Monday, November 24, 2008

Don't Worry

Mahaboob - that was the name on his license - hauled auto to get me home from Kanteerava Stadium. My first couple of weeks in Bangalore I found careening through traffic exhilarating the way people do when they forget that they’re not watching TV and that what they’re doing is actually dangerous. Now the moment driver’s start weaving and wedging their autos between vehicles at intersections as if they’re playing a game of rickshaw Tetris, I post wide in the backseat like Spiderman climbing an air duct. I’m always prepared in case I have to roll inverted like a carnival ride or run like a gerbil in a ball. I’ll choose my strategy at random depending on physics and my relative ankle dexterity which has deteriorated thanks to the Nandani milk truck incident. Today I appreciated efficiency and speed though I’m not sure everyone the driver sideswiped did. I gave him an extra few rupees even though he already flicked a tip with a rigged meter that started spinning like a slot machine shortly after the rate started to register.

I had just shuffled out of lifting practice with a wave to the other lifters. I felt like saying, “See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya – hey, smell you later!” since everything I say sounds like ‘beepity, beep beep beep’ anyway. My accent and often my speed of delivery far exceeds their understanding of the English language and makes most of what I say pure gibberish but they’ll almost never ask me to repeat anything. After weeks of communicating with exaggerated facial expressions, monosyllabic noises and elaborate hand gestures I think they’ve elected to enter me in the ‘Three Stooges Division’ at the so-called lifting competition that will occur on ‘Don’t worry’ of next month. You see, every time I ask when the competition is that I’m supposed to be training for, I get the answer, “Don’t worry” which, as far as I’m concerned should only be used to answer the question, “Should I worry?” but not to answer questions of date, time or location since - and I’m being a stickler here – it’s not an actual answer.

I lamented as I bid Boob adieu, that I couldn’t find sweet relief in the hands of a good masseuse since I’m still recovering from my first shocking attempts at relaxation. I first went for a facial at the Spa on the rooftop terrace next door. A shy, gentle creature wafted over to me and, as I lay their nearly sedated by the jasmine in her hair, she attempted to recarve the nose on my face with a clay tool. As New Englanders say, it was a lot like having your liver removed with a warm spoon. Not content with the results of her rhinoplasty, she ran vigorous circles on my cheeks with her fingertips as if getting a running start so that she could jump her hands off my nose and clap them together directly over my face. It was so unsettling I recommend the technique only be used on shock victims to keep them from passing out. I now have a Pavlovian response to the smell of jasmine and I cower whenever some fragile little auntie shuffles by me on the street.

Since I’ve been known to race passed a red flag in any relationship as if it marked pole position, I went back for a full body massage after a particularly harrowing workout where I missed so many snatch attempts that dodging the crashing bar in front and behind me began to make me feel like I was caught in an air raid. I could drop the bar but I have a harder time dropping the pursuit and I left feeling frustrated and in need of some pampering. But the hopes of relaxation vanished immediately when she whipped the sheet off my naked body with all the subtlety of a table cloth swiped from beneath a full table setting to leave the china undisturbed. I wish I knew the Kanadda equivalent of ‘Ta Da!”

Understanding how well I generally handle myself in these situations, I engrossed myself in the mantra ‘must not laugh’ so that the only discernable acknowledgement that my full-frontal nudity was an unexpected plot twist was that my ‘zoinks!’ reflex loosed the cottonballs from my eyelids when my eyes snapped open sending them tumbling down my cheeks. And having your chest rubbed by a sweet-faced Indian woman may increase the number of hits on the YouTube video undoubtedly recorded on a cell phone from the next building; it did nothing to relax me and only reminded me of the Breast Self Exam illustrations in doctor’s offices. Maybe that’s why it’s a ‘self’ exam and not a ‘buddy system’ sort of thing.

Obviously then, recovery was going to depend on good old fashioned food and sleep - both of which I needed desperately. The work is only part of the equation and it’s like buying a plot of land on which to build a house. Securing the site is a logical first step but without raw materials or the time to complete the work, you’ve gotten nowhere. Raw materials for muscle mass of course consist of protein which can be rough to find in this outpost.

“If nutrients needed for protein synthesis (to maintain or repair damaged tissue) are not sufficiently available from dietary sources, the body will take them from its own stores. In essence, the body will rob Peter to pay Paul in order to maintain function. By ensuring adequate dietary protein intake, a trainee will be certain to provide the body with the building blocks necessary for protein synthesis, “said Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore in ‘Practical Programming for Strength Training.’ [Pg 49] As it was, I’d been cashing in on my own lean mass since the day I touched down.

I started relying more heavily on protein powders. Not that I hadn’t been enjoying my role of American auntie to young Babu at ‘State of Punjab,’ putting the dear boy through college one tikka order at a time, it’s just that I was beginning to wonder whether gastronomic monotony would permanently damage my palate if not my sanity. I knew I was going to need to change things up after submerging my chicken into the same mysterious “chutney” in the accompanying condiment cup and wondering whether or not anybody would say anything if, for the sake of variety, I instead darted across the food court to dredge my kabob through the faux butterscotch gelato displayed in a freezer case with an enticing ripple pattern. At least it was distracting contemplating whether the malnourished and slack-jawed gelato vendors could actually catch me. Anything but the same meal again, please.

The ‘cleanest’ protein powder I could get was a local brand that didn’t appear to genetically modify, hydrolyze, hydrogenate, ‘supplement’ or cut with soy. I couldn’t however determine how much sugar was in the mix since nutritional labels never indicate an actual serving size choosing instead to break down information based on an irrelevant measure of 100 grams and, even then, most of the data is incomplete. As far as I could tell, I could be drinking Black Market Ovaltine. The other common problem, even in the states, is that serving sizes don’t always match the scoop provided though wouldn’t the world be simpler if only that were so.

Most people blanched when I told them I bought locally because, even when the quality of the ingredients is good, the quality of the manufacturing and the cleanliness of the facility are always questionable. I had no illusions. I handed Ganesh a chunk of Peanut Chikki one day that I dug from the emergency supplies in the endless front pocket of my duffle bag. I couldn’t afford to let the big man swoon as he’d be an impossible mass to drag.

He paused mid-chew and said, “There’s dirt or something in this.”

“Yeah, it’s dirt,” I said dismissively. I find dirt, pet rocks, and petrified pests in most foods here so I wasn’t concerned. I like to call it the ‘toy surprise’ happily reminiscent of Cracker Jacks. Frankly I was pleased to know that this country might awaken the appendix. I’m personally taking part in evolution simply by coaxing an organ out of retirement.

“Why didn’t you tell me there was dirt?” he said and stopped examining the Chikki to glare at me as if he’d find it unsettling given the things I’ve seen him eat. It’s true however that insect larva won’t break a tooth and usually goes down without much of a fight. Dirt is harder on dental work.

“Oh, I thought you knew. Peanut Chikki is like that sometimes.” In true Indian style, my response should have been a head wobble followed by, ‘It’s like that only.” The ‘only’ at the end of the sentence is a pointless modifier and could probably be replaced with the word “shazam!’ without straying too far from the meaning.

But I had to do something about the protein problem just like I had to do something about my programming. After weeks of training at the stadium where I believe reps and sets were configured with the help of a numerologist choosing auspicious loads, I elected to go rogue. I’m not saying the coaches didn’t know what they were doing, I’m saying they never said and though I had tried to be quiet and not be a ‘backseat driver,’ I was wondering if that meant quietly watching as we swerved into a ditch.

