Thursday, November 6, 2008

Election Day

I thought I’d never go to the American Club in Kathmandu. Run by the American Embassy, the three-square block compound looks more like a high security jail than a recreation center. Armed guards line the perimeter and barbed wire coils decorate the three-story high wall. Only Americans are allowed to enter. (If you’re Nepali, tough luck.) According to a friend who’d been, tiled bathrooms, chandeliers, neatly pruned hedges and a grocery store that sells imported organic tahini can be found inside.

It seemed pompous and hopelessly out of touch with its surroundings – a symbol to me of what our country had become. I’ll never go, I thought.

But on election day the Club hosted a party to watch the returns, and I decided to go. I wanted to be amongst “fellow Americans.” I was also secretly excited to see inside, how an ascetic might feel about trying alcohol for the first time.

I expected to feel like an anthropologist – to observe the scene with distance, even distaste, then leave thinking, “OK, I’ve seen it, I’ll never go there again.”

* * *

At 7:30 am on November 5, 2008 (or 8:45 pm EST on November 5th) I take a taxi with Sweta, my American colleague, her husband Michael, and my American friend Brendan.

The entrance routine evokes memories from airport security checkpoints – we wait in line; a stern-faced guard flips through our passports then enters them into a database; we walk through a metal detector and a second guard pats us down. Finally, guard number three nods approval and we enter.

Inside, we walk past two clay tennis courts, the American supermarket (large, sterile, without people) and little gold-plated signs with arrows pointing us towards the gym, the sauna and the pool. We find the sign that says “restaurant” and follow it.

The restaurant, where the event is held, smells of pancakes, fancy perfume – and Americans, roughly 50 of them. I haven’t seen this many Americans since my flight from Washington/Dulles four months ago.

At the back of the room, people sit around tables– munching on pancakes and sausages, drinking coffee, half watching the TV in the front of the room, half chatting with one another in rapid American cadence.

A quieter group sits in rows of plastic chairs at the front; their eyes are fixed on the small TV tuned to CNN. They clutch coffee mugs, strain necks towards the TV, speak in low tones to their neighbors, careful not to drown out Anderson Cooper.

Half of the crowd is grey and wrinkled. The old men wear khakis and have bald heads; their wives wear gold earrings and pink lipstick. The other half, the youngsters, wear beards, sandals and beads.

We make our way to the front of the room, walking through the round eating tables. I hear bits of conversations: Do you remember which way Pennsylvania went in the 2004 election? When did you post-mark your absentee ballot? I haven’t had pancakes like these since IHOP!

We watch returns come in from Virginia, Ohio then Pennsylvania. I munch on a cream cheese bagel, the first I’ve had in months. Around me wafts CNN election music, the smell of pancakes and the whispers and shouts of midwest, south and northeast America.

During the commercial breaks, Brendan and I comment on how surprisingly comfortable we feel here. We may be thousands of miles away from the counting and the projecting and the voting that will influence our lives more than we can imagine – but we feel close.

Once in a while, I’m reminded that I’m not home. I see the subtle Newari décor that lines the restaurant ceiling. And as the morning sun creeps into the restaurant and I feel the tea jerk my brain alert, the commentators on TV start to yawn, their eyes droop, the night darkens behind them.

Two hours and ten minutes after we arrive, as I am finishing my second cup of tea, the TV screen projects the most important line of the morning, and quite possibly, of our generation:


The moments following are a blur – of cheers, tears, gripping my friend Brendan’s leg, hugging the old man next to me and dancing with Sweta’s husband. I felt the world breath, sigh out, jump up for joy, relief.

The minute Obama was elected. Fist pumps and tears all around.

Minutes after. Sweta (grey shirt clapping), her husband Michael (blue shirt and victory fist), Brendan (plaid red shirt, pensive look), me (black zip-up)

This picture says it all. Michael.

I turn around. At least a hundred people are here now, most of them are standing – they’re coming out of hugs, straining to see the TV, pulling handkerchiefs out of their pockets. A young lesbian couple hold hands and stare at the TV with deer-in-the-headlight expressions; a middle-aged man with a scruffy face and a milk jug - sized camera takes pictures of the crowd; a man with grey receding hair takes off his thin spectacles to wipe his tears. The collective emotion in that room was greater than I’d felt. Ever.

Michael and Sweta embrace. Two months ago they had their first child, a baby girl.

As we walk out – past the security guards, through the metal detectors and back into the chaos and soot and color of Kathmandu, I look back at the compound. It looks less ominous, less imposing than it did three hours earlier.

I’d seen a community inside. I’d eaten bagels, chatted about my town in Maine with someone from New Hampshire, exchanged excited glances with strangers after every Obama state victory. And after his national victory, I embraced, danced, cheered and sighed with a roomful of people from my country. I’d felt comfortable. At home, even.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be a regular at the American Club. But I’ll consider going back.

1 comment:

Tina Holt said...

yay Rosie -
that is a fitting time to go to the American club... I was in eastern Europe (Georgia) when Kerry/Bush returns came in. Same breakfast crowd, but the expats in Georgia were pleased as Kerry failed to garner the electoral votes, and the crowd of FPs teaching ob stuff that I was with were the lone sad democrat touting table....
so glad you had some of that exciting feel when you were there!!
love to you -