It is frustrating. It is inefficient. It is also a little fun --that Negotiation class in law school is finally paying dividends!
Outside of these narrow streets, one can follow the same hunt and bargain strategy at larger, more modern stores around the city. The surroundings are more contemporary, but the process is still frustrating and inefficient. It helps that nodes for certain goods have popped up across Kathmandu (check Putalisadak for computer electronics, Dili Bazar for furniture, and Tripureswor and Thapathali for medical and laboratory equipment). Without thorough, reliable guides or maps, or, you know, addresses for businesses here, discovering these nodes and finding specific shops feels much like a (maddening, draining) scavenger hunt. Your reward at the end is your much-desired product and the feeling that you now know your city a bit better. Ask me where I bought those chairs. I can't give you a shop name (it doesn't have one) or the address (ha!) but I can draw you a handy map on that napkin you're using. Welcome to Kathmandu.
The same rules apply to food in Kathmandu. Vegetable markets and small shops sell foodstuffs as they have for many decades (and might still be using that same scale).
Modern supermarkets have cropped up around the city as well, allowing for more one-stop shopping. Many of these are smaller and more cramped than the comparatively GIGANTIC supermarkets I was accustomed to in the US (even ones in urban centers). That is why I lost my breath when I stumbled upon Bhat-Bhateni Super Market a few weeks after arriving here.
Now that we have moved, we live just a few minutes' walk to the store. You can see it from our apartment in the picture below (the tall grey block building with the red roof to the left on the horizon).
We feel lucky to live near one of the best grocery/department stores in the city. I once thought it was the best store in Kathmandu until I stumbled upon the new Bhat-Bhateni in Maharajgunj. Built in 2008, the new location really blew me away -- wide, non-cluttered aisles! Air conditioning! And the best is yet to come: Bhat-Bhateni just opened a new location in Koteswor and is planning to open two more in the Valley (Patan, Boudha) and one in Pokhara.
Our nearby "old Bhat-Bhateni" is modeled as a six-floor department store with groceries on the ground floor and different departments above. It seemingly sells everything: kitchen and bath supplies, electronics, bedding, furniture, clothing, shoes, watches, perfume, jewelry, home appliances, etc. We feel so fortunate to live so close to a one-stop shop in Kathmandu where the prices are fixed (no haggling!) and more often than not quite fair. In some ways, Bhat-Bhateni is like any American store.
The produce section looks familiar.
There are escalators between floors.
Like American stores, Bhat-Bhateni sells home decor items. I will let you judge whether these pieces suit your taste.
The checkout lines may look similar, but do not be deceived. I have never seen a checkout girl (they are always women and waiters in restaurants are always men, by the way) actually use the scrolling checkout belt, although admittedly it is quite short and therefore a bit unnecessary. The checkout lines are frequently swamped and more than once I have had to stand my ground to stop someone very brazenly and nonchalantly cutting in front of me in line.
There are other notable differences between this store and ones in the States. There is no fresh meat or fish. All such products are frozen and kept in large freezers.
You must purchase your goods from any given floor on that floor itself. At the entrance to each floor, there is a set of lockers where a guard will store your other bags while you shop. I find this a bit annoying, but we have perfected the art of starting our shopping trip on higher floors and working our way down to the groceries at the end.
Organization is not a strong suit. Clutter is common in the densely packed, narrow aisles. Items can be hard to find in a given area, and while Bhat-Bhateni may be your one-stop shopping destination, you may have to traverse up and down a handful of different floors looking for the product you want. And, that product may not even be there. Inventory is highly variable and what you see in the market one week may be gone the next only to reappear months later (if ever).
Speaking of inventory, I see food products here that I have never laid eyes on before. Walking the aisles is a cultural and culinary adventure. I look forward to sharing some of the highlights in tomorrow's post.