Sunday, January 9, 2011

Can I thrive? Or just survive?

This question is one I've been asking for a while now. In some ways, I'm looking for that one thing that "tips me over the edge," that says "Whoa! I can't live here! I'm not made for this!"

Shopping is one of those things. Normally, shopping stresses me out in the States, be it grocery, clothings, or gifts, or anything. I know I'm not the only one who finds it stressful, so it's not really a temperature marker I guess, but, I find that shopping in Nepal is the opposite for me. It can be relaxing, so much so in fact that I need to exert more self control when it comes to buying things. I think its more enjoyable because I usually have more interaction with the shopkeepers than I would in the States. Some of it has to do with how things are done, namely, you bargain. But because I try and speak Nepali, people become curious too, and usually ask about my work, and share bits about their lives as well. For example, I was looking for a replacement pair of earrings for my broken silver pair. I carried the non-broken one with me, but none of the gold-and-silversmith stores I went into had a design similar to the one I had. I found that the price of silver had nearly doubled--I had paid 70 rupees for my pair last year, but within the past three months, because of petrol and transport costs, the price of the metal had risen. Now, my pair of earrings would cost 150 or 200 rupees! One metalsmith however insisted that he could make me a pair. "It won't be exactly the same," he said, "just similar. Come back around 4PM, and they'll be ready."

That worked for me. With the prospect of going to the Terai for a week, I needed to go to Thamel for some items, so that would give me time to go there and come back. I went to Shona's, a trekking store run by an Australian couple, which according to the long term expat community is the best trekking resource around. The directions are simple: in Thamel, go past Kilroy's (another long-term establishment, a bistro and bar), and look for an electric pole leaning into the road. Shona's is right behind it. I needed a backpack--I told the guy that I was going to the Terai for about a week, and needed something to hold my stuff and that wasn't too big for me to carry. He showed me a backpack he had designed after traveling in warm climates. It had a large compartment, supported backpack straps that could be hidden with a flap, and a strap on the outside so that it could be carried as a bag as well. "My wife and I have used it as our carry-on for airplanes as well," he said. "We've taken it to Bali, Singapore, has zippers instead of a drawstring, so you can lock it as well, to make it safer for public transport. Its comfortable to carry if you need to walk twelve kilometers (about 7.5 miles) in case you miss a bus." That last part is what I needed to hear. The only thing it didn't have was an extra compartment for my computer. I had thought to buy a backpack with a Camelback compartment; that way, I could just take out the water pack and slip my computer case into it. But all the backpacks that had those were too small. "It wouldn't fit all you needed for a week of travel," he said. "Just pad the computer with the rest of your belongings, and it should be fine." The cost? "2200 rupees," or the equivalent of 30 USD. I was stoked! I had been expecting to pay more around 5000 rupees, or about 70 USD, which was about what such backpacks ran on the Internet and the States. "Its fully guaranteed, so if you have any problems with it, by all means, bring it back," the guy said as I left the store.

I was also buying a small bottle of iodine solution, to purify drinking water, from Shona's, but the guy had misplaced the droppers. "Could you pop back in maybe 15 minutes?" the guy politely asked in his Australian accent. Sure, I was going to go to one more store anyway. I had decided that a yak wool shawl was in order, as I had been bundling up in sweatshirts, coats, socks and hats and was still not warm. And I was surrounded by women on the street and at church in nothing more than a sweatshirt and shawl, and perhaps socks with their sandals. Something must be said for their wear. There are pashmina places galore in Thamel, but I have been purchasing all my scarves and shawls from one place--Friendly Pashmina, introduced to me by another expat. Actually, I had never purchased a scarf or shawl for myself; all the ones I had purchased last year had been for friends or family. Today, the guy at the store sold me two yak wool shawls for 350 rupees each--a little less than $5, which I knew to be the wholesale price. "You come here often," he said when I asked if that was all he was going to charge me. Plus, I had brought friends more than once. The memory that stands out to me is last year, when I had purchased all my gifts, I had taken so long picking ones out that the guy ordered tea, and we had a conversation about American insurance policies.

Back in Mangal Bazaar, I waited a few minutes while the silversmith finished making the earrings. Sitting in the store, I had a chance to look at his other goods. I seriously thought about purchasing a pair of silver anklets, and another nose ring--I have been considering one that loops around--as the guy had several beautiful designs. But I contented myself with the earring pair he had made, and made a mental note to return closer to the end of my time here, when I would have a better idea of what I could spend. He had melted the sample earring I brought and used it to make a new pair. The new charms didn't have as much detail as the original, but they were small. As his assistant polished them, he asked about my work, and where I was from, and whether I was studying Nepali language now or not. He too had traveled outside Nepal. He had worked on some gas lines in Dubai, repairing them. He had made good money, but the work was hard. He had also been to Malaysia, and Singapore, for work. Were the earrings for my little girl (pucchi)? he wanted to know. No, they were actually for me, I said somewhat sheepishly. I liked wearing silver.

Random little interactions like these encourage me that yes, indeed, I can thrive in Nepal, not just survive. The most recent test however has been house sitting for a family...I'll write more on that later.