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My Day in Kathmandu- a five part story

MY DAY IN KATHMANDU - Part one: GOOD MORNING!
by Diana McLeod

            What's it like to be a jewelry buyer in one of the most exotic cities in the world? I will tell the story of one day. (this story was written in 2004 - 2006)

      I awaken to sunlight streaming into my hotel room. The Nepalese quilts are suddenly too hot, and, besides, I must take advantage of this good light. I grope for the TV remote, (Yes, yes, I know, but it is so nice to get news broadcasts in a foreign land). Damn, the cable is out. I can only get the local channel. Fuzzy images of Hindu priests singing Vedic chants do not appeal to me.

      I shut down the TV and go downstairs in search of breakfast. No shower, not yet.... Hot water here is solar, so it is smart to shower later in the day. No sun? No shower! (unless you're desperate). To be fair, my guest house provides electric hot water in the mornings, powered by gas generator, but why abuse resources in a land where there's not enough gas or electricity to go around? Besides, those generators cause an unbelievable amount of air pollution.

      My morning work begins with gemstones. In order to make many of our specialty pieces, we must select our stones ourselves, and then give them to the makers to be produced. My main job is to select the stones that will be used for a specific piece, packet them, and send them off to the maker with instructions. It can be a difficult job. For a link bracelet, you need to find seven or eight stones that are all exactly the same color, the same cut, and the same height. I will have to set up forty or fifty stones, all exactly at the same angle, and inspect them carefully to make my selections. If they are to be used for gold, only the most perfect stones will do. Each stone should be examined under magnification before being selected. Sometimes, I look at fifty stones, and I am unable to make a single selection! When each little group is selected, they go into little paper packets, to be sent to our silversmiths.

      Today I have to go to Durbar Marg (a main commercial district) to reconfirm my air ticket. The system here is archaic - I must show up at the airline office in person, with my ticket in hand, and get it specially stamped. Along the way, I pass by the King's Palace. What an ugly building! They have painted it a rather unfortunate salmon pink. High security fences make it look more like a prison than a palace. The new King is highly unpopular here, and civil unrest is picking up steam. It is only a matter of time before the population revolts... (I wrote this in Feb. 2006. In April, people did revolt, and the King was forced to adopt a more ceremonial role. Then, they did away with the monarchy altogether. Today, the palace is a museum. Is the country itself any better off? Sadly, it is not.)

      I find the Sahara airline office and get my ticket stamped, enduring the inevitable Lady Di references when they see my name. It's amazing how beloved she was, around the world!

      At 11 A.M. I have an appointment with “Rajendra”, a silver wholesaler. I'm not used to taking this route, so I expect to get a bit lost along the way, which is half the fun. I try to head for Asantole, which a main market street. The market is well underway, and I am struck by the thousands of micro businesses that people have created in Nepal. Of course, there are plenty of farmers, bringing in crops to market. The raspberry crop has just come in, and many women have only a single basketful to sell. "Bicycle businesses" are everywhere. You can sell anything from a flat basket mounted on the back of an old bicycle! Fruit, vegetables, underwear, Rayban sunglasses, flower garlands for worship at the temples, plastic flip-flops.... One guy had nothing but lamp wicks of all sizes; – an important commodity in a land of constant power shortages.

      The "stores" in the market are not much bigger. This area is home to some of Kathmandu's oldest buildings. These historic treasures are still in use everyday, even though many of them are falling down faster than they can be propped up. Tiny doorways of defunct temples now house little hardware stores and brass shops and rice sellers. Five hundred year-old houses with pagoda roofs and delicate wooden balconies are now homes to plastic shops and sari stores.

      I duck through a doorway and stop in at one ancient Newari temple that is still in use. It is nestled in a sheltered courtyard; a world apart from the tumult of the street. Its traditional rooflines are ridiculously picturesque, with carved birds and figurines on every corner. Incense smoke curls lazily up from a brazier, filling the air with fragrance. Spirit bells toll as each worshiper enters or exits the temple. Several ladies are doing puja in front of the entrance of a shrine. Their colorful silk saris brighten up the scene.

