Cash on Delivery

 

As the start of our winter Professional Development session approaches, it’s time for me to bite the bullet and shell out a bunch of cash for a pile of tablets for an App we’re developing. Teaching clinical teams how to use the app will be the focus of the first part of our upcoming workshop.

The problem is the tablet-acquiring part is…a bit intimidating. At home, I’d search options on the internet and then probably order a few different options, which would arrive at the door with an option for 30-day free returns. But I will shamelessly admit that when it comes to Nepal, I have no idea how to do this. I know how to do stuff that involves baskets, ropes, and misplaced stretches of mud…but I do not know how to do a normal officey thing I am in charge of, such as acquire some expensive pieces of unfamiliar technology.

I asked Muna, our Program Manager Who Literally Fixes Anything, how and where one buys a pile of tablets in Nepal. We were hoping for something with a little flexibility on standard retail price, since we’d be needing 5-7 of them to start.

Muna, did I mention she Literally Fixes Anything, told me about a site called Daraz.com where I could order things on the internet to my house. Or our office. I was floored. Internet ordering is a thing in Nepal? Where the heck have I been? Muna explained to me excitedly that they literally bring it TO YOUR DOOR.  Right to your very own door! And then, you pay for it there. If you don’t want it, you return it with the courier.

“The courier?”

“A person brings it.”

“You order it on the internet and a person brings it? But how do they find you?” I was pretty sure this wasn’t happening through the regular mail system.

“They call.”

I just want to point out that, while a postal service certainly exists in Nepal, most houses don’t have street addresses, and a minimum of streets go by name (that anyone uses or that command street signs), and a large percentage of the houses and streets that do exist were only recently built, and in the majority of the country there are a minimum of streets altogether.

“Are you sure this works?”

“I use it all the time,” Muna said, becoming excited again by the phenomenon of internet ordering. “It’s cash on delivery.”

We looked on daraz.com and ordered five $280 tablets to Ravi’s office in Kathmandu. I arrived in Kathmandu a day later, a week before our training was to start, intending to return with both our trainer (Bethy) and the highly necessary tablets. By this time Daraz.com had called Muna, and Muna began relaying messages between the company, Ravi, and me. At first everything seemed fine. Then Daraz explained that they had the five tablets, but needed to get them out to a store where the courier would pick them up and bring them to Ravi’s office. Or my hotel. Or wherever we asked them to come on the day that they would call us, some time soon, having secured the assets through the official processes.

“Are these going to get here on time?” I asked Muna. She knows things. Admittedly we’d ordered the tablets at the last minute, and even on-time things are almost never fast things. And I seriously doubt that Daraz often receives orders for a heap of five tablets at once.

“Let’s see?”

While the tablets whereabouts remained uncertain, Bethy did arrive as planned from Cambodia.  We spent an afternoon with Ravi to map out our training plan for next week. By Sunday, I was starting to worry. I started calling around in Kathmandu to see about buying some tablets from a show floor, something that in my mind was randomly assigned as a more feasible activity in Kathmandu than Pokhara.  We ended up locating a completely obvious strip of cell technology stores around the corner from New Road. I called Muna and told her we were going on an expedition to find the tablets ourselves.

“If I find them, we can cancel the order, right?” I asked her.

“I called to ask, and they said that when the courier shows up, we just say we don’t want them.”

My mouth opened and closed for a few seconds. “It’s seventeen hundred dollars of merchandise!”

“I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but that’s what they said.”

Just to be clear, I’m not telling this story as a lesson in how things don’t work in Nepal. To the contrary, this is exactly how things work in Nepal. The internet company wasn’t trying to give us the run around, they were just trying to figure out how to find a guy who could get his hands on the pile of pricey tablets we wanted and get them to our guy in a short period of time. Without street names. In a cash economy.

