Jan 8, 2014
When you walk through the touristic area of Kathmandu known as Thamel (TUH•mel), you’ll be overwhelmed by the high concentration of activity. There are travel agencies stacked on top of each other, trekking guides trying to get your business in the street below. Rickshaw drivers constantly survey the shifting mass of faces for one that looks lost or hesitant. Cars careen around rough corners with no sidewalks, often on one-ways, somehow squeezing by in pairs. Old men play strange strings and woodwinds in hopes that their tunes will enchant a traveler into buying one of their slipshod instruments. Children pop up from their cross-legged positions on the side of the road, appealing for work with, “You want henna?” They look like good kids, though you wonder why they’re not at school on a weekday morning.
During my two weeks in Kathmandu, I’d repeatedly refused the children’s advances. I wanted some henna, but I wasn’t going to do it if I had to go to the ATM one more time. I waited ‘til my last full day, a Monday, to crunch the numbers. I could swing it if I could be a tough haggler.
My friend Audra and I accepted the first offer we got while we were en route to our favorite cafe. It came from a kid named Raj. We asked him if he would come to the cafe with us and do his thing there. He agreed.
We ordered our drinks. Though we’d made it clear to Raj that the Oreo shake was for him, he didn’t believe us and continued on my piece for 10 minutes while his shake began to melt. We finally insisted that he take a sip. His eyes lit up like a kid on Christmas. He chugged the thing and clutched his head. This was his first brain freeze.
I had told Raj to do whatever he wanted for my design. My only request was that there be lots of flowers. I also didn’t want to pay more than 500 rupees (~$5). Later on, two henna girls stopped me in the street, admired my arm, and told me they knew it was Raj’s work. “He does a good job,” they confirmed.
After my henna was done, I took Raj outside and photographed him. He handed me the magazine of henna designs that he shows to clients to get an idea of what to draw for them. He told me he could recreate any of the designs in the catalog; he had been practicing for two years.
The photographed design is Audra’s. It features Buddha eyes in the middle and the Monkey Temple toward the bottom. The best documentation of my design is in the photo of me and Audra on our last morning before parting ways.
Raj knew I was leaving, but he told Audra to see him another time if she needed touch-ups. He slipped us his business card: crudely torn scraps of gray paper with his name and phone number.
Locals and visitors alike claim that you never go to Nepal just once. Many people I met were on their second go around. Audra is now on her third. And maybe I’ll head there a second time down the line. If I do, I’ll know where to get the best henna in town.