“We’re doing another heavy day today?! But we lifted heavy yesterday” I’d say in surprise.

“Don’t worry. You do. Light.” The coach would say with a reassuring smile.

“But you said heavy,” I’d say, puzzled and then ask, “Front Squat?”

"Back Squat,” another quick and confident reply.

“We did back squat yesterday,” I’d say.

“Front Squat,” again another quickly delivered response.

I liked to call it goldfish programming – when the parameters change every few minutes and we all pretend we have no memory of it. I’d glance over my shoulder at Ganesh and he’d give me an “I heard. Keep quiet” look with wide eyes and a thrust of his chin for punctuation.

‘Light days’ always turned into heavy days when one of the coaches would stand across the room and flick his hands at me in the universal symbol for ‘add 10 kilos’ at least as far as I knew. It could also mean ‘pick up the tempo in the horn section’ but that seems less likely.

Practical programming addresses this in regards to the intermediate lifter. It reads, “What were once easy 10-pound jumps for sets of 5 reps become difficult 5-pound jumps for 5 reps. With standard 2 1/2 pound plates, sets of four is the inevitable result. The object is to use sets of five, for the metabolic effect produced by five reps, and training is designed around a certain number of reps for this specific reason. So it is necessary to be able to make incremental increases while holding the reps constant, and this requires that the increments to be small enough that an adaptation can occur during the time allotted. A trainee who has correctly followed the program will eventually not be able to adapt to 5-pound jumps between workouts.” [Pg 158]

It’s fair, yet also frightening, to say that some of the coaching decisions were based on what equipment we actually have and apparently someone had long ago stuffed the smaller plates in their shorts and walked out perhaps pocketing any remnants of a game plan while they were at it. At least somebody did a Pooja on the squat rack, I’d think as I’d eye the last residual smudges of vermillion.

At some point I’d say, “But this is my one rep max.” Perhaps when he said ‘light day’ he was referring to our moods which is a word that described his mood much more than mine.
“You do,” The coach would reply and I don’t know whether it was a command or the standard ‘think positive’ approach that sometimes spackles over the holes where actual skill or knowledge is missing.

“The goal of any model of weekly periodized training is to produce a disruption in homeostasis through the cumulative effects of heavy training days, and then allow supercompensation to occur with the inclusion of light days and the rest it provides,” said Rippetoe and Kilgore again in ‘Practical Programming for Strength Training’ (page 193-198) which I began reading obsessively at night and pumping my fists in the air with a ‘booYAH!’ every time I found evidence that I could but never would present to the coaches at the stadium simply because they’d already made it clear that they aren’t interested, “The light day is an absolutely essential component of the program; it is a recovery day. A light training load should not be enough to induce an overload and disrupt homeostasis, and it is not really a part of the overload event. It should be light enough to allow for recovery while at the same time providing enough work through the movement pattern to prevent any loss of fitness. Failure to include the important and frequently overlooked light training day will lead to overtraining and reduce the program’s success.“

Since all my light days had turned into a game called ‘Let’s see who can make the white girl cry,’ it was time for an intervention. I had been making decent progress on the clean but it couldn’t be matched by the jerk since practice was slowed by the ankle sprain and the swelling on the bottom of my heel as a result of the auto accident. The snatch looked more like a strong man throwing event. Instead of a ‘catch’ it was more of a duck and cover because of a faulty shoulder position and a slight niggling feeling that squatting under a falling barbell might be kind of stupid.

Still the impatience and optimism by the coaches at Kanteerava was easy to understand. There were meets to train for and they were all gifted lifters who would never have come in contact with a middle-aged woman with limited skills who was willing to invest the time in training and who would actually show up on game day. Especially – and this needs further emphasis - one whose skills were limited. This would be rare in India as most Indians have better things to do and more sense. In what was beginning to look like my life’s theme, I was an oddball and folks weren’t quite sure what to do with me.

One of the female lifters had beautiful form and precision and an enviable 50K physique. She told me one day that she wasn’t a powerlifter because her 160K squat wasn’t very good – a weight I can only imagine having on my back long enough for it to drill me into the floor. When she was there, I could always count on some insightful information about what I needed to fix, but in cases of inflexibility or just plain stupidity on my part, she had few ideas of how to fix it other than the standard, “you do.”

Though Dipti*, another female lifter, never developed a squat that could even break parallel, at 19 she could essentially power snatch 80K. She’d put her gold necklace in her mouth and bite down to keep it from flying up and chipping a tooth and then make a ‘cha,cha,cha,cha’ noise reminiscent of a snake rattle that was fierce and unnerving. Clearly whenever a coach says ‘you do’, she did which somehow bought her a pardon when it came to the squat.

At one point they were all clearly coached but now what I see is a dirty facility with decaying equipment and programming with no changes in rep scheme or planned load variations and no training logs to chart progress. Again, I can’t say for sure that they don’t have more extensive feedback from say ‘Charlie’ over intercom or ‘the Great and Powerful Oz,’ because they ‘find he is a Wiz of a Wiz if ever a Wiz there was,’ it’s just not evident. But a lack of solid training would be more consistent with the experience of athletes in India whose secondary pastime outside their sport, it seems, is ‘making do.’ The 50K lifter gets coaching from her husband who has been kind enough to work with me before and I’ve found his guidance very helpful but according to Dipti, the actual coach hasn’t stepped foot in the gym for a couple of years though she thinks she might have seen him at one of the meets.

Poonam Kaushish wrote about this not long ago in an article for called ‘One Gold, Two Bronzes doesn’t total Sporting Nation,’ referring to India’s 2008 Olympic showing in which a nation of over a billion people could secure only three metals. “Much of the problem with developing Olympic champions here seems to be rooted in the very same things that make India a perpetual also-ran to China in economic development: poor infrastructure, entrenched political corruption and infighting, and chaos and disorganization. Money earmarked for Olympic training is often mysteriously sidelined, facilities for training are in poor shape and equipment goes missing. Any wonder that India has only won 25 medals in Olympic Games since 1928,” Kaushish said.

Take the case of swimmer Nisha Millet as reported by P.S. Phadnis in ‘Swimming star cries out for competition’ who went on to swim for India in the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and came in 37th out of 39 in the 200m freestyle, “The Karnataka government had promised Rs. 50,000 for every record broken and Rs. 30,000 for every gold won by its sportspersons. Nisha broke nine national records and won nine golds, but the government decided that it needed to pay her only Rs. 150,000 on the ground that each medal and record could not be taken into consideration separately. However, even the scaled-down payment is yet to be made.”

After Arriving in Sydney, Nisha was asked about her foreign competition in an article for written by Mathang and Apurvo Parthasarthy. She said “There is a marginal difference in talent, but a vast gap in other aspects. Indian swimmers are physically weaker than the foreign contenders. The foreign swimmers are literally bodybuilders, who train themselves on heavy weights from the very beginning, which we don't. I'll have to be more cautious with heavy weights as I have a bit of a shoulder problem. Abroad training is gradual, whereas in India it is forced. That apart, they are gifted with excellent infrastructure and facilities like scholarships and grants more or less equally for all sports, unlike in India, where corporates as well as the government concentrate mainly on cricket... and just cricket. We swimmers have to literally hunt for sponsors to finance our training!”

