On the outskirts of Kathmandu, just as the city fades to fields, thousands of Nepalis stream into Whoopee Land. Whirling rides, water slides, and pop music offer an escape from the chaos of the city. Teenagers and twenty-somethings on motorcycles and scooters pull into the muddy parking lot, while young families navigate their compact cars around the puddles. It’s a school holiday, and many are here for the first time to see the amusement park that opened a few weeks ago.
Inside the gates, statues of characters from Shrek, Avatar, Jurassic Park, and Marvel Comics greet visitors. The sign next to Shrek says, “Welcome to Far, Far Away,” which feels apt. Given Nepal’s lax copyright laws, this is one of a few places in the world where characters from four different production companies can coexist.
This union of dissonant universes is not limited to movie characters: from the gates of the park, a Buddhist monastery, green rice terraces, mud huts, water slides, and the Hulk are all visible.
Inside Whoopee Land, groups of young adults huddle around smart phones and take selfies. “Fashion is really important to young people,” explains 25-year-old Karsang Sherpa, who has come with his friends. “From the dress, from the style, they copy everything in the West.”
Kathmandu teenagers pose with a statue of Shrek inside the gates of Whoopee Land.
In Kathmandu, the flow of foreign money means a growing middle class with a bit of money to spend at the amusement park. Just past the movie characters, a row of carnival games tempts visitors to spend 70 cents to try to win a stuffed animal bear. One of the attendants aims a paintball gun at his co-worker and pulls the trigger. A pop of air makes her jump, but the gun is empty. They both laugh.
Their stalls don’t attract much of a crowd, however. People are here for the rides. “The Frisbee,” a giant, spinning disk with outward-facing seats, and a swinging pirate ship are staples of American carnivals. I pause to consider their safety, but they look relatively new and securely bolted to the ground. “The Ranger,” at the back of the park, invites the most daring. Visitors laugh nervously as they strap their seats. The ride swings back and forth, each time going higher, until the riders are upside down. They scream in that mix of horror and delight universal to amusement parks.
In so much as the crowds at the park enjoy themselves, there is a limit to the enthusiasm for Western culture. Nepalis see the advantages of being a part of the global market, yet hold foreigners with some degree of suspicion. They tout the fact that the country has never been colonized, but their autonomy was only guaranteed by an 1816 treaty with the British East India Company that stipulated the best Nepali soldiers would be recruited into foreign armies, a practice that continues to this day. A policy of isolation ended in 1951 when the king, who had been relegated to a figurehead, formed an ironic alliance with democratic forces to oust the xenophobic and hereditary prime ministers who had ruled the country for 100 years. A flurry of cross-pollination followed. Hippies arrived in search of Shangri-La, Mount Everest enraptured international media, and Nepalis increasingly migrated overseas to find work. Today, money sent home from workers abroad makes up nearly a third of GDP.