Bethy and I set off to New Road to begin the in-person search. If I’d been more savvy, I’d have known from the start that we should have gone to New Road: as we rounded a corner, there before us, like Oz, was a fairlyand of Samsung and Oppo and Huwaei stores packed together for a block and a half. We walked in and out of them pricing out different tablets, including the one we’d possibly or possibly not ordered online, and when we thought we’d settled on a winner, we wandered in to one last alley for a final try.

There we met Ravi #2, who presented us with our final and ultimately champion tablet, a simpler and smaller version than everything else we’d located. At about 40% of the price.

“I’m a movie star,” Ravi #2 said.

He is. Look him up.

“Here’s a video of me,” Ravi #2 said offhandedly, handing us his phone, his Bieber coif spilling over his brow glamorously but without obstructing his vision. We bent our heads over the small screen, which showed our tablet salesman serenading a beautiful woman on a bridge.

“I’m not the singer,” Ravi #2 admitted. “Just the actor.”

I withdrew a heap of cash from the ATM and forked it over. While five separate people bustled about unpacking our tablets in order to fill out warranty cards, add screen covers, and repack them, we waited and chatted with Movie Star Ravi. He reclined on his stool, a physically not possible thing that only Nepali movies stars can do.

“Do you know my pal Mahesh? He’s a movie star also,” I volunteered.

Why yes, Ravi #2 did know Mahesh, the brother of our field officer Gaurab (the human). Gaurab and Mahesh are both from Kaskikot and I’ve known Mahesh since he was a kid, and even produced a radio story about his robot-making career before he was a movie star with Ravi #2. His father Thakur was one of the founders of Jevaia Oral Health Care back when it was Kaski Oral Health Care, a bazillion years ago.

“Small world,” I said. “You should consider a further discount, considering that Mahesh’s family is closely involved with the very worthy project that these tablets are for.”

“Sorry,” Ravi the Movie Star said. “But here’s my number. Call if you have any problems with the tablets and I’ll get them fixed right away.”

We needed tablet covers.

Ravi the Movie Star didn’t have any tablet covers, but he gave us the name of a shop in another part of the city about a mile away. Obediently I put it in my GPS and Bethy and I set off at a fast clip, racing against the gathering dusk, the new tablets in my bag. In no time the main thoroughfare of Cell Phone Oz had narrowed, then faded away behind us and deposited us in to the heart of Kathmandu’s old, cloistered Newar alleys. Ornate wooden windows leaned precariously in over our heads, while vendors presided over every vegetable and shoe and devotional item imaginable, and as we dashed alternately through crowds and crowded passageways it seemed unlikely that we were headed closer to tablet covers. Night fell, and the cobbled paths and squares became lit by yellow squares falling out of spice stalls, flickering lamps dotting the pavement where vendors had spread out their treasures. We sped through, dodging colored blobs in our path like marbles rolling through a game.

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Out the mouth of a maze we arrived, suddenly, at the destination on Ravi the Movie Star had directed us to, and Lo and behold, there before us was a shop with exactly the name he had provided.

It sold a lot of stuff, but none of the stuff was tablet covers.

We turned around and went back in to the din. We wove about, passing up vacuum cleaners and suitcases and incense and frilly skirts. Surely, somebody, somewhere among all these objects, had some simple tablet co—-

And there it was. Bending off the laid stone path and its hoard of pounding feet was a harshly lit corridor of electronic gadgetry shops that contained four bazillion types of cell paraphernalia. At the end of it, positioned in such a way that suggested anybody arriving must surely be doing so at the end of a great pilgrimage, was a casual shop crammed with phone covers. A woman sat among them as if, obviously, we had been on the way and due to arrive at some point, whenever.  Inexplicably, she had only one type of tablet cover, in one size, and it was a size that fit our efficient little mini-tablets.

“We’ll take five,” I said.

We packed them up, shoved them in our now very full backpacks, and set off on the last part of our expedition through Bishal Bazaar and Ason, butter lamps burning what seemed like everywhere in the lively chill.

“Muna,” I said over the phone a little later, “I’ve secured our tablets. We can cancel the online order.”

“Where did you find them?” she asked.

…You know…streets?

