I didn’t know I’d cross the border and go shopping in Nepal until I did. It was one of those “pleasant surprise” moments. When my co-traveller told me we’d be visiting the Nepal border, I assumed we’d get just a glimpse of the border gate. I imagined soldiers with rifles as long as my arm, guarding the gate. I even pictured their predicament: Tourists begging for permission to click away, some sneaking their cameras trying to be clever, and some staring at them, unabashed.
And yet, like so many times in this trip, surprises awaited me. There was a gate, sure. And there were a few soldiers. But they didn’t stand tall and handsome. Instead, they sat in a small shack, overseeing tourists who enter.
We had to undergo some procedures, yes. Like submitting an identity proof. But I hadn’t anticipated it to be so simple to walk into another country. But that day, for the second time in a three days, my dream of crossing an international border came true. I’m not complaining. It’s a good thing that India and Nepal are pals.
But photos are not allowed, they warned us. And so, we crossed the border — in special vehicles available there. Not sure who managed those, but the drivers weren’t Indian. They allowed seven people in one van, and drove us for about one kilometre past the border gate. I’d have liked to cross that distance on foot, but the authorities forbade us. Don’t know why though, there were some great little shack shops on the way.
As we travelled, I couldn’t help but think of those movies in which kidnappers stuff people into a vehicle, and drive through unknown terrains. It felt like that. The seven of us huddled congested, and the road needed to see some decent tar.
About ten minutes later, we stopped, and got down at what looked like a deserted shopping area. The weather was chilly, and I gaped at the countless shops loaded with goods. It looked so peaceful, yet felt so wrong; only a handful of people hung around. I hate going shopping back home because the streets always overflowed with people carrying purchases they don’t need.
But here, though, I grew curious. I wanted to go through all the shops, look around, and see what’s new in Nepal. We had a half hour to explore.
Most of the shops sold woolen clothes fit for the climate, some sold leather garments and boots. Some displayed candy with funny-looking labels. Beads of every colour and bags of every shade hung in some stores. And, sure enough, steaming food for the weary soul.
The road was much better here. It was one winding slope that brought a smile on my lips when my walk became more of a trot.
One shop lured me in, in spite of me trying to remain on the surface. I could never resist antiques. But the owner wasn’t there. I was looking for good photographs, but wasn’t sure if the owner would approve.
Nevertheless, I went in and tried to capture all I could — from varying angles. I moved around to experiment with the lighting, took a few steps back to capture whole idols, and even went close to peer into Buddha’s eyes.
And then, all of a sudden, a man entered. Unlike me, he strode into the shop with the authority only an owner could expel. I stumbled within me for a moment, and “Just photographs,” I said, raising my phone. In an instant, he smiled wide, surprising me. With a single nod of the head, he gave me the go signal, and I know I beamed.
I’m still a novice photographer, and so I continued looking for the perfect angle, not sure what I hoped to capture. As for the owner, he grabbed the guitar by the cash counter, took a seat, and began adjusting his tune.
The next moment, he broke into a song, so smooth, so soft, and oh so beautiful. He wasn’t loud, he wasn’t looking for attention. He became an artist playing just for himself. I told him he was good, and he nodded with a smile. I’ll never know if he understood what I said, but I understood: character depends on an individual, not their country.