Ekelbhatti, meaning lone hotel in Nepali, is now four hotels right on the edge of the flat half-mile wide, mostly dry river bottom of the meandering upper Kali Gandaki River. To the north the trail that led for thousands of years over one last mountain pass into the fabled Mustang kingdom of Tibet, is now closed, unless you pay $700 per person for a one-week permit. Two hours south is Jomosom. Then it is six or more days down the deepest river valley in the world, to the end of the nearest road at Baglung. With the 27,000-foot Dhaulagari (sixth highest mountain in the world), to the west and the entire Annapurna Range to the east, winds from the lowlands of the Terai and the plains of India are funneled up the valley. For the next few days the afternoon sun would bring with it gale force winds driving sand into everything.
When I arrived mid afternoon into Ekelbhatti the wind had been sandblasting my sunburned face. I sat on the sunny but shielded patio of the Hill Ton Hotel and Restaurant with “24 hour running sour.” Two doors down at the other end of town was the Holly Day Inn also proud of their shower. This afternoon the place was nearly a ghost town, and I was seriously considering staying.
Four children braved the sand-swept street. Two young girls, ten or twelve years old, stood directly across the road from me near a stone wall. They whispered and giggled to themselves, occasionally looking in my direction. Two younger boys, each with an old ram’s horn tied to the end of a rope, ran up and back along the dirt street, the horns dancing merrily behind. Though I had seen lots of happy children, these were the first toys I had seen in Nepal.
Deciding to play a game I have played before, I ordered a coke. The glass bottles have an old-fashioned metal cap. It was that cap I was after.
The bottles weigh more, and are worth more, than their contents. Not only did they have to be carried six days up here but also the empties had to make the same trip back, to redeem the deposit.
I popped open the coke just as the two girls started to lose interest in the only strange thing in town. Taking a sip I played with the metal cap, sliding it back and forth, then around the rough plastic surface of the table. The corner of my eye told me that I had caught them, if only for a moment.
Standing the cap on end, holding it upright with my index finger, with my middle finger I gave the edge a sharp thwack. The cap spun like a top three feet across the table. Just at the edge it lost forward momentum and the spinning drew it halfway back to me. Before the spin collapsed, I snatched the cap up. Resetting, I thwacked it again. This time I was short of the table edge but the spin brought it almost back to my hand. Before my fourth thwack I had an audience of two at my table and the boys were stopped mid-street.
The fourth shot was a demonstration run. Carefully setting the bottle cap on edge, perpendicular to the table and my holding index finger, I paused, and then gave two false practice strokes with my middle finger snapping loose from my thumb. Then, I thwacked it. The cap spun rapidly across the table. Both pairs of hands went down to catch it. Within inches of the edge, the cap lost forward momentum and slowly spun back to the middle of the table.
This is an easy trick anyone can master with practice and a level, semi-smooth tabletop. You hole the cap lightly, perpendicular. The closer the middle finger is to the edge at the thwack and its speed determines the forward momentum, the rate of spin and thus the amount of drawback.
My next attempt was hurried and raced off the edge into the scrambling hands of one of the girls. She set it up looking directly at me, and thwacked the hell out of the middle. The cap flopped across the table into my lap. As I placed it in front of the other girl, the two boys tethered their charges to the dirt of the road and approached cautiously. The second girl took her time gently lining up the cap under the proper finger and took her two slow practice swings with her middle finger. Her eyes that had been intent on the cap now lifted to mine. I nodded with a smile. She let it fly. The cap spun perfectly, slowed as it approached the edge and just slipped off before I could grab it. I set it and sent it back. They made no attempt to grab the toy while it was tracing its path. Only when the spin was about to falter did this desire become manifest in scrambling hands. I could not determine if this was reticence with a stranger or incredible good manners and patience.
