The “Soles” of the Street and the Weight of a Smile

A few days ago, a friend suggested I write more things that come from the heart, which makes a lot of sense. So…today, I decided to post on a walk that happened a while ago but that has stuck with me.

When I was still working, I’d take the bus as far as I could and then walk the remainder of the 10 odd minutes or so to my office. The road between the buses and my office is scattered with beggars, vegetable sellers, people offering ripped DVD’s, small nick-knacks, a few snacks and even a blind madal player. After walking the very same route twice a day, six days a week, months and months on end I eventually knew not just the road, but I knew the people who sat on the cold floors and tried to make a living. It got to the point where I’d notice if the madal player was missing, or if  the woman with her two small children weren’t at their corner.

One day, while I was making the walk back to my bus to go home, I received a phone call from my sister telling me she was in a close-ish part of town and we should meet up for dinner. Seeing as I had already walked about half the distance I figured I’d save myself 10 rps and just walk the remainder of the way to our designated meeting point – this meant that I had to walk down a road that I didn’t take too often, and this also meant that I saw things different from my routine route to work.

There are two parts of my walk that still “haunt” me (I’m not sure that “haunt” is the right word, but I can’t seem to find anything more appropriate):

1) As I walked, I noticed a patch of the path where the ground was covered with dusty shoes lined up and were being displayed for sale. I looked down and seeing the well worn shoes, I quickly assumed (probably correctly) that these shoes were stolen. I half laughed in my head and I’m sure I unintentionally gave the sellers a disapproving look. For a split second I wondered where the footwear was stolen from and if it was from a place like a temple how the previous owner must have got home bare feet (and how the male patrons must have got a scolding from their wives).

I kept walking and realized the strip of stolen shoes sellers extened for a fair bit. Upon looking at the goods they offered, I realized some vendors had a few rows of shoes (maybe about 20 pairs), while others only had about 4 pairs laid out in front of their own hole-laced-sole-worn-thin shoes. I didn’t see a single person stop and look interested in any of the products. This was probably due to the fact that shopping here would mean you had no option of size or color and you probably couldn’t get them wrapped in a box to take home.

I kept walking and as I looked at the faces of the sellers, I saw they were all men (gazing idly at the cracks in the floor with maybe a half hopeful glance here or there at passerby’s),  of varying ages and as I already mentioned – they had a different number of shoes laid out. After I past all of them (and in the direction of the huge heap of garbage festering in the late afternoon sun adding a delicious aroma of decay to the already far too crowded streets) I felt this….pang…and I had this moment of clarity where a question I have yet to answer weighed heavy on my heart:

When the responsibility of providing for your family depends on you, is the stealing and (re)selling of  a few decrepit stolen shoes so bad?

I couldn’t give you an answer. The stealing part I do believe is wrong, but when you steal to try to feed your children it would appear less “wrong”…right? Even after the shoes have already been snatched…the selling of them isn’t for certain and the possession and displaying of these beaten up shoes don’t guarantee money. It’s just a terribly sad situation where no one wins – not the poor soul left without shoes, not the man-boy trying to sell the shoes, and not the middle class girl walking by feeling guilty.

2) I left with the mangled shoes leaving dusty footprints on my mind and as I crossed an overpass I barely noticed an old man hunkered down with a scale in front of him and a sign that read “5 rps” next to him. I glanced at where he sat (mostly to walk around him to avoid tripping and finding myself face flat tangled up in his weighing machine) and walked on by. For some reason, (perhaps the guilt of not wanting to buy over-sized, over-worn men’s shoes) I decided that I could afford to pull out a meager 10 rps note (twice the value of what he charged and a fraction of what my dinner would be) and hand it to him. I paused (and almost had a fellow bump into me) as I rummaged my purse looking for change, I clutched the 10 rupees, turned back and handed it to the old man. The man looked up at me and smiled as he accepted the money. His smile (not to romanticize the situation), radiated his face and I swear I saw a light in his eyes, he appeared child-like, it was a innocent, pure and as genuine of a smile as I’ve ever seen. Now that I think about it, (not to suggest that I am a bundle of compassion) perhaps it was a smile born of unexpected human kindness.  He then, palm extended (as is polite in our culture as opposed to the the pointing of a finer) eagerly offered me the scale. I shook my head indicating that I wasn’t interested in finding out how much I weighed (and really, what self conscious young 20-something female wants to do that on the street?) and walked away.  I left but the imagine of his smile and the look on his face burned itself in my brain (next to the imprints of the shoes) and my heart felt so heavy.  This man, sits there, probably day in and day out charging 5 rps a weigh and for my 10 rps he gave me a smile, I fear that I benefited far more from our exchange.

The streets of Kathmandu are heavy with those struggling to make money. Some of them have creative methods and others have had their last shred of dignity disapper off of their fingertips as they extend their hand upward hoping for the clink of change. True, the man asking me if I want “henna tattoo” is annoying, and no I don’t want to  buy a picture of a hindu god I don’t believe in and I certainly don’t have any use for the bendy I’m-not-sure-what-kitchen utensile, but I find that I constanatly have to keep reminding myself that they are human. It’s far too easy for us to see them as an annoyance, as a hassle and inconsiderate fools cluttering the streets adding to the chaos and pain of getting around on foot in the city.  It doesn’t matter if the hands and the hardend eyes cast in my direction are Nepal, Indian, Madeshi or of any other caste and ethnicity – we are all children of God.

I don’t know what my point is (I rarely do), it’s been months and the prints of the shoes and the face of that man are far from faded. I don’t think that offering to buy all those shoes is the answer (because then we might have more people arriving bare feet at their doorsteps and even more angry wives) and I don’t think I could realistically offer 10 rps to every man with a weighing machine (and that wouldn’t really solve the isssue of their imporvished state anyways) … but it would cost me nothing to smile, and it wouldn’t take more than a teeny burst of confidence to ask “tapai saanchai hunucha?”. Asking about a person’s well being and affectionatly showing some teeth – why do we find it so hard to do that?!

I just don’t know… but maybe I should start getting over being self conscious and start offering my lop sided smile to more people and maybe…just maybe….it’ll brighten their day just the slightest bit, and if I’m really really lucky – they might even smile back.

  1. this post was so beautiful and simultaneously so sad. the poverty and such is so overwhelming in nepal, isn’t it?

  2. Hope said:

    Loved this post, Pineapple! You are truly a spectacular writer… maybe an autobiography someday?

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