on my camera, but eventually put the camera down to "see" this with my own eyes. He also pointed out the path up to the hill town of Sarangkot, across the lake.  I'd thought about hiking it - supposedly three hours up and maybe two back - but I have a pretty good cold, making today's hike was so difficult, I was no longer sure. He suggested that I take a taxi to a small village, visible on the mountain saddle, a 25 minute walk below Sarangkot, and basically walk down. What a great idea! Did I want him to go with me on this walk? It would be safer. YES! I told him it might not be for a few days, but I would find him at the boat dock when I am ready. He was enthusiastic.

When we got out of the boat, I really wanted to give him enough to make a dowry. I have no idea how much that would be. But I restrained myself, fished out 2000 rupees and pressed them into his hand. I don't know what he expected over and above the 700 he'd asked for, but I will take him up on his offer to go with me up the mountain, and try to be more generous then.

On my way home, I wandered into a store selling the most incredible scarves I have ever seen. Really, calling them scarves does not do them justice. They are works of art. They are made by a women's collective in villages outside Pokhara, and I will just have to photograph them and post. The decision about which pieces to buy was impossible, so I asked the store owner whether I could put it on a VISA ("yes") and popped for about six of them. Daughters, mother, sister-in-law, you are in luck! The proprietor is a Muslim from Kasmir, but he's lived in Pokhara for 15 years. He proudly told me that he recently returned to Kasmir to get married, and brought his wife back with him. She walked in the door just as we were wrapping up and they were so obviously affectionate newly weds. He gave me his card, and asked me to keep in touch. Of course, why not? Who wouldn't want to stay in touch with a customer who walked in and talked herself into six pieces?

My next to last stop was the tailor's to try on my cool new Nepalese garments, unfortunately on the complete opposite side of town from the boat dock, and past the turn-off to my cottage. Gita was in the street in front of her store, and when she saw me, she came down too. I was sent to the back room, where there was a bed and bolt upon bolt of cloth, to try on. The top was difficult to get into. I worried about ripping it, and it pulled under the arms. However, both the tailor and his wife kept saying it fit perfectly. But guess what? Gita objected in rapid fire Nepalese, and the next thing you know, they agreed to fix it. Go Gita! I sat down to wait while they let out the seams, and the tailor's wife sat down next to me. I off-handedly said that the Nepali women were so much more colorful than American women. She gave me a lesson in dressing. She pointed out that about half their fabrics were in shades of red, and said "Red after you marry." She was wearing red everywhere. Red garments, red bracelets, red dot on her forehead, red beads around her neck. I asked if Gita was married, since she was not wearing red. Oh yes. Check the red dot on Gita's forehead. Since I'm not married, I'm glad I did not choose red.

I offered them $30 instead of my VISA. That technically gave them a few more rupees than they'd asked for and saved them the 3.75% I'd learned VISA charged these merchants.  So, after fiddling around with the calculator, they happily took it. Also, handing them $30 felt so much less expensive than handing them 2500 rupees. 30. 2500. After awhile you just forget that 2500 rupees is really only about $28.

I trotted down to Gita's shop and thanked her profusely. I expressed my desire to do something for her to show her my gratitude. She laughed and said that my gratitude itself was enough. There were a couple of little kids hanging around and I asked her whether one was hers. She ruffled the hair of a little girl to my right, maybe seven years old, who promptly said, "Namaste!" and dipped down. I asked her whether I could take her picture with her mommy, and immortalized my friendship with Gita on film. I promised I'd stop back in after my trek, and she wished me well.

Evening had fully fallen as I let myself out Gita's shop, and for the first time all day, generators went on and light spilled from shops onto the sidewalk.  Before I could begin to walk, elderly woman, reaching not higher than my shoulder and carrying a cone shaped baskets on her back, her wrinkles deepened by the harsh glare of store lights, intentionally blocked my path.  By now, I knew there was something she could sell in that basket, so I peaked over her shoulder and saw green-orange tangerines.  She swung the basket down to the ground in front of me and asked if I would like to buy some.  Ok, grandmother, I thought.  "I'll take two."  She countered, "A kilo?"  I have no idea how many tangerines in a kilo.  "Just two."  "How much?"  70 for four.  Ok, four.  She plopped them into the bag with the scarves.  I dipped into my pocket, and found that I had a 5, a 20 and a 100 rupee note there.  I handed her the 100 note.  Instead of making change, she plucked two more tangerines out of her basket and handed them to me.  "6 for 100," she said.  I smiled and said, "Ok."  At that moment, I noticed Gita's daughter watching the exchange and turned to her.  "Would you like a piece of fruit?"  Her eyes lit up, I tossed her a tangerine and a goodbye, and took off down the street.

So tired I knew I'd never come back out for dinner, I stopped into the first place with a good Napali vegetarian menu. They had a back patio with a fire, but I opted for an upstairs terrace overlooking the street. I ordered a Napali Vegetarian "set," which is like ordering the sample plate at a Greek restaurant, and a glass of the house wine, Chilean. Chile seems to be the go-to country for wine in Nepal. While I was waiting to order, two U.N. vehicles made their way down the street below me. Seeing a U.N. presence over and again since I got to Nepal, I now wondered whether they were in country to deal with the Tibetan problem.

Killing time waiting for my food, I idly flipped through the pictures on my camera, and burst into tears.  I am clearly here to experience the people of Nepal and not the mountains, as majestic and awe-inspiring as they may be.