Saturday, December 1, 2012


Today I decided I had to be brave and shop. I left my shampoo in the tub in Kathmandu. I left my razor in Phoenix and Tony took his with him - not that he needs it on the trail. I need a small duffle bag for my upcoming trek, and I wanted a shoulder sling for my water bottle so I don't have to take my pack everywhere. I also wanted to get fitted for the beautiful Napali garments. 

I know I am expected to bargain here. Today I did a bit of bargaining, and made decisions not to in other cases. I don't know exactly what the margins are here, but I had at least one opportunity to test them.

My first stop was a shop that looked to be a cross between a grocer's and a drug store. The young man behind the counter pointed me toward the shampoo, and I selected a small bottle costing 115 rupees or $1.40. The travel bottles at CVS are generally somewhere between 99 cents and $1.25 and this one is about three times that size. I hunted around for the razors for quite awhile. For some odd reason, modesty pops it's head in strange places. I could not bring myself to ask the young man to direct me to the razors. I eventually discovered them on an end cap.

By the time I was ready to pay, the clerk had snoozed off and I had to wake him up. I said, "Rise and shine~" in that lilty voices that mothers use. I don't know whether he understood the English, but he did understand the melody, and laughed. I did not try to bargain down the cost of my toiletries.

Next, the water sling. I'd seen the water slings hanging in doorways the previous day, stitched out of sturdy locally hand-woven cloth. The rows of open stalls along the street remind me of the shuks in Israel or the markets in Nogales. If you so much as glance at a shop's merchandise - and sometimes even if you don't - you are the victim of an urgent attempt to engage you in conversation about the goods before you can slide all the way past the stall. I haven't gotten used to this approach. I recalled one woman's comments about Nepal on I don't know if she was American, but she felt so much pressure - from shopkeepers hawking wares, restaurateurs pushing food, hotel manager trying to sell all manner of tourist opportunities - that it ruined her trip. Today it was all further complicated by something I read on the web suggesting that saying "I don't know" and "No" were more or less an insult in Nepal. Instead, one should say, "perhaps I can look that up," or "Thank you." How "Thank you" translates into "No" is beyond my American mind. To me, that translates directly into "Yes."

I finally saw a shop with slings hanging out front, and before I could count to three, my helpful sales person had pulled down a rainbow-colored sling and was showing me how to shorten it up. I paid him the 250 rupees he asked without fuss because $3 seemed imminently reasonable. What can I say? Later in the day, when I was negotiating for small trinkets for my girls from women selling these things on the beach, and in other parts of Pokhara where there were very few non-Asian tourists, I realized that the stores on the main drag can command much more for their wares simply because they feel more or less like western storefronts and we westerners therefore treat the prices the way we would at home.

Then I spotted an upstairs shop claiming to be a women's collective. There were several of these along the road, and I'd dashed into each, to learn what women are doing to help themselves. So far, only one of these shops felt authentic to me. The rest were full of stuff that looked like it had been manufactured in a factory somewhere. But this shop was upstairs, and something about its display window felt like a craft collective, so up I went. Two preteen girls were sitting near the window reading books and chatting. There did not seem to be an adult in the store. The shop walls were lined with purses and scarves and pictures of individual women working on looms or sewing machines, with their names and region. The prices were high compared to the stalls, and I walked around seeing nothing that I actually wanted to own. Then I spotted vials of essential oils. I believe I mentioned that the roads in Pokhara can stink to high heaven, and so I began sniffing my way through all the vials, looking for a scent I could take in large doses. I noticed that most of these jars were marked 600 rupees, a couple 375, but the remainder had no price at all. That discrepancy gave me the courage I needed to strike my first bargain. Anyone who understands the psychology of that courage ought to offer up an explanation. I personally don't get it. But at any rate, after I picked up two viles and carried them away from the shelf where I found them, two women instantly appeared to take my money. I asked "How much do these cost? They all say different things or nothing." She plucked the two jars off the glass counter top where I'd set them in front of her and went over to figure it out. Something welled up inside me and I blurted out, "I'll give you 700 for both of them." She didn't hesitate. I handed over my money, turned down her offer of a bag, and wished her a good day.

