It is a sight that is far too common. A traveler walks through the crowded streets of Thamel – the tourist haven/slum of Kathmandu – followed by a horde of souvenir vendors, beggars, and people who promise to sell them the best marijuana in the country.
Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.
It doesn’t matter if the traveler is male or female, old or young, well dressed or ragged, a Nirvana-seeking hippie or an simple, kind-hearted person who happens to be wearing ruby slippers… as long as she is foreign and she is physically there, then she will get hassled to no end.
I genuinely sympathize with tourists who go through this unending ritual of harassment. It happens to me as well, though I probably deal with it less than my blonde haired, blue eyed counterparts. In theory, I support the tourists stalkers of Thamel, even if I don’t agree with their aggressive tactics, because they (like the rest of the world) need to make a living in a competitive environment.
Recently, however, there were two incidents that allowed me to view the strained relationship between locals and tourists from a new perspective.
The first occurred last week. I was sitting in the office of the Gandharba Culture and Arts Organization, when a foreign (as in Non-Nepali) couple walked in. They had arrived in time for the daily folk music concert, but rather than appearing excited to hear a unique style of music, the pair looked bewildered and rather annoyed. Remembering the overwhelmed feeling that I experienced the first time I went to the GCAO, I tried to ease them into the situation by striking up a friendly conversation. The response I got was surprisingly cold and rude. They would not make eye contact with me or even look in my general direction the whole time. The most I could get from them was curt, one-word answers.
As I was ready to give up on the pair, one of them asked me how I learned English so well. It hit me… they thought that I was a Gandharba. Immediately after learning that I was American, the young husband and wife were much more friendly. I, on the other hand was a rather put off by the fact that they treated me so differently when they thought I was a local.
After this encounter I became more interested in the interactions between GCAO members and tourists in the area. As the Gandharbas act like the wandering minstrels of Thamel by playing folk music on their sarangees while strolling down the streets – all in hopes of selling an instrument or a CD – their interaction with non-Nepalis is quite frequent but not always pleasant.
Earlier this week the members of the GCAO and I planned a small project. Basically, we worked it out that I, armed with a “hidden” video camera, would follow a young Gandharba musician as he tried to invite tourists to the GCAO daily concert. Within the first 10 minutes of shooting, I saw just a bit of what the Gandharbas have to go through every day. Though the musician was fairly talented, he was consistently ignored and avoided. He even incited a few glares. He was not overly obnoxious or even that aggressive, but he still couldn’t get anywhere. (One Australian woman did talk to him for a bit, but she also noticed that I couldn’t hide my camera very well.)
After our short session I could not help but feel for this particular musician. After many of the unproductive exchanges he experienced, he would look over at me with a disappointed face, but would move right back on with his work. Going back to work is all he could do, because that is the only way he would be able to make a living for himself and promote his organization.
As I reflect on these experiences, I know better than to harshly judge the tourists involved. And I am certainly not suggesting that they start allowing drug and souvenir vendors, beggars, and other aggressive locals to walk all over them. I respect the fact that most of us foreigners have to keep sane in the uncompromising Oz that is Thamel. But I hope that as they think “There’s no place like home”, they can realize that not every local person they encounter is a flying monkey.
Posted By Ted Samuel
Posted Sep 13th, 2007