      The courtyard is full of little stone statues and pigeons. The birds are all over the place, taking advantage of offerings of rice that were set out this morning. I want to go closer to see the spectacular brass artwork around the temple doors, but I am reluctant to take my shoes off (a requirement) and walk barefoot on the dirty flagstones. Never mind, I haven't the time, I'm almost late for Rajendra.


      AT THE BANK OF KATHMANDU

      (Editor’s note: This part of this story was written early in 2006. As a result, it is a bit of a time capsule. The bank has modernized since I wrote this. )

      Rajendra's silver shop is just around the corner. I meet him there, and we prepare to make our annual trip to the bank. Rajendra requires a deposit so that he can purchase the silver for our order. He and one of his workers are waiting for me. They carry a special seal and stamp, and a copy of the required paperwork.

      The bank of Kathmandu should be a banking museum. In these hallowed (but seriously dowdy) halls, things are done the old fashioned way. Most of the bankers do not have computers or even calculators. Everything is hand written into oversized old ledgers. Each entry is made entirely by hand. Columns are actually added up by people who still know how to add and subtract. Even more stunning, I have, in the past, seen abacuses still in use at this bank! Tall stacks of ledgers adorn each desk, piling up in teetering heaps. They have dog-eared edges and fraying bindings, and they contain records of hundreds, maybe thousands, of accounts. Woe to the employee who spills his or her tea on these precious documents!

      Surprisingly, there are ladies working here! In this incredibly male dominated society, and in this bastion of banking conservatism, it is wonderful to see that women have landed many of the jobs in the head offices. In the Foreign Exchange Department, about a third of the work force is female. We have to do laps around the bank in order to get the deposit made. First we go back to the boss, to get approval. Then we go to desk after desk, where signatures are required, or where notes are written into the dusty old ledgers, or where the seal and stamp are witnessed, or where the paperwork is checked, or where my passport is checked. Stacks of ledgers are carried from place to place by guys whose sole occupation is to ferry them around. The whole thing takes at least an hour.

      It is quite an obstacle course to make a deposit! It is even more difficult to make a withdrawal. Crowds of people have to go from desk to desk to desk, before being allowed to approach the cashier. They are given special bank coins with numbers on them, to mark their transaction. The spiders, who are weaving thick webs on the chains that hold up the flyspecked florescent tube lights as they hang from the ceiling, are far more efficient than the bankers!

      But, as amusing as this archaic system is, it actually does work. I send funds electronically to this bank, and they do get to Rajendra's account. One time, a wire transfer got lost... I don't remember which American bank we were sending it through, but it was a big one... Either Chase Manhattan, or Citibank... but anyway, the fancy Western institutions lost track of the money. They sent out a tracer, with no success. All the computerization failed, and they eventually gave up. We then went to the Bank of Kathmandu, and they were able to find it, using their ratty old ledgers. The money was stuck in a bank in NY, in an account that the Bank of Kathmandu maintains there. The Bank of Kathmandu succeeded, when the slickest banking system in America failed.

      The most amazing thing about the Bank of Kathmandu happened years ago, when we first began importing. I learned about the international system of "letters of credit". It is a mechanism where a manufacturer and a purchaser from two different countries hire a financial institution to broker their business. The purchaser of the goods sends payment to the bank, and the bank agrees not to release the money until there is proof that the goods have been made and shipped.

      So, when I first decided to export goods from Nepal, I went to the head offices of the bank, and asked the bank manager how to set up a "letter of credit" system in Nepal. He looked puzzled, then, he replied "I am sorry, Madam, but we simply do not do that here."

      "Really?" I said, "Then how is it done?"

      "You just send them the money, and they will send the goods."

      "And everyone does it that way? Even large companies? What if someone just kept the money, and never sent the goods?"

      "Madam," he smiled patiently, "This is Nepal. It is our culture. We all believe in karma. None of us would ever do such a thing, because it would result in our being reborn into a most terrible reincarnation."

      I have never forgotten that conversation. It reveals a stunning difference between the West and parts of the East. We place all our trust in signatures and contractual obligations and lawyers, and none of our trust in basic ethics. They place their trust in karma. In Nepal, it has proven to be true. You just send the money. They will send the goods. Of course, it is still important to scope out your business connections very carefully, too, because their karmic obligations do not necessarily extend to quality control.....

