Text & by photos Jack Olson
Before I went to Nepal I’d never bargained for anything in my life. See the price and either pay it or walk away. I mean, easy, isn’t it? Then, Nepal changed everything.
We’d only been out a day or two on our trek, still in the foothills. We made camp and were just sitting around when a boy, maybe eight years old, wandered in and displayed this wooden block with Hindu symbols and said 12 rupee. I didn’t know how to respond but was still thinking dollars. I said 8. He said 11, I said 8. He looked about to cry. One of our party said, “Jack, you’re supposed to go up.” We finally settled on 10. Even then my troubles weren’t over. I pulled out a 10 rupee note and he shook his head. Paper money had recently been introduced and people in the back country didn’t trust it. They wanted coins. Fortunately, I had ten metal rupees.
I worked on learning the basics of the Nepali language. We had lots of time to study in our tents at night because it became very cold very fast. After about twelve days of trekking we reached the major Sherpa village of Namche Bazaar. It was the largest town in the Everest region, with about 1,600 population at an elevation of 11,000 feet. I walked into a shop and my eyes bulged as I sighted the most magnificent, terrific, wonderful yak bells in history. Each of the three bells had a different, complementary tone. And they were strung together in a yoke with two colors of braided yak hair. Be still my heart. I started right out bargaining in Nepali. He said 135 rupee! 135! I tried 100 and he just shook his head I tried 105 but no luck. I figured I’d be back on the way down, but, of course, he knew that, too.
We trekked on up, did the Everest stuff, and got back to Namche Bazaar on about the 25th day. I walked in to the shop and wondered if the man would recognize me. I poked around and finally touched the beloved yak bells. He smiled, I smiled—and the battle was on. He knew I wouldn’t be back through but I knew I wanted those yak bells. We went round and round loudly. He dropped off 135 to 130 and I raised to 115. About then an elderly woman, I figured his mother, came out with cups of tea for us. It was Tibetan tea, tea with salt and rancid yak butter. At first I thought maybe this was a ploy but realized later that it is served only to an honored guest. We settled on 120 rupees.
I’m sure the man made the best deal in Namche Bazaar that day. But, as an honored guest, I made the best deal of my life.
[Author’s Note: Asked about the value of a rupee – the currency of Nepal – Jack tells us that it isn’t that simple. As best as he can remember the exchange rate in 1977 made a rupee worth about eight cents American. We weren’t talking about a lot of money, but it was a different world economically. The trek organizer, who lived year-round in Kathmandu and Nepal, briefed participants on etiquette in the backcountry, such as what was proper for women to wear, understanding the Hindu and Buddhist religions, and money. Jack says he made it clear that when the group stepped into the backcountry, a rupee was worth—-a rupee. A certain number of rupees could buy a goat, or a pan, or a certain amount of rice. He said a group of Americans throwing money around could totally upset the economy, so we learned to fit into the culture. It’s hard to explain, Jack says, but it was just easier for us then, and for me now, to say, A rupee is a rupee.