Thursday, December 20, 2007
The Fitness Yogi
I’m in India for my brother Brian’s wedding. He lives in England but is marrying an Indian girl. I’ve always wanted to see India but, since I began traveling, have rarely been to destinations that didn’t include climbing as part of the itinerary. This was a good excuse to finally get there.
My favorite way to get acquainted with a new place is to go for a run. You can’t get the lay of the land, nor a feel for its people, from a car or, to some degree, even public transportation. You need to go where the people go in their daily lives. In most countries, this is done on foot. And when you’re running, you can cover a lot of a city in very little time.
Traffic in India is crazy. It’s also kind of fun—a bit like Mr. Toad’s Wild Run with diesel engines. You zip around dodging rickshaws, dogs, goats, bussed, trolleys, goats, cows, etc. At each stop you’re accosted by just about any form of beggar, all using some sort of tact, talent, or tidbit to help them stand out from the crowd. It’s an experience not to be missed but, if it’s your only mode of transport, will ensure that you’re missing out on a lot. So each day, I take to the streets on foot.
It’s very rare to see another runner here. When you do it’s generally in a park or stadium. I’ve yet to see one on the streets. You do see plenty of other modes of human transport. The once ubiquitous human powered rickshaw is now outlawed, though you’ll find plenty in the heart of downtown (laws being more like suggestions), but velo-shaws are everywhere. In fact, anything you might want to cart around town you’ll find attached to a bike. All of them are single speed, meaning that you’ll want to size up your driver before hiring one. But hardly anyone runs for exercise, especially on the streets.
A two hour run/tour had my local area (oddly enough called Salt Lake) pretty well sussed. By the end of the run Kolkata no longer seemed crazy. It was just a city, with wild parts and serene parts. I also learned that Bengalis are big on character. And their definition of what gives character is different the what is standard in the west.
Things here are often run down, and that’s how people seem to like it. Even nice things. It’s funny to see something that you can tell a lot of work went into building—which is still in good condition structurally—that is allowed to dilapidate to a great degree. This was never more apparent than at the Salt Lake stadium, which is supposed to be the largest stadium in Asia, or at least southern Asia. Running around its perimeter my first thought was that it might be condemned. Shanties were built in and around it. It was locked up but not well. You could just walk in. But the grass was in fine shape and, in the subsequent days, things seemed to be going on inside on most of them. Around the perimeter many people engaged in sport, usually cricket or soccer, but many other variants as well. The odd thing was that they choose little patched of dirt or abandoned building sites for this activity, yet there were large empty manicured football pitches and cricket fields right near by. According to Ashna, “If it doesn’t have dirt, Bengalis don’t want anything to do with it.”
Armed with this knowledge I found my training facility of choice for this trip. It’s a beat up police training obstacle course, which will allow me to do P90x type circuits. It even has ropes to climb and traverse (so Tony would be psyched). I also found a very nice abandoned climbing wall. It’s looked creaky and a little scary and only one side had any holds. I climbed as high as I dared, which wasn’t too high since the holds weren’t stable. It was amazing. This wall must have cost $100,000 to build. It was nice. And abandoned. Next time I come I’ll consider bringing climbing gear and holds.
I get a lot of odd looks, waves, and occasional chides on my run. And, while most people look absolutely confused, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive. Because I’ve been running in an orange shirt, Brian has suspected that perhaps they see me as some type of fitness yogi. Orange, I’ve learned, is only worn by men who’ve become enlightened. This has added some fuel to the credence of Ashna’s idea that I would have an almost instantaneous cult following if I were to move here and champion exercise as a way to enlightenment.
I may have added to this allure by getting into an impromptu race with some velo-shaws. I generally pass these without any notice. On one long stretch, a guy I passed came back around me. I didn’t react until he passed another, which sped up to stay ahead of me. This caused a chain reaction until the rickshaw traffic on the entire street was much more spirited than normal. I speed up to watch the action, then decided to see if I could catch them. I passed them all until I caught the original driver. He put in another surge, with no reaction towards me at all, and we raced back and forth until we hit my final roundabout in a dead heat. With neither of us giving away the we were racing, all we did was exchange a subtle but knowing look. Me, happy because it forced me into a better workout. He satisfied, no doubt, because he held off the charge of an enlightened fitness yogi.