*

The Primacy of Snack Time

 

We have had a pretty hectic couple of weeks here, trying to establish good connections in the new province government and chasing meetings that sometimes materialize with little advance warning.  There’s been a lot of dashing about, creating documents that seem like they should be important to somebody, getting signatures and holding coffees with the hope that these activities are all adding up to the “right process.”  The general pace of the office workflow is that the four of us disperse to our desks, and periodically throughout the day we magnetize together in our common area to touch base, update one another on who has had calls with whom Out There, and pump each other up before expanding back out of the common room to our desks.

It has been really nice for me to have this time here to get a feel for the flow of our office without the glare of a tight visiting timeline or imminent program.  This has revealed, among other matters, the primacy of snack time.  Each day Sangita didi arrives around 1:30 and begins a poll on what we want for snacks. Discussion ensues, various viewpoints are considered.  I advocate strongly for buckwheat or rice flour rotis with Nutella and peanut butter, an argument that has recently been strengthened by the purchase of a jar of jam (although, honestly, since when do Nutella arguments need strengthening?).  Others point to the benefits of salty foods such as chowmein and charput (trust me, I realize this should be a non-starter when there’s a vat of Nutella in the kitchen). There are only four of us, but this deciding is nevertheless a substantial process.

In the last three weeks, snacks have been enhanced by the arrival of my friend Ann from Israel.  In the first few days, after I advised her that snack time was the best time to visit our office, and Ann turns out to be a quick study: she arrived promptly on time for the snack poll.  Then–just hours after Ann’s arrival in Pokhara–Sangita put her to work and they hit it off immediately. Ann set learning to make buckwheat rotis while Sangita taught her Nepali words by announcing snack-related vocabulary extremely loudly and waving her hands.  As I mentioned, our office isn’t that big, so from our respective rooms we were all treated to a live cultural soundscape while the two of them, who have an overlapping vocabulary of about two words, tried to communicate the nuances of slicing potatoes and dropping hot batter on to a sizzling frying pan at Sangita’s base-level volume.  Ann, who has the patience of a monk, rose to the occasion by not only making some spectacular rotis, but also by picking up a whole set of Nepali phrases (largely related to eating) amazingly fast. She continues to come over regularly at snack time to help cook rotis while Sangita ecstatically yells words at her.

Who said that Nutella and peanut butter couldn’t get even better?

*

 

 

Dance Parties, Sticky Notes and 1000 Goves

SO FAR SO GOOD!  We arrived at the office today to find that the internet wasn’t working, and I discovered that I’d left the house last night with one of my flip flops and one of Prem’s, and there was no time to swap them out today, so I’m still wearing till two different shoes.  Basically, our final preparations for the arrival of our Cal / UConn / UP Research Team included:

1. A beginning of the day de-stressing office dance party.

2. A discussion about the value, or lack thereof, of name tags.  Everybody else in the office thought I was nuts to insist we pick some up, because apparently sticky name tags are not a thing in Nepal.  I spent about five minutes trying to describe a sticky name tag and then advocate for its value in life, only to have everyone get very excited when Muna ran in to her office and then came out triumphantly with a sticky note, which she planted on my shoulder to the raving approval of the rest of the staff.  I countered that, aside from the fact that a sticky note is not a name tag, this made me look like an inventory item, and stuck it to Muna’s face to prove my point.

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3. Rearranging the dowry couches gifted to us by our landlord, and cleaning the office.  Ready for visitors!

Ready for visitors

5. Reviewing the schedule, completing our welcome packet, confirming hotel reservations and a training hall and a bus, organizing the inventory so it looks like a wax library, picking up everyone at the airport and sorting supplies in the hotel!  Want to know the best part?

Dr. Sokal brought NAME TAGS!!!  Basically, I won, and that’s what counts.

Welcome to Nepal!!

