By the afternoon, my feet were sore from a long day of walking around Lakeside Pokhara. That’s all I was thinking about as I slowly beat a path back to my room at the Hotel Snow Leopard. Walking along the shores of Fewa Lake, staring at my feet and wondering if these cheap boots would be at all comfortable for trekking, I was flagged down by an old man.
He stood astride a bicycle, and was chatting with a fruit vendor. Perhaps it was because I’d walked around all day and hadn’t spoken to a soul, or perhaps it was something about this old man’s demeanor, but I felt drawn to him. I knew he was going to try and sell me something I didn’t want, but the prospect of bartering – of conversation – was appealing.
So much of my time in Nepal had been spent in bleak loneliness.
Although that was destined to happen, some – considering how I’d staggered into the country – it wasn’t the reason I’d come here. So I slapped a smile on my face, put away my anxieties, and I walked over to the old man.
He was selling posters. If you have visited Nepal, or ever do visit, you will know the posters I’m talking about. These wide-angle images of the mountains are sold on every street corner. Stunning, snow-capped panoramas of the different Himalayan mountain ranges decorate every guesthouse, trekking lodge, restaurant bathroom and coffee shop bulletin board in the country. The Nepalese people know what their country’s got — and they’re eager to advertise.
These posters had caught my eye in Kathmandu, where they were cheap and plentiful. Several panoramas depicting the Annapurna Range, as seen from Pokhara and Poon Hill, decorated the stairwells in the Hotel Snow Leopard. There was undoubtedly a printing shop somewhere in Kathmandu, knocking these things out at 20 or 30 rupees a pop. They were far too ubiquitous for the wholesale price to be high.
I walked up to this man, thinking I might be able to get a cheap price from him.
“Namaste, my friend!” he said, as I approached.
“Namaste,” I answered, as had become habit since arriving in Nepal. This customary greeting translates roughly as ‘The divine one me recognizes the divine in you.’ Acknowledging your fellow human beings in this way, and being acknowledged in return, actually significantly cheers one up. If you do so in the U.S., sure, it seems pretentious, but here in Nepal, it’s authentic. Even with a blackness in my heart, I find myself unable to say ‘Namaste’ without smiling.
My ‘hellos’ at home are surly, if they come at all.
They do say travel changes you.
I didn’t feel much change in five months of travel with Holly. It felt like all of our usual problems, our same old flaws, and the same fights — just with different backdrops. I was working, she was working, but all the while, we weren’t working. Same people; same priorities.
It was a different me who looked down, and saw the man selling the posters had no shoes.
“Where are your shoes?” I asked the man.
“No shoes,” he said.
“No shoes.” He confirmed. “No money. No tourists. No one to buy.” He gestured at the posters. “No home any more. No money for shoes.”
He was laying it on thick, but I didn’t get the sense he was lying.
“Was your home destroyed by the earthquake?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “Whole home, gone. Luckily, I was here when it happened, or I would be gone too!”
“But Pokhara wasn’t damaged by the earthquake, was it? Nothing is destroyed here.”
“Yes, Pokhara fine. But I live 20 kilometer away,” he said.
“20 kilometers?! Do you bike all that way?” I asked.
“Walk,” he answered. “20 kilos every day. Don’t even have shoes, but I walk here every day to sell posters. My family needs the money.”
I looked down at the man’s feet. True to his word, they were barefoot and callused. Did he actually walk 40 kilometers a day? I couldn’t say. He was probably exaggerating, pulling my leg a little. He knew I was a tourist – likely a rich one, looking as young as I did – and gullible enough to fall for a sob story. I knew this, in some little analytical corner of my mind. But my empathetic brain was handily winning the battle, today.
That usually didn’t happen.
Back when Holly and I had been falling in love, she’d introduced me to the concept of EQ — emotional quotient.
“That’d be like, zero, for me,” I said, laughing.
“Yuuuuuup,” she’d responded. “Your IQ’s off the charts though.”
“You’re great at both!” I’d said, playfully. “That’s not fair!”
She smiled a proud smile, and nuzzled up a little closer.
Nepal was growing my EQ every day.
“What size shoe do you wear?” I asked the man.
He told me a size a little below my own. I looked down t my rented hiking boots and pursed my lips.
“Will still fit, I think,” he said, placing his foot alongside mine, for comparison.
It was noticeably smaller, and besides, these were my only shoes.
“I need these for trekking,” I told the man. “But I’ll buy some posters.”
He looked mildly disappointed. “Ok maybe after trekking, you come back and find me?” he asked, hopefully.
“Maybe after trekking,” I said, conciliatory.
I selected two posters: a big photo of Everest Base Camp, taken from Kala Pattar, and a picture of daybreak hitting the Annapurna Range over Pokhara— a view I had yet to see in person, because of the smog which was still clouding the air.
I took out a thousand rupees, and handed it to the man. He took it, hesitantly, then said:
“Sir? This, it is not enough for two.”
This is where, normally, bargaining would begin. We’d go back and forth about the quality of the products, the availability, the difficulty I’d face in getting them home — each of us trying ton convince the other that didn’t need to make the transaction.
But I really had no desire to bargain with a man who walked barefoot to and from his destroyed house to maybe sell two or three posters a day to tourists. I didn’t bargain at all. Instead, I handed him another thousand rupee note. Even if everything he’d said to me had been a lie – which I doubted – I’d enjoyed our conversation, and I knew in my heart that he needed that twenty dollars more than I did.
He forced a few small handicrafts on me in exchange for my generosity, and we parted with a ‘namaste.’
Even though I’d just paid about four times what I had hoped to spend on posters – and probably about ten times what they were actually worth – I couldn’t help but smile.