I passed the top to one of the boys. Roll-on-the-ground dirty from hair to bare toes, with snot from nose to mouth, he wheezed a confused smile. Helping him line it up, I pantomimed my finger in the motion of the thwack. His shot wobbled drunkenly to the middle of the table. As I sat back, arms folded, and made no attempt to pick up the cap, a melee ensued. Each got a turn, as their size and quickness allowed. My theory of good manners and patience was not totally dissolved.
After each had had some success I motioned that we needed more caps. The bottles were returned for a deposit but the caps were everywhere in Nepal. The boy with the snotty nose was first to react. He ran across the road as the others looked around the tables finding the patio swept clean. As he bent to snatch up his second find, I picked up the forgotten cap from the table. With thumb inside, middle finger out, I lifted it quickly upright, snapped my fingers, and the cap sailed like a tiny frisbee twenty feet and bounced off his butt. Quickly grabbing it off the ground he returned with a huge smile and three bottle caps. All thoughts of spinning caps across a table had been forgotten.
To make it easier to understand this new trick, I first ignored the bottle caps on the table in front of me and just showed my hand. My middle finger against my thumb, I slowly snapped my fingers. This movement is an exaggerated snap with the middle digit moving down the thumb before the snap. That is where you get the spin. Four children stood snapping fingers before me like a marching band trying out new instruments.
With a cap, top down on the table, I showed how to place the thumb, curved around the top inside of the cap, then slowly pulled my middle finger along the outside, serrated edge, in pantomime of the snap. Then there was the big move. Eight eyes watched mesmerized. With cap top on table, thumb inside and middle finger outside, I lifted the cap, bent my elbow and positioned my upper arm parallel to the ground. The cap was now topside up near my ear.
Holding it in place I showed again the movement of the snap. Then I let one fly. It sailed straight across the road and bounced off the stone wall. The second one I sent a little quicker into the same spot. As I picked up the third, I stilled the instinctive retrieval flight of the two girls by corralling the boy who had collected the caps. I positioned his thumb and finger, then his arm, as the others watched intently.
His first try he snapped with his right and caught with his left. A moment later, he let his second one fly ten feet into the road. Again all hell broke loose as three children ran to grab the three spent caps, and one little snot-faced boy, stood looking at me with the biggest grin I’d ever seen.
For half an hour I showed and re-showed how to make the caps fly. One of the girls caught on and the one boy made shot after shot. Before the other two became disillusioned, I suddenly stood up, unbuttoned my shirt cuff and rolled up my sleeve. Carefully putting a cap on my upturned elbow, I let it sit there for several seconds. It was just a silly bottle cap on some strange man’s elbow but to those four children anything could happen.
This was the simplest trick of all. The cap sat on my horizontal elbow, as I dropped my arm it began to fall and my descending hand snatched the cap. I did this several times very slowly emphasizing how easy it was. By the fifth demonstration I was presented with four elbows perfectly positioned for a bottle cap.
Passing up the girl who could thwack a good spin and my snapping protégé, I chose the girl who had originally giggled at the stranger, then had tried so hard. Repositioning her elbow, straight, horizontal, I turned her hand palm up at the ear. Everyone’s first try is to shake the cap loose by bouncing the elbow then grabbing at it hurriedly as it falls. I showed her again the simplicity and slowness of the movement. On her third try she got it.
In over an hour I had said, “yes,” and “no,” and “no, like this” over and over but had spoken no further Nepali. The chatter and laughter of the children had been constant but none of the words had been English. And yet the communication had been there since the first looks and giggles and the trap-spring sounds of the metal cap on the rough plastic tabletop.
Each child mastered this final trick. Showing them how you could stack several caps together and with the same slow motion catch them all, I went inside to read leaving them to practice, practice, practice.
Awakening to a luxuriant new day, I breakfasted, the Hill Ton Hotel’s only guest. As I left the hotel the two ram horns lay in the middle of the street and there was not a bottle cap to be found.
Scott Bernard is a writer currently traveling in Peru.