Thursday, May 8, 2008

First Business Today

In downtown Kathmandu, the tourist market’s crammed with foreigners, haggling over carvings of Ganesh, coral necklaces or handmade paper lampshades, but the ordinary market, full of ordinary Nepalese, buying ordinary bags of lentils and chillies, is nothing short of exotic, if you’ve got a Sainsbury’s loyalty card in your purse. We see the birdman, with live songbirds in domed wire cages at one end of his yoke, and green parrots at the other. The tobacconist sells cigarettes three at a time, from an open packet. Between the stalls selling fake designer watches and mobile phone chargers, a wizened crone crouches over a curved metal bowl on the floor, feeding her panful of fire with offcuts of wood, turning corncobs over and over in the embers.

Men lean perpendicular from the hip, to heft a load heavier than themselves, supported by a strap across the forehead. Not just the picturesque, conical head-baskets, you see in the National Geographic, full of carrots, but any and everything, from bundles of sugar canes and sacks of rubble, to microwave ovens and television sets. The hands-down winner – literally – man toting a fridge-freezer. I wonder how many Shredded Wheat the average Nepalese eats for breakfast?
We go to Freak Street, named for the unrepentant hippies of the 60s and 70s, since – believe it or not – we were too young to trek to Kathmandu, in its heyday, and too sensible, in ours. Now more commonly known by its local name, Jochne, it’s bit passé and sad, though you can still get your tent laundered here, at need. It’s not entirely abandoned, we see new century hippies, with artless dreadlocks and multiple piercings, meandering along, hand in hand, though Children of the Universe, these days, are more inclined to favour Thamel, to the north.
The shopkeepers of Thamel aren’t picky. They’ll have your money, whoever’s head’s on the banknotes. “Cheap price!” they croon, enticingly. We stroll by, impervious, so they regroup, calling, “Nicht teuer!” to no avail, because we’re crossing territorial boundaries into next-door’s patch. “Bon marche!” they cry after us, in desperation. They’d concuss you, bind you, and carry you in, if only it didn’t draw so much attention on the street.
A man stalks us, whipping out of his duffel bag a musical instrument, which looks like it was cobbled together at his kitchen table, out of something from under a car bonnet, a bean-tin, and four clothes-pegs. He follows us, grinding a tune, like an inverted Pied Piper. When he drops back, defeated, another tout silkily slips into place. “Madame, Sir,” he says, “you like knife?” It sounds like a threat, but he peels a cloth back, and there is a baby scimitar, in all its hammered glory. Not today....

The salesman on the bone-carving stall says, “Please, madame, first business today, I give you good price....” I stop, and lend an ear: I’m quite susceptible to a tale of woe. What I’m wanting, is a Buddhist prayer-wheel (standard table-top version, not the rattle-type) inlaid with turquoise and coral. “Is the prayer inside?” I ask. “Madame,” he says, disappointed with me, “no prayer inside, no is prayer-wheel.” Obviously. He prises off the lid, and the prayer scroll looks to be antique, but I have singed enough honest A4 in my time, steeped in strong tea, to make pirate maps or Hear Ye scrolls, with the boys, to know that this dates back to all of the week before last.

So, I stop for a prayer-wheel, and what do I buy? I buy the King and Queen of Nepal, with long Mandarin plaits, etched with peacocks and fish and dragons. He says they’re made of bone, so if you have a suspicion about resin, when you see them, don’t say.

Next-door, the stall-holder already has a turquoise-inlaid prayer-wheel in his hand – “You’ve been listening!” I say. “Is my brother!” he says. “Come, Madame, first business of the day, I give you good price.....” One by one, twenty more salesmen ply the same wheedling line, but I’m progressively more savvy and less charmed. Either things are not going well down Thamel Chowk way, or they’re lying, but for sure, someone needs to set up a rota, for first dibs on the hard luck story.
Just when I’m flagging, we find The Paper Park. I’d go back to Nepal, just for this shop. You need to have stationery in your soul, to understand.
We come, empty-handed, out of one jeweller’s store, and his neighbour pounces on us, “Come, you see his shop. It’s my turn now.” Foxed by the purity of his logic, we go in. When I hold up a necklace and say, this would do, but for this, this and this, Barkat does no more than snip off the ends, and restring it in front of me. I hand him every bead. He says, his father tells him off for remaking necklaces, he should sell what’s in the shop, but he doesn’t agree. No obligation to buy, of course. We pay up, of course.

Mindful of the boys’ need to have something different, to take to the charity shop, when we snuff it, we decide to take home some dragons. In the streets, we’re offered prices ranging from 6000 NRs for a lone dragon, to 25000 NRs for a pair. Finally, Shyam takes pity on us, and shows us a dragon-factory in Patan. This isn’t like any factory I’ve ever seen – it’s someone’s home, with a workshop attached. We leave our shoes at the door, and pad our way up stairs and along galleries, to the showroom. There’s barely room for us all to sit on the floor, flanked by Shiva in gold, Ganesh in bronze, and Buddha in brass. If you care about these things, it’s lost wax casting. Kaji Shakya, the sculptor, with his long hair and Catweasel beard, looks a bit like Buddha, himself. Our dragons aren’t dragons at all, as it happens, they’re Temple Lions, and they come in pairs, male and female. I try to discern anything girlie about the female in my hands, but I’m hopelessly Disney-trained, looking for long eyelashes and cupid’s-bow lips. Kaji picks up her mate, “Madame,” he says, handing him over, “see in back.” - So I see in back, and he’s not wrong. We buy the pair, for 8000 NRs. Kaji calls his son home from a wedding party, while we sip water in his living-room, because he can carve gods out of wax, but he can’t work the Visa machine.
In the wood-craft shop, while Mr Roland’s admiring peacocks the size of cartwheels, without intention, I buy a small carved “OM.” The woodman says “300,” and I say, “250,” and we’re done, practically before we’ve started. Not what a connoisseur would call haggling, strictly speaking, but as far as I’m prepared to go. Woodman looks a bit thwarted at the easy kill, so I sing him a line from “Om Shanti Om,” to make up for my lack of bartering finesse. He’s suitably stunned. Game to me, then, against all the odds.
We buy witty t-shirts for the boys, which say, “Yak, yak, yak – Nepal” – don’t read this, boys! – and then we consider our part in tourist revival done. We gird up loins and shopping bags, and head back to the Soaltee, where the house musician plays "Hey there, Georgie Girl," double time, on the untuned piano, through the power-cut, and winks at me, when the lights come up again. He launches into "Hello, Dolly!" with more gusto than skill, and hysteria obliges us to leave. We have to pack, anyway.

Do you have to declare lions, at Customs, do you know?