Swimming around

There are quite a few things reminding me of the 1950s in the US. The sexes here rarely mingle with each other in social and business situations. There’s a strain of machismo in young Nepali men as they adhere to a very masculine archetype of manhood. Men wear aviator sunglasses with jackets cut high above the waist (especially in hero shots).

And most Nepali men in their early 20s will have a photo album where they keep photographs of themselves. The photographs are taken from odd angles and assuming poses with them wearing nearly-leather flight jackets with raised collars not unlike yearbook pics of a Leave It to Beaver football captain. The air of cool is laid on thickly, at least for a cocky American who for some reason believes America invented cool—but what about the French?

Two other volunteers and I enjoy the pool at Hotel Vishuwa in Birganj, Nepal, August 2003.

Two other volunteers and I enjoy the pool at Hotel Vishuwa in Birganj, Nepal, August 2003.

The United States has something of an identity, even if it’s as the melting pot (or cultural fleecier, as I prefer) that evolves around what is imported and exported, and can develop according to the whims of its masses, but Nepal is small—ask any Nepali. And perhaps that’s why sometimes it appears as if it tries too hard.

They are aware of what Nepali is and what it isn’t. When a smaller country is neighbored by others that are richer and more powerful, the cultural affect their neighbors have seems proportional to their economic influence.

For example, think about the stereotypes projected in the United States of what it means to be Chinese or Indian. How about Nepali? What is a Nepali like? What does one look like? Are they male or female? Hindu or Buddhist? A farmer or shop owner? That my own country is mostly unaware of Nepal suggests that perhaps India’s or China’s identity has compromised Nepal’s.

Even now when I try and imagine a ‘stereotypical’ Nepali I imagine a mix and match of its neighbors.

This is just my personal awareness of ignorance. As I try to understand this culture, I have done so in ways that can be related, trying to simplify Nepal into something knowable that I have in some way experienced and can digest—for better or worse. And I think about this as I go swimming.

There’s something suggestive about swimming suits, I think. The evolution of swimwear fashion progressed at a tremendous rate, comparatively with other garments, like the shirt. Nepali swimsuits are delightful. Mostly I see men wear the Euro-cut Speedo with something resembling dignity.

The women’s swimwear, however, is completely different. It’s a gender gap. Men wear what the like and women wear what men think is appropriate. I met a couple Nepali women wearing swimwear not unlike what you might have seen in a pool-filled musical from the 1940s: billowing lace coming off a blouse with trimmed yet puffy sleeves and shorts covered by something like a mini-poodle skirt.

To translate the Nepali verb ‘to swim’ nearly literally means, ‘to play in water,’ which accurately describes what I see in Birganj’s two pools. One is at a place called City Club, a private club that along with the pool has two billiard tables, a snooker table, and a weight room.

The weight room is just like the one from my high school. The equipment has clearly suffered excessive attention by people who use it incorrectly or abuse it, and there’s just not enough ventilation to rid the room of the smell of stagnant BO.

So that’s the City Club. Usually it’s empty besides the attendant, who spends his time playing billiards or snooker. It takes quite a bit of practice to play on the tables since they’ve been warped by years of heat and humidity. The tables’ surfaces are not unlike those of the Birganj roads, but the attendant, after spending hours at practice, is able to play the table proficiently.

There’s also the occasional Indian businessman or his daughters in the pool. City Club is truly a family-oriented business, as it assures those businessmen that their daughters won’t been endangering their chastity, allowing only women to swim from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. Men may swim any other time.

The first time I went to swim at the City Club, I went with Robin and Jane-Erie. I had been to the City Club once before just to check things out, but I hadn’t noticed the sex-based swimming schedules. Of course, we went just as the sulfuric flames of Birganj begin to cool, around 4:00 p.m., so I had to sit aside while Robin and Jane-Erie indulged themselves.

There were two young women swimming that day. Their mother sat poolside, calmly watching the children entertain themselves in ways clearly beyond her appreciation.

