It being my first day, I didn’t know any better. “Namaste” was his first word to me. “Where are you from?” came next. For centuries these have been a greeting of peace, but in this little corner of the world it’s become a cross-cultural billboard, meaning “Look at what I have for sale.”
He’s short, with messy brown hair and wrinkled clothes. But there’s something different about Raj. It’s his eyes. His eyes, and the tone of his voice. Somehow he evokes genuine compassion without a hint of what he’s about to try and sell me.
He sidled up next to me and asked how long I’d been in Nepal. This being the third or fourth such greeting, I moved to shut him down. He won. He had a clarity to his intent that was truly touching. Unlike the three or four previous tiger balm and marijuana salesman, he didn’t want anything but to talk.
I’ve travelled dozens of countries. In each I’ve been played, followed, cajoled, persuaded, manipulated and befriended by streetside salesmen of every kind. It wasn’t until the end that I finally picked up on the multi-hour play that Raj and his entourage were about to draw me through.
I got played for the long con.
We walked. At a nearby temple he explained the meaning of the lotus flower. His soft-spoken voice hummed the Buddhist mantra and explained the connection between all religions. Through side streets and back alleys, we found temples and shrines layered over by a city that’s grown up on top of its history. At each he stopped me, explained what the symbols meant and asking me if I understood. He encouraged me that I was welcome as a guest. I could even take photos if I wished.
Raj knew exactly how to disarm my normally hyper-sensitive defense-o-meter.
After his genuine compliment and hours of unasked, gentle guidance, his next request didn’t seem out of place. No money. Just to buy some food at the local market for his wife and two kids.
The play quickly exposed itself. Within a few minutes he’d led me to a local store where he was greeted as a regular. Expensive food was offered at exorbitant rates disguised by the unfamiliar exchange rate, items which were likely to be placed right back on the shelf ready for the next clueless wanderer.
I often wish for the softer side of humanity to be more at the surface of our interactions. Kindness and generosity are their own ends, benefits in and of themselves just by their experience. And the strength they carry is as ethically vulnerable as other human traits. Beauty, sex, hunger, acceptance, kindness, generosity are all good and important things. And they can be used as the soft side manipulation, massive levers to be pulled on us when they’re not treated as ends unto themselves.
In two hours with Raj I was touched and moved by a remarkable generosity. And I was played.