Rakesh smiled with a verdant ferocity. We swept up in his wake immediately.
“Hello, brother,” He said, “Where are you coming from?” He grasped my hand and shook it with sincerity, held it for an awkward, intimate second and then turned to my brother and did the same. We were hooked. And how could we not be? In this city, halfway around a world from any semblance of a recognizable culture, a local noticed our dazed wanderings and came to help. To show us around.
We, of course, sensed no insipid reasoning behind this introduction. Rakesh was just a new friend. He started walking and turned, smirking, signaling for us to follow.
We were in Thamel, Kathmandu’s tourist district, the only streets in the city that disallows motor vehicles. Travelers jaunt down the alleyways, window shopping, ignoring the Nepalese stall owners shouting out their latest bargain.
Thamel is the same tourist trap you’ve seen at any other center of travel. It’s a tourist trap, every third stall or store hawking the same merchandise, the “authentic clothing,” religious trinkets, and other such chintzy toys.
I loved it. Until we met Rakesh.
“Colorado,” I told him, “We’re from Colorado.”
“Ah, America! Mountains!” Rakesh was short, not chubby necessarily, but round in the sense that he lacked any defining features. Kathmandu sweltered. Rakesh wore jeans and a leather jacket. “You sound like Australians.” We scoffed. He beamed.
We wove through the crowded streets of Thamel, coughing up dust and crinkling our noses as the curry smell mixed itself into the sewage vapor. Rakesh regaled us of his life. He was an Art student, married with a son. His schooling was going to provide a good life for his family. As we walked, he pointed out various items of interest, small shrines, and holy places. Lost in the sea of tourism, these landmarks became more frequent and significantly larger as we made it out of Thamel and farther into the “real” Kathmandu.
It is an important part of traveling, realizing the areas of a place that cater specifically to foreign visitors are not a reflection of the local culture or community. Not even close. Some aspects of the culture get amplified, bloated until they become gross parodies of the real thing. An example of this is the practice and aesthetic of Tibetan Buddhism in Thamel. Books, artifacts, and souvenirs pertaining to Tibetan Buddhism litter the streets of the district. Kathmandu, in reality, is vastly Hindu. The savvy entrepreneurs know the foreigners are enraptured by the Buddhists and adjust their sales tactics accordingly.
This may seem obvious, but it was rather embarrassing how some of the more gullible travelers (read: us) ate this shit up. Thamel was a hotbed of local culture, we thought, how experienced we were getting! What with the plastic prayer wheels and steak restaurants available at every corner!
The real Kathmandu was a slap in the face. Rakesh guided us through narrow alleys and small markets. Meat sat, for sale, in the open air, covered in flies. People bought this meat, touching it and inspecting it with dirty hands. Astounding. A pig brain lay on a wooden table for our viewing pleasure, bringing me a shock I may never recover from.
Small acts of religiosity play an enormous role in the daily life of the average Nepalese. We came upon a tiny, elderly woman praying in front of us. She knelt in front of a mound of stone with red nails piled into it, like quills on a porcupine. We watched as she muttered quietly and, finishing her prayer, brushed her fingers on the dirty nails and rubbed the filth onto her teeth.
We looked at Rakesh in shock as two more people, in succession, did the same thing. Rakesh grinned and explained, “The Shrine to the Hindu God of Dental Hygiene.”
I was in awe. Lost not just in the sheer beauty of the old city of Kathmandu, but also with Rakesh’s uncanny ability to find the coolest shit. We pulled off the loud, bustling main streets and appeared in a serene courtyard, empty and silent in a way I never thought you could find in a metropolitan area. Maybe fifty yards square, the courtyard was overgrown and dilapidated in a third world aesthetic. A pristine stupa adopted the middle, and we circled around and around in this small paradise as children and old men looked down warily from the buildings closing us in.
Rakesh played the part of a friendly tour guide, telling us various facts about the Hindu history in the city, as well as showing us the inside of temples we otherwise might have been too timid to go in. He was curious about our American lives, interested in what we did to pass the time, make a living, etc.
