Wednesday, April 23, 2008

On Sneaking in

It's Nepal, so sneaking in is easy.

As a foreigner, you're supposed to pay for pretty much everything in the Kathmandu Valley: entering Kathmandu's Durbar Square is 200 rupees, as is Patan's; the Temple atop Swayambo on the west side of town is 100, and Pashuputinath costs 250; 100 rupees to see the Stupa at Boudha; and just to enter the old town of Bhaktapur is 750 rupees. Converted, it's about $3.20 to enter the Durbar Squares, $1.60 for Swayambunath and Buddhinath, $4 for Pashuputinath, and $12 for Bhaktapur. Nepalis get in for free, of course, and the fees are greatly reduced for visitors from the other SAARC countries: India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives.

I snuck into Bhaktapur with 3 other expats for Bisket Jatra, the Nepali new year, which involves (in no particular order) a ceremony of moving a lumbering, rickety chariot across town with a very stupid Hindu god tied up inside; a giant tug of war between residents of different sides of the city; and the felling of a giant lingam, which is a huge pole with fronds and ropes attached—it's something like 45 meters tall—stuck in a millstone-shaped stone called a yoni1.

The ceremony of pulling down the lingam first involves teenagers from the town trying to climb up the ropes until someone reaches the very top—not just where the ropes are knotted, but then a clamber past the crossbeam and a bear-hug shimmy to the very top. Everyone cheers, the climber revels in it for a moment, then makes his way back down.

Next everyone grabs the ropes and pulls: the lingam sways unstably like a palm tree in a hurricane, first this way and then that, and the crowd gasps and cheers when it looks like it's going to come down. As the lingam rebounds away from one group—it is wood, after all, and flexes pretty mightily before it will break—those on the ropes closest to the lingam tend to get pulled up into the air, often 20 feet or more. Usually these are tweens or early teens, who seem to have great fun being pulled into the air and then sliding down the ropes again.

At some point, though, the lingam begins to fall, and as many ropes on one side get closer to each other, ropes on the far side also go taut, to keep the lingam from falling too fast or hard. When the lingam finally comes down, there is a great pop of flashbulbs and the sound of cell phone cameras making imitation shutter sounds; then a great melee follows that looks, from inside the crowd, like little else than a massive religious experience: convulsing, stomping, shouting, hands waving, singing, bodies bumping and colliding and bouncing of each other.

If this all sounds recklessly dangerous, well, it is: climbers up the lingam regularly fall, often to their deaths, and in Kathmandu this year the lingam hit a microbus that was passing by. To western eyes, it's pretty incredible, but Nepalis have a sense of humor much more slapstick than ours—while waiting for the lingam part of the celebration, a chubby woman in a bright orange and yellow sari fell almost straight backwards, her feet out from under her and body directly into a folded, sitting position, and hard. Her reaction? To laugh at herself.

But all this is something of a digression, for what I'm interested in—the question I can't yet answer, more or less—is whether sneaking in is, in the end, acceptable2. What follows is less an argument than a cascade of related thoughts, for the interplay of problems is rather complex.

To some degree, not paying for entry is intentionally depriving a Nepali of income. And indeed, the income is considerable: the value of those 750 rupees is much higher to any Nepali than it is to me. At home in San Francisco, I can earn the value of 750 rupees in an hour; even for a Nepali with a better-than-decent job, it's something like two weeks' worth of pay. Past that, it is to some degree replaying the worst aspects of colonialism: a white foreigner comes in, takes what he wants, and leaves without contributing to the community. And indeed, whatever money I spend here will likely be circulated through the Nepali community at least a few times; whatever I save will circulate only at home, where it can do much less.

And yet what I'm taking, of course, is naturally free. Bhaktapur will be there whether I visit or not, whether I pay or not; there is in reality no good or service that some person has provided to me. Bhaktapur is a living place, and it's hard to argue that making a single person pay more is fair—is my “cost” to the town infinitely higher than a Nepali's?

Beyond that, changing prices based on nationality is also problematic. Imagine for a moment that you walked into a grocery store in San Francisco, and everything had 3 prices: one for Brits, one for Mexicans, and one for Americans. Even if tomatoes were priced on per-capita national income—the British paying the highest price, then the Americans, then Mexicans—it would still be a very poor version of a sliding scale economy, and hard to argue that anyone had an obligation to follow it.

It's hard to even reason that you should buy a ticket on a self-interested basis. There is essentially no risk for not paying to enter Durbar Square or the like—the worst that happens is that you wander near a ticket booth, a police officer comes out and asks to see your ticket. If you don't have one, you can either lie and say you're part of a group—the police don't speak English with anything approaching fluency—or you can just pay then. It's not that you're going to go to jail, or even have to pay a fine.

Finally, you could make very much the same argument against bargaining in the developing world as you would make against sneaking in. At heart is a difficult power imbalance: even though I am not wealthy for the first world, I can live like a king in Nepal. As such, I wield a lot more power in most transactions. Basic issues of fairness—it's not fair to cheat me!—make the idea of paying more for consumer goods pale in comparison to the difference in wealth solely attributable to my nationality. The basic idea is: There but for the grace of God go I. We each have no control over the circumstances of our birth, and for the vast majority of us, for our upbringings as well; and yet even outside of choices I've made, I am much wealthier for something I did not do and something neither I nor the Nepali I bargain with had control over: that I was born in the US. That's something that is, in the end, fundamentally unfair to the Nepali. Just like in not paying the entrance fee, I can choose whether to bargain: Buying a kilo of apples at 80 rupees instead of 70 makes little difference to me, but those ten rupees—16 cents—are a fair bit to Nepalis. At what point should you pay more since you can pay more? Should I, then, actually bargain the apple-seller up, till I am paying whatever I would be willing to pay for a kilo of apples in the US?

Again, there but for the grace of God go I.


1Lingam and yoni are in fact words for the male and female genitalia, as many of you no doubt remember deep in your brains from exposure to New Age crystal healers, yoga groupies, and the like. The words were certainly in my brain, in any case.

All I can say is that when feminist deconstruction hits Nepal, academics are going to have a field day with Bisket Jatra.

2I am intentionally going to lay aside here the issues of whether you have a moral obligation to follow the law; much less follow the law in a country that doesn't recognize any sort of agency from those who are not its citizens (which is pretty much every country, though possibly not Hong Kong) nor even the citizenship of those born there of parents born there and who are not recognized as citizens by any other nation (i.e., Nepal).

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