Privilege and poverty in Kathmandu

When locals spot me, looking all foreign, and ask how long I’ve been in Nepal I say two days. Sometimes they ask me what I think of the chaos and I tell them that I’ve been in India for the last almost-two months and they say, “oh, so this is easy for you then.” Kathmandu is busy, but it’s nothing like Delhi or Mumbai. Don’t get me wrong, there are many lovely, friendly people in India, but in general, India is very confronting. People are hustling to make the money they need to survive, and tourism is a major industry. We foreigners are an opportunity waiting to be leveraged, and you can often feel this, especially walking through cities like Delhi, Mumbai or Varanasi. 

I know it’s a similar reality in Kathmandu. But so far I haven’t really felt like people are desperate to sell things to me, and conversations with strangers have been plentiful and easygoing. When I arrived in Kathmandu after 42 hours on two buses, a local man who was collecting his son from the same bus offered to drive me to my hostel. He even called them to get directions and then gave me his card in case I needed any support or wanted to meet up while I’m here. 

Speaking of that 42-hour bus ride, I had a massage today. It was at a place called Seeing Hands, which employs (and trains?) people who are blind as masseurs. Walking back out into the tourist district of Thamel, I met a guy named Suresh. It turns out he’s 27, about my age, and originally from Dharamsala, where I just came from in India. He’s been living in Kathmandu for 4.5 years with his wife and three kids. He has twin nine-year-olds, a boy and a girl, and a two-year-old boy. We walked around for a little while, toward a festival that was supposedly happening. He showed me a hidden-away temple and the art school where he studies mandala painting, a discipline that takes ten years to master, of which he’s completed two years. He told me about how he helped dig out students who were trapped in his collapsed school building in the earthquake that happened last year. Nine of his fellow students and friends died. 

It was after lunch time so I dug out the half-eaten bag of almonds I had stowed in my backpack. I offered some to Suresh, and he gratefully accepted a small handful. We kept walking and he cautiously invited me to his home for tea. He worried that I would be angry or put-off by this invitation. Of course, as a solo woman traveller, I was careful to note that he was married with three kids, and that the details he gave about his family were well-rounded and consistent. So I decided I could trust him. 

We took a local minibus to his “village”, as he called it. These minibuses cost maybe 10 – 30 Nepali rupees (NPR) depending on how far you’re going. This can turn a 500 NPR trip into a 20 NPR trip if you’re willing to cram yourself into a tiny van with 10 or 12 other people. 

While we waited for the bus, I offered him another small handful of almonds. Suresh told me that he really appreciated and enjoyed them, revealing that he hadn’t had almonds for a long time because they were just too expensive to buy. I insisted that he take the remaining two almonds left in the bag. His hesitant acceptance turned into excitement when it occurred to him that he could give them to his kids. 

It might be fair to say that Suresh and his family live in a slum. It feels strange to compare living conditions amongst the impoverished, but I’d say that this slum was probably a little more upscale than what you’re picturing. Their one-room apartment vaguely matched the others in the neighbourhood, with relatively clean, concrete walls and floors. Clear water poured out fron the communal tap maybe 15m from their doorway where a small boy and someone who might’ve been his father soaped up, working around the shorts they’d left on. Suresh’s apartment had electricity, mainly used for an overhead light. He apologized repeatedly about the heat, explaining that they couldn’t afford a fan. 

Upon our arrival, Kallo, Suresh’s wife, welcomed my unannounced visit by making milky ginger tea for the three of us to enjoy while sitting on their only real furniture, a double bed made of plank wood and thin cushions. I assumed that this is where the family of five sleeps at night, but during the day it serves as the living room, dining room and play room. I soon met Binnie, their two-year-old son, who quickly demonstrated the versatility of this piece of furniture by bouncing off the walls. Suresh took the two almonds out that he’d saved and gave them to the toddler, who quickly devoured them with a big smile. 

Suresh just radiates happiness. While we enjoyed our tea, he told me that most days, along with his studies, he works as a shoe-shiner. I later asked him what job he would do if he could do anything and he said he’d be a shoe-shiner. It’s a pretty good job usually, he said. But it’s been hard for him lately because he lost his “shoebox” in the earthquake and hasn’t been able to replace it since. This shoebox is the mark of a proper shoe-shiner, and without it people don’t trust him. Right now he works out of his backpack and business isn’t good. He makes around 100 – 150 NPR a day, which is about $1.30 – 2 CAD. With the shoebox that his father had given him he used to make 300 to even 800 NPR a day (about $4 – 10.50 CAD). 