 

 

 

 

Beautiful Things

We are building houses of many kinds around here, one of which is our own. In between trips out to Lamjung, I’ve been slowly setting up our new office. We’re moving from a one-room office to a four-room office, and anybody who knows me will know that I can labor for weeks or months over small decisions, and filling up a new space requires an infinite amount of decision making. It took me three weeks to choose carpet, and then the people who came to lay down the carpet did a really bad job, cutting jagged lines and making a mess of it. I had the store send them back and then stood there while they cut everything in straight lines. As they left we were chatting, and I asked them not to take it too hard. But this space is going to be our home and we’ve put a lot of care in to it, so it’s a real downer when people come and don’t take care, and besides, if I my job were to cut carpets, I’d want to leave each place I did and say, ‘That’s my work. I made that.’”

Anyone who’s ever worked with a contractor knows that this kind of thing doesn’t happen only in Nepal. But I feel confident saying that Nepal takes it to a new level. The kind of care people put in to their planting, or their outfits when taking a photo, or cooking, or weaving mats, just doesn’t get put in to home decoration. People are okay with leaky faucets and doors that don’t quite fit their frames and paint of any variety of ecstatic colors that overlaps lazily from structure to the next. I’ve learned that I have to lord over each person who comes here to put something together, just to make sure our work space doesn’t become an accumulation of unloved creations.

IMG_5081So it’s not exactly going fast, but it’s going.

One funny quirk of our new space is this sink outside the bathroom, which is just hanging out in full view of the rest of the office. Someone suggested that I get a local bamboo artisan to create a simple screen to put here, so that people coming out of the bathroom would have some privacy while using the sink.

So last week I asked Shiva to go to Mahendrapul with me and stop in at one of the bamboo furniture places. He pulled his bike over at the first one we happened to see, where there was a young man Umesh.

Off all the things we need to set up in the office, the bathroom screen isn’t the one I was most concerned about. But when I set about explaining what we needed, Umesh and I began to examine various chairs and tables and hangers he had in his store, organizing designs I liked. He was extremely attentive and enthusiastic, and as our conversation went on, he couldn’t help himself from admitting that he’d opened his shop just two weeks ago, after fifteen years of working for someone else.

“I told them, I can make anything,” he said, looking like he’d kind of been bursting to tell somebody this. “My hands are full of skills. I said, ‘Why are you keeping me down here?’ And I left and opened this shop.”

Being the choosy perfectionist that I am, I could easily have told Umesh thank you very much and moved on to the next place so he could get his business going with a different customer. He quoted me $90 for the screen – as expensive as one of our desks, three times as much as the chairs he sells. Way to raise the bar, my friend.

Instead, I went with him to our office so he could look at the space itself. And after all the discussing we’d done, I waved my hands and said, “Ok, the main thing is it has to be opaque from here to here. Other than that, do whatever you think will look nice. Make it your own style. By Umesh.”

“I’m going to make you a beautiful screen,” Umesh proclaimed. “This is a very new idea – it will be first of its kind in Nepal.”

Four days later he called to tell me it was ready. He put in in a taxi at his own cost and brought it to our office, and when I arrived to meet him, he was already standing in the road with the screen next to him, trying to hold his smile in.

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This bamboo screen is no doubt my single favorite thing in our new office. It is absolutely gorgeous and in the U.S. would sell for a few hundred dollars. It has the charming quality of being made from bamboo during a period of months where I’ve been, oddly enough, spending inordinate amounts of time in the hot sun encouraging and supporting the creation of bamboo homes as our small but mighty contribution to post-earthquake Nepal. But most importantly, it was created with a great deal of pride and love. One side is bent a little, the natural curvature of the bamboo, a perfect imperfection. What started off as a temporary wall to enclose a bathroom became this wonderful piece of artwork.  And as we were all discussing later, you should have some things that you keep around just because they are beautiful.

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Before Umesh left, he couldn’t help admitting another thing, which was that, actually, I’d been his very first customer. I said he was our very first artisian in our first professional office, and that I expected his career was going to go quite well.

“I’m never going to forget you,” he said as he left.   And I said, “I’m pretty sure I won’t forget you either.”

.      .      .

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