Now, some may say that I got a swell bargain, since some of the jars were priced at 600 rupees. And others may say I really didn't bargain hard enough, since perhaps they were only worth 375 at most, and I saved only 50 rupies total (60 cents). But to my mind, i precluded the discussion about 600 rupees altogether, and got two nice bottles of smelly stuff for just over $4. Works for me. What I remember from my used car selling days is that if everyone goes away happy, the deal was good. No point in second guessing. By the way, the two scents are jasmine and something called Passion that smells decidedly lilac to me.

Then I was off to find Gita, who promised to bring ready made garments similar to her own. I ferreted her store from among the dozens of trek shops and entered. Without electricity, the experience is one of being in a narrow black tunnel, lined with vaguely visible fake North Face and other gear. I had to walk all the way to the dark, dark back before I was willing to accept that she wasn't there. As I turned to walk out, however, I saw her darting across the street toward me. Yay!

She motioned me to follow her back into the tunnel, and at the back she found a plastic bag. She removed the contents, but I didn't get a good look until we moved to the store front, where light streamed in from outside. Only then did I see that the garments were vibrant Christmas shades of red and green, studded with gaudy fake rhinestones - nothing like her beautifully embroidered clothing. My face must have fallen. I explained that I am Jewish and I cannot wear red and green together. Her English is pretty good, but she repeated "Jewish" with a question mark look to her face. I said "Hindu" "Buddhist" "Christian" and then pointed at myself and said "Jewish." And then I put up my fingers in a peace symbol and wiggled one finger and said, "Red," and the other finger and said, "Green" and said, pulling my fingers shut, "Jewish people cannot wear red and green together." Later when she repeated this to the woman next door - although I get ahead of myself - I realized she did understand what I was saying.

So, both of us defeated, I asked her where she got her clothes. She made a fast decision to leave her store untended and took me a couple of doors down to a fabric shop. She explained in rapid Nepali what I wanted. The walls were lined with brilliant bolts of material but the woman in the shop pulled me over to large piles of plastic bags with pre-cut material. I selected one for its color combination, and they opened it. In it were three coordinated pieces of fabric, a beautifully embroidered piece for the top, a simpler piece for the trousers and a matching silk scarf. They tucked the pieces around my neck and led me to a mirror. I realized they would have to cut and stitch the garments for me, and that seemed like it might be expensive, so I inquired into the price. 4500 rupees, or $52. Now, it turns out that several of the guys in the Love, Hope, Strength group found a tailor near the hotel in Kathmandu and were having suits hand-made at incredible prices. Trekker Meghan Buchanan also arranged to have, as she called it, "a lady suit" made for herself. Meghan told me it was only costing her $105 or so. That $105 put everything into perspective for me. I have no idea how much the fabric was worth, as beautiful as it was, but to me, the fact that this man was promising to sew these garments for me by tomorrow seemed well worth $52. I did not bargain. Perhaps they thought poorly of me for that. I will never know.

At any rate, the tailor took many measurements. When they asked me how long I wanted the hem of the shirt, I said, "Like Gita's." When they asked whether I wanted short sleeves, below the elbow or to the wrist, Gita pulled her shawl away to show me her three-quarter length sleeve, and I said, "Like Gita's." The neckline? You guessed it. "Like Gita's." When they finished, we haggled not over price, but over whether they would take a VISA card. We settled on a down payment of 2000 rupees and 2500 more by VISA tomorrow. Then I went back to Gita's store and bought a really ugly but perfectly sized North Fake duffle from her for my trek. I didn't haggle over that, either, but mostly because I felt I owed her something for helping me find the beautiful garments I really wanted. And then we talked for a few minutes about my trip, and I asked her if I could buy her tea sometime to thank her for her help. She seemed somewhat confused by what I was suggesting, but we agreed that she would see me tomorrow when I come back for my own "lady suit." Can you believe this? I'm so entirely tickled.

My final destination along the street of shops was the Chabad House, which was supposed to be across from the Tropikana Hotel. I had this idea to ask whether there would be a communal lighting of the menorah on the first night of Chanukah. If it's still in that spot, it is well hidden. I asked the shop keepers in every store across from the hotel. To a person, they had no idea what I was talking about. Fail.

The rest of the day felt so touristy. I took the walk path along the lake, where there is a beach feel, complete with hotels, bars and cabanas and lots of people having umbrella cocktails at noon, even though it is definitely too cold to slip into the water. The area felt festive and was full of Americans, and for a brief minute I craved something recognizable and considered moving myself post-trek to the beach. But my hotel host is so wonderful, and really, how much beach scene can this girl take?