Interestingly enough, cricket which is much beloved in India, is not the national sport, Field Hockey is but India’s national Field Hockey team couldn’t even qualify for the recent Olympics in Beijing. Cricket however lends itself quite nicely to advertisers with ODI, One Day International, games that score hundreds of runs to keep the population riveted in spite of frequent commercials. Even the shirts of referees urge ‘Fly Emirates’ and apparently it’s their call.

Finally, by the end of her career, Millet said in an article for IBNlive written by Shwetal Kamalapurkar to mark her retirement, "I'm really tired. In 15 years all I got was one scholarship in 2004, which came through eight months after I applied. I did apply for a scholarship last year too, but didn't get a response from SAI [Sports Authority of India]. Over a period of time I've realised that I cannot achieve anything at international meets by training in India," she said.

The money never seems to trickle down from the Sports Authority of India which was created specifically to cultivate athletes but the attitude towards and the disregard of athletes does trickle all the way down to the regional level which I get to see at Kanteerava. The gifted few whose genes defy malnutrition and a lack of training structure are herded off to Sports Hostels where they live on sparse room and board and a stipend of 4,000 to 6,000 rupees monthly. That translates into the cost of one pair of imported name-brand track pants and one pound of protein powder per month. It’s not enough to inspire a great deal of effort on the part of the athlete or for that matter the coaches that train them. And even if the athletes I train with have stalled, though I’m not sure that’s true, it’s fairly safe to say they’d medal just by showing up at a meet deplete of expertise. I too, am a medal hopeful under these conditions.

“It is very true that many novices start out on terrible programs, training with no reason or logic, or adopting programs that are designed for more advanced trainees which prevent them from progressing as quickly as they could. But the magical adaptability of the novice is often strong enough to overcome even the poorest of decisions. Beginners can seemingly make progress even under the worst circumstances. But for the intermediate trainee, progress is harder to come by, and the body is much more particular about what it responds to when it comes to improving an already-honed performance, “ wrote Rippetoe and Kilgore. [Pg 176]

“An already-honed performance” might not describe where I started when I walked into Kanteerava but the fact that I walked in with lifting shoes that weren’t personally designed with the help of the local cobbler and a pair of rugged leather retro sneakers hinted at an expertise I didn’t actually have. I also walked in the door able to push press as much weight as I’d need to split jerk and front squat as much as I’d need to clean to win at a meet. Connecting the dots seemed pretty simple when you’re overly optimistic about what you don’t know you don’t know.
Since I had a foundation of powerlifting way more weight than I would need to lift to compete here, it would seem that working with an insignificant load in a snatch would be a snap. Rippetoe and Kilgore address this as well only this time in ‘Starting Strength, Basic Barbell Training' [pg 171-2], “What this means is that if heavy weights are lifted at a slow speed, the lifter gets good at lifting them at a slow speed. He does not get good at lifting them at a faster speed. So slow deadlift training will not make the clean move faster. And if a lifter gets good at pulling a weight fast, as in a power clean, he gets good at generating force at that faster rate of speed. The rate of speed that is trained is the rate of speed to which we adapt. But this rule only works well in one direction: strength developed at a high rate of speed can be used at that high speed and at speeds slower than that.”

Of course, there were parts of my lifts that looked promising but there appeared to be a timing problem. When the coaches loaded me with heavier weights and my speed suffered, they’d simply give me the instruction ‘faster’ which I understood in theory, but I couldn’t execute. “There are slow and isometric components in explosive movements that benefit from the strength developed at slow speeds. A clean has a slow phase off the floor that benefits from the strength it takes to maintain the position until the explosive phase, so deadlifts are useful for training the clean. The actual explosion at the top does not benefit from the slow strength developed in the deadlift and squat, but the whole of the lift does, from the pull from the floor, to the ability to hold the back locked, to the catch position and finally the support position at the top,” Rippetoe and Kilgore explain.

I remember training clients in Seattle who worked at Microsoft and one particular manager lamented that the Indian computer programmers were proficient at memorizing code but had limited understanding of it and even less creativity. What I saw here was lifting code and a disinterest in learning what any of it meant. Of course, we could have had the conversation all day about why I was slow and it wouldn’t have helped or we could have kept working with heavy loads and it might at some point help if I didn’t get injured first or finally, we could have backed off and worked on speed.

“Coaches and athletes must understand why successful programs are put together the way they are so they can develop their own program specific to their circumstances. Copying and cannibalizing successful programs without understanding why they were successful is never a good idea. An understanding of the realities and practicalities of progressive training and periodization is.” Again, the words of Rippetoe and Kilgore. [Pg 15]

I couldn’t help but feel that I’d been on a death march program and was about to stagger out of line to be left for dead. Now that could simply be my own attempts to overanalyze my situation because sometimes finding reasons for failure is easier than finding solutions to problems but I don’t think so. Take Dipti for instance.

Dipti is already feeling the pressure to marry by her family and she’s reluctant to tell them that she’s chosen somebody who, by their definition, would not be suitable. She’s concerned about money and knowing that she and her suitor will essentially be on their own if they decide to defy the caste system, she’s looking for ways to support herself. She’s approached me because she wants me to teach her kickboxing since she sees this as a scheme for gainful employment though any attempts to advise her otherwise have made me look like a buzz kill even though I have the actual math to back me up. Eventually I agreed anyway since she’s my lifting partner most days and selfishly, it had become clear that until I taught her something, she was going to grind my training to a halt.

Over the course of a couple of weeks I taught her the components – punches, kicks, some conditioning – but she wanted a ‘routine’ to memorize. I told her that a routine depends on the floor space and the talent in the room and I explained that my class is different every day and that maybe she could take a couple of classes so that she could understand how to fit the pieces together. I was even willing to teach those classes at the stadium after practice. She however wasn’t willing to put in the time, she wasn’t fit enough to complete most of the work and she wasn’t willing to understand the logic. As a result, she sulked.

After that, she went through a bout of mysterious injuries that had her sidelined and on a cell phone through entire sessions. Shortly after, a week went by in which she simply disappeared from the stadium all together. There were personal dramas that explained away absences and more sulking. Meanwhile, I had already written my own programming and moved on. Within two weeks she’ll compete and whether she practices at all between now and then, she’ll win.

One of the most glaring issues for me as I started putting together my training plan is that the organization of the work made no sense. Squatting usually happened first, each incremental increase was performed for two sets of between 1-4 reps, and the progression was by ten kilos. By the time we got to practice the lifts I would be competing in, I was tired and my timing was off.

“Fatigue decreases the precision with which motor unit recruitment patterns can be managed and has a direct bearing on the skill with which a movement can be executed and practiced. Movements that depend highly on skill of execution – those for which technical components are more limiting than strength level for determining the 1RM – should be done first in the workout, before fatigue has blunted the unimpeded contribution of efficient force production of the movement.,” Rippetoe and Kilgore wrote [pg 130] and it produced a rousing booYAH! from my bed one night, “A snatch is limited by the ability of the lifter to execute the movement in a technically correct manner more than by the absolute strength of the athlete. But if the athlete’s strength is compromised by fatigue, the ability to apply that strength in the correct way will interfere with the technical execution of the lift, since correct technique depends on the ability to deliver maximum power to the bar at the right time in the right position, all of which are affected by the ability to produce maximum force, the very thing that fatigue affects.”

As I mentioned, speed was already an issue. One of the suggestions in Practical Programming was to replace heavy squats on Friday with Speed Squats. This acted like a heavy day in the sense that it created a need for greater muscle fiber recruitment but was easier to recover from than another heavy day. And it made all the sense in the world to train speed in order to increase speed.

