Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Celebrating the 5th of July

Across the street from the former Royal Palace, gated and fenced and patrolled; behind tall pink walls and furnished with an embassy's security protocol of metal detectors and blast-proof doors, of armed guards in fatigues from the Nepali army and inset signs forbidding photos, lies Phora Durbar, the American club in Kathmandu and site of the city's 4th of July party. The 4th of July party which, this year, happens to be on the 5th of July.

After passing through security—a metal detector, an x-ray machine, the removal of coins and keys and phones and cameras, the aforementioned door, opened remotely—you enter Phora Durbar to see two things: in the foreground a parking lot, paved with dark, smooth asphalt, large enough that it contains a separate section signed “Parking for VIPs” of 8 or 10 spaces; and behind it a combination baseball and soccer field of groomed bluegrass, the infield dirt a rich red-brown and sprinkled here and there with sprouting crabgrass, advertising signs for Mike's Breakfast and the Rum-Doodle and others in sharp blue and crisp white along a low fence behind the third-base line, in all the perfect recreation of normalcy, of genericness, of any combination baseball-soccer field anywhere in the suburban US.

You can't walk straight across the parking lot to the field, though, not without hopping a four-foot fence, and the paths direct you to the right, winding past the Commissary and Administrative Building to a nicely shaded divergence. Here, hard right to the basketball courts, with a lone teenager dribbling a ball slowly; soft right to the pool, teeming with kids and parents, skins showing rosy undertones; straight ahead to the Phora Durbar wireless cafe, empty and perhaps closed, but dark and uninviting in any case; left to the green field, busy. The field, this July 5th, has two big tents set up in an L, and—not really visible from either one—a small stage at one end with a microphone stand and a plastic container of jelly beans. Past the other end of the L lies the Kidzone: what appears to be a bouncy castle, most notably. And then, around the infield, elephant rides in a lazy diamond, elephant and mahout dressed in celebratory regalia, crimson and gold.

The 5th of July party is free, but the Kidzone costs 200 rupees, the bottles of Corona and Amstel Gold 120, the Heath Bars 60. The burgers alone are 200 rupees, but the vegetable fajitas—filled with such an unappetizing mash that my friend Elizabeth takes two bites and then eats only the tortilla, leaving the entirety of the filling—cost only 70.

It's overcast today, the cloud cover a domed tortoise shell of near-black broken only by joints of glowing, luminescent gray. If you are as shallow as I am, the first thing you might notice is that Phora Durbar is filled with ugly Americans: not bossy and loud Americans, but instead self-important men with crossed arms, with guts tucked into golf shirts, golf shirts tucked into khaki cargo shorts; blond women with vulture postures in formless t-shirts and acid-washed jeans; in the crowd around the watermelon-eating contest, you hear an unintelligible clucking and see a chicken-bob of heads with baseball caps that advertise New York, St. Louis, Milwaukee, caps that advertise hometowns.

Later, when I am discussing the attributes of the population that day with my friend Jeremy, he concurs. There certainly weren't a lot of attractive people there, he says, and I was looking.

But the scene is filled with Nepalis as well, and the odd European able to wrangle guest privileges for the day. And judging by name the raffle winners—of a blender, of a mountain flight, of a pair of nights at a hotel in Pokhara—seem to be all Nepali. But the American emcee filled the banter with the detrital references of American pop culture: Raj Kumar, come on down, you've won dinner for two at the Rum-Doodle! Sushma Lama, you may already be a winner!

The atmosphere is entirely odd.

The hats, near as I can tell, are one of the only ways that the party encourages mingling: You're from Detroit? I'm from the U.P.! For the most part everyone stands around talking to people they already know: a group of study-abroad students sits together on the grass, a trio of Lincoln school teachers near the food, me and my friends slowing drinking beer and looking out over the sports field as the mahout takes the elephant home around 3 pm.

A friend suggests, obliquely, that this entire stage—in fact, this entire scene—is the recreation of both the most boring parts of the 4th of July and of the Ugly American, in its original, novelistic sense, in which the most famous description, by a fictional Burmese novelist, is this:

A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They're loud and ostentatious.

