Saturday, April 1, 2017
20 Pools - A Swimming Odyssey: Pool # 13: The Penguin Pool, Pokhara
Over the years, Pokhara has developed around the eye candy that is Phewa Lake. It's a three by one mile tarn with steep Himalayan foothills on either side. The east side has shops and restaurants while the west shores house some audacious Buddhist temples. On a clear, still day the peaks of the Annapurna Range reflect off its surface making it one of the most inviting water sport spots on Earth.
Unfortunately while Pokhara has done an amazing job keeping city streets clean, the victim has been Phewa Lake. You can rent boats and paddle boards for play, but it's best not to go swimming as the bacteria levels from business sewage are far above healthy standards. They are working to clean it up, but it wasn't going to happen before I left town.
Instead Sita, here two companions and I opted for the Penguin Pool located a half hour north of town on the banks of the Seti Gandaki River. As far as sheer beauty, the Penguin Pool is No. 2 on the list, beaten only by Pool # 14: Aqualac, Aix les Baines, France. The river banks rise up to lush tropically forested cliffs and, in the not too-far distance, the white-glaciered Annapurnas paint the blue sky. On this day, even Machipuchare himself made an audacious appearance.
The pool is a six-lane, 25-meter outdoor resort pool with a shallow side pool for beginners. The view from the center is as dramatic as any pool I've ever been in. But there are two problems that dropped it down in my rankings. First of all, it is horribly inaccessible. There was a series of steps at the entrance and another series of steps to get to the pool. The locker room and bathroom doors were too small for me to enter and there was also a difficult gutter system that made getting into the pool not just difficult, but hazardous.
Then there was the second problem. It was kind of a rape-y pool.
That's right, a rape-y pool. There were no women in the pool when we arrived and, at first survey, Sita and her friends decided they didn't want to swim. I asked Sita why and she told me it wouldn't be safe for women. Men would surely swim up to them and grab them. "In an outdoor pool with life guards all around?" I asked. "Yes," she said, "Nepalese men don't care. They just grab."
I asked the women if we should go somewhere else, but it was super hot and they really did want to jump in that pool. Instead I told them to wait until I get in and swim for a bit, then they could join me if they wanted. I got carried down the cumbersome steps to the pool and had a lifeguard dump me in over the extended drain that almost cut my foot. It created a scene and nearly everyone in the pool was watching. Although there were no lane lines, I carved out a bit of space along the west edge of the pool and began swimming laps.
Just like every time I swam in Nepal, people stopped and stared. It created enough of an event, that when Sita arrived, it appeared we were part of a disability program. The men gave us a wide berth. As long as Sita and her two friends stayed together and made it look like they were helping her, they were left alone. I ended up cranking out my mile and eventually the three women were left to themselves and they could just goof around like everyone else.
That doesn't stop the fact that if they were just three women arriving by themselves, they would have turned around and gone home. Young women in Nepal are absolutely petrified of men they don't know. The week before, my production assistant said she couldn't come out with us on a celebration dinner, because there was no way she could safely get home. I told her I would buy her a cab and she refused saying she didn't trust any of the cab drivers. Women in wheelchairs often must use cabs to get to work, but they use a driver the family knows. Other single women would never take a night bus alone for fear of rape. It's impossible to get accurate statistics of rape in Nepal, but you would never catch a woman out by herself after seven o'clock.
That's not to say they won't get beaten and raped at home. I knew of two women at my workplace who were routinely beaten, and I'm assuming, raped by their husbands. Because of the misogynistic culture, these women have no place to go. Divorcees (and even widows) are considered untouchable by Nepali men so leaving a husband could easily put you out on the street. Through my work with the disabled community, I was able to meet many more Nepali women than your average white man. I discovered a great deal of depression, loneliness and abuse - much more than I'd seen anywhere else. ( In Arab countries I lived in I wasn't allowed to talk to women at all.) On the surface Nepal can be as beautiful as any place on Earth. But unfortunately, for many women, it is a sad and dangerous place.
One of the most callous things I've seen since coming home was during the March for Women after the Trump election. Conservative women made fun of the marchers saying, "They don't know how good they have it in America!"
What they were ignoring is that women from misogynistic cultures depend on the leadership of Western women for hope and change . I GUARANTEE the Nepali women would march in lockstep with their Western counterparts - if they weren't petrified.