Economists differentiate between relative and absolute poverty, the former being when you are poorer than your fellow countrymen and the later being when your poverty has placed you on deaths door. Then there’s shit poor. When you’re not on the verge of starvation, but lack of opportunity has led you to actions that most humans would never have even contemplated, that’s shit poor. Nepal has a lot of shit poor people. They are not starving to death, baby’s bellies do not distend from malnutrition, droughts or floods do not wipe out hundreds of thousands. Some have recently turned to Maoist-inspired revolution. Some – deranged ones I suppose – have turn to desperate measures that would be difficult for people from more prosperous nations to fathom. I vividly remember the day outside the Kathmandu General Post Office when a young man limped up to me and pointed down to his left foot. I was stunned to see a two-inch gash that revealed meat, muscle and a glint of white bone, wide open for all to see. “Rupee,” he implored and I handed him ten rupees without hesitation. When I related this gruesome event to the Nepalese desk clerk at my hotel he chuckled and informed me that I had not seen a gash, but rather an opportunity. The ‘victim’ had indeed received a serious slice while chopping wood for his family’s cooking fire, but he quickly saw the possibilities and turned his lemon into lemonade. Now he carefully cleans and covers his wound every night and reopens it every morning. He then hobbles to the GPO, which has a steady flow of travelers checking for mail or making calls back home, and he uses their pity to loosen their purse strings. Then there are those who literally turn to shit for their livelihood.
Shit not only happens in Nepal, it happens everywhere and is often the main topic of conversation. Travelers who have only just met often talk about the state of their shit, how loose it is or what restaurant gave them the shits or what diet is best for firming up shit that has been running watery for too long. And piles of shit adorn the streets everywhere. While most of it is produced by the cows that meander freely on the streets of Nepal (and into any open door, often ending up sitting in the queue of the GPO or in a courtyard), there is also chicken shit, dog shit and piles of human shit, which smells worst of all. The only useful shit is cow shit, which is used for cooking fuel when dried properly. I was stunned the first time I saw an old woman gather up a fresh mound, just recently dropped from a cows butthole. Curious, I followed her to a narrow alley next to her house where she added the patty to the dozens she had previously smacked onto the side of the wall. Evidently, as each dried, she used it to cook dinner, not as foul a deed as one might think. In fact, cow manure has little odor and is used in many parts of the world for cooking, plastering walls and floors, and numerous other useful purposes. In Kathmandu I learned how shit can even be used to eke out a living of sorts.
It doesn’t take long in Nepal or India to learn to be watchful for shit, and I don’t mean those cute little piles on the streets of Paris that you inevitably slip on and spend minutes cursing while you scrape it off the bottom of your shoe. My first catastrophe with shit occurred in Pokhara, Nepal. I had walked to a restaurant a few hundred meters from my guest house, an easy and pleasant task at sunset, and had enjoyed a simple dinner of dal, rice and curried potatoes and peas, washed down with sweet tea. I had sat around after dinner with some fellow travellers, discussing the usual things that travellers discuss: worst hotels, best beach that hasn’t been overrun by tourists yet, the state of our bowel movements. We had smoked a few joints, fairly common among travellers in the 70s, and I was relaxed to the point of carelessness when I began to saunter home in the dark. I hadn’t gotten far when I stepped into a freshly dropped pile of cow shit. At the time I was wearing flip flops, so the effect was immediate. The squishing sound hit my ears at about the same time as the warm, wet mush encompassed my bare foot. Shit enveloped my toes, creeped under my too-long toe nails, rose up to embrace my ankle. Like a soldier who has stepped on a landmine I froze, unsure what to do, as if any movement would unleash another shit bomb or some unthinkable horror. After a moments pause I gingerly lifted my foot and gently shook the shit, careful not to spatter it on my clean leg and foot. I hobbled home like some wounded warrior, a casualty of some shitty war for which there was no victory as long as thenefarious cow skulked on the streets and paths of Nepal.
It took me hours to properly clean my flip flop and my foot. I washed both repeatedly in warm, soapy water and trimmed my toenails, vowing to never again allow them to grow long enough to trap thimbles-full of shit. I was careful ever after, in the brightest daylight and deepest, darkest night to avoid any suspect piles or shadows. Who knows what shit lurks on the streets, awaiting those who fail to be vigilant. The following week, much the wiser, I strolled toward the General Post Office in Kathmandu, eyes peeled for piles of poop or self-maimed beggars, confident that I had mastered the challenges of the road. As I dodged the warm mounds I was aware of movements on both sides and I sensed that I was being watched. As I casually glanced to my left, and just as my right foot hit the pavement, there was a loud splat and a heavy, mushy weight smothered my tennis shoe encased foot. Looking down in horror I was stunned to see a mound of fresh shit covering my shoe, stopping just below the line of my socks. What the shit?