There can be no doubt that Phora Durbar is both pretentious and ostentatious. Think of the symbolism of having the American club—a club!—right next to the palace, Jeremy says. And all the resources used to keep the baseball field green during the drought season: fall, winter, and spring. Or the parking lot: I cannot think of another place that has one like this, orderly and clean and thoroughly Angeleno, in the entirety of the city. Not a place that would let me in, even for just a few hours, anyway.

I say a few hours because the festivities end at 4, and normal Americans like me are not allowed to become members of Phora Durbar: it is for permanent residents of Nepal only, and they check your visa status before allowing you to join. But since the visa situation in Nepal is an utter disaster—as I've written before, everyone I know has visa issues—this means that Phora Durbar is limited to a certain type, or to certain types: Embassy types, employees of the enormous international NGOs, anyone whose employer can afford the expense of bribes and time that it takes to negotiate a proper residency visa. It feels something like a country club, adapted for its milieu, and the 5th of July an awkward wedding.

I'm not sure it's wrong, though, for Americans abroad to remake a little corner of whatever place into something comfortable and familiar. I certainly need relief from the cracking, in-your-ear honks of traffic as I bike or walk on just about any road; and from the small, ever-present worries about cyclospora among the bits of shredded cabbage that garnish you plate of momos or of getting water from the tap in your mouth when flossing, worries that flag and flare like the itch of a mosquito bite; and from the constant negotiation of taxi fares, of haggling over bananas and tomatoes and green beans and saag, of whether the lanky man who runs the cafe where I watch Guess Who's Coming to Dinner and Charlie Wilson's War can convince Nepal Telecom the internet really isn't working and the problem is with them.

But if it's acceptable both to want ease and to have it, is it also acceptable to want it in privacy or, less generously, in exclusivity? For Phora Durbar is absolutely exclusive; indeed, the US Embassy in Kathmandu refers to it, in a security email sent May 27th, as a “compound.” Which it of course is. Paternalistic too, in its “No Photos” signs, for it's not an artful compound, and even if I had remembered my camera today I would have found little to photograph. The signs, in context, seem little more than don't-want-what-you-can't-have statement—and who says you can't have? Why, we do, of course.

The cliché about the boy and his country—or whatever variant you might prefer—is very much a cliché because of some relevant truth: I can leave California, can leave San Francisco, but can't stop the neural connections that notice how Nepal would be a little more friendly if it were a little more like home. This is not wrong, but normal. Instead, what I find disturbing is a mind that would share these thoughts only with people who share them already; a mind that would close the American club to most everyone (however American this instinct often is) and so further entrench the very separations and divisions that most all of them work, in their everyday lives, to eliminate. To work in Development is to try to lessen or reduce the barriers that prevent the gritty whirlwind of poverty from dissipating, the barriers to food and sanitation and a global body of knowledge that the walls of Phora Durbar are a tangible metaphor for.

It is not so wrong, I think, to build a baseball field in Nepal and take a few hours at dusk to watch your young sons hit dusty groundball singles up the middle, but there is something demeaning and demanding and above all disappointing about forbidding normal Nepalis to see it, to see how life might otherwise be. The opening of an actual possibility, an actual job, for a Nepali takes much, but the opening of an imagination takes little, and is often almost as good.

At 4 on the dot, a man with a bullhorn gets up and says that Phora Durbar is now closed, which is not exactly true. In point of fact, it is closed for non-members, people like me and my friends. We continue sitting and drinking our beers, talking quietly, wondering whether the early closure—and lack of protest –is quintessentially American or quintessentially Nepali, or both. At 4:15 we are all herded away, past the tents gently wafting in the breeze.

On the way out, driven by Phora's security each step, as if they are shepherds and we goats, my friends and I smudge the glass doors of the Commissary with our fingertips and noses: on blue wire shelves Kikkoman soy sauce and the red cardboard boxes of Cream of Wheat, Coca-Cola and Sprite 12-packs in colorful paperboard, restaurant-size cans of Rosarita refried beans, and, off to the side, a plastic toy section. Things we don't want or need, we say; what we want sometimes is easiness, is calm and efficiency among the blinding and chaotic gusts of Nepal, and nearly all these things we can get at the Bhat Bhateni supermarket anyway.


Anonymous said...