I was off to a grim start however when I tweaked my back during a warm up set. The work continued and lest we blame the speed squats, the back issue that flared up was actually inflammation as a result of the changes in my diet. I suspect the mystery protein triggered it but at the moment I was too tired and too poor to replace it. I can always tell when back pain is triggered by a food allergy because the onset seems fairly random and I’m stiff when I get up in the morning. To slow the nerve response and keep it from spasming, I began icing my back post workout while I watched the first three of seven ODI cricket matches against England. By the time the fourth game was played in Bangalore, I was hooked and I may have developed both frostbite and a crush on ‘The Turbanator’ Harbhajan Singh.

In spite of the back issues, I seemed to be making some progress. In two weeks following new programming and increasing protein intake, my jerk was up to par, my clean was more reliable and my snatch hadn’t killed me yet. I had changed the order of the exercises and began to strictly monitor my rest times. I successfully lifted light on my light days and I incorporated some pulling work at Gold’s which helped to shorten my workouts by limiting my time at the stadium to less than an hour and a half. My stopwatch kept me from attempting PR’s before I had recovered enough while also holding me to task when my mind drifted towards deciphering words in Tamil pop songs Shiva played for me on the way to the Stadium. He’d snap his fingers and say, “You like, Madame?!” and I’d always have to shake a limb or he’d be disappointed.

“Rest time between sets should be adequate for recovery but not enough to allow “cooling off,” or a decrease in preparedness for the next set. Too much time between sets represents wasted training time and, in institutional contexts, an inefficient use of the training facilities. Too little time between sets costs reps and completed work sets and defeats the purpose of training. Make sure that enough time is allotted that the whole workout can actually be done in one session. Any workout that takes longer than two hours probably involves too many exercises, too many sets or too much talking,” from, need I say, Practical Programming. [Pg 173]

The trainers at Gold’s were even mentioning that my back was getting broader, my waist narrower and my arms bigger. These are the comments folks in India will make to you at around the same time they ask about your salary, why you’re not married and how much you actually weigh which generally follow the question, “have you had your breakfast?” which nobody in the states ever thinks to ask.

One secondary bit of preparation almost like men lubing their nipples in preparation for a long run, I finally caved to Ganesh’s urgings that I dye my hair black because I really felt like I’d be more comfortable if I blended with the other competitors a bit since, hard to believe, I’ve always been shy in public. And where else would I go but the spa on the rooftop terrace next door. As you’d expect, there was some slight miscommunication so that the ‘darker’ hair color became a shade I’ve come to describe as Blackety Black, a shade so inky you’d swear it stains the furniture. I look like the Desi undead and I’d describe it as Goth if anyone here had any idea what that meant.

And just as I started feeling optimistic about the whole thing thanks in part to the black hair and it's unintended but much appreciated reduction in Auto fare quotes, I found out that the ‘don’t worry’ date is actually less than two weeks away.

I’m worried.

*her names has been changed to protect her privacy

Sunday, November 9, 2008

What to do?

Though forty five minutes on the back of a motorcycle sitting sidesaddle in my sequined skirt and sparkly sandals would seem like a long ride to some, it was not nearly long enough for me to complete a list in my head of all the ways I could have been startled, nudged or bounced off the back of the vehicle into oncoming traffic without Ganesh noticing. I primly clutched a book on my lap and planted my slippered feet on one foot peg in such a way as to keep from absentmindedly slipping a shoe into the spokes as we sped along a road that was sometimes suitable for highway speeds and sometimes fit for only donkey carts and barefoot pedestrians. This is how it’s done in India after all and I gazed at the women perched lightly behind their husbands in their perfectly pleated saris as they sped passed Ganesh and me. I slithered one arm like a meat hook around his waist at least secure in the knowledge that he is one solid hunk of human being and that even if I were flapping behind him like a windsock, he would barely budge.

In consideration of my lack of expertise here, he refrained from his normal speeds if only to keep me from yelling “Jesus Christ!” in his ear again since it just makes keeping us upright that much harder for him. A Hindu, I’m not sure he recognized my outbursts as blasphemous as much as he feared I was one of those missionary types trying to convert him to Christianity at vulnerable moments when death looked certain. The first time I did it, he made it clear that he found it startling though I’m not sure how the Land Rover pressing its front grill against my person didn’t startle him more. This was a time in which I felt a gentle tap on the shoulder followed by a whispered, “um, pardon me . . .“ didn’t capture the urgency. But this is India where the motto ‘adapt’ is sometimes a gentle reminder to be peaceful and sometimes a virtual court order so I resigned myself to tolerate the Land Rover until actual blood was spilled.

If Ganesh had thought this was going to be an ordinary trip to Tamil Nadu he learned otherwise the moment I landed on the seat behind him. Not always the daintiest of creatures, I pole vaulted off his shoulder onto the motorcycle and deflating both Ganesh and his back tire simultaneously as I landed. “What?” I asked when I saw his look of astonishment, “Where’d you jump from?!?” he asked, “Beside me stood a cat and then on my seat lands an elly-fant!” No long journey with a woman is likely to go well when you’ve started it by calling her an elephant. “What do you weigh?!?” I refused to answer and just stared silently at the spot on his back that when punched hard enough, would bruise his spleen.

Of course I had forgotten about his more vulnerable organs by the time we arrived simply because I was happy to be alive. I sauntered into the restaurant and slid into a booth like I was a regular though it was obvious when everybody stopped what they were doing and stared that I was not. Not many white people arrive at this particular village at this particular restaurant for any particular reason.

As Ganesh got up to wash his hands, the waiter handed me a glass of tap water. I could feel the grit of the road in my teeth and as I pondered whether or not my stomach could handle the local bacterial brew, I noticed that Ganesh was standing inside a small stall with two sinks and I thought, ‘please, please tell me that’s not the bathroom.’

Now I realize in a country that smells this bad and is populated with this many people, privacy is a luxury. And in Ayurvedic medicine, practitioners warn against the dangers of holding back any natural bodily function which then leads to certain brashness that American’s aren’t accustomed to. I constantly see signs all over Bangalore that kindly ask its residents not to pass urine on the street and I constantly step over the signs that they’re doing it anyway. I couldn’t help but ask Ganesh one day why it is that whenever an Indian man is standing still it’s because he’s peeing. I don’t think he had an answer or even understood the question since, in his mind, it sounded rhetorical. A recent acquaintance recently pointed out that all of the signs are in English only which sparks a whole new set of questions.

So as I sat poised to drink my water, I had to wonder if I was setting myself up for the worst sort of karaoke experience of which I personally would never recover. My internal debate was put on hold when Ganesh returned and gestured towards the sink, “go wash your hands,” he instructed and I scampered up to rush towards the sink before the American in me could instinctually respond to his demand with a defiant “hey . . . !” regardless of the fact that not washing my hands when ordered was only going to put me in greater bacterial peril. As I stepped in front of the sink, I noted that there were no signs of an actual toilet much to my relief but it still left me wondering, public debut aside, if I would be able to tolerate the tap water. On the one hand, simple precautions are important but on the other hand have I wussified my immune system? What good are biceps if it’s my immune system that buckles?

