I decide to time myself: How long does it take to walk back to the cottage from my favorite coffee shop in Thamel?
So I start the timer as I walk out of The Coffee 1.
I head up the lane towards Tridevi Marg, spying a parked taxi as I get to the corner. The driver leans across the passenger seat and waves enthusiastically in my direction. I walk by, waving discouragingly in his.
Five steps beyond the corner and there’s someone else offering me a ride, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I just turned one down. “Rickshaw, sir?” I barely glance in his direction while hitting him back with a no-thanks.
Up ahead there’s a man in tattered clothing sitting on the steps of a shuttered storefront. He’s got in his hands one of those wiry gold trinkets that expands into a globe and collapses into a star, all decorated with fake jewels. Thankfully, he’s looking the other way as I approach, and for a second I think maybe I’ll get by him without hearing a sales pitch.
No such luck: As soon as he catches a glimpse of white skin in the corner of his eye, his mouth instinctively starts touting. I say nothing and walk on.
It’s at this point that I decide to keep count of the propositions. Three so far. I wonder how many more before I reach the cottage.
Just past the intersection and across the street, two older men come at me with pleading smiles and peacock feathers. I smile back a no-thanks and keep moving, wondering why anyone would buy peacock feathers. Perhaps for decoration, like in a bouquet of flowers. Or maybe for a spell of some kind, accompanying newts’ tails and frogs’ legs.
Rounding the next corner, a well-dressed man falls into stride with me. “Trekking sir?” I shake my head and ramble on. Dude keeps trying as he falls back: “Rafting? Bungee? Helic…”
I managed to get by a bunch of rickshaws without being seen. Now there’s a tubby mustachioed chap on his cell phone, breaking off his conversation to try lead me into his pashmina shop with a “Yes sir!” and a sweep of his hand. Effort in vain.
Almost a minute gone by without a proposition. But here comes a young lad pedaling a rickshaw, swerving over to my side of the street with a smile as he slows. “Namaste, sir! How are you?” I respond with a good-thanks as I sidestep and continue on towards home.
Another corner, another bunch of rickshaws. “Where are you going?” comes the call. I offer no response.
Now one of those dudes with the little wooden violins, several hanging from his sides and another in his arms. He says nothing, but turns with me and plays a few screeching notes as I pass.
A group of three coming towards me, flying-v formation. The lead duck quacks and grins, “Namaste, sir! Where are you from?” I swim swiftly past, a simple namaste serving as my polite rejection. There’s a chance this chap is just being friendly, but it’s a mighty small chance, a chance that drops to zero when he whispers loudly after me, “Smoke hash?” I think my ears also hear his friend mutter something about pussy, but I don’t stop to clarify.
The ridiculously old and haggard lady with the wooden crutch, that look of complete despair forever frozen on her face, as if she just learned her only son was killed on the battlefield, like his father before him. I don’t know how she maintains that expression all day. Maybe she’s legit, maybe that look is real, and her daily struggle really is that desperate. I don’t know. I’ve passed her several times now and haven’t given her anything.
Sometimes I give to beggars, whenever my gut tells me it’s time. But for whatever reason, my gut has no time for this lady. She always grabs at my arm as I go by. I never move to avoid her. I figure the least I can do, as long as I’m not giving her any money, is to not treat her like a leper.
Another rickshaw driver. This guy is familiar. I’ve seen him along this street several times before. He smiles wider than the rest and always looks genuinely giddy at the prospect of offering me a ride. He’s literally bouncing up and down in his seat as I approach. But I have to disappoint him yet again, pointing out that I’m almost home. Relentless, he keeps pitching at my back, “One hour tour, very cheap!”
I round the final corner and onto the lane leading to the cottage. As always, there’s the mousey middle-aged man perched on the kerb. He throws me the usual namaste and gestures towards his wooden tray, stocked with tiger balm, colorful combs, handheld mirrors, an array of padlocks, and a dozen other items I never want to buy.
Except I did buy a knife from him that one time, needed it for my peanut butter. I’ve passed him every morning and afternoon since, and he grows a little more frustrated each time, his expression gradually evolving into one that whines, “Come on man, throw me a fucking bone here!”
And I can’t blame him. He’s out there all day every day, same spot, and I’ve never seen anyone but myself buy from him.
And now I’m back at the cottage, typing this up. I stopped the timer when I reached the gate.
Ten minutes, thirty-six seconds.
- Yeah, my favorite coffee shop here is named The Coffee. I often hear the Japanese owner on the phone while I’m there. The conversation usually goes something like this: “Yes, this is Kahn from The Coffee… The Coffee… from the coffee shop named The Coffee…” Poor chap would save himself a lot of phone time if he had just chosen a better name for the place. ↩