‘From Nepal’ is a weekly series of my travels to Nepal this past winter. The following is one of those stories.
“I need to go to an ATM,” I say to the Nepalese man whose name I’ve long forgotten. “Yes, we will go,” assuring me as we start walking from what he told me was his art school. This is probably not the conversation I should be having with someone I just met an hour before. And now I am now being led to ATM – or so I believe.
An hour earlier I left my hostel swiveling through alleyways. I was excitedly headed toward the streets of Thamel hoping I would find a photo to bring back, some true image of a place I’ve traveled so far to get to. At the end of the alleyway I see the sun shining down onto the stone-paved streets – the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel made manifest. “I’m in Kathmandu,” it’s hitting me, “I’m in Nepal.” I approach with my wide hopeful eyes trying to take in foreign sights splattered across my periphery like beautiful Jackson Pollack. I was reaching Nirvana – or at least that’s what I’d say if I was anymore romantic in my prose.
I reach where the alley slams into the busy street; Passerbys ahead create a rushing river of color. A motorcycle zips by me, I take in the chaos of a street that blends foot traffic with auto traffic in the same economical space. I finally reach the street. I step, but not out. Not yet. I look both ways. I take it in once more. I look to step out when I hear it. “Hello.” A simple greeting, not invasive, and completely non-obligatory. He’s good at whatever it is he’s doing, but I don’t think that. I only think how nice it is to get a greeting so early in my venture. He’s a used car salesman, slicked back hair and all, but I don’t think that. His face, riddled with acne paired with his tight jeans, shows his age. He’s thin and mousy looking and his English is excellent, making me slip into a false sense of security. I ask him about it. He answers quickly to deflect, says he merely jumps at the chance to practice with foreigners. He redirects back to me. Romantic ideas of engaging with some idea of ‘real Nepal’ flow through my mind. Something I haven’t really been able to achieve in Korea. So I just want this to happen.
He asks more questions. He scaffolds them, to make sure he’s only inquiring, but friendly. Just getting enough information to get a complete picture of me without drilling. Again, I don’t think that. I just think how nice it is to talk to a local – Strike one, maybe.
He asks where I’m from, I hesitate, my two weeks as a car salesman one young summer did not prepare me to lie enough, giving me red flags but no way to escape. Such a cruel ability. I answer honestly – Strike two, probably.
He asks how long I’ve been in Nepal – it’s my first day. I think I should say some big number so he doesn’t think I’m a completely fresh tourist. I can’t thnk of where to draw the line between obvious lie and just right. I answer honestly again – Strike three. Definitely.
We almost get hit by a motorcycle racing through the alleyway behind me, that’s two now. I barely notice, but only because all the cars crossing my periphery do the same down the busy street peppered with pedestrians. He says we should probably move to the side. But I don’t want to stay so I say I’m headed down to walk through the neighborhood with my camera, which is true. He walks with me, stops me, and then says “just so you know, I’m not a guide, and I don’t accept any money.” I say thank you and just walk with no pretensions. This is my first experience in the city and I have nothing to base this on, so I just want to hope this is a genuine experience in Kathmandu. I’ll later find out that this is a genuine experience. So I just go with whatever is happening. The game may be over at this point.
We continue down, we’re passing shrines and beautifully derelict buildings. He tells me about each one. He keeps my eyes occupied, makes sure I have something to focus on while he pitches. He peppers in information about himself. “I’m an artist,” he says. He only gives me information in bites. Again, he’s a good used car salesman. He doesn’t lean too much in his agenda, or else I’d figure that he has one, which I don’t. The red flags raise but I dismiss them.
We continue walking through the busy streets rubbing shoulders with every person that passes by. With every step my arms swing, but with every right arm swing I tap my back pocket just so I know my wallet is there. We pass through the dusty, smog-filled corridors of Thamel, a tangled mess of colorful prayer flags and dust-covered power lines serve as a canopy above me. It makes the already tight corridors more claustrophobic. But I just sit in awe at the sights; of being in the middle of the chaos. I tap my back pocket. I continue down the street, seeing seated Nepalese women in front of the food stands laid out on carpet, men in front of their fruit bikes selling food, and the raw meat on chopping counters pushed part-way into the street, fighting for their presence, which is unnecessary given the smell does it for them. Kicked up on the meat, dust collects as they try to sell it, adding more to what was already there. The air is thick with it. My guide, the artist, lacking subtly, moves me from lingering too long in these spots as if we have somewhere to go. He tries to walk this line of being a guide and pushing me forward to some unknown place. He shows his impatience when I’m not focused on him.
