To the top of the hill we go again.
We have walked up and down this road from our guest house to the centre of the commerce district an innumerable amount of times. We have grown accustomed to sharing the streets with the sellers, the buyers, motorcycles (with whom you stand shoulder to shoulder in a jam), cars (keep your elbows in or they could get clipped by the mirror), oxen, yaks, the occasional donkey, monkeys (although they are climbing above only appearing at street level to steal something), and dogs.
Dogs are everywhere, roaming the streets freer than the two legged population. Dogs walk into shops, sit on stalls and benches, sleep on the doorsteps and the stairs, wander at night barking and howling in the very early hours. You see a variety of man’s best friend, largely mutts I assume, collar-less, tag-less, ownerless, limping, scarred, mangy, old and youthful. It is a phenomenon I do not understand.
Almost equally curious is the construction of the streets. They are all lined with trenches from 5 to 25 inches deep, allowing filthy water to run down to some ignominious ending. Avoiding vehicles means balancing around these gaps, or in at least one spot, keeping from falling down a precipitous drop of two hundred feet of a trash infested hill. There are no rails in Mcleod Ganj.
One of the shops along the way sold handmade, uniquely designed children’s clothing, although it is beginning to expand the repertoire to women’s attire. The owner is one of five siblings, the four others being girls. He recalls their treatment and with three girls of his own, wants to give back. He hires village women, many of whom would have no other means of income, teaches them the trade of sewing, and produces the wares for his shop. The prices are non-negotiable and not inexpensive relative to what is available throughout Mcleod Ganj; the style is not Tibetan or particularly Indian, appealing to other clientele looking for very reasonable, by North American standards, attractive clothing.
Every shop keeper will have a story and would be happy to explain if their English was better. Most speak in single, staccato sentences of fact; work all day, very good quality, morning price just for you, you buy more I give special price. In the initial stage of a first visit you are attracted to the Tibetan merchandise, and are enthralled by the items thinking you found something different or special. A couple days of wandering in and out of shops, being welcomed and encouraged to just have a look, the stuff all starts looking the same and you cannot recall the price of a similar item three shops ago.
So you start looking for the shop which is selling items different from the rest, such as the woman knitting, on the stool, with here finished socks hanging in her tarpaulin stall; or another woman still sewing at 9:00 pm, making the clothes right in front of you; or the carpet weaver shaving the excess wool off the carpet in the co-operative.
And then there is Prakash.
He introduced himself on one of the many times we walked past his spot traversing back and forth into the centre of town. I was accosted by every other shoe shiner, all pointing to my dirty shoes, suggesting a quick brush-up, no obligation. Each shiner has their area, Prakash’s happened to be close to our guest house. Every time I passed, he invited me; and each time I declined. He asked “maybe later?” to which I naturally said, maybe. When I inquired about the price, he answered, anything I would like. Finally, I made an appointment with him for the following morning because it would be my last day in Mcleod Ganj.
So on our way back from yet another round of perusing the shops, and making another purchase, I entered his makeshift location on the street. With a big welcoming smile, Prakash set me down on a towel covered pad, and provided a pair of flip flops so I wouldn’t put my stocking feet on the concrete. He then proceeded to clean my shoes with some mysterious liquid and a toothbrush, followed by a wipe, and then a vigorous brushing regiment. All the while, he asked questions about my country of origin, my age, family, wife (Olga was watching from across the street) and sharing details of his life, including the number of kids, his home in the province of Rajashtan, and his time in this job.
The shoes were finished after about twenty minutes, shiny and clean, considerably better. Then came the negotiation for price (probably should have done from the beginning….but live and learn). His suggested price was 2000 rupees which is the equivalent of 40 dollars. No, no, no, that is waaay too much. For some context, we hired a driver to a historic site, back and forth, taking a total of four hours, for 2000 rupees with a tip. You can get a one hour massage for 1000; so you can see why his starting price was exorbitant. I countered with 500, roughly 10 dollars.
He argued, of course, talking about his family and the lack of business, yadayadayada, to which I replied, “I am paying for the shoeshine, not your family.” He continued to plead but I finally got up, handed him the 500, a very generous amount, but I was feeling charitable given it was my last day. And the shoes did look really nice.
No matter, we parted on good terms rather than ending horror-ably.