Experiences of an American woman who was married to a Serb.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas from Nepal: Shipping, shopping & money tips

Christian holidays are not celebrated in Nepal, except by hotels and restaurants who throw special meals and parties which both the tourists and middle-class Nepali love. (Nepalis are like Serbs, any excuse for a good time gathering.)

Pokhara has been gussying itself up (erecting sidewalk booths, stringing dozens of banners across the street, and painting all the curbs a spiffy black and white pattern) for the big Gregorian year end celebration -- a street festival Dec 27-30. It's not the Nepali year end, but again, any excuse for a party and perhaps making a little more money off the tourists.... My husband who grew up in a socialist/communist country is far more dismayed and saddened by the Nepali's habit of viewing all outsiders as little more than walking cash dispensers. I grew up capitalist so the commercialism doesn't bother me as much.

A national English language paper held a poll last month asking which calendar Nepal should use, Gregorian (Western) or a choice of two different Asian ones. Only 9% of more than 6,000 votes were for Gregorian.

I mailed off calendars showing both Nepali and Western dates to a few friends this week. The cost was inexpressibly huge because you can't use the local post office if you'd like your packages to actually arrive at the other end. The safer option, UPS, charges $54.00 per half kilo and you can only buy shipping in half kilo increments. So you end up sending bundles to one person, with a note begging them to break the package into bits and re-mail it to the others whose gifts rode along.

Due to my massive calendar extravagance, I ran out of cash on hand and so visited my first Nepali ATM. The display screen is comfortingly like home -- in English. (Cell phone displays are also all in English which means natives who have 99% of local mobile accounts must learn English to use their phones and text-messages, very inconvenient.) A friendly gun-toting security guard sits next to the booth more for companionship and window dressing than any real threat. The most delightful bit is when you get your receipt and see your bank balance in Nepal Rupees. At 63 rupees per dollar that means your lowly US bank account is swollen like the mighty Mississippi. I saved my receipt because who knows if I'll ever again get such a large number from an ATM in my life. Hundreds of thousands. Perhaps I should frame it....

Unfortunately the ATM dispenses in 1,000 Rupee notes. Flashing a 1,000 Rupee note about town is almost like using $100 bills in a US 7-11. It's rude and hardly anyone wants to break them. Plus there's the added confusion that the NRS500 and NRS 1000 banknote look extraordinarily alike. More alike than any other currency, most of which is different colors and sizes. On two occasions now I've handed over what I was pretty sure were NRS1000 notes and gotten back small change as though I'd given NRS500. I think once it was a mistake and once not.

Anyway, here are my top shopping and money tips for Nepal:

#1. ALWAYS ask for price before you say you'll buy something. Prices are almost never marked (except in restaurant menus). So say "How much is it? I'll buy it." Instead of "I'll buy it, how much is it?"

#2. Nepali native price and tourist price are two different things. Even for plane tickets and buses, etc. It's nothing to get upset about, we subsidize them a bit, that's all.

#3. The actual price merchants are willing to settle for for things like pashminas and oranges are all about the same. However the starting price they'll try right out of the gate can vary astonishingly. One orange vendor will try his luck with NRS150 per kilo of oranges, while another starts at NRS50. The actual "real" tourist price is NRS40 and I think natives pay something like half that.

#4. Everyone expects you to haggle. In fact if you don't they are palpably disappointed and also seem to feel they must rectify the situation because you are not paying a fair price. Ever since my husband paid one orange seller triple the going rate (he was in a hurry and didn't want to haggle), the man has tossed a free orange at him whenever we walk by. Another time when buying a pashmina for my Mother, I forgot to haggle. So the shopkeeper obligingly haggled with himself on my behalf. "It's 800 Rupees," he said, "OK, I'll take it," said I. "Well you are the first customer of the day do I'll give you 200 Rupees discount," said he. "Thank you," said I. "Well you are such a nice lady I give you another 100 Rupees off," said he.

#5. Restaurant bills are slightly shaky things. I ate the exact same meal three nights in a row at the same restaurant, and one time it was RS505, another time RS515 and a third RS535. After having watched Nepali waiters struggle over invoices for two months now, I've come to the conclusion that while they can learn a variety of foreign languages at the drop of a hat, the language of math will always remain an unknown and somewhat frightening land to them. So, check your bill if you're anal. I'm not and just pay whatever is there along with a 10% or so tip which is fine for here.

#6. Take more money than you think you will need for your trip. Although everything is very cheap (hotel $5-10 night, dinner for two $10-20, etc), somehow you wind up spending far more than you expected. I think because it's all so cheap, you relax and begin to not worry about spending money, it's only a little bit, a little bit, a little bit you think. But those little bits add up quite astonishingly.

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