Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Shangri-La I

The shrine has "Love is Life" written on four corners in English, Nepali, German and Spanish -  my four languages 

This is Shangri-La International School, a private school in my village. It was started by a German aid organization and has a full Nepali staff. It is connected to the Shangri-La Orphanage, which is practically next door to the school in which I taught. Occasionally German volunteers live in Boharatar and work in the school or the orphanage. The village is isolated enough from the main roads of the valley that I was often mistaken for a German volunteer. Shangri-la School provided building materials to our school, and scholarships to many of the poor students in the area. I've played at their soccer field (recently sold for crop land) and ping pong tables. The Shangri-La students I met were generally more proficient in English because Shangri-La is English medium and the teachers are trained by European professionals. The volunteers I've met were dedicated and concerned that their 4-month stints making projects for the school should be sustainable.

This is Hotel Shangri-La, one of the nicest hotels in Kathmandu. The back face is only a stone's throw away from my apartment in Lazimpat. Fulbright has had receptions there, and I have played the grand piano in their lobby a few evenings. The former crown prince Dipendra, before he allegedly murdered most of the royal family because of their refusal to accept his choice of bride, was rumored to have illicit rendezvous at this hotel as it is a short walk from the Royal Palace. There is a large casino in the hotel, which is open 24 hours a day and caters mainly to Chinese businessmen and Indian tourists. They serve free drinks and food to gamblers, including something called a 'chicken popsicle' (which is much tastier than it sounds). There are few Nepalis in any of the casinos in Nepal because gambling halls are illegal for Nepali citizens, although they are open to tourists. 

In 2001, the name of Zhongdian County in the Yunnan Province of Southwest China was changed to "Shangri-la" in order to promote tourism in the area. 

One year later, The Washington Times* interviewed Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, one of the leaders of the Maoist insurgency that was sweeping the country:

"What motivated you to start the armed uprising in a country so tranquil the world knew it as a Shangri-la?"

His response:

"The so-called Shangri-la has merely been a misnomer, where the oppressed and exploited majority have meekly tolerated the inhuman brutality and violence of a handful of kings and priests for ages. You would surely agree that the silence of the graveyard is not peace and tranquility. It is now high time that this age-old violence and terror against the toiling majority be ended and a real 'Shangri-la' be created in the lap of the mighty Himalaya."

The name Shangri-La evokes the picture of an unspoiled paradise, a peaceful mountain utopia. It is not surprising that the name bedecks the posters of countless travel agencies and the signs of countless hotels and restaurants in the touristy areas of Nepal, despite the fact that the idea of Shangri-la is vaguely thought of as a Tibetan phenomenon.

Shangri-La is not an inherently native concept, neither in Nepal nor in Tibet. Business-savvy Nepalis know the term because it makes foreigners go all dewy-eyed. The Chinese renamed a whole county so that they could cash in. Even the Shangri-Las that have grown deep roots in Nepal have a distinct element of outsider ownership: Foreigners but not Nepalis can gamble at Hotel Shangri-La. Shangri-La International School was started and is funded through a European organization (though the current director and staff are Nepali). According to The Washington Times, "the world" knew Nepal as a Shangri-La. Still, it is a pretty word and a nice idea, and the appeal is powerful.

The word Shangri-La is vaguely Tibetan; I'm told '-la' means a mountain pass. But the name itself was created by an English writer in 1933. Shangri-La is a fictional utopia depicted in the incredibly successful novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.

Next time: a book review, the connection between gospel rock and the Dalai Lama, and more scattershot rantings from yours truly.

* "Maoists Seek a Democratic Nepal: Interview with Baburam Bhattarai" - email interview by Chitra Tiwari in The Washington Times 14 December 2002

No comments:

Post a Comment