Nice try, but the only people that will buy into this kind of bogus are the same inexperienced kids like yourself. In all of your babble about segregation and isolation from the rest of Nepali society, did you ever wonder how many years most of those Americans you saw have been doing this kind of work? I'm assuming that you have, what, maybe one year of real overseas experience in a developing country. Some of those people you saw have more than 30, and having lived in countries with mush worse conditions than Kathmandu. Some of them speak multiple languages, or started their careers as Peace Corps volunteers. Some of them have recently relocated from war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. Are they obligated by confused idealist like you to "live like the locals" their entire lives? This is a hard lifestyle son, and you'll be lucky if you can commit a lifetime to it. Most people like you will do their little adventure for a couple of years, then move back home and take up a job like the rest of their friends and family. But there is one thing that will probably never end: idealizing your experiences and knowledge to belittle people you don't even know.

Anonymous said...

I completely disagree with anonymous. I really enjoyed reading this post because it captured perfectly how I feel about Phora. I could join it. I choose not to.

I have committed my life to these things and am in my 40s. I have lived in rotten places (albeit not war zones.) And Nepal is the only place I've encountered this particular strain of NGO-gentry. Sometimes I think Kathmandu is a Disneyland for people who play at helping without ever getting their hands dirty. One way that's reinforced is the blanket prohibition on people attached to the embassy or government (and transitively, to many i-NGOs that take their cues from the government) against leaving the Kathmandu valley. For security reasons, of course. But why is it that coming to the country is okay but leaving the capital isn't? Why not just pull entirely out of Nepal if you can't get your work done in the field? Because we still get to feel superior and noble.

You might re-read the post; it explicitly avoids saying everyone needs to 'live like the locals'. In fact, it says that trying to live in a way that works for us Americans is something we can share with others. And even if there is a strong need to have a place apart, just for people affiliated to certain organizations, why not at least make it more transparent and less brazenly in-your-face exclusive? Even the royal palace across the street has fences that let people peek in; this place is a fortress in the middle of town, a former palace, and a piece of real estate more valuable than the seat of the Nepali government in Singha Durbar. If for no other reason than symbolism alone, it's a crummy place/way to show American attitudes to Nepal.

Anonymous said...

Just to throw a wrench into the mix, I grew up in Nepal from age 5-12 and Phora Durbar was my playground. I have many fond memories of Kick the Can and Tennis Lessons and swimming lessons. No television, very few video games in late 1970s. We spent our time outside playing and for me, a kid, Phora Durbar was where we spent our time. Not in an isolationist way. We would ride our bikes through the traffic from several miles away. Stop and pick up stickers at the Airlines for our collections. Perhaps the world & in particular, Nepal, have changed a lot. More security, more fear, and more separatism. Nonetheless, I agree in some ways with each of you. As an adult wanting more out of the freedoms, liberties and opportunity that Americans are provided is understood. As a foreigner wanting and spending time with those things that are familiar and comfortable is normal. As a kid, I never saw the walls that kept them out, only the baseball fields, ice cream, pizza, hamburgers and bad movies that were often years behind their American releases. Just food for thought.

Anonymous said...

I was in Kathmandu for 3 years in the mid late 70's - as a young girl of 11 years old, Irish attending the American School (Lincoln) Phora Dubar was the only one of a couple of places that we were able to lead a carefree childhood. When I was there I could eat the food, swim/play without any harassment and avoid the constant offer of drugs around Freak Street. All clubs become somewhat clique but if it hadn't existed in its format my childhood would not have been as wonderful there as it was. I traveled to many countries with my family (United Nations) and Kathmandu has the most cherished memories not least for the wonderful days spent at Phora Dubar.

Barbara said...

I could grab a soapbox here, but I will just quickly point out that Phora Durbar was purchased to build the Embassy Chancery at a point convenient to the National Palace. The Soviets (at the time)were, therefore, going to build theirs kitty-corner (where all the big greenish bats used to hang) from Phora. Had we been allowed to build ours there, it would have been necessary to allow them to build theirs, too. It was a diplomatic dilemma for the Nepali government, so they disallowed both. The American community would not have such a wonderful place to catch a break, but for a twist of fate.

Rautey said...

okay i was going to intern in phora durbar. Ive never been there ,now im just plain confused on what to think about it:/