It has been to my advantage, especially here in the tourist area of Lakeside, Pokhara, that I am regularly mistaken for Nepali.
It isn’t always comfortable: Someone will start speaking to me in Nepalese at the natural, rapid pace, and after a few minutes filled with what seems like a full notebook page worth words, of wasted communication, I’m only able to respond with a “Huh?” or an “I don’t understand,” or more often times, just a blank stare.
But it sure beats being hassled by store employees posted outside the shops, urging passersby to “Come, come come…” …Buy, buy, buy. “Paragliding?” “Trekking?” “Happy Hour?” “I offer good price, good price.”
Lakeside businesses are survived by tourism. The shops, products offered and cuisines served have been shaped by it. As one would assume, you can get Nepalese food just about everywhere. But if you want pizza, pasta, or a burger, it is just as easy to come by. That’s saying something.
There are lots of spas advertised the way they are in the States. There are tattoo parlors. You can get a henna tattoo, a manicure, a pedicure, a facial. Hell, you can get a message and a haircut at the same time. And all of these services are ones which local Nepalese people themselves do not culturally indulge in. These businesses exist merely to appease the tourists.
Cigar told us that no one goes to a spa, or to anyone else for that matter, to get a massage. They do it themselves. If they need help with the back, shoulders or any other hard to reach area, they ask their spouse or family member. They do their own shaves and haircuts, own manicures and pedicures. Tattoos are not culturally accepted, especially for women. Henna tattoos are worn by women who are about to get married. Aside from that, there is a festival time of the year around July where everyone wears them for a couple weeks, but that’s about it.
But all these things appeal to tourists, and thus, are good business.
The Tibetans who now reside in the country try to take advantage of the tourist market as well. They walk around with bags of jewelry, and invite the tourists to sit with them and see what they have to offer. These women, too, are rather aggressive. And they get away with the fact that most tourists—in their full trekking gear, shoes and socks, couple-hundred-dollar mobile devices—stand before them, without a home, forced to take to the streets for a few dollars in US equivalence to eat and survive. But these women are savvy, clever.
One of the places Jordan, Cigar, and I wanted to visit was the Tibetan refugee camp. This was part of our singing bowl mission. We hoped to visit and ask the Tibetans some more questions, hopefully find out the roots of these meditation tools.
We ventured to Hemja, still in the Pokhara area, but very rural compared to Lakeside. We found our way to another Buddhist monastery where the refugee camp is located just outside.
After speaking to several Tibetans outside, we made our way towards the monastery. Along the way, small stalls of shops were set up all in a row. And behind each one, an aggressive Tibetan salesperson, hoping to make a few bucks on the flocks of tourists who would come to visit the monastery.
One by one, like a wave, as Jordan and I walked through, they coaxed to him, their voices competing with one another: “Come, come, young man, many beautiful things for your wife.” “You like? I give good price.” It was nice that they all directed their pitches to him. His skin color made him a prime target. He handled himself well, respectfully declined, and we managed to escape without spending a rupee.
After spending time within the monastery and collecting the footage that we needed, we decided to continue on. We climbed the hills behind it, and reached a viewpoint, full of colorful flags, which overlooked the monastery. We goofed around, talked to some cows, then continued on.
We made our way to the open fields of rice paddies. In the distance, we could see another tourist destination: Zip lining and bungee jumping.
We came to the edge of the hill to get a good view of the zip liners coming in from the mountains above. By the river down below, cows and horses were dispersed, and appeared the size of ants from our vantage point.
Then, it looked like there were a few takers for the bungee jumping. We wanted to film it, so we decided to climb our way down the mountains, towards the river, to get an ant’s eye view of the free fall.
As we made our way down, we noticed a small tent set up across the river, smoke rising from a small fire just in front of it. My eye sight is terrible, but I could barely make out what looked to be a small child on the shoulders of an adult. Jordan was already down by the river, and was filming. They were yelling to him across the river, waving and laughing and shouting.
“Hiiii!!!!” Definitely the voice of a child. I decided to get closer.
As I made my way, I saw three young boys jumping across the rocks through the river to join Jordan on our side. They were excited about his camera, and ran over enthusiastically. I ran down to join them.
The first thing I noticed was his eyes. The first boy, who sported a camo “LA” cap, fashionably tilted to the side, had the most beautiful eyes. Perhaps the dirt smudged around his cheeks mixed with the dry sweat of his labor, caked on in dark brown streaks, caused the hazel light in his eyes to shine brighter. But I think it was just his energy, his charisma, which shone through in a captivating radiance. They were playful, mischievous.
The boys all had a sense of cool, alive with personality and swagger. I wondered how they were influenced to dye their hair, to sport earrings and clothes that reminded me of young teen punks in the States. Later Cigar would tell me that the older kids in the city got it from movies, and these kids would be influenced by those older kids in the city. It seems inevitable that Western culture finds a way to seep in somehow.
My first thought was, “Where are their parents?” I looked over at the tent to see if perhaps a mother was sitting by the fire to cook, or if a father was working nearby with the horses or by the river. But no adults were to be seen.
They didn’t speak any English, and that’s where our trusty Cigar came in. He asked them questions as Jordan and I stood by and waited for the translation.
They were horse boys. They would tend to the horses, and migrate around the mountains with them. Tonight this is where they set up camp, but would be on the move tomorrow. No parents, no adults, just these four young boys.
Seeing them care for themselves—just a few boys who call a small tent home, who sleep on rags, who fend for themselves, there cooking rice by the fire—made them appear like little adults in 12-year-old bodies. But when they lit up, laughing and playing with us, showing us their horses and climbing on each other, they looked like the kids that they are.
They are all each other have, and are more than just friends: they are like brothers, family.
We called them our “Lost Boys of Hemja.”
I later found out that looking after horses is designated to the lowest castes of Nepali people, that they are shunned and demoralized within society. These boys would sacrifice what childhood means to us, and work year after year in the mountains, likely die young as a result.
But in these boys we met, I didn’t see poor, depressed souls. I saw lively, playful, high-energy kids, living out a grand adventure with their brothers. Goofing off together, exploring together, working together. Caring for one another. Content with what little they have.
They didn’t come to us, signaling to us by bringing their hands to their mouths that they needed food to eat. They didn’t beg us for money, they didn’t ask for anything.
They expected nothing from us.
They were just happy to show us the horses, point out the monkeys in the hills. Happy to make us laugh with their antics – giving each other piggy back rides, twirling around, pushing each other around, play fighting. Completely intrigued to see the photographs we took of them on my iPhone, their goofy faces coming alive in real time on screen. Even more fascinated by the ability to move the images and play with the touch screen feature.
I watched as my fingers – clean, nails freshly painted and manicured – glid across the screen alongside his: nails full of dirt and grime, skin broken and calloused from the demanding work and climate. His young hands looked aged next to mine.
It’s interesting, because usually when we take photos with people we meet, they ask us to add them on Facebook so they can see once we upload, or give us an email address to send to. But these boys had no expectations beyond viewing the photos on the screen – even this luxury exceeded their expectations.
They could have watched themselves in the photos and pictures on my phone all night long if we had let them, but it was dark and time to go. Before we left them, we gave them money—more than we had actually intended as a result of handing over the wrong bill, but we didn’t mind in the end. In fact, we were glad. We were glad to give them an allowance that would let them splurge beyond their needs, even for just a day.