‘From Nepal’ is a weekly series of my travels to Nepal this past winter. The following is one of those stories. If you haven’t read ‘From Nepal – The Artist (Part One)’, read it now.
I am a guitar string. I am being played. I am making pleasant music to the monk who’s playing me. That’s how this sale is working. He plucks me so I swing hard back and forth. That’s why he first picked out two pieces with styles on different ends of the spectrum, to see what I key on and then gradually work between the two extremes. Just like a guitar string, that vibrates between two points until it finds its natural rest, the whole time playing a pleasant sound. The monk likes my tune. He crescendos, and now for the outro.
“Thank you for investing in our school,” he tells me.
One minute ago we were appreciating art and sipping chai. And now I’m investing in their art school, not a question but a statement. As they put it in a simpler way: “I’m gaining good karma.” “Bullshit,” I think. It snaps me back. I’m angry. It’s a sale, those words are never spoken but that doesn’t matter. All the red flags while ignored, however, were noted, and now it’s time to escape. I need to get out of here before I leave with something I don’t want.
I notice only now that only my chai was touched. Their’s are full because they’re attention was solely on me. It was a performance for an audience of one. Not a genuine connection, not any of it. The effort that went into setting me up only makes me angrier. But anger doesn’t solve anything, only gives me tunnel vision. That’s not what I need now. I need to get out but the longer I sit here with my chai, the slower time feels because the more I realize I have no way to escape. Time is at a snail’s pace in my head. The more I sit here with each passing second, it becomes more and more apparent I have no escape. That increasing ambiguity traps me in this moment. Time is closing in on me.
This is what being a car salesman is, the ability to move in on a person and slowly take away the exits. Car salesmen never ask “Can I can help you?” when you walk on a lot. Because even if you need the help you’re conditioned to say no to a salesman. You don’t want to be sold to, you want to make the decision independently. So instead they come up to you and ask you “The weather is great isn’t it?” or “Those are really nice shoes.” A simple, surface level question not about cars, and it forces you to engage with them and immediately elicits positive responses. In my particular case a simple “Hello” on the streets of Kathmandu with a man wearing street clothes. From here the sale begins and they assume all aspects of it even if you haven’t, and when they match and mirror your movements enough (if you look down they look down, if you speak too fast they speak too fast, if you’re young they’re young, if you’re fat they’re fat) and mine enough information from you bit by bit, they find your car without ever asking you. The next part is the test drive. They never ask you if you want one. They simply say “Hop in the driver’s seat and I’ll go get the keys,” because they want you to feel ownership of the car, and for it to feel like it’s your decision without giving you the choice of one. After your drive they end-it-but-not-quite-end-it with “Let’s get you inside and driving this on the road.” That is how the sausage is made and I was currently being put through the grinder.
Time continues to slow to a crawl. I’m stuck in my head. I can’t see a way out. I realize at this point I have no escape. I can only think of one option. Honesty is my Hail Mary. Honesty isn’t an exploitable weakness here, it’s the perfect retaliation. It’s the antithesis of their game, it allows me to run in the opposite direction of where they want me to go. But I need to be stubborn. All pretensions are thrown out the window. It has to work.
After he’s done telling me of my charitable actions, of my great karmic investment, the monk informs me of the price: 390 USD. The art student says this is a good price, trying to be a surrogate for my thoughts before I could come to my own, a whisper. I block him out. The artist thanks me for supporting his school so he can continue with his studies. Yeah, make it personal. Put a face on what I’m helping, not the ambiguous and lofty idea of a school, but him personally. He knows how to sell.
In this metaphor of a car sale, he’s in the process of getting me to sign the papers. He explains how easy and accommodating he is for any card I could possibly have. He asks what card I have. I deflect, I say I can’t possibly take it.