      (This story was written after my visit to Nepal in 2006. In 2007, when we went back to the bank of Kathmandu, it had been completely renovated and utterly modernized. I was torn between relief and disappointment. I almost miss the old dinosaur…)

      In the next installment, I will go back with Rajendra to his shop.


AT RAJENDRA'S SILVER SHOP

      It is a hot day, so it is a relief to return to Rajendra's shop. His shop is a bit deceptive. On the outside, it is just like all the other little silver shops in town. There is a little counter, and tiny little wooden stools to sit on while you shop. Rajendra's inner office is a different story. A few years ago, after hearing complaints (mostly from my husband, I'm sure) about those nasty little wooden stools, he had the place rebuilt. He now has a big wide desk, with very comfortable office chairs and air conditioning. It makes for a great place in which to work. Those chairs are especially dangerous. They make me want to stay longer, and buy more than I need to...

      Rajendra's desk is chock full of silver, and so are the cupboards behind it. His method of sales is to show me style after style, so that I can select. Rajendra is always willing to try new things. He is the most innovative of all the Nepalese silversmiths we work with. Unfortunately, the jewelry is designed and built by men, so some of the designs tend to be quite heavy handed. Occasionally, a remarkable new design is created, and then I get excited. But Tradewinds has zillions of designs, and so I am extremely hard to please. I must drive Rajendra a bit crazy sometimes! I reject so many!

      It gets worse when I have to reject good designs. This year, he has been perfecting his Indian styles of chandelier earrings. The new ones are gorgeous. Unfortunately, we bought too many of the old styles, so I will have to sell those off before I invest in new. And the style is fading fast in the U.S.

      I stop looking at silver, and look at packets of stones instead. Sometimes, inspiration comes from the stones themselves. I pick through a packet of labradorite, then turquoise, then faceted opaque ruby. Rajendra is always trying to find new stones in India, and some of his buying is good. It is more expensive to buy here, rather than in India itself, but it saves on the traveling, and I get to pick out the better pieces from his stock.

      I begin to run out of ideas, and I mention that I really have to leave soon. Our order is done, and I've seen enough new designs anyway. Rajendra wants me to buy more, so he offers me lunch. They can order some tasty hot samosas... Rajendra knows this bribe will work. Lunch sounds good, and this is my last chance to have fresh samosas this year. I cannot resist. So, I agree to see a bit more, while Rajendra sends a worker off for the samosas.

      Rajendra orders from a new samosa shop. The old samosa shop, which was the Kathmandu equivalent of the most famous deli in New York, was shut down after it was rumored that a mouse was found in one of the samosas. It could have been true, or it could be urban myth. That shop made samosas on the grandest scale. The samosa ingredients (potatoes, veggies and spices) were prepared in giant mixing bowls, covered in folded crust and fried in enormous cauldrons of boiling oil. Patrons would crowd the cauldrons by the hundreds, waiting for fresh samosas straight out of the pot. I used to bring people there all the time. It was a lunchtime "must" when doing the Kathmandu tour. The shop was so busy that I doubt a mouse would have ever braved the crowds...

     It is Rajendra's contention that somebody from another shop started the rumor out of jealousy. That is really the most plausible explanation. But I notice that he is still ordering from another shop, even though the old landmark has been completely refurbished and reopened for business. At any rate, we have had a good time making jokes about "so-mouse-as."

      The new samosas are as delicious as ever. I wipe the last of the tamarind sauce off my fingers, and get back to business. Rajendra shows me a few more design ideas, most of which he already showed me two days ago. It is enough. My buylist is complete, and we each have our copies. I hand him the last few packets of specialty stones that I have prepared, and it is time to say goodbye.

      It is a heartfelt handshake. We have known each other for a long, long time. I have watched his business grow and change over the years. He has come a long way. They can send me digital photos now, and the invoices are done by computerized spread sheet. We email each other all the time. His son has grown up and is taking over more and more of the business. I have enjoyed watching the father and son doing business together, shifting roles and responsibilities over time. We are old friends now.