In a recent Healthlink post Subra Kugathasan, MD, Medical College of Wisconsin Associate Professor of Pediatrics (Gastroenterology) said, "The immune system is there for a reason. It's there to recognize 'the bad guys.' The immune system allows your body to kill those bad guys and allows you to survive. In order to harden the immune system, the immune system requests some kind of stimuli all the time." That doesn’t mean bottoms up on tap water all over India, however. And watching Ganesh wipe his plate with a napkin before serving lunch didn’t convince me I wasn’t dining on microbial appetizers as it was. A paper napkin is probably as effective as ordering pathogens away with an ‘allakazam!’ which I considered doing simply to entertain the patrons who were still staring in spite of the fact that it sounded a little too much like a Muslim blessing in an area where I couldn’t gauge religious fervor.

Ultimately the problem with contaminated water is that nobody knows the recipe. In the book ‘Plague Time,’ Paul W. Ewald, professor of biology at Amherst College, argues that long-term infections may be at the root of chronic diseases including cancer so that any immediate digestive distress may be the least of my concerns putting aside for the moment the benefit of a hardened immune system. As an example, T-cell Leukemia which results from a cancerous growth of white blood cells develops from an early infection, “This cancer has been especially well studied in Japan, where people who die from it are infected as babies from their mothers’ milk. Though infected during the first year of life, they first develop leukemia many decades later – about half the people who eventually develop the cancer do so after their sixtieth birthday. Only about one out of every twenty-five infected people develops the cancer,” Ewald reports.

The deciding factor in the leukemia lottery is anybody’s guess since lifestyle factors are so broad it would be impossible to say. Some scientists though will just say anyway. In research that appeared in ‘the China Study’ where Aflotoxin was used as a starter fuel for liver cancer, T. Colin Campbell blamed the end results on protein intake. The protein in question that seemed to accelerate tumor growth was casein, a dairy protein, but Campbell made the assumption that all proteins would do the same even though he had no specific evidence. Since Aflotoxin is a mold that grows on peanuts and more often than not contaminates peanut butter as a result, it can be assumed that every American child including me who grew up on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and a glass of cold milk is at risk. At that age, I may still have opted for a potentially damaged liver because frankly peanut butter is yummy and nothing can unstick it from the roof of your mouth quite like milk.

And much like the case of leukemia, the sweet mother who lovingly served the peanut butter sandwiches and milk, may have already gifted other germs that can sneak up later. As reported by Ewald a schizophrenia expert named Fuller Torrey found that nearly half of the schizophrenics tested by his group were infected with toxoplasma gondii. This further supported a study published many years earlier that tested schizophrenics for both the existence of LSD and T. gondii infection, “Over half of their patients were infected with T. gondii, and these infected patients were almost always the same patients who tested positive in the LSD test. The production of LSD or an LSD-like compound in T. gondii-infected schizophrenics strengthens the case for T. gondii as a cause of the hallucinations experienced by schizophrenics, and, more generally, as a cause of schizophrenia.” Since the mothers of schizophrenics were almost five times more likely to be infected, scientists suspect transmission during pregnancy. The only other means of transmission discussed was through the licking of cat droppings which I suspect is far less likely barring unfortunate unsupervised sandbox incidences since cats see a child’s sandbox as luxury accommodations.

Given those risks, it’s almost understandable that the western approach is to Clorox the crap out of everything which interestingly seems to mirror our foreign policy. Theoretically however this leads to an immune system imbalance as well as an exaggerated reaction to simple allergens which can develop into life-threatening asthmatic attacks as well as autoimmune disorders. “Exposure to microbes, through active infection or in the absence of infection, may initiate protective responses.[5] In the absence of infection, both viable and nonviable components or fragments of a broad range of micro-organisms found at different concentrations in different environments may be involved. These microbial derivatives, which are primarily recognized by the innate immune system (as opposed to T-cell-specific adaptive immunity), may drive protective responses, especially at the cytokine level. This exposure to microbial derivatives may play a critical role in the shaping of the immune response when encountered at important stages during the maturation of immune responses. This could result in the development of immune tolerance to potential allergens” reported a recent post on Medscape entitled ‘The Hygiene Hypothesis Revisited: Pros and Cons’ by Erwin W. Gelfand, MD National Jewish Medical and Research Center.

"Think about countries in Africa like Gambia, a country that has been studied very well . Ninety to ninety-nine percent of people in Gambia have intestinal worms at some point in their lives. But the chronic immune diseases like asthma, Crohn's disease, or multiple sclerosis are not heard of, never even mentioned in their life. They don't know anything about such diseases in those countries. While one may argue that maybe their population is genetically not predisposed to these diseases, other factors appear to be in play,” said Dr. Kugathasan.

The Medscape piece explains this concept in greater detail by saying, “A major basis for the hypothesis is that improved hygienic conditions in Western or developed countries results in less infection-driven or microbial pressure during early but critical time periods in early childhood. This change in pressure, in turn, results in an important failure to maintain an optimal balance between the 2 opposing T-helper cell responses when cytokine profiles are examined -- the Th1 and Th2 responses. Th1 responses are dominated by interferon (IFN)-gamma and interleukin (IL)-12 production, whereas Th2 responses are primarily associated with IL-4, IL-5, IL-13 (and IL-10) production. In association with reductions or altered exposures to infectious agents or their components, it is proposed that Th2 immunity, predominating from birth, dominates through critical childhood periods, resulting in the higher incidence of atopy and asthma.”

According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute as reported in ‘Modern Hygiene’s Dirty Tricks, the Clean Life May Throw Off a Delicate balance in the immune system’ by Siri Carpenter for that incidences of asthma are now 1.75 times what it was in 1980 in the United States, and for children less than 4 years old, 2.60 times the earlier incidences.

As I’ve often mentioned, I have suffered from bouts of asthma, mostly sports induced, as well as dermatitis. Both of these conditions can be controlled by keeping my carbohydrate consumption down and omitting grains from my diet completely. My experience so far in India is that my asthma has disappeared completely in spite of heavy air pollution and my dermatitis is controlled regardless of my diet which has suffered as I’ve navigated a city addicted to sugar in all its forms. Is this proof? Certainly not. As in all other ‘studies’, there have been too many lifestyle changes confounding the results. In Bangalore I sleep more, work less, train reasonably and have far less stress. And though I’ve certainly had occasion to challenge my immune system, had I not been inoculated by order of my Dad before I arrived, I’d be at risk for polio, malaria, typhoid and Hepatitis. Interestingly, inoculations themselves decreased the severity of allergic reactions in some children cited while again other scientists argue that low-level infection or exposure to the actual virus provides greater benefit in the long run.

“Several studies have advanced the theory that fecal contamination of the environment (and possibly infections such as hepatitis A), and unhygienic food handling may similarly protect against development of atopy. Intestinal microflora could also exert a continuous stimulation of the immune system, resulting in immune polarization -- the cleaner the intestine or the nature of colonization of the intestine, the more Th2-driven is the immune response,” wrote Gelfand. Fecal contamination? Unhygienic food handling? Check! and check! This is India. If food regulations exist here they’d be followed as strictly and enforced as reliably as the traffic laws.

I followed Ganesh recently on a little adventure south of the city to find an apartment to rent. A client had told him about a newly constructed building where there where flats available and I went with him to check out a neighborhood I hadn’t yet explored. As the highway turned to a dirt track and we started maneuvering the motorcycle around not only the usual pack of stray dogs but families of squealing piglets and a more forthright collection of cattle that were less willing to yield than their downtown brethren, I began to wonder if I was about to be the victim of a ransom scheme. Bandicoots! “Ganesh, did you tell anyone you’d be traveling with a white woman?! I don’t have money, you know!” I yelled at the back of his helmet. When we stopped at a stall to wait for his client, he ordered the most suspect baked item I have ever seen. It had a creamy topping that sat sweating and melting beneath a sun that blazed through the bakery case. It was specked with an equal number of Technicolor candied fruit shavings and common house flies and tossed to him on a corner of newspaper by the same ungloved hand that gave him his change.