I took a chair next to Grandma Moses to wait my turn. Her two girls were trying to teach one another, through self-discovery apparently, freestyle swimming. Jane-Erie took to paudi keldihunuhunchha while Robin swam laps. That morning Robin had her first experience in Birganj of sexual harassment.

A Nepali man had followed her as she walked to school and said foul, vulgar things to her in English. She informed her school, and her fellow teachers and the headmiss took to the area asking pasal owners if they had seen or knew the man. No one was apprehended, but people were made aware of the incident. A step towards prevention.

What does this have to with swimming? Nothing, really, just one of the more frustrating realities of being a female volunteer in Nepal. Robin had to deal with her frustrations and did so by swimming laps that afternoon. She had handled the situation professionally and smartly, but now it was time for her to work off her frustrations.

The two young girls asked Jane-Erie to teach them how to swim. Really. Jane-Erie hadn’t a clue how to instruct these girls, so I walked around to the pool and began to talk with the girls about how they could improve their technique. These girls didn’t want to have anything to do with me. They were clearly uncomfortable talking to a male while they were completely naked (or rather in their bathing suits).

A little frustrated with Nepali culture, with the reality that because I am a male, I’m not able to teach these girls. So I went back to talk with Whistler’s Mother. Whistler’s Mother was a classic Hindu woman. She spoke English well, but in an odd way. Stilted, poetic, and grammatically correct yet awkward.

There’s a certain beauty of language that can only be expressed by someone who isn’t comfortable with the language. She watched her daughters struggle to master their freestyle stroke and then turned to Robin who swam several different strokes, performing underwater flip-turns, and said, without a hint of emotion, She is champion.

Indeed, Robin is champion.

The other place to swim is the Vishuwa Hotel, which caters to Chinese and Indian businessmen. I would say businesspersons, but who am I joking. The Vishuwa is on the northeast side of Birganj, just off Ring Road, a loop road that buses and trucks take around the center of Birganj when going to and from India.

This place is a palace. Rob and Luke frequent the Vishuwa often enough that they Vishuwa gives Peace Corps volunteers a 20% discount. This place has a few necessities for life in Birganj other than the pool—namely Guinness and pizza. The pizza is OK.

Their menu is a scream, though. Most Nepali menus are printed in English because a Nepali is only interested in getting daal bhaat takari. My favorite header/section of the menu is entitled ‘The European Odyssey.’ The best menu I’ve come across in Nepal is from the Siddhartha Restaurant in Nepalgunj.

The menu should be rated R for foul language. You’ll find cold drinks under the ‘Drink cock’ heading. There are other, less significant typos, like ‘schnakes’ instead of snacks, but nothing even comparable to their completely inappropriate misspelling of Coke.

But back to the pool. Swimming at the Vishuwa is expensive (NRs 200), twice as expensive as the City Club. To make it relatable, an average meal at a restaurant in Birganj is NRs 40 and a nice meal at the Vishuwa will run you at most NRs 120.

Just trust me, NRs 200 is a lot for a dip at the Vishuwa, especially because you’re going to eat there afterward. In dollars, though, NRs 200 is nearly US$ 4.00, which should help you valuate how much a PCVs lives on. The swimmers I find at the Vishuwa are of a different caliber.

When I was in China, I never found many people swimming. On the beach one evening in Qingtao (Tsingtao, the city of Chinese beer), I found that the locals would venture out into the water at just above ankle depth, but rarely father. Perhaps it’s because of the dubious quality of government-instituted shark nets or the ominous presence of oil tankers not far off the beach.

But the privileged few who make it (God only knows why) to the Vishuwa in Birganj seem to take a genuine pleasure is swimming in small, artificial pools. They seem to understand that swimming is as much about getting in the pool as lounging in lawn chairs with a cold drink and a book.

Overall, I prefer swimming at the City Club. I’ve never had anyone ever say that my friend is champion at the Vishuwa, nor would the patrons of the Vishuwa ever let themselves come across as not being savvy of Western culture and refusing the attention of a former swimming teacher.