      "So long, Rajendra! See you next year!"

      In part four of this story, I will discuss the fine art of haggling.


THE ART OF THE HAGGLE

      As I leave Rajendra's shop, I notice that the weather is rapidly deteriorating. Black clouds are moving in from the East, and the air has that heavy sullen feeling that precedes rain. Rain is a dismal affair in Kathmandu. Most of the streets are unpaved, or cobblestone, and the drains back up, and everything turns into a muddy mess. Rain is best avoided if possible. I might be able to dodge it if I take a bicycle rickshaw. The street is not very busy at this time of day, so a rickshaw should make better time than being on foot. Besides, if the rain starts, the rickshaw has a colorful canopy, so I will stay somewhat dry.

      As soon as I get near enough, the rickshaw boys spot me. "Rickshaw madam? Very cheap! Nepalese helicopter? Where you go?" There are five of them, all vying for my attention. These drivers all speak some English, which is why they cruise this district. Rajendra's shop is near a famous series of temples.

      Usually, I just grin and wave them off. Today, I decide to take one. But first, there is the haggling. If I am not careful, I will pay ten times what the locals pay. If I am lucky, and I work hard, I will get a decent tourist price, which is still probably twice or three times what the locals pay.

      I try the one with the most engaging grin. "How many million rupees will you charge me to go to the Everest Steakhouse?" (a famous restaurant in the tourist district, which happens to be right near my guesthouse).

      The guys like my approach. "Two million!" one declares.

      "Only one million!" cries another.

      Now that we've established the fact that they are going to overcharge me, I get down to business. "How about fifty?" I ask.

      "Million?"

      "No, rupees. Fifty rupees. "

      His face falls. "Madam, we get two hundred and fifty. Sometimes three hundred."

      "Are you crazy? I could go all the way to Bhaktepur for that! And back again!"

      He shrugs. "Two hundred."

      "Do I look like a first-time tourist to you? Sixty."

      "One hundred fifty. Last price."

      I glance at the sky while I roll my eyes. It is looking worse. I need to close this deal quickly. When the raindrops begin to fall, prices will rise as if by magic. Supply and demand. He might not take less than a hundred right now, because he knows it too. I try my favorite trick. Luckily, I have been careful to count and arrange my money in advance. "Seventy two," I say.

      "Excuse me, madam?"

      "Seventy two. Last price. Any takers?"

      They look confused, but impressed. This is a great technique, which was developed by my husband, David. It really throws them off their game. I am obviously not a regular tourist, because they always haggle in large numbers. I know the value of a rupee, and I am haggling more like a local.

      "One hundred twenty five."

      "Seventy two. That's what I have in my pocket. Seventy two. You and I both know that that is still too much, but rain is coming, after all.”

      I pull out my rupees. He can't resist. He has never met a foreigner who knows exactly how many rupees they have in their pocket. That fact wins him over. I hop in, and off we go.

      Of course, I still paid much too much. I paid almost double the going local rate. Foreigners always do. It's O.K. These young men are struggling to make a living. Most of them are from the countryside. They have a family to support, somewhere in the hills. They rent the rickshaws. Most of them even have to sleep in their rickshaws in order to protect them from theft. It is a hard first job for most of these guys.

      My philosophy about haggling is that a smart tourist should really avoid the extremes. Don't throw money at people. It makes you look stupid and disgustingly rich (which you are even if you are tourist traveling on the cheap). It teaches the local people that tourists are ripe for the picking, which encourages scams and theft and all kinds of other problems. It teaches people to lie to you about what things actually cost. It may ease your conscience to throw your money around, but it does great harm to the community in the long run. Instead, educate yourself about what the locals expect to pay. Then pay them more -but not a ludicrous amount.

      On the other hand, don't knock people down too far. It'’s a buyers' market. You can knock people down and down until they resent you and there are bad feelings. They will usually take the low price eventually. Sometimes they will even sell goods or services below cost, because they have had no business that day, and they need money to buy food for the family table. When I see this happening, I will sometimes intervene on behalf of the vendor.