We pass by a shrine with a sleeping dog on a small pile of trash. The dog doesn’t look as you imagine it; In Nepal, they lay on their sides, with their legs strew across the ground, not under themselves, similar to how you imagine a passed out drunk man on a couch after a long night. They never look comfortable, and these dogs similarly. The dog earlier probably ate its lunch at this same small heap. Hopefully also blessed by the shrine it sits in front of. He tells me what the shrine was of, but I immediately forget it. We see rubble in an empty lot. He says “Do you know about the earthquake in 2015?” I say yes, and then he goes into telling me about it anyway like a good tour guide would.
At every shrine, and every example he could pull off the street while walking, he imbues each bit with a lens of Karma. He tells me how by allowing him to walk with me, it’s good karma. By hearing his story, it’s good karma. By helping his English, it’s good karma. He projects it onto me, it’s a universal system and I should maybe walk away doing in kind, returning karma, being a good person. He continues to point out my karmic surplus I’ve bestowed on him every few minutes with each new place. It makes a person feel fuzzy inside for this type of positive reinforcement. I, just as Korean culture and my mother before that taught me, to say “No, no, no,” in conditioned humility. It also helps as a defense mechanism in times with strangers.
We enter a busy market six-way intersection, tells me we should head in this direction. It means nothing to me as I have no clue where I am. I follow him.We pass by a large shrine to Ganesh. He continues to tell me about what’s around me and points out every shrine, like the next which is to Kali. I think of Indy. We pass across shrines every few dozen feet. It’s almost scripted, how he whips into each talking point; but instead all I think is how well he knows his home and how much he loves it even though he turns an unwelcome eye to anyone who comes up to us. Much like when an old woman with a baby on her shoulder comes up to us as I stop to take a photo. She only has her chin up to us, staring up from her crooked back, arm raised, palm upwards, and she’s silent. She wants money. She is turned away by my guide aggressively but as to not show any outwardly hostile action. He says to ignore it and move on. They’re just beggars.
We see another building with earthquake damage, they’re quite common. He uses this as a time to talk about his family and tells me that his family was hurt by the earthquake too. He says he shines shoes for a living, to help his family and little sister.
We enter a temple. He talks about Hinduism and Buddhism, which I know a bit about. I try not talk about what a local knows natively, but some bits are just not helpful. He doesn’t change course in his speech. It’s apparent that it’s scripted; he doesn’t know how to skip and change up the conservation. but it’s not apparent to me, and I continue with him because I don’t want to be the ugly American to someone who natively knows these things. I’m such a good global citizen I think to myself.
He asks me if I know about Thanka art. I say no, and he primes me for it. And he details the amazing, painstaking process of using a single hair of yak to create these intricate murals that take months or years to complete. He tells it’s to me the way a magician performs a trick, by bringing something ordinary: art, and then creating this amazing exotic thing out of it. He accomplished that. I was in awe, discovering this new foreign exotic practice.
In the temple, he preaches the peacefulness and acceptance of this collision of four different religions all residing here; It’s a Nepal thing. An old woman, dressed in a red sari says “photo?” and poses. I think nothing of this and I take a picture of her. My guide has one of his looks again. He tries to lead me away from her. I follow. He continues with his tour, and the old woman follows, but her peaceful glances turn into an aggressive pursuit, shadowing us as we walk around the temple. She then asks for money. I have none. And he brushed her away aggressively. She pulls out a wallet and points to bills. He says no and we walk out of the temple. The old woman was upset. We gain no karma from her.