As the afternoon petered along, I met his two older kids, nine-year-old twins: Badda, the boy, and Komel, the girl. I’m guessing at the spelling of all of these names, by the way, because while Suresh’s spoken English is conversational, he can’t read or write it. In fact, he speaks Nepali, Hindi and English but is illiterate in all three. His wife, Kallo, is in a similar situation, though speaks no English, and their children are destined for a similar fate. School is just too expensive, Suresh explained. It costs around 30 – 40,000 NRP per year, per child if you include the school uniform, food, books and tuition, a cost of about $400 – 600 CAD. When you have three kids and an income of maybe $1.30 – 2 CAD per day, it’s just not possible to send your kids to school. I found it hard to imagine how he managed to pay his rent of 5,500 NRP/mo (about $75 CAD).

He told me that he can’t afford to buy much food. He usually doesn’t eat breakfast or lunch, just dinner if there’s enough to go around after his kids and wife eat. But he told me that money isn’t what matters. He told me, “I’m poor. We’re all poor here. But I’m rich in my heart. So I’m very happy.” I was astounded when he asked me to stay for dinner, and hesitant to accept an invitation to eat their precious food. But he insisted, and without telling me ahead of time, he went to his neighbour to borrow money so that Kallo could buy ingredients for our meal. 

While there was still plenty of daylight, I asked if it was alright for me to take some pictures of his village and his family. He excitedly said yes, and even thanked me for wanting to do so. We wandered just outside his small home and turned down the narrow alleyway that connected the many one-bedroom homes of his neighbourhood. I quickly came across some adorable kids and wondered if it was okay to take their picture. (Taking a picture of a stranger’s kids in Canada is super creepy, but it felt like etiquette might be a bit different here). Suresh assured me that it was fine. I took a couple photos of two children, squatting together on the ground, who might’ve been 18 months old, but looked wise beyond their years. 

In return, I showed them the photo I’d taken, and they were instantly fascinated and overjoyed to see their likeness, perhaps for the first time ever, on the magical device in my hand. Other kids very quickly caught onto the opportunity and jumped in front of me for a photo. The same excitement and joy overflowed every time I revealed the resulting photos. At one point, I probably had 10 children crowded around and on top of me as I squatted on the ground trying to show off a group photo I’d just taken. (This is where my history of getting lice five times in my life started to bring up lice-related anxiety. Fortunately, I’d tied my hair back tight as soon as I’d arrived, but I’ve been scratching my head with psychosomatic symptoms ever since). 

With my phone full of beautiful photos of enthusiastic kids and adults alike, I returned to Suresh’s apartment to try to learn as much as I could from Kallo’s cooking. She was a good sport to invite me into her small cooking space, on the floor between their bed and the small shelving unit that held their cooking utensils and ingredients. As far as I could tell, their kitchen was composed of a gas-fired double hotplate, a large mortar and pestle, a small wooden cutting board, a couple large metal plates with big rims, one sharp knife, and a few metal plates, cups and spoons. 

I was invited to clean the okra, destined to be the main ingredient in the curry we would have, by wiping each vegetable down with a cloth. As I dropped the clean-ish okra into one of the metal bowls, Kallo sliced it up into small pieces in another bowl. She pealed about 10 cloves of garlic (my kind of cooking), and put them into the mortar with about 1/4 cup of salt(!!). I got to mash the garlic to smitherines with a huge pestle (check which is which!). Meanwhile, she cut a red onion into fine slices. When I finished, she gave the garlic another good mash (I was learning after all), and then sliced up two tomatoes and a handful of cilantro into the mortar. She added generous spoonfuls of chilly powder, masala spice (curry powder?), what looked like turmeric, and one or two other spices that we couldn’t figure out the names of in English. 

Starting up the gas hotplate, she placed a metal bowl/jug/pot onto the flame and poured in a very generous helping of canola oil (more than a cup). Giving this a moment to heat up, she added the onions, which quickly started to give off the delicious signal that we were going to eat something wonderful. After a couple minutes she added the garlic, salt, tomato, cilantro and spices from the mortar and stirred them around until the smell was unmistakably Indian.

The okra was added maybe five minutes later, but by this time Suresh and I had started playing cards on the bed. I’d been interested to know what Suresh and his family did with their down time, and had asked if he plays cards with friends. He did, along with the occasional pick-up cricket game, so he pulled out a deck he had stored on an upper shelf. He showed me a magic trick that I was thoroughly impressed by, and I taught him the most basic card game of my childhood, Go Fish. 