Assume the sale. That’s is the resonant thought throughout a sale. You never ask if they want it. You assume they do and you ignore the negative responses. This is what they’re doing. The next ten awkward minutes is spent saying no and being ignored, only for them to cycle through tactics. Just like in a car sale, it’s never that the customer doesn’t want it, it’s that you need to find a place where they will walk out with keys in hand. The same philosophy is ingrained into this Buddhist monk and his art student.
Studies show the longer a person is with you the more likely a sale is to occur, and it’s exponential. They know this and keep pressing. I say stubbornly again I can’t possibly take it. They continue to erode me. I sip my chai and try to act comfortable. I need to find a natural exit to this before they break me. The monk tries to reinforce the value by building on the feats done to make one of these works. I still say I cannot take it. I root myself in that statement. A tennis volley goes back and forth between us, the monk’s hits with a series of varying approaches, my returns are a deflection of each one. He switches up and points to a smaller, similar one. And say 240 USD. I say I can’t afford it. They grab an even smaller one and tell me it’s only 110 USD. It’s a Russian nesting doll of sales. I say I cannot afford it. They keep reaching for pieces frantically trying to find my point of sale. They’re on the ropes now. Stubbornness is working. The anger is pushing me.
I realize they don’t see a man only 6 months into a job with more student loans than I have been able to comfortably look at. They only see a foreigner with fair skin. They’ve made up their minds about who I was the minute I stepped onto the streets of Thamel. “I can’t afford anything.” I finally say. “I recently graduated from University and have student loans I’m paying off.” The man who calls himself a monk looks at his student and back at me, I think to myself I’ve broken through. He opens his mouth to prove me wrong, “What can you afford. Just tell me what you want for it.”
He aims to engage with me and bargain. I can’t give him that.”I am so sorry,” I say to them both, “I am embarrassed. Anything I could offer would be too low for you,” I say feigning humility, “I drank your tea, but I must be leaving.” The man who calls himself a monk then has a look of silent shock. He offers no blessings as I walk out. I don’t think he expected it to go this way. The artist offers to walk me out. I’d prefer to leave alone, but I just want to leave nonetheless. He follows me out in silence.
We walk down the small set of stairs to the street. We went in a zigzag through the busy chaotic corridors of Thamel, but I tell myself unconvincingly I know my way home. My phone is at 3% however so I need to believe I know where I’m headed; this is made better by being knowing it’s still my first day in in a foreign country.
The artist stops me once I exit step onto the street, and I speak before he can, “I am so embarrassed, thank you for showing me your art and school but I must leave.” He, a bit shaken for reasons I can only guess but still unclear about, says “Don’t worry about it,” failing to hide his own worried look. “Could I ask a favor?” he tells me not waiting for an answer “Could you buy me some bread for my family. We don’t have a home because of the earthquake. So I help my family as much as I can but buying bread would help us greatly and give you great karma.” He goes for the hard sell. All this information and more was seeded on the way to the art school. I was primed for this moment so it doesn’t seem like a sell, just a natural extension of where we’re at.
I relent and tell him “OK, but I need to get to an ATM. I really don’t have any money.” “Don’t worry, we will,” he tells me.
He walks. I follow. Panic is ensuing. I thought I was out of it. I was wrong. Out of the frying pan and into the fire as my father always would say. I need to find a way out of this.
He walks differently than on the way here. He’s detached from me. He walks the same way as a boy who was rejected by a girl who he was friends with. That same walk of someone who is still obligated to hang out with his friend and stay with until the end of the evening, but also trying to process this rejection. That distant, absent presence. It’s the same he now has. I stop to take a picture, trying to keep up the act of hapless tourist while keeping a wary eye on my guide who I’m somehow now buying bread for.
He doesn’t notice me slowly slink back with every picture I take. I think to myself that I could run. Literally, just turn and run. It’s what I’m going to do, I tell myself. I have no experience with this kind of thing, one thought warns. But it’s my only way out, a competing thought tells me. What if he runs too? Runs after me I mean. I don’t know what people like him would do in reaction to losing me. Would he hunt me down? Or just be sad and slink back to the school? What if he turns immediately after I decide to do it? What if he goes back to the alley where he met me? And he knows these streets. I can’t even find a side alley in my view right now. It’s a claustrophobic mess.