Even after he all but ordered me to taste it and/or select a snack of my own, I refused as I pondered what it would take to wrestle an item away from the fly infestation. I pictured walking a plank with Ganesh nudging me unkindly from behind. Hold on there little grumbly belly, mummy isn’t going to hurt you, I whispered soothingly to my empty stomach after again refusing in a tone that made Ganesh look around at the other patrons. Though I’ve had occasion to imagine a number of creative ways to fell Ganesh, he was as usual unfazed by his medicinal dosing of microbes or my foot-stomping feistiness.

"What has happened now, with globalization and human migration, people move to areas that are very, very clean. Within one generation we have moved into a different environment. What we have been finding out is that in the second generation of Asian, Latin American and African children, where the first generation had been exposed to those kinds of parasites and early childhood infections, the second generation that has moved to 'cleaner' countries has not been exposed. The incidence of Crohn's disease, multiple sclerosis, and chronic asthma is as common in the second generation from the third world as in those with European or North American backgrounds, and in some cases even higher," said Dr. Kugathasan and I couldn’t help but wonder what happens when you’re unwise enough to migrate in the other direction.

My mother was a first generation American born of a Sicilian mother and a Swedish father. Before dying at the age of 61, she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and Type 2 Diabetes in spite of her often below-average bodyweight. My sister, my nephews and I have all had digestive issues throughout our lives. My father is essentially bulletproof and, of the few maladies he complains of, none of them occur from anything other than bad habits completely of his making and often questionable lifestyle choices which make him marginally unhealthy but very entertaining at parties.

While my mother spent most of her childhood in Catholic School, my father spent his youth on farms during extended summer vacations and as a result chose to raise us part of the time on a farm of his own where he grew much of our food. As it turns out, it’s exposure to livestock that helps cultivate the immune system. In fact, Jared Diamond argued that point even within the very title of his book ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ in explaining what factors lead to the dominance of one society over another.

“The protective effects of a farming environment in childhood provide important evidence in favor of the hypothesis that environmental factors encountered in childhood could have a lifelong protective effect against the development of allergy. Since there are numerous reports of an increase in asthma in a number of settings -- for example, urban African towns and inner cities in the United States, it is not simply a clean vs. dirty environment that may dictate outcome. The farming environments may be creating an immunologic setting, beyond endotoxin exposure, that directs the immune response along a particular pathway,” wrote Gelfand. In the case of my sister and me, our health problems developed later and our time on the farm was limited to weekends and perhaps cancelled out entirely by my mother’s efforts to love us to death with sugar.

Though I now live in a city, I have regular contact with livestock whether I know it or not. The cows and donkey carts that regularly merge with downtown traffic are the more obvious signs of an inner-city animal population but the other morning I saw the spindly legs of goats being carted to market in the same Rikshaws I take to work. Though the two goats sat quietly with their owner as if this was their regular mode of transportation, I’m guessing they make the trip to Russell Market only once. I make the trip to Russell Market more frequently where I mingle with the chickens, cows and goats as I weave between the vegetable stalls in my flip flops. Even the eggs I bring back are never washed and are often smudged with broken egg yolks and what I’ll call ‘dirt’. My belly has never felt better.

It’s the hearty constitution of farmers that had researchers at the University of Iowa in Iowa City pondering parasites. Joel V. Weinstock, David E. Elliott, and Robert W. Summers are examining the possibility that immune imbalances may contribute to the rising incidence of inflammatory bowel disease reported Carpenter for

“Weinstock's group proposes that the Th1 dominance stems from a lack of parasitic worms called helminths. Despite parasites' bad reputation, the researchers contend that helminths are important members of the intestinal community. Throughout evolution, they say, the human immune system has grown to depend on helminths to suppress overly aggressive Th1 responses to bacteria, viruses, and dietary proteins. Because modern sanitation has largely eliminated intestinal parasites, the immune system sometimes begins to attack the lining of the gut.”
The article goes on to say, “The team has also begun treating a few patients suffering from inflammatory bowel disease by giving them a drink spiked with eggs from a harmless whipworm. Of six patients studied so far, all showed substantial improvement in their symptoms, the researchers reported at the May meeting.” I think I’ve had that drink. Here we like to call it ‘tap water’.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Rolling Rikshaws

I had an uneasy feeling as a started for the door on Saturday morning and I delayed my departure at least a couple of times with silly last-minute trips up the stairs to collect a map first and then an extra clean t-shirt. Finally I walked past Joseph at his laptop on my way out the door and told him, “Ok, I’m scared. I don’t want to go.”

It was the usual complaints of auto drivers taking me for a ride and of not finding my destination because of my accent. Really most of it had to do with the fact that I was heading to my first Kalaripayattu class and I was unsure of what I’d find especially because clips on YouTube showed this ancient fighting style that originated in nearby Kerala looked fierce. Videos showed sleek, dark warriors with loin clothes flapping and sharp blades slicing at lithe opponents all set to sounds of ominous tribal music. I looked down at my synthetic yoga pants and warn Addidas sneakers and realized that this is yet another place in which I will surely stick out.

“Traditional Kalari masters attribute mythological stories and legends to the origin of the art. Legend traces the 3000-year-old art form to Sage Parasurama- the master of all martial art forms and credited to be the re-claimer of Kerala from the Arabian Sea,” said the website “The inherent beauty of this art form lies in the harmonious synergy of art, science and medicine.” I was drawn as much to Kalari because of the medical treatment and massage techniques that developed alongside this art partly out of necessity given the intensity of the training, “The various movements in Kalari are based on animal movements. Several poses are named after animals. Hence it is generally believed to have developed in the jungles when hunters observed the fighting techniques of various animals.” Judging from the website, the fighting style of the possum was not incorporated.

After walking half way down the street only to return to the apartment again to unload my laptop and the extra rupees I was carrying, Joseph gave me a pep talk explaining that it was statistically more likely that I’d get in an auto accident before I’d get stripped of all my material goods in Wilson Gardens. I didn’t tell him I was nervous taking any new class in case it exposes once and for all that I’m a dork. With his parting words and my laptop safely at home, however, I headed out into the street again.

Things started going wrong as the auto zig-zaged the city and I knew the driver was either fattening his fare or expecting the deity on the dashboard to pipe in at any moment with the proper directions like a third world GPS. Auto drivers always nod when you tell them where you want to go whether or not they have any clue and then expect divine intervention as if that’s ever been a successful strategy.

If asked, I couldn’t even begin to explain where Bus Depot Road was in Wilson Gardens and I wasn’t about to get dropped off any old place to navigate the rest of the way myself. Not that I have anything against the Muslim sections here but they don’t especially greet me warmly and I wasn’t wearing a headscarf. Joseph had suggested it again before I left but frankly while wearing a head scarf, I look less like Audrey Hepburn in ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ and more like a criminal doing the perp walk shrouded under somebody’s windbreaker. It would probably get me into more trouble.

Just the previous week I had jumped from a moving auto to escape a driver who refused to take me home until I walked around a trinket shop after which the proprietor would reward him with a gas coupon. This has happened to me several times and each time I’ve escaped to ensure the driver isn’t rewarded in the hopes of discouraging this practice. Unfortunately at the point in which the driver had slowed sufficiently to allow me to accomplish my stunt in flip-flops, I found myself jumping into the middle of Shivanji Nagar during the call to prayer. I was of course wearing gym clothes and I was uncovered except for my larger than average diesel sunglasses.