It was also along the lake where I encountered a Tibetan woman in modern dress, who approached and my nationality. She asked about my trip, and then said she is Tibetan, and had jewelry to sell from her village. I said I would look at it. By the time she finished, I'd picked out a necklace for Jody Bivens that the woman said was one of the few things she had that she'd made herself, and earrings for Lisa Rose McClintock and myself. I also chose two ankle bracelets made of wood because they have the Tibetan symbols for peace and so forth on them. For all of that, she asked for 2300 rupees. Because I'd just agreed to pay not quite double that for a suit of clothes that made me feel like a princess, that seemed high to me and put me in bargaining mode again. So, I offered her 1900 for it, and again she took it without flinching. Probably I've been fleeced in Nepali terms, even though basically I got five pieces of jewelry for about $22, and that's hard for an American to argue with. I also got a lot of information about the two Tibetan refugee settlements near Pokhara and directions to one that is a 45 minute walk behind the World Peace Pagoda. Her own village is the farther one, and that would be about a 45 minute cab ride. She said I could get there by bus, but should not try, because it requires two changes of bus, and without the language I would never figure it out. Her English was excellent and I asked where she learned it. She said she learned English in school, and from tourists, but never made it beyond high school. She said she had to quit to care for her parents, as she is the oldest. That led us into a discussion about our respective parents, her village, and more. I'd say I got my $22 worth.

Down the lake, another Tibetan woman approached me. Out of curiosity - to see whether, in fact, the first woman had actually made her jewelry as she said, I again agreed to look. I didn't really love what I saw this time, but there was a pair of earrings that I liked "well enough." A good opportunity to test the limits of the bargain. I asked what she wanted for them. 500 rupees. I reached into a pocket where I had stored change from a previous purchase, knowing it wasn't 500 rupees. I pulled out 195 rupees bill by bill till my pocket was empty, and told her this was all I had to spend. When she was truly convinced that I would not pull out more, she put the earrings away, and I knew then that less than half would not fly. It was a good learning experience.

I took a crowded and wobbly row boat to Bahari Temple, on a tiny island so close to the lake that one could probably swim it. I've been told that the locals take their animals for sacrifice there on weekends, but today there were just a few Hindu tourists who removed shoes, waived some burning incense and said a prayer, then left a donation. I thought about praying there too. Any place is a good place to pray, in my mind. But I decided it would be too weird, too much like a Jewish girl faking communion, too disloyal to my own tradition and maybe even too disrespectful to theirs. Instead, I said the b'racha thanking God for making me a Jew and got into a boat to return.

As I walked away from the dock, I was still intending to find the World Peace Pagoda, but I again got irretrievably lost. I shared part of my lost walk with a Nepali management student who grew up in a village not far from Kathmandu and was very curious about me and my thoughts on Nepal. After we parted ways, I walked past the school yard I'd seen the day before and was thus able to find myself on the map and direct myself home, down some pretty funky alleyways. Along the way, I passed a hand-painted sign scrawled in Hebrew that said Beit Chabad and had an arrow. I chased it around the corner but could find nothing at all. I was nowhere near the Tropikana Hotel. On another note, I've continued to ask permission to photograph people, and today I was turned down twice - once by a woman working on her sewing machine and the second time by a solder guarding some sort of installation. I was disappointed, considered taking the photos from a distance using my zoom lens, but then decided to respect their wishes even if they would never know.

I'm back in my hotel now, as you probably know. There is no electricity, but I've been assured that there is now hot water. I've set my computer into eco mode to conserve the battery, and am learning to be grateful for what I have - whatever that is. I've pulled out my dissertation materials and organized myself toward that end. When I finish this, I will find food and then work a little on my lit review revisions. Tomorrow is the honey hunting festival in That (soft "th"), and I'm completely jazzed. It's 5:25 in the morning back home in Phoenix, and my friends are probably still snug in their beds. This trip - both the exposure to the lifestyle and the isolation of being closed off from what everyone around me is saying by the language - makes me appreciate my own home so much. I know that the rest of the Love, Hope, Strength folks are having an amazing experience too, but they have each other to share the experience. This aloneness is probably really good for me... but I find I am really glad to have this facebook outlet.

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