Monday, 22 July 2013

The men of Thamel: Getting to know the locals

On Saturday, I got to explore Thamel on my own. Thamel is the shopping district of Kathmandu, the streets are lined with shops selling scarves, handicrafts, books and trekking equipment. I was happier shopping on my own, I knew Harriet wouldn't enjoy being dragged to all the scarf shops and I didn't want her to watch me haggling (it's a little embarrassing). The first time I properly explored Thamel was with Victoria and Harriet the week before. I remember being in awe of the beautiful handicraft but also the buzzing atmosphere. I was excited to be down there again.

However, as I stepped out of the taxi at 12:30 pm in the burning sun, I was saddened to see that half the shops were closed! Streets were bare. It was a Saturday, where were all the people? Going down the same road again, nothing was pulling me into a store. The scarves didn't seem as colourful, the woodwork didn't seem as beautiful and there was no buzz. I was supposed to meet Harriet later, so what was I to do until then? Luckily, the (Indian) merchants of Thamel add another layer of adventure in exploring Katmandu.

Picture 001
The photo doesn't capture how vibrant the shop looks
In a small side street of Thamel, lots of beautifully decorated shops can be found. Turns out they are wholesalers but I didn't know that! I saw one with an entrance so covered with merchandise that you couldn't see the door. I walked in and a guy immediately started talking to me. I could understand enough to think it was Hindi, but I couldn't get the jist of what he said so I thought maybe he spoke in Nepali. After a while, he saw my confused face and spoke to me in English, asking me to try on different scarves. He started to ask where I'm from and what my name is. That's when I start to get a little wary. When they start a conversation with you, they get too friendly that it makes it awkward to leave the store without buying something. I went to a store earlier where they wouldn't let me leave because they hadn't have any business for the last 3 dayys and I was apparently their first customer. I was almost suckered into it. However, is it a right for a store to emotionally appeal to you like that? Secondly, when they ask where I'm from, I always say Bangladesh. That's when they know they have to be more realistic with the price.

However, Ahmed was very chatty. I found out that although he was born in Nepal, his family is from Iran and India but most of them live in Doha. He studied in Moscow and wants to move there in the future (I asked why not St Petersburg, he feels more comfortable with the people in Moscow apparently). He planned on going to Hajj this year but he couldn't because there wasn't anyone else to manage the store.

Between trying on half the store's worth of scarves, we talked about politics, which I don't know much about but it seems like an unavoidable topic among Asians! He talked about how it's getting harder to live in Nepal through the years and he wants to escape and I talked about how he was lucky to visit Maldives, even though he would have preferred to go to Bangladesh.

Yes, like I mentioned earlier, there was the slight awkwardness trying to haggle afterwards. He didn't like my prices nor did I like his, even though he told me he was being very honest especially as it is Ramadan. I did walk out with a stunning blue scarf but I felt better that I was getting to know the locals and how they see Nepal.

Paradise Handicrafts

He told me it would cost me 5000 rupees to take a photo of him.
He told me it would cost me 5000 rupees to take a photo of him.
I visited this shop back in second week with Victoria and Harriet. What pulled us to the store was the 'Dear Human, please touch me' sign but what kept us there were the beautiful 'Kashmir' scarves. Victoria and I saw a couple we liked but 3hen the clerk told us the price, we knew we were about to enter the battle of bargaining. Prices where being thrown across the store when the guy working asked me where I'm from.  I said I'm Indian, which made him turn to Victoria and say 'I'm giving you a good price but not her, she's Indian and I know what they are like!'. I felt like Victoria settled but the guy didn't let us leave without giving me his business card: 'I'm famous, you know.'

Maybe I was a bit optimistic but I went back. The minute I entered, the same clerk turned around and with an excited expression and shouted 'Hey,  it's you!' He made another worker get a seat for me and a drink while he finished serving a few Chinese customers (didn't expect to hear him speak in Chinese fluently). I felt I was getting first class service (you should have seen me leaving the store with a SLR around my neck, a coke bottle in one hand and a shopping bag in another). I met the other clerks in the store, a 17 year old boy and the owner. I asked how the business was going and how everything else was but they weren't as chatty as Ahmed. Instead, the clerk preferred to pick out scarves for me and put them around the neck, not something I felt comfortable with in the scorching heat.  That's when we got down to business with the haggling. I already knew what I wanted but just as before, he was driving a tough bargain. Neither of us backed down. "You're killing me" he kept saying. I was softening again because he looked really sad (was he acting?) and then he insisted I ask his brother instead. No way did I want to start the bargaining match again but I didn't have a choice when he took my stuff to him! He brother kept making faces, I didn't know what he was trying to do but he insisted he didn't want my smile to go away He took my money, gave me more change than expected and  gave me a wink as I left.

Ratna Park

Ratna Park (I think that is the name) is one of the main parks located in the centre. We always pass it on the way to Thamel and thought we should give it a visit today. However, the biggest challenge is to get into the park. It's huge but for some reason it only has one entrance. We did manage to see a small chaos of people trying to get in through a gate and we followed them in. It just happens that today, the park was transformed into a market place but not a very nice market place. The ground was still muddy, littering is done too freely and there was smoke of people burning things (food? rubbish?). No sign of green, grassy park we imagined. There were some gatherings around the park, one was around a volleyball match while there a magic show somewhere else. It wasn't surprising that Harriet was attracting a lot of attention as we walked around but I did get some unexpected attention too: while we found somewhere to take a break, a guy came up to me and asked:

"Excuse me, are you Nepali?"

"No." I answered which seemed to have shocked him to the point of silence. He clearly had something to say if the answer was yes but now what was he suppose to say? He started at me for 2 minutes before asking me where I'm from. "Bangladesh" I answered bluntly (Ah, makes sense why I look Nepali) and he stares at me again. He takes off his glasses and declares his feeling for me:

"I think you're beautiful. I like you" he states and stares we me again.

But I don't like you is what my mind instantly thinks but I'm sure I didn't say it. Before I had a chance to say anything, his friends came over and started questioning me about if I'm Nepali. Awkwardness reached a peak. "Harriet, I think we should move" was the last thing they heared me say before we made a move to escape from the park.

No comments:

Post a Comment