2nd Place in the Travel Writing Scholarship contest of Rough Guides
We have bumped along a mountain road for hours on end, when the Jeep slows down to a stop. Four young men in shirts and jeans stand on the side of the road, next to a mud-smeared pick-up truck. I crane my neck to see what happens, while the Nepali driver turns off the radio and opens his window. Our exhaust pipe rattles with the engine whirring on stationary. The boy with the rifle cannot be older than twenty: he is skinny and his beard-growth does not cover his face completely yet. The men are members of the Maoïst party, a group that enforced a national strike in the country.
Four hundred rupee, one of them says.
The driver looks at him for a moment, and then offers to pay a hundred. The Maoïst says something in Nepali which I do not understand, and then reduces his demand to two hundred and fifty rupees. The price of a cup of coffee back home.
This cannot be true, I think to myself.
Okay, in the last few months I learned that everything is negotiable; the steamed dumplings you buy on the street, from a little entrepreneur who transformed his bike into a shop, or the price of a ride on the sticky leather back-seat of a tuk-tuk. As long as you do not mind your time trickling away during these negotiations, you may consider it as a means to meet people. Often negotiating over a simple piece of clothing turns into a nice chat with a cup of sweet cardamom flavoured tea.
When our eyes meet, the boy with the rifle looks away. He has his jaws clenched; you can see the movement of the muscles underneath the skin. On a leather necklace he wears a rectangular hanger, on which you will most likely see a Hindu god. I have seen them a lot. Slowly the boy turns his head back, and we look at each other.
The driver says he will pay two hundred rupees.
The one at the window agrees with a grumble. I can hear my driver taking the crispy bills out of his wallet, fresh money I just took from a cash machine back in the city to pay for the gas. They all wave with a smile for goodbyes.
As we drive away, dust is sucked in through the open window. I close my eyes for a moment. The dust leaves a dry taste in my mouth. Then I turn around to look; in the rear view window I see them walking back to the side of the road. The boy leans his rifle against the side of the pick-up and lights a cigarette. Our driver turns on the radio again. When I turn back forward, I catch his smile in the rear view mirror.
13 may 2013
Judges Comments: An insightful, clever piece, this piece is built around simple yet effective observations that effortlessly pitch the reader into the midst of a nervy encounter in the mountains of Nepal. The short sentences help create tension while at the same time reveal elements of the scene: the whirring engine, the boy with the rifle, the crispy bills. The narrative – framed by radio silence within the Jeep – dips a little in the fourth paragraph but is otherwise tightly paced, and at the end you’re almost sharing in their relief as they leave the roadblock behind.