We continue through the corridors and I’ve noticed by now that every citizen has what looks to be an expensive down jacket. I ask “Why is everyone wearing North Face jackets?” and my guide responds jokingly “They’re North Fakes.” I look closer and see the hand stitching of the logos on every few. Even the ones with realistic stitching are probably fake too. It’s the industry in Nepal when you blend expensive tourism with a people that would be lucky to make 60USD/month. He then points at another artifact of the Nepal earthquake, telling me about his family and how after the earthquake they lost their home. It was a sad story. He continues feeding me bites of it.
We pass by another shrine. It’s to the God of teeth. The shrine covered by coins nailed into its robust figure. There’s a sign for a dentist across the way. My guide tells me this shrine is offered by those in poor teeth health so their ailments can be cured. If it gets worse, and only when it gets worse, they go to the dentist. Until then, God is their dentist. By the looks of the shrine, not many people in Nepal can afford a dentist, and based on the sign across the street for a dentist’s office, I can’t be sure of the quality of care in Nepal. We move on.
We continue walking through the streets and my guide stops me. I’m confused. He motions to the doorway we’re standing in front of he then tells me “This is my art school. Did you want to have a cup of chai?” I am leery, but it’s chai, and with a new Nepalese friend. I so I disarm and accept, then I follow him up.
I’m already primed for this meeting. Over the course of the past hour, in between the stories of teeth and sleeping dogs, I’ve been peppered information about Buddhism, ideals of a need to have good karma, the extensively painstaking and exotic art he practices, and the poverty of Nepal. Just in tiny, absorbable bites. Just like I learned as a car salesman: You take a cost, and you turn it into a value. That’s how you sell a car, and all he’s been giving me is value before he even tells me of a cost. But again, I don’t think these things.
So find myself sitting down and having a cup of chai with this young man, and also with who I’m told is a Buddhist monk and professor at this art school. H doesn’t look how I’d imagine a monk would. He’s less stoic, dresses in jeans, and has a plastered smile on his face with wide eyes. The monk introduces himself and gushes over my obvious appreciation for beautiful art. The room is a colorful mosaic of art hung up so that no actual wall behind it can be seen from where I sit. To the monk’s left, behind the table we’re sitting at, is rolled pieces of art of their cotton canvas piled to the monk’s waist. He wastes no time. He picks up a piece, intricate, colorful with a variety of imagery: safe. Then he picks up a second, all black but with a gold mantra, circled by a ring of cascading blue. The monk watches intently how I react to each. He goes through a variety of pieces, unrolling each one and placing rocks on them to hold them down for me to view. The monk intricately weaves stories about each one and their significance. He gives me a magnifying glass to really appreciate the fine details of each piece while I sip my chai. After about fifteen minutes of this, he turns to me, and asks “Which do you like?” I give the ultimate noncommittal, saying I like them all.
But he needles. That’s not a good enough answer for the monk, he tries his to hide under his permanent smile. He asks specific pieces, but I relent and turn attention to the far side of the room. I motion towards a piece on the wall, something he hasn’t shown so he might be thrown off and have to re-adjust. Yet he gallops, with a hop in his step, to the piece while trying to show effortlessness and calm. His excitement doesn’t match the simple premise of tea and art. He tries hard to show the effort in taking down the art and then comes back to me and pins the corners of the piece on the table, setting it in front of me under rocks. He then mentions its beauty and says I have a good eye. And then he says it “I made this one.” “Oh no,” I think.
He gushes about it, with every sentence eliciting a positive response from me. He presses hard now. “Don’t you like it?,” “So much work was put into, you see?,” “What do you like about it?,” “It’s meant to bring good karma into a home.” “What do you think about the colors?” and on and on he goes, asking me to personally attach my thoughts to it. His questions are guiding me in a way that he wants me to think these are my own personal feelings by making me say positive words. His questions are needling and purposeful, but its agenda is hidden behind the smile. He continues on with the questions, asking me to analyze and love the piece unconditionally without asking any direct questions. He asks about no other pieces, he’s determined we’ve settled on this as the most beautiful.
The monk, seeing the moment, says this next part with no build-up, saying in a benevolent and humble tone: “Thank you for investing in our school.”
It’s jarring. It snaps me back to reality. All the red flags, while ignored were noted, and now I’m wide awake and not because of the chai. Now I need to escape, somehow, some way. I need to get out of here before I leave with something I don’t want. They smile at me.
End of Part 1