At that point I was approached by a dog which I thought odd because most strays here are like Djinns. They barely exist in this world and operate as if they belong to a separate reality. I looked down to see the sad brown eyes before noticing the foam bubbling from it’s rabid mouth. Facing the infected beast however seemed far friendlier than exchanging pleasantries with the Muslim men whose disapproving scowls warned me in a most unwelcome way to put my flip flops on turbo. This was still on my mind as we navigated Wilson Gardens.

After clamoring down dirt roads and stopping for directions we finally found the landmark Mondavi Motors and the driver parked and waited for his inflated fare. As I dug in my dufflebag for the handful of rupees, I suddenly saw the driver lurch forward just as I heard the thunderous crack coming from right behind me. The Rickshaw, essentially a motorized rabbit hutch, was flying forward only to pirouette on it’s single front wheel before rolling onto it’s side. I was a caged bunny being tossed and I braced against the bars, put my left foot to the ground to try and stabilize myself and crumpled onto my side. Once the auto came to rest, I gathered the things that fell from my bag and then popped out of the side of the rikshaw suddenly startling the dozen or so men already collecting around the accident scene.

“Move!” I said, and made motions for everyone to step back. I could see the collection of gentleman beginning to assess the scene and form extraction strategies. It’s not that they couldn’t figure out how to get me out of the wreck but things like this are done in no big hurry and sometimes only after a hearty debate over tea and occasionally biscuits. I wasn’t about to wait around for the congress to form and for officers to be chosen especially since my left ankle was clearly injured and beginning to throb. Instead, I grabbed both sides of the auto, jumped into a locked-out position, tucked my knees to my chest and kicked out forward to clear the vehicle and land on the other side of the wreck on my right foot saving my left ankle from further damage. It was a dismount worthy of Kerri Strug and reminiscent of her 1996 Olympic moment.

This further alarmed the crowd. And it’s not that they don’t see this sort of movement all the time. In Russell Market, vegetable vendors who are boxed in behind piles of produce hang a short rope from the rafters and when they need to get out into the isle they grab the rope and swing Tarzan style over the vegetation. The first time I saw a vendor do it I wanted to squeal and clap while chanting “Do it again! Do it again!” especially since it was done with such grace I thought it was a trick of the eye. I completely lost track of Shiva’s haggling - which I don’t understand but I like to watch his face get serious - to stare down the rows waiting for another vendor to pop into the walkway.

Apparently, this sort of thing was not expected of me. I was a wild, caged thing escaping from captivity and they weren’t sure whether I was going to dart away into the jungle or stop to maul a villager first. I simply grabbed my backpack and hopped to the curb to take my shoe off. From this vantage point, I could assess the scene and I could see that it was a milk truck that hit us. As I said later on Facebook, it put a whole new spin on lactose intolerance.

When I called Chandana and started to cry – because I’m a girl and I do that – the crowd realized I was harmless and began collecting around me to help. This included every employee of Mondavi Motors much to the consternation of the manager who kept assuring everybody that it was nothing and that I was merely scratched. I think he was hoping that this bulletin would send everybody back to work. On the insistence of the crowd, I hopped into the lobby where groups of men formed into special interest groups that included “shoe on”, “shoe off”, “Ice”, “No Ice”, “sock on” and “sock off”. They discussed the merits of their arguments as seriously as if their medical credentials were being questioned.

In everybody’s defense they really were trying to help but there isn’t a lot a crowd of Indian men can really do about a sprained ankle though the bottled water, iodine and helpful sock theories were all very thoughtful. At that point, I called my friend Ganesh because I had a lot of people staring at me and short of magic tricks I didn’t know how else to make the whole thing more interesting for the group of men focusing on my ankle who had already resolved the most pressing issues of sock and shoe usage. When Ganesh answered I cried because I’m a girl and I do that.

In spite of the fact that Shiva was on his way, Ganesh insisted on coming to stare at my ankle with the rest of them. I had somehow just made the situation worse by adding another set of eyeballs and with nothing else to discuss, the crowd was getting antsy. I told the manager of Mondavi motors that he’d been very helpful but I was going to go to the Kalari class behind his building to let them know that I wasn’t going to be in class today. At which point the manager insisted that I sit while he arranged for a car to drive me 50 feet down the alley and provided me with four of the Indian men to carry my backpack.

My entourage arranged themselves in the compact car while the driver insisted I smile because everything was fine. I think under normal circumstances things would be super if you can get four men to carry your backpack. My posse escorted me into the building and started ordering ice packs, cushions, first aid supplies and I’m assuming peanut M&M’s but just the green ones from the women who worked there. I whispered to the one student taking the class we just interrupted, “Please, I’m sorry for the disruption. I don’t need anything, really. I was just trying to get away from all the men at Mondavi Motors.” She smiled as if she immediately understood my situation.

After observing the class for a few minutes and effectively giving the men of Mondavi Motors the slip, I excused myself to meet Ganesh. He arrived in a motorcade apparently having dragged the client he was training out of the gym to hop on his own motorbike and join Ganesh on his rescue mission. After a few minutes of pointless debate about how Shiva was on his way and that there was no point taking me anywhere, I finally hopped on the back of the bike with the words, “come, we go.”

I clutched at Ganesh on the short trip to Gold’s Gym, cowering from the usual traffic hazards and offering rapid fire directions on what obstacles to avoid as if he hadn’t done this before. Ganesh wore a cracked helmet which means that if he were to have an accident it would only serve as a bucket to scoop up his remains. This fact suddenly bothered me when before I hadn’t given it much thought. He just laughed and said, “Chellum, you sounded so upset on the phone, I thought there was something wrong.” He calls me ‘chellum’ which in Tamil means ‘dear’, or maybe when I get around to looking it up ‘white she-devil with loose morals’.

“Um, yeah. You caught the part about the rolling rickshaw right?! That most definitely is something wrong!” At this point I was vacillating between the, “it was nothing” argument which was ok when I said it, to “you try rolling in a rickshaw!” argument whenever anyone else suggested that it was nothing.

It was a harrowing ride and even the potholes were out to get me. I was looking forward to the safety and security of Shiva and the Maruti. I’d sit in the little air conditioned car with the seat belt pulled extra tight and Shiva and I would laugh about my escapades the way we do when we’re pretending that we know what the other one is talking about. Somehow it wouldn’t seem all that painful, I thought as I could feel the swelling and watch the bruises forming like angry dark storm clouds.

When the car arrived Shiva looked grim. India had mistreated one of her guests and he was distraught. At that point I was willing to dance a jig just to erase the sad look on poor Shiva’s face. “See, Lookee here Shiva, It’s all good!” I’d say with a little Can Can and some jazz hands for effect.

“I’m ok, Shiva,” I kept insisted and he would just shake his head, “go to the hospital, madame?” “No hospital. I’m ok,” I’d say again. “Oh, it’s a very bad day, Madame,” he’d say shaking his head and looking even more sad as if that were possible.

Just the day before Fran Mason of Level 4 CrossFit Seattle had sent me a link to a website regarding ankle sprains because my friend Nisar had been suffering from a nasty sprain that hadn’t healed. I remembered Fran and Scott Tanaka talking about it while I was there one day but I wasn’t working with clients at the time and my own ankles, up to that point, had proven to be sturdy as hell. Now, it was the perfect time for a miraculous recovery or Shiva would need to be medicated.