Throughout our game I tried to get more information about this shoebox he’d told me about–the one that he’d lost in the earthquake, which had helped him bring in at least twice his current income. I wanted to know how much it cost to buy a new one. It seemed to me that helping him buy a small item that would double his income for the foreseeable future would be one of the wisest investments I’d make all year. He was resistant to my questions, saying that he just enjoyed having me in his home and as a friend. Eventually he relented and went to check with a neighbour who sells these shoeboxes if there were any for sale. Unfortunately, the neighbour was away and would be for a few days, so he also didn’t know how much it would cost. I promised that I’d come back in a few days and we’d look into it. 

With a mix of hesitation, concealed desperation and hope he told me that there was just one more thing. Kallo, his wife, had a mysterious lump on her leg, somewhere between a golf ball and tennis ball in size, protruding from her inner left shin. Together they told me about it, with her reminded him of the details in either Hindi or Nepali and him translated it into English. She’s had the painful growth for about a year, but until the last couple months it’s been quite small. It’s since become prohibitively painful and is cutting off some feeling in her leg. She’s not able to walk very far anymore, just to the supermarket around the corner. 

They saw a doctor last week about it; a visit that I’m sure was hard to afford on its own. She told them that she would need an operation to remove it, an operation that would cost about 45,000 NPR or $590 CAD. With the helpless realization that this was expensive even with my foreign dollar, I tried to express my empathy for their situation. They weren’t outright asking me to pay for her operation, but the suggestion hovered in the air, implied. 

I held my tongue as I did mental math, considering whether it might be possible or reasonable for me to raise the funds to help them. I didn’t say anything because more uncomfortable than being the white saviour is being the white saviour who doesn’t come through on a promise.

It was getting late, around 8:00pm, and I wanted to get back before it was too dark out. I asked if I could please give some money to at least buy the ingredients for dinner so he wouldn’t owe his neighbour anything for having hosted me so kindly. Suresh was fast to hush me and explain that accepting money makes him feel like a begger. While I understood that accepting money can be complicated, I was reluctant to just receive his family’s overwhelming hospitality and give nothing in return. He suggested that I could buy the family some rice and other staples instead and I jumped at the opening to return their generosity. 

We walked to the small grocery shop around the corner and Suresh started picking out food. He piled up a 20kg bag of rice, a couple packs of powdered milk, a box of tea, a 3L jug of cooking oil, 2kg of lentils, and a couple other things I couldn’t quite make out. I felt a bit overwhelmed by how much this must cost and tried to tell him that I only had about 1,380 NPR on me and I still had to make it home. Not having purchased proper groceries in India or Nepal, I naively hoped that I might be able to afford all of the items that the family needed. The shop owner tallied up the items and displayed a total of 10,300 NPR on her calculator. I did a doubletake–that’s $135 CAD, an amount that, even if I’d had it on me, I wasn’t comfortable handing over. 

I was starting to feel a bit unsure about Suresh’s intentions. And this is what I hate about travelling in developing countries; being in an unavoidable position of power and, to many, relatively unimaginable wealth. I suddenly wasn’t sure whether Suresh had planned on making this substantial request ever since we met in the tourist neighbourhood of Thamel. I wondered if what he’d told me about his life was true; whether the kindness, hospitality and playfulness his family shared with me was genuine or a show. It seemed like a lot of effort for a long-game hope that I’d buy this food, help fund a needed operation, or replace a lost means for income. 

Similar situations have arisen during my last trip to India, situations where opening myself up to connection with locals for a lovely afternoon twisted into a subtle or not-so-subtle request for money (or assumed romance). I hate the doubt that sets in as I try to make sense of these requests. By the end of my last trip I was disillusioned by the sense that foreigners are sometimes viewed as walking ATMs, while all I wanted was to get to know the local people in the hopes of genuine, untethered connection. 

By the end of this quiet debate in my head I decided that Suresh was likely trying to be both genuine and kind, and also leverage an opportunity to take care of his family. With this conclusion in mind, I happily bought what I could with 1,350 NPR; surprisingly not much–just two packs of powdered milk, which doubles as baby food. 

He asked if I’d come back the next day with more cash, and I explained that I wasn’t comfortable doing that, but that I’d be in touch soon and we’d look into the shoebox together. He walked me to the unmarked bus stop where a minibus to my neighbourhood waited. I gave him a hug and thanked him for giving me such a lovely afternoon, and wiggled myself halfway into the crowded minibus and it drove off. 

What do you think? Would you buy the expensive groceries? Do you think I should leverage my network to try to fund Kallo’s surgery? Would you react with suspicion or trust if you were in a similar situation? I know these aren’t simple questions to answer, and it’ll probably be hard for you to say. But why do I/we get to luxuriate in the privilege I was born into while others, by cruel chance, were born into a life of poverty and almost no socioeconomic mobility? Do I/we have a responsibility to do something?