Rakesh reeled us in with his bouncing laugh and his supreme street knowledge. He saw us for what we were before we ever could.
We were suckers.
We found ourselves walking up the stairs of Rakesh’s art school, him in front of us excitedly telling us about the techniques he’s learning. He was studying the Mandala, an epic art form consisting of geometric configurations of spiritual symbols of the Nepalese religions. The process of painting these is vigorous, lending to the idea that the artistry is a form of meditation itself. The Master artist is not just a technical genius, but also an enlightened, spiritual one.
My brother and I lapped it up, eager to show Rakesh how cool we thought his chosen path was. We wanted to see his workspace and some of his pieces.
What we encountered was not a quick perusal of a student’s work but rather a similar setting one might find in front of a Time Share salesman. As soon as we sat down, another student came in behind us and seemed to block the door off. Instead of showing us his work, Rakesh unrolled the work of the “master” artists, which unfortunately looked more like mass-produced scrolls to be pawned off as originals to the latest idiot.
I have never witnessed such salesmanship.
Rakesh and his partner came at us from every direction they could think of. We were handed magnifying glasses to truly appreciate the level of detail each piece contained. The Master artist was deified to the extent where, if we didn’t show the right level of appreciation for these printed pieces of paper, Rakesh’s brow furrowed and he seethingly laid into our knowledge of the craft. We sat, for the better part of an hour, melting into puddles of our guilt.
The prices were exorbitant. The cheapest thing Rakesh was willing to part with was this six by the six-inch blob, for a tight seventy dollars. Our eyes could not bulge farther from their sockets. Our budget, on the low end, accounted for less than thirty dollars per day. The average Nepalese makes two bucks and change per working day. Rakesh and Co. were charging about a middle class Nepalese’ monthly salary, all for what essentially amounted to a postcard.
They seemed moved product. On our tour through the school, we saw at least two other pairs of suckers getting the third degree, one such pair was walking out with a cardboard tube, undoubtedly protecting a painting they bought, cheaply, I assume they believed, for somewhere in the mid three-figure range.
We made our way out of this death trap, but only after some intense sweating, nervous looks, and a prolonged, healthy fear of being kidnapped abroad. Rakesh walked us out. He was, as you might imagine, livid.
“I take my time and show you around, you won’t even support my education?” At this point we were all but throwing money at him, thanking him profusely for the unbelievable tour. We were sorry about the paintings, but we just couldn’t swing it, we didn’t have that kind of dough. “All you Americans are the same.” We walked away with our heads low. Rakesh walked away with twenty dollars in his hand, money from the bank of our guilt, a tip for his efforts as a tour guide.
Removed by time from this shakedown, I have learned, I think, two important things. The first of which being, there is no such thing as free lunch, or in our case, a free tour. Their scheme worked well, the boys at the art school seemed to have a line of travelers coming through their door. Otherwise, they wouldn’t charge such steep prices. Throughout the rest of our stay in Kathmandu, we were constantly approached by other “art students” willing to show us around. No thank you, we’ve already seen all we’ve needed to see.
All I wanted was friendship, but that cost more than I was willing to pay.
The second and more important lesson is that this experience is so totally human, I am still kept awake at night thinking about it.
See, I work as a ski instructor. I make a living in the customer service industry. After I finish a lesson, I do everything in my will power to sell the student another one. Anything I can come up with to get these people to pull out their credit cards, I’ll do it. After all, these are some pretty rich folks, they can afford it, right?
This is no different than what my man Rakesh was doing. He merely saw an opportunity to work his people skills and knowledge of his hometown into a way to get a little something-something from a rich American’s wallet. He wasn’t duping the destitute, nor was he starving any kids in the streets, he was targeting a specific wealthy audience. No harm no foul.
To that, I must say good on you, Rakesh. I tip my hat to you. We’re all just doing what we can to get by. I should have just bought a goddamn painting.