12 Mar 2017
Story as shared by The Adventures of Mini Moo
We made Boudhnath Stupa the target and set off on the 5km ramble. About 500m into this journey, we found ourselves in the company of a local student who, as usual, was just keen to practice his English. “No money ma’am, I just want to speak English with you. Where are you from? Oh England, capital city London, yes, very good.” Of course the initial response that sits on the end of Moo’s tongue throughout our entire time in South East Asia is a firm ‘No thank you’.
But still he followed, and turned out to be rather enjoyable company. So when he suggested he be our guide for the day and take us to the Stupa, which was actually located in his hometown, we thought, yeah why not? We asked what price he would expect for this but he explained that money is not what he needed, just a little bit of food from the local store would be appreciated. Happy to oblige this proposal, we continued on with our day.
Rakesh showed us the best local places to eat, walked us around the majestic Stupa and spoke often of good karma which he strives to achieve on a daily basis. Ok, so this guy has good intentions, we thought.
He suggested that we come and drink tea with him and his family, which was only a few minutes away from the temple. He explained that it would be an honour to show us his home and that we were welcome to come and visit any time.
How delightful, we thought. By this point we had a fairly good grasp on his character, and although never fully trusting, we believed this guy was a good one. And to be invited into a Nepali’s home to have tea with them is an offer that is often too good to refuse. For us, these are true travel experiences that we will cherish forever.
So across the plains we went. And when I say plains, i’m not exaggerating. Whole villages crumbled to dust as a product of the 2015 earthquake. Rakesh explained to me that he used to live in a bamboo house that he constructed after losing his home, but the land has now been sold and the village were forced to move on. When we arrived at his ‘village’, we could have been forgiven for mistaking it as the local prison. Terraced rooms without doors, impoverished children smiling up and shouting “NAMASTE!”, a lingering smell of smoke and a permanent dark stain engulfing the place. Rakesh and his 3 sisters and mother all lived in one of these rooms, which was probably half the size of Moo’s bedroom alone. And yet here he was, welcoming us with open arms and ordering his sisters to prepare tea and biscuits!
After a few rounds of tea and great conversation with his family, the rain that had been threatening all day finally lifted and we said our goodbyes.
This is when Rakesh began the Shoebox Story.
“Before the earthquake, I used to be a shoe shiner and repairer, but I lost my box and now I can no longer make money this way. I try to make money where I can to feed my family, but if I had a shoebox again I would be able to give them a much better life. If you buy my family food, this will only last one week. Ma’am, if you could possibly buy me a shoebox, I could feed them myself forever.”
Good plea, we thought. It was an investment, rather than a simple charitable gift. Rakesh would have the means to support his family and no longer have to follow tourists like us around every weekend between his studies. He was not begging for money, he was asking for a step up.
“Well how much do these shoeboxes cost, Rakesh?”
“160,00 nepali rupees.”
Now, lets not forget that Moo and I have only been in the country for a few days by this point. We were still working out the currency.
So, thinking this was roughly £12, Moo said, “Yes, Rakesh, I think we can do that for you.”
After all, even if it was a scam (which we struggled to see how it could be, given that he showed us the poverty he lived in, and his family were extremely warm people) – then at least it wasn’t more money than Moo would have spent on 2 cocktails at home.
Alarm bells rang when we were being sold the shoebox by Rakesh’s contact, and he casually mentioned that it works out at about $120. Sorry, what? Oh f*ck. Moo has got this so wrong.
What followed was an embarrassing apology to both Rakesh and the shoebox seller, and then a rather awkward walk back to the main street.
Rakesh said no problem, though it was clear that he was upset. So much for good karma. Moo just sh*t all over ours.
We parted ways at the bus stop and Moo handed him the actual £12 that we originally intended to offer. He insisted that he did not want to push us for the money, and that Moo could take it back if she was not comfortable handing it over. But we insisted. He had been good company and a good guide for the day, and we could see that the money really would have helped.
With a smile and a wave, we sped off in the cramped mini van with 20 other passengers oblivious of the dilemma Moo had just faced. Still, we were content that we had given him something.
Upon our return to the hostel, Moo was curious, and had to hush the voice in her head that whispered “you fool! he has fleeced you!”. A quick google of the words ‘shoebox scam Nepal‘ and a few articles popped up. Turns out than in fact this experience wasn’t unique to us, and a few others had been through it all too. They suggested that the shoebox seller was a hustler, and once the money was handed over and tourists out of sight, the profit would have been split (although not fairly) and the shoebox returned. This is apparently a ‘small fee’ or tax that the Indian Raj have to pay for living in the slums of Kathmandu.
It made sense. The poverty was real. The shoebox was not.
Moo and I concluded that we made the right decision and stopped torturing ourselves with guilt for not helping more than we did.
After all, $120 is enough for 2 weeks of travel, and frankly we would have been happier to cut our trip short for the sake of providing this family with a permanent source of income.