I debate this thirty seconds too long because he reaches an intersection and then turns around, waiting for me to catch up. Then we turn right down a narrow brick-laid street. He says this street is where the food is sold. Then he takes me, not to an ATM, but to a grocery store. I’m at the grocery store with no money, and there’s no ATM. He says not to worry, they take card.
The grocery store in front of me is smaller than half a convenience store with a counter dividing the storefront and the street. It’s a dark and dusty little store. The artist approaches the attendant and asks for what he needs. I wait behind him while he speaks to the attendant. He quickly pauses for a moment to look back at me and remind me all the good karma I am receiving for doing this. With a weary smile I say it’s my pleasure. I’m still in a panic because the situation keeps going deeper, time crawling to a standstill again. My thoughts move slower than the situation does, which is why escape eludes me and the situation keeps compounding. I know this but it doesn’t help. I need to find a way to jump ahead and derail the situation.
It escalates. The attendant grabs a large jug of cooking oil. “That’s not bread,” I giggle to myself. I can’t help but laugh at this point, my brain is checking out and it offers no condolences. I see where this is going as he then pulls out a package of biscuits in bulk, two large boxes of powdered milk, and a few other items I don’t recognize. I’m buying his groceries for the month to feed an entire family.
At this time I realize what I must do. I also realize it’s not inventive, or even clever or elegant, but it’s my only way out. While the artist and the attendant are turned away I hastily slip my wallet from my back pocket to my down jacket front pocket and zip it up. The artist looks back at me and once again thanks me for my karmic contributions, assuring me I will be paid back in karma. The attendant pulls out his dollar store calculator and shows me the number. The total comes out to what amounts as just under 100 USD when converted from rupees. This is my moment.
I launch into a what would not pass in high school theater, the stylings of a man stricken. I lazily reach for my back pocket, and my eyes widen… “My wallet is gone!” I tell them. I then repeat it, getting increasingly louder. He asks “What do you mean?” I tell him wildly “I mean I had my wallet. And now I don’t.” he then half-asks “So it’s at your hotel.” and I respond even louder “No, I had it with me leaving my hotel. Now I don’t have it.” he asks the uninspired question “Where is your wallet?” once more. Now I start yelling and touching all over myself in the middle of the busy street market with my church play acting skills. I hope it’s working because people are starting to stare.
I realize he won’t be taking no for an answer even if that answer is that my wallet disappeared. My performance needs to escalate, I become distraught as possible, pulling off my best Jim Carrey animation and wave my arms at my manufactured distress. He continues to try to plead with me to find a solution. I tell myself there’s no clean way out. He won’t let you go willingly. I push past his pleas with my Broadway crack-up act as I turn abruptly, spinning around to make a beeline to my hostel. I don’t look back because I fear I’ll telegraph my lie and he’ll chase. I cut off any connection to him and give him no opening to respond. Either he chases me or he doesn’t. But I won’t risk asking him through body language. I dart out onto the street blindly. I hope I can find my way to the hostel.
I make my way to my hostel in it’s general direction through the busy streets. I’m too scared to turn back to see if he’s following behind. I miss a turn. I hesitate to turn back just in case I run back into a pursuing artist. I turn around, he’s not behind me. Even with my hyper-speed walking, I’m stopped by an old lady with a baby on her arms. She then begs me, saying she is not looking for any money. He only wants me to walk with her to the grocery store for bread. This is too on the nose, even for me. I say no and I keep walking. My hostel is three blocks away. I make it and head to my room, I lock the door and lay on my bed. I put my headphones on and play Little Green Car’s ‘Harper Lee.’ I am safe.