I figured since I'm doing this, I should get some older pieces posted not only in the name of content, but also for fear of losing them to the black hole of the interwebs. My mind is anything but fresh, and I'm definitely guilty of losing old stories posted on long lost blogs. This isn't posthumous, it's (for) posterity. This was written the day after the events in the story took place, and transcribed with very little editing so as to keep the emotion intact. Reading through it all these years later, I certainly can admit to the massive chip that had built up on my aching shoulders. At the time I was beyond road-weary, coming off of the back-end of one of the greatest physical and emotinal challenges of my life. It was incredibly transformative, both physically and mentally, but had yet to take hold. I offer that as no excuse, only as explanation for what appears to be quite a dark outlook.
Names have not been changed, but might have been exaggerated.
Pokhara to Sauraha, Nepal - 12.23.2002
The bus ride went by quickly for once, and with a minimal amount of pain. Perhaps the last few weeks of rough living on the Annapurna Circuit had put calluses on our bones, or perhaps had just made us a bit callous. Either way, we were harder. Suddenly we found ourselves moving about with a smooth, tough to penetrate protective coating. A new element added to our defense, and a welcome addition it was.
10 minutes away from our destination: Bus stops. Doors open. 3 new “passengers” join us and start plying their wares. Bus lurches, pitch starts. There’s nowhere to turn, nowhere to hide. Their use of over-polite English is almost as rude as the pushy, in-your-face manner in which it’s delivered. As if all the “please sir’s” and “excuse me sir’s” and “over here sir’s” cover up and distract me from the 3” distance between our faces. The gap closes quickly, filling up with rotten breath and suspicious, world-weary too-good-to-be-true offers. Bus jolts, teeth grind. Questions fly like a shit storm; All of these “where are you goings” and “what are you doings” and “where are you froms” rain down upon us. It’s the same old tactic: Answer nothing, divert eyes, avoid any dealings with those trying so hard to deal. Side-step the finders and seek out the found. By trying to get away, you’ll find that you can never really get away, no matter how deep or how far you go.
Let’s talk touts. Imagine yourself surrounded by frantic, shouting liars. Men desperate enough to sell you a story or their sister. Whichever might give them a chance at surviving another day. These are men of chance encounter who rarely encounter chance. Men with nothing to lose. No rules, no morals, no boundaries. These are men dying to make a living. Men dying to live. Men I might have some respect for, some empathy, even sympathy, if I wasn’t the one they were lying to, if I wasn’t the one they were trying to get over on. These are the men that turn the trusting, naïve traveler into a distracted, suspicious, defensive tourist by leveraging doubt and fear into intimidation. These are men we could all do without. All of us but their families, whose lives depend on the intimidating hard-sell that awaits us all in small towns around the globe.
Bus Stops. Doors open. Game on. My eye’s are wide open but refuse any contact. “Find bag” becomes a momentary mantra. Push through the motion showing no weakness. Scowl, posture, “find bag.” Scrubby men hover all around, every space on the horizon filled with bobbing heads and raised hands. It’s 360 degrees of desperation. No peace at all, everywhere I look. All of them appear to be representing The Royal Chitwan Tiger Jungle River View Rhino Lodge or The Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave? No thanks dude, I’m in Nepal, I’ll come and go as I please.
I find my pack flying overhead, tossed recklessly from the roof of the bus. The sharp edge of something tears a nice groove into the flesh of my palm as I struggle to pick up my overloaded burden. Sweat streaks my brow, stinging my eyes with yesterdays dirt. “Bag found.” Focus. “Find Jessica.” It’s tough adjusting to the arrival chaos. You forget that they were waiting for you all morning. The time you spent staring out the bus window daydreaming, was time they spent awaiting the possibility you provide. A tout might have spent all week dreaming of the cold hard cash you might be willing to part with. Most are quite determined to see the dream through. A sure detriment to any hope of success.
The scene swirls. This is the eye of the storm, and it’s not so calm. Heart pounding, struggling with my pack; “find Jessica.” Focus. And she appears, trailed by 5 or 6 new friends, then departs quickly to freshen up, leaving me to guard her bag with nobody guarding my back. I can feel the vice tightening and I have no wagons to circle. It’s then that the shouting starts. A shout here, a shout there. Here a tout, there a tout, all of them shout, shout, shouting. It’s all over but the fighting.
