08.09.2011 - 08.09.2011
Nell had been collecting various souvenirs and gifts for others over the days we had spent in Leh. We thought it would be a good idea to send them home by parcel mail rather than carry them with us for the next few weeks and then pay excess baggage for them on the plane. [Let alone get them through the quarantine and security checks back in Australia.]
“I don’t mind how long they take, we may even get home before they arrive,”said Nell.
She had taken a fancy to a large patchwork wall hanging made from bits of recycled sari and cloth, which was displayed opposite Javid’s little shop. We had got to know Javid quite well after browsing in his shop several times before. He seemed genuinely more interested in us than the majority of rather pushy and intrusive young salesmen that we had encountered in the touristy souvenir strip leading up to Changspa. Or it could be that he was just a better salesman by being so laid back.
It baffles me that these youngsters actually seem to think that being pushy will help them sell more stuff; but then, many of the tourists have not been to poorer countries before and get bamboozled into a shop where the hard sell really starts. Hmm...Which technique will I use for these tourists, this guy looks well travelled and experienced but the lady...she looks very kind...a soft touch. The salesmen may be young but they are very street wise. It’s a pity they are not more creative with their pitches. “Come look inside, best prices for Pashminas...Buddhas, Tibetan artefacts, Tankhas...Tankhas...” Tankhas, but no thankas, I thought.
So on Saturday [when, we had discovered, the post office closes at 2pm] we walked about two kilometres uphill to arrive at Javid’s shop at 9.30am, packed a box with patchwork and pashminas and trotted back to the guest house carrying the box.
10am We decided to fit in some clothes we were never going to wear and added more gifts and trinkets until the box was full. May as well; we congratulated ourselves on this neat way of lightening our backpacks. Javid had told us we needed to pack the parcel in a certain way; it had to be wrapped in a white linen cloth with the address written on in indelible marker. We would be able to get it done very easily at a local tailor. He knew a good one and said, “my boy, when he gets back, will show you where to go and translate.” So Nell puffs back up the hill to Javid’s shop to collect the boy. In the meantime I carry the heavy box down to the mosque in the centre of town to wait for them, and watch the action on the street.
The Muslim men are gathered together in grey suited groups. They mostly wear beards and little skullcaps which make them stand out from the majority, but they seem to be of a different race too; more like Afghans or people from the ‘Stans, which they probably are. They are looking at me suspiciously. Why? I’m not doing anything! [Later I realised they may have been wondering what was in that large box right outside their mosque. Was this a bomb? Was it mine? Did I look like an American suicide bomber out for revenge?]
A milk truck parks nearby, which seems to be the reason for the gathering of many of these men. Milk and yoghurt is ladled into bowls and containers as the people push forward. Is this a handout for Afghan refugees? Now there are women too, filing out of the local shops and houses. Are these Muslim women? Is this special halal milk? Can milk be halal?
Some street dogs are hanging around the truck and when it pulls away they look for other things to keep them amused. One of them, a youngster, trots towards me, tail wagging playfully. I know the language well, having owned dogs, and can read that he is friendly. Checking for ticks, mange and other unpleasant conditions, I see that he is well looked after, healthy and clean so scratch him behind the ears, that favourite caress of all dogs. Now he is my best friend and especially likes my box, which he snuffles with curiosity, leans against and finally, when nothing is forthcoming, guards with his life.
10.45am Nell finds me, and we [including the dog, who told me in Dogue that his name is Rusty, by the way] head to the tailor shop where the “Boy” [Javid’s cousin], is organising the wrapping of the parcel. He translates that the Tailor will sew up the parcel completely despite our misgivings, as they no longer ask you to open the bag up in order to check the contents. They now have a machine which can do all that; easy! The cousin leaves and we watch the parcel being sewn up. Then we watch Rusty who has found a cute playmate and is romping about with her in the alley. Oh, what it is to be young and fancy free! He disappears around the corner with his lover; best friend with the parcel abandoned and already forgotten. We paid the tailor Rs200 plus Rs50 as a tip for the boy. “Be sure to give that to him”, we said.
11.30am The post office is a long way down near the airport so we caught a taxi there for Rs100. The man at the counter raised his eyebrows when he saw our parcel and pointed us in the general direction of a board on the wall which indicated that there were, in fact, prepaid boxes for international parcels up to 5 Kg at Rs 2500 for standard air mail. “These ones are expensive, no?” said the man at the counter. We agreed; glad that our traditional parcel would be cheaper, it must weigh less than 5Kg.
We decided to go ahead and turned back to the man behind the counter. This time he indicated that we would have to go around the counter, through a door to the back of the office where somebody would fill in a form for us. Everybody was very friendly and cheerful as though they were having a great time doing something different to relieve the incredibly dull work they were normally engaged in. Smiles and jokes were being shared by customers and staff alike. Our arrival had cheered the place up no end.
And then the man behind the counter asked us to open the parcel.
“But...umm, you have got a machine...you know...x-ray,” we stammered. “No machine,” the man behind the counter said, “you can go there” pointing towards a shelf. One of the Post Office Ladies handed us a pair of scissors, a needle and some thread; it was obviously a common occurrence for they had the materials readily at hand. Opening the parcel was quick enough, as was the cursory inspection that followed, but sewing it back up by hand took us the best part of half an hour.
By now we knew everybody personally, it was a most relaxed atmosphere. The tellers were doing Facebook on their computers, their families gathered around with the kids playing on the floor together. Names and addresses were being exchanged and photos taken so that we could send them to everybody when we got back home. We all had a lot of fun.
“That will be Rs 5975’’ said the man behind the counter [whose name is Stanzen Tondup by the way, we knew that by now]. “ Yes, look, weigh more than 8Kg.”
“More than 8 Kg...? There must be something wrong with the scales!” I exclaimed.
“Can that be right...almost Rs6000?” I asked Nell [hoping she would tell me that someone had made a mistake]. “Um...it looks like it” she replied slowly; “how much is that anyway?”[Hoping that I would tell her that it was not as much as she thought.] But we had both worked it out by then...a lot...more than all the gifts in the box put together. More than all the gifts and the folded up clothes [the ones that Nell had decided to send home as she was not using them] put together.
What’s going on? This is India, where everything is cheap! We were confused; as Stanzen had said that the prepaid boxes were expensive, so our old fashioned, slow mail parcel...
12.30 pm We did not want to argue with our new found friends, they were so nice, and so cheerful; so we just paid and left.
Refusing to pay for a taxi, we had a long, uphill but rather pleasant walk back up to Leh, through country lanes and little barley fields. The way Leh used to be before the tourist influx. We enjoyed the sound of babbling streams and birds and yet we were only a few hundred metres away from the hubbub, heat and dust of the main road.
2.15pm We arrived thirsty and hot back at our favourite trendy watering hole the Open Hand Cafe, where, slurping our ice cold lassis, we pondered on the day’s events. By sending this parcel we had made the day for quite a lot of people; Javid, his cousin, the tailor, the taxi driver, Stanzen, Stanzen’s family, possibly his colleagues and their families, probably a corrupt post office manager, no doubt a high ranking civil servant and definitely the owners of this trendy cafe with their expensive lassis.
It’s good to know that a day’s effort and a few bucks go such a long way. In India.
The parcel arrived a month after we got home.