      The "middle path" is best. If you feel guilty about haggling at all, don't be. It is expected of you. If you find ways to keep it lighthearted, and not confrontational, you will not find it an unpleasant experience. Find a good healthy way to channel your guilt elsewhere. Go to a local business owner and ask them about a good local charity, or a free clinic, or an orphanage, and make a donation, making sure your money will actually be well spent on people who truly need it. Then, do your haggling in good conscience. Find out how much the locals pay. Then, give a fair if slightly elevated price (based on the local economy) for services rendered. You will get respect, and you will be helping out in the best way you possibly can.


RICKSHAW RIDE

      A bicycle rickshaw is a bizarre looking contraption. In front, they look like standard bicycles, with handlebars and a bicycle seat. The rear is quite different. The back flares out into a two person loveseat with a little platform beneath it for passengers' feet. The loveseat is cushioned, with decorative padded arm rests on either side. Above is a canvas canopy that can be opened up in case of rain. Two very large rear wheels power these charming little rattletraps.

      Most rickshaws in Kathmandu are elaborately decorated. Scenic paintings and colorful flowers often adorn the exterior. The canvas canopy is usually painted and decorated with pom-poms, fringes or plastic tinsel. Some drivers have pinwheels and crazy decorations taped to their handlebars. One even had a little Hindu shrine on it!

      There are some ground rules that it is wise to follow when taking these things.

      #1. Know your route. Some roads in Kathmandu are simply not suitable for bicycle rickshaws. If there are many hills, it can be an unfortunate choice of transport. On steep uphills, the driver has to get out and push, which I find very embarrassing. On the downhills, you can find yourself going way too fast. I have had rickshaw drivers take a corner on two wheels, which can be a terrifying experience, especially when there's traffic. One guy even lost his brakes completely, in heavy traffic, on a long hill. It was a very close call!!!

      #2. Choose your destination wisely. In Nepal, it is impolite to say "no" to someone. Therefore, when you ask the rickshaw driver if he knows where your hotel is, you can expect a decisive "yes." Then, he will drive you around in circles, until he is completely lost, and he will just keep asking people for directions until he finds someone who knows where your hotel is. He will charge you extra for his time. It is usually a much better idea to direct him to a landmark that everyone knows about (including you) and then you can give him directions from there.

      #3. Never drive it yourself. Rickshaw drivers will sometimes ask you if you want to try their rickshaw. NEVER NEVER agree to this! These contraptions are much harder than they look! It takes time to learn how to handle the awkward three wheeled vehicle, with its sloppy steering and its terrible brakes. The roads are a hazardous series of construction sites (with unmarked ditches six feet deep) and horrendous potholes. Besides, there is always the possibility that the driver will try to molest you while you are driving. This happens to men as well as women! Also, if you are driving, you are responsible. Any mishap will land you in trouble, and the cops will hit you up for an unbelievable bribe...

      #4. Never, never ever get into a rickshaw, without haggling and agreeing on a price first! If you don’t, you will be charged enough money to pay for the drivers'’ eight daughters'’ weddings. Really.

      I have agreed on a price with my rickshaw driver, and I am now ready for my rickshaw ride. It can be an enjoyable experience, if the traffic is just right, (meaning that there are no jams, but there is enough traffic so that they can't drive at breakneck speed). On my ride, the route is level, and the rain is just starting, so I have secured my chariot at just the right time. My elevated throne sets me above the throng of scurrying pedestrians, and I can get a bird's eye view of the street ahead. Twilight is coming on, and little lights are illuminating the little shops on either side. The fabric stores are brilliant with bolts of brightly colored silks, and they blur past in bursts of color.

      As we near my hotel, the rain gets more intense. The driver sets up an umbrella for himself, and he tugs down the canopy for me. He throws a piece of transparent plastic over the whole thing, and we roll down the street in our little plastic bubble. The rain streams off of us like water off of a duck. I am delighted that I have avoided the muddy walk home.

      When we get to the hotel, I tip him. His eyebrows go up - he doesn't often get tips. He did a good job, and I had haggled a fair price with him in the first place, especially with the rain coming on. He is amused that I have suddenly found more rupees in my other pocket. He grins back at me and waves as he circles around to leave.

      Thanks for reading! Diana McLeod


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