“Oh sahib, poop on your shoe,” a young Indian Nepalese man commiserated with me. “Here, let me see what I can do to help.”
I noticed this man was holding a wooden box, about twice the size of a shoe box, with a hinged top to it. Like the man’s clothes the box was old and had evidently been well used, but it was clean and cared for. He put it down and opened the hinged top to reveal an impressive shoe repair and cleaning kit. Rows of tins containing different colored shoe polish were neatly lined up, in descending order from darkest black to snowy white, and on narrow shelves above them were needles, threads, shears, pieces of leather and rubber for repairs, and brushes and rags for cleaning. What luck that this grinning man should be here at my moment of misfortune. Or was it luck?
My initial shock slowly gave way to stirring embers of doubt. “And how much will it cost me to have my shoe cleaned?” I asked through tight lips accompanied by a narrow, Gary Cooper glare.
The Nepalese man gave that Indian head wiggle that combines a side-to-side shake with a circular movement of the chin, a movement that conveys many possible answers though none clearly. “Sahib, I will clean your shoe and then you pay me whatever you wish.”
I’ve been through this too many times in India, Nepal and other parts of Asia. The head shake accompanied with, “As you like,” or “Whatever,” or some such vague response that leaves it to your kind judgment, except that you receive a glare and resentment regardless of the amount that you pay. It’s a game that relies on the belief that you are wealthy and will feel guilty enough to kick in more, no matter how much you gave in the first place. This little scheme often works, but it has led to more arguments than I care to remember. Normally I will insist that a price is set, then I can always give extra if I feel that the service merits a tip. This time I decided to accept his, “Whatever you wish.”
As the man rolled up his ragged long sleeves and carefully removed my shitty shoe, I scanned around to try to determine what had happened. There were no squished piles of poop behind me, no evidence that I had thoughtlessly stumbled onto a pile of pavement cowpie. Curious. Then I spied him, a boy, perhaps 15 or 16, was sitting on the brick wall, shaking shit from his hands, scrapping the muck off onto the wall, rubbing his hands together to dislodge sticky bits. The scam became crystal clear. While the young man neared from my left, momentarily catching my attention, the boy, armed with a large scoop of poop, snuck up on my right and deposited his treasure upon my sneaker. Clever. Using the resources that were available (shit and tourists) these two entrepreneurs had conjured up a scheme that involved no physical harm and cost them nothing. The old phrase, “He doesn’tknow shit from shineola,” carried new meaning. One of these Nepalese was the shit expert, the other specialized in shineola, unless they took turns.My thoughts at that moment were not about their enterprise, but rather about the shit on my shoe.
The shiner had removed my lace and had done a pretty fine job scraping and wringing the brown goo from the off-white fabric. The shoe required a lot more digging in the eyelets and scrapping from the rubber sole and and rubbing off of the canvas sides. It was tedious work that took nearly twenty minutes, the young man hunched over my shoe, earnestly focusing on the task at hand. When he was finished he carefully scanned the shoe, looking for anymissed spots, he then turned with a huge grin and handed me theshoe, which was possibly cleaner than it had been before the whole shitty incident had begun.
I then proceeded to verbally blast him, being sure to raise my volume so that everybody within a few hundred meters could hear my assault. My rage was mighty as I let him know that I was aware of his scam and would not pay one single rupee. Furthermore, I would pass the word to other tourists (an idle threat) and the authorities and he had better not try this particular scheme ever again. Although he looked somewhat stunned, he did not appear chastised and didn’t bother to defend himself or demand payment, something that I don’t recall ever having seen before in Nepal or India. No matter how outrageous, rude or criminal the activity, the perpetrator always expects some recompense for his efforts. He never glanced at his partner, neither admitted nor denied his guilt, he just stood with his mouth slightly ajar, the palms of his hands slightly upturned. I hesitated for a moment, caught my breath and stormed off.
Looking back on this incident I have mixed feelings. It always feels good to have beaten a scam, a task that confronts travellers on a daily basis in Nepal and India. I saw this as a victory against every tout who had ever promised a spacious hotel room but delivered acot in a dirty hallway, as a triumph against those scammers who sell you a ticket for a luxury bus which turns out to have wooden benches and broken windows. I felt terrific, for a few days. Then the doubts and guilt set in. Had I misread the entire affair? Is it possible that I had actually stepped into a fresh pile of shit and that this young man had done me a great service? No. I know what I saw. But then I began to think about poverty, not relative poverty or absolute poverty, but shit poverty. Some people who are poor just succumb to it and die. Others grab a gun and rob you of your wealth and your sense of security. This young man and his partner had used cow shit to try to separate me from a few rupees, not much to me but perhaps enough to secure a meal or two for these entrepreneurs. The next time I find myself in deep shit, I hope that I pause for just an extra second or two to see the bigger picture. Shit does happen, but it doesn’t always mean what we think it means.