The Website suggested a style of treatment completely different from the standard R.I.C.E. or Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. This was from the ‘Rub some dirt on it,’ school of treatment which I immediately embraced. The website explains, “Ice should never be applied to an injured ankle, because it stops the healing process. What the injured ankle needs is movement, as quickly as possible after the injury, in order to restore proper range of motion by realigning the ligaments.” Or, in other words quite literally, ‘Walk it off.’

I looked at the video clips describing traction techniques created by Dick Hartzell, AKA the ‘rubberband man’ who invented Flex Bands and founded the company Jump Stretch, Inc. Since I didn’t have rubberbands and wouldn’t have time to purchase them even if they are sold in this country, I embarked on my own interpretation using a bath towel and going through the motions of plantarflexion, dorsiflexion, eversion and inversion during the first few hours and subsequently through a long and painful night. Admittedly, I considered the man a quack at times and wanted to throw in the towel, grab an ice pack and rock back and forth wailing, “Owweee!” instead. Maybe I’d even cry because I’m a girl and girls do that.

Even though I had my doubts, what the website said made sense. It stated, “A large percentage of “minor” (Grade I and Grade II) ankle sprains are treated in a manner that incapacitates the person for several weeks. When an ankle is sprained, some ligaments have been over-stretched and are possibly misaligned. When you ice an ankle at this stage, blood flow is stopped and ligaments are essentially frozen out of place. Combine that with rest and now you’ve got muscle atrophy and a host of other problems.”

After doing the exercises again at 2 a.m. and distracting myself with a few pages of ‘Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice,” a book I’m reading by Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D., I was able to sleep soundly and woke up with the bruises looking just as angry but with full ankle flexion. The inflammation does not allow me to commit my full weight on that foot but my ligaments and tendons are unharmed and the pain is a result of the bruising alone. I can’t say that Hartzell’s therapy works simply because I didn’t technically use the therapy as he described nor could I say that the treatment healed my ankle faster because I would’ve had to know the duration and severity of the injury with and without ice.

The trainer’s at Gold’s all got to know of my adventure and, after seeing the purple bruises and the inflammation, asked whether I had been icing. What they know is that the A.C.E. manual recommends R.I.C.E. and that I at one time had been A.C.E. certified. They’re not at a point where their willing to question any expertise printed in manuals from the United States even if the results they’re getting are subpar. I’ve long since questioned ‘treatment plans’ and theories that get argued vehemently in spite of poor outcomes but then I understand how much ‘science’ gets accepted thanks to politics and special interest groups.

This could be a tipping point for India as I’ve been seeing since I’ve been here. They have the curiosity to question but not the willingness at this point to consider that the path taken by our ‘experts’ may have been poorly plotted. In the U.S. I’ve had arguments with trainers who are so indoctrinated they won’t question results and will inevitably blame the client for outcomes. Please tell me India won’t blindly take this route. It leads to obesity and malfunction – just look at our results.

Meanwhile, it’s two days after my accident and I was back to squatting and snatching today. I have a competition to train for or something.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Ladies who lunch

India was smiling at me today. And I was smiling back especially as one gentleman sang Justin Timberlake at me as I passed by his car window. It was 9:30a on a Sunday and I just finished working out with my friend Raghu. He has one of the few names I could pronounce right away and he had no idea that there’s a spaghetti sauce by that name. I explained it was sort of a Pasta masala, let’s say and since then he’s sent me text messages signed ‘Mr. Sauce’.

Most of Bangalore had long been awake I think in part because bars close at 11:00 p.m. and dancing is prohibited anywhere that alcohol is served. If you’ve seen Bollywood’s gyration generation on VH1 recently, you’d understand that this law probably has more to do with rampant hip dislocations than a wobble towards conservatism. It makes for early nights around here though. Not to mention that it was day four of a five day cricket match against Australia and the fervor hadn’t dampened in spite of dampening rains and India’s poor showing. I remember thinking after day one when the hoards poured from Chinniswamy hooting like soccer hooligans, “pace yourselves people! There are four more blasted days of this!”

I was particularly impressed with their rigorous cheering after a day in the stands where even Indians will admit it’s hot. Generally Bangalore is considered mild or even ‘cold’ by Indian standards and that’s why the coffee is heated to 190 degrees. The bubbling heat in combination with all the added sugar should be just short of hard-ball stage which would turn their latte into a lozenge all to escape a chill. I was incredulous as this was explained to me by the Barista as I peeled the shirt away from my sticky back. I have grown to accept the fact that my conditions are now permanently swampy and that, however unpleasant, I can support a new kind of ecosystem that I care not to ponder. At night I’ve considered kissing the ceiling fan in thanks but I’ve been reluctant to get that close to the blades in the dark when I’m groggy. I do, however fall back asleep smiling as I’m lulled by its sweet, sweet hum.

I skipped a couple of hours of blissful fanning the other night in favor of a couple of extra hours of crowded swamp-dwelling. I went to my first pub in Bangalore making what feeble contribution I could make emptying a pitcher of Kingfisher beer with friends while I pretended not to notice the sweat dripping down my clammy belly having, as usual, come straight from the gym. I was trying to remember the directions I read in a guide book that explained how to avoid the epic headache that the local brew can apparently give you and wondering why so many things in this country have a nasty backlash.

Even the favorite milk treats here squirt sweet syrup venomously and squeak against your teeth as if in defense and protest. I’m unwilling to eat anything that puts up that kind of tussle, sounds like a baby rat and is an unnatural shade of pink. As for the beer, I recall the first step had something to do with tipping a bottle upside down. At the time it sounded less like science and more like a Puja so I quickly forgot how it went.

As I pondered, Vinayak said, “do you have a curfew?”

“Wha . . .?” In Seattle before I left I overheard two different conversations on Broadway between young hoodlums casually talking about their ‘PO’ or parole officer. If the subject of a curfew had come up then, it would have had context. I also remember noting at the time that moving out of my neighborhood started to look like genius. Here, I couldn’t figure out where a curfew might be coming from and figured it might be yet another thing caused by the viscous mosquitoes.

With a puzzled expression, I finally said “I’m like . . . 40!?,” using a vocabulary implying that I’m like . . . 20. “Mine’s nine. In fact it’s 9:30 now, I’m surprised my father hasn’t called.” He’s 26 and just spent the last couple of years in the U.K. getting masters in finance which, in the present economy, may qualify him for a job teaching Karate Kickboxing classes at Gold’s gym. That happens to be what he’s doing while on vacation this week besides being punched in the arm and browbeaten by the ladies at the table who were drinking the local wine. It was bright fuchsia and tasted like fermented Snapple.

I’ve been taking his class as a ramp up to the kickboxing class that I teach in the mornings and also because he’s one of the first people I can talk to here that understands most of what I’m saying. With a background in Karate, he finds the preoccupation with caloric expenditure to the exclusion of skill-development about as perplexing as I do. We can’t figure out if the disconnect is between our mouths and their ears or their ears and their limbs but whatever inspires their locomotion in class has little at all to do with the directions they’ve been given. At least they aren’t terribly concerned about it but Vinayak and I talked over beer as if we had blown something up in a science lab and were trying to piece together what went horribly wrong.

The problem probably begins when they sign up based on an advertisement written on a white board as they walk in that says I’m NSCM certified – a qualification that doesn’t exist – and that the class will