The Jedi knights of souvenir sales
KATHMANDU ” In places like Nepal, it’s like this: You’re an American. They’re not. You have money. They don’t.
Even if you don’t have much money, you have more than they do.
The average income is around $350 a year, depending on whether you’re listening to a relief agency or the chamber of commerce.
They get one crack at separating you from some of your disposable income. They’ll take it, and they won’t be bashful about it.
They won’t badger you constantly, but there are a couple rules. If you don’t want to talk to them, don’t make eye contact. If you don’t want to buy it, don’t look at it. If you make eye contact, they own you.
It’s a Hindu/Buddhist Zen thing and although Americans have superior weapons, credit cards and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, the Nepalese have those Star Wars-Zen mind powers that render you incapable of resisting tourist kitsch.
Basically, if you touch something, you own it. Just save yourself a bunch of time and pay them about two-thirds of their asking price.
You feel like you got a deal, and they got more than they’d planned for.
Everyone’s happy. You have Himalayan detente.
Into bargain battle
Our guide Deveraj, hauled us down to the local bazaar, where we got to try our newly acquired insights.
As soon as we stepped out of the car, a bunch of kids who looked like refugees from a Charles Dickens novel surrounded me, wanting 650 of my rupees (about $5) to shine my cowboy boots. It sounded like a pretty good deal to my American self, and they did a dandy job.
They were a little concerned because the boots are custom made and look like leather, which could be a business dilemma in a Hindu country that considers cows sacred. When they learned they were ostrich, we all lived happily ever after.
But they told me not to pay them right then because someone was watching. I didn’t know who, and figured it was the tourist police, who are there to keep tourists from buying the Nepalese version of Enron stock, or dying of stupidity in some sort of self-inflicted Darwin Award episode.
A tourist policeman’s sworn duty is to keep you alive and spending until you pay your airport exit tax as you leave their country.
Turns out later, as I was leaving the shopping area, I saw a bigger kid who did not shine my boots ” apparently a sort of shoeshine pimp ” taking my five bucks from the smaller kid.
One of our guides, Minal, started fussing at all the kids in at least three different languages. She made me understand that five bucks is way too much, and I was told it could upset the entire Nepali shoeshine economy.
Minal handed him 50 rupees and ordered him away. The shoeshine pimp saw it all, and the kid looked like he was about to become the subject of the kinds of biophysics experiments normally performed on crash test dummies.
As a guilt-ridden American I felt really bad for the kid, and slipped him another five bucks when no one was looking.
– Travel tip: At the airport, they generally won’t change your rupees for dollars, so I emptied my pockets into the hands of the men’s room attendant, hoping he was somehow related to the shoeshine kid.
Serpents and cents
To truly appreciate and understand a culture and its people, you must understand some of its religious ceremonies, which is good. We also managed to spend a little time in its bars, which is better.
But, in some remote parts of the world ” like Aspen ” it’s considered more enlightened to sit outside sipping strong cups of Turkish coffee than sitting inside drinking large glasses of Jack Daniels. The reasoning is beyond me.
Every August, the Nepalese celebrate, among other things, the festival of snakes: “Nag Panchami.” People carry different depictions of Naga, the serpent deity. Some paste a picture of Naga on their houses using cow dung and copper coins.
Then they pay homage with a ritual ceremony. In foreign countries like Boulder, they do the same thing by dancing during reruns of the “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” or attending String Cheese Incident concerts.
In Nepal, some folks believe worshipping a living snake or pasting the picture of Naga on their house protects the house from fire and the family from pests like snakes, scorpions and telemarketers. In the U.S., we just call Dave the Orkin Man, but this seems to work for them.
It is also believed that such worship keeps the households free of bad omens and diseases, and multiplies wealth. Given the impoverished condition of so many Nepalese, they could either stand to worship a bigger snake, or skin that snake and sell custom made cowboy boots to tourists.
The celebration is also supposed to coax some rain for crops, which works out pretty well since it falls at the onset of the rainy season. But it turns out, even religious observances are considered economic opportunities by those trying to sell you stuff.
You’ll also be glad to know that like the True American I am, I wandered into the bazaar and spent an hour-and-a-half bargaining over the cost of a few presents and souvenirs. We started at around $35.
Through my expert negotiating, I agreed to pay in U.S. dollars and take my change in Nepali rupees. By the time we were done, I calculated that I bargained my way to a price of $52.35.
I love capitalism.
Staff writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 615, or firstname.lastname@example.org.