Overwhelmed with rising panic, I raise my hands and ask loudly: “Have any of you heard of the law of diminishing returns?”
More shouting erupts: “Yes sir, me sir, I have…”
“My place sir, free ride, no obligations, many returns…”
I lower my hands: “The more you shout, the less I’ll respond folks. The quiet one gets my business, it’s as simple as that.”
Again with the shouting: “Me sir, I’m quiet, very quiet, my place quiet too, come look, free ride, looking is free, very nice…”
And it just don’t stop. No sale. Kick dirt, wait for Jessica, work on your million-mile stare. These daily battles will wear you down until you’re wearing a cold-heart on your sleeve for all to see. Desperate people learn to posture with the best of them.
Jessica returns, parting the crowd with our sinister savior in tow. All we wanted was a ride into town. No stops, no sales pitches, no bull-shit. That’s all we asked of anyone; No free rides, no free looks, just a ride. Plain and simple. Easy money right? Right… So we go with the first guy that says “Town Only.” Jessica made sure, she was very clear about our request. Asking, checking and double checking: “Town Only Right? We want Town Only.” Right, no problem. “30 Rupees”. Decision made. Hope, faith and the daily balance; too much caution and care and you might never make anywhere.
So we’re off, the four of us, in a vehicle loosely fitting the description of a Jeep. Four new friends. Driver, tout, tired tourist and sick & tired tourist, bouncing along, looking around, straight through the river and right into town, and except for the continuing pitch, the questions and bits of local information tossed at us, we had no reason to believe we were headed anywhere else. Town here we come. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, nowhere near town, the driver makes a sharp right turn away from the road. Town my ass. Shit. The Jeep lurches down the driveway of the first Hotel we come to: The Royal Chitwan Tiger Jungle River View Rhino Lodge. I notice The Hotel California right next door, and laugh. I can feel Jessica boiling next to me. Here we go…
At every stop and every turn. In every town and every country, they always addressed me first, under the impression that I was in charge. Not very perceptive.
Tout turns: “Sir, if you would please, my place is new, just have a look, no obligation, look is free…”
Me: sighing, ground down and ready to go. “You Lied!” I said. “This isn’t town.”
Jessica: growling, steam rising, not pleased at all. “We made a deal, you said you would take us into town, no stops, no bullshit.”
Game on. Friendly eyes breaking contact. Friendly folks breaking contract. And it just don’t stop. Seriously, some people enjoy this and sometimes I just don’t get it. It becomes easier to accept but harder to understand. The upper hand is always up for grabs.
Tout turns again: “Please sir, just a look…”
Me: grumbling , fumbling. “Fuck no! You lied to us. Let’s just pay them and go.”
Jessica: outraged, exploding. No! I’m not paying them shit unless they take us into town That was the deal. If you want the money, you’ll take us into town.”
Not a creature was stirring, not even a tout. Surprised again by a sudden stand-off, a close encounter of the 3rd world kind. People can starve in these stalemates. Silence will kill the deal. Seconds that feel like minutes pass by. Don’t move, don’t speak, wield what little clout you can muster to try and save face. Whatever that means.
Driver turns, breaking the silence: “I’ll take you. ”60 Rupees.”
Me: head in hands, slowly shaking.
Jessica: counter punching. “No, 30 Rupees is the going rate.”
Driver turns, eyes returning, coming back: “30 Rupees each!”
Jessica: parries, thrusts. “No! 30 Rupees is the going rate. Take it or leave it.”
Driver shakes head, unsure of his next move.
Me: a month of anger spilling out; The ugly American rearing its head: “Fuck this! You lied, you’re a liar. We don’t have time for this shit. Fuck you 10 times, thanks for the ride. You lose. Let’s hoof it Kitten.”
I hop out of the jeep, pack on shoulder with Jessica close behind. Both of us fuming and a bit frantic, we kick a few chickens and head out, heads down, quickly covering the last half mile into town. The farther we traveled, the funnier it was. Here were four people trying to survive a difficult situation by misrepresenting their services and themselves when the truth was easily accessible. A free ride is a free ride, emotional warfare or not.
We ended up staying at The Royal Chitwan Tiger Jungle River View Rhino Lodge, but they’re all called that. We were in the one NOT next to The Hotel California