Buying Local in Katmandu
by Patti Shales Lefkos
My not so long legs struggled to match the brisk pace of my guide, Raj. When he abruptly turned off the pot-holed mini-taxi width street of Kathmandu’s frenetic Thamel tourist mecca into a dim sepia-toned laneway, I almost lost him. Second day in Nepal, I had earlier handed him $1,000 US dollars and was scrambling to keep him in sight. My network of friends, family and a class of enthusiastic grade five student fundraisers, led by their teacher Steffi van Dun at Vernon’s BX Elementary, had donated the money. My mission was to ensure every cent was well spent.
Although it was my second trip to Nepal, I wasn’t yet acclimatized to the 30 C heat, humidity, and kaleidoscopic milieu that defines Kathmandu. Earlier I met with Prem K. Khatry, director of the NGO Sambhav Nepal and founder of the trekking company Ace the Himalaya. Ace coordinated a past trip to Nepal with my husband as well as my upcoming solo adventure. After reviewing my itinerary, a two week volunteer stint teaching English at Bhairabi School in Raj’s home village Ratmate in Gorkha, seven dusty, rubble road hours by Jeep from Kathmandu, we fleshed out the details of my trek to the forbidden kingdom of Upper Mustang.
Then Prem and Raj settled on the edge of the couch armed with a calculator, notebook and pencil. I relaxed cross-legged opposite them on the floor in the mercifully air-conditioned office. Over perfectly prepared cappuccinos, delivered by a rakishly thin Nepali teen in a red T-shirt, black boot-leg jeans and flips flops, we compiled a list of classroom supplies and sports equipment Raj and I planned to purchase with the donated funds and deliver to eight Gorkha village schools. The rapid-fire exchange of Nepali and English taxed my jet-lagged brain. While I slurped a second cappuccino, Raj disappeared briefly to exchange the US dollars for rupees. He returned with softball-sized wad of Nepali notes, secured by an elastic band.
Sustained by caffeine, shopping list and money in hand, Raj and I headed out for a bit of retail therapy. For 15 minutes we puddle-jumped along hopelessly uneven streets, dodging taxis and tourists, past endless rows of vibrantly-coloured pashmina shawls, shiny metallic Buddhas and gaily hued knitted mittens and hats hanging in front of the claustrophobic stalls.
The exit into the alley, barely wide enough for two motorbikes to pass safely, placed my sense of self preservation on high alert. Twenty paces later we were in a badminton court sized courtyard chock-a-block with motorcycles corralling a white mini van, held captive in their midst. Raj forged ahead to the far end of the courtyard, winding his way gingerly through the maze of parked hogs, sometimes reverting to tiptoe, like Nik Wallenda, along the crumbling curb bordering the courtyard perimeter.
Three hours later I slumped wearily onto a metal stool, dazed by the dusty remnants of spiritual morning juniper smoke, rivulets of sweat cascading down my back like a tepid waterfall, a mountain of whiteboard erasers, dry erase pens, volleyball nets, and badminton rackets at my feet. The shop owner, a beanpole of about four decades, stood with shoulders sagging under a dusty black T-shirt, his eyes drooping under the weight of the day. By then he had dutifully climbed his ladder hundreds of times to access his three twenty foot long walls of foot-square cubby holes crammed with school supplies and sports equipment from the floor to 16 foot ceilings. Raj, a serious devotee of soccer and volleyball, insisted on inspecting countless balls for quality and endurance, tossing the rejects back up to the vendor who stood sweltering high on his ladder at the hottest level of the store. Exhausted looking parents, bored teens and frantic teachers all dripping with perspiration stepped gingerly around me, navigation nearly impossible, discussing the merits of various first of term math sets, scribblers and personal ping-pong racquets.
As if on cue at about 3 pm a sullen teen, perhaps the vendor’s son, appeared with a two-tiered tray of soft, thin plastic cups of steaming Nepali milk tea laced with heaps of sugar. He leaned precariously over our collection of goods to serve me, then offered a cup to all other shoppers and staff. Like the fishes and loaves, magically there was enough for all. A period of quiet followed, interrupted only by a few audible sips and sighs, then shopping and bargaining began again in earnest.
While the tea boy packed our haul into discarded cardboard cartons and plastic woven rice sacks, Raj discussed the tally and settled the bill. Only then did I remember to ask him if we had saved enough rupees to pay for the whiteboards still to be made in the village near the school. His brow furrowed. Mine, too. We had both forgotten. “Maybe we should trade in the volleyball nets for some that don’t cost as much,” he said. The amount needed was about the cost of two dinners out for Barry and me back home at Silver Star. “Forget it,” I said. “The kids need equipment that will last. I’ll pay the extra.”
An ancient, grinning, crinkly-faced porter appeared from the shadows to help us manhandle the unwieldy boxes and sacks. Eyes glued to his heavily-laden stooped back we followed his dusty flip-flops back through the confusion of motorcycles to the street. When our search for a taxi turned out to be futile, we collapsed on the boxes in the dense air of the late afternoon Kathmandu rush hour and pondered our options
Sensing an opportunity, an enterprising rickshaw driver approached. He offered a double deal in concert with one of his colleagues. For 300 rupees (about $3) they would transport both Raj and me and all our goods back to the trekking office in two rickshaws. We split up taking half the purchases each. Raj’s rickshaw soon disappeared amidst the turmoil and exhaust of motorcycles, taxis and the occasional cow. The last I saw of him was a portion of his face peeking through a narrow slit in the back of his rickshaw’s shade cover.
My driver, the one who had negotiated the deal, had difficulty matching the speed of his taller, younger compatriot. Calves bulging on the uphill sections, his good hand firmly gripping the handlebar, he laughed each time I screamed my reaction to the craters that pocked the street. From time to time he turned to check on me and on the stability of the packages, rewarding me with an engaging grin and a good-natured wave with his other, somewhat foreshortened arm ending in two disfigured fingers. Thankful for the ragged strutted awning shielding me from the afternoon sun, I tried to relax between jolts and not worry that Raj’s rickshaw had long ago vanished. I had no idea of the office address. But ten minutes later, my still smiling, exhausted driver proudly delivered me to the A-One Business complex where a relieved Raj stood waiting on the gray and white marble steps.
My kind of shopping expedition: cappuccinos to start, afternoon Nepali milk tea shared with locals, and an enervating rickshaw ramble with a gregarious runner. All while spending other people’s money in an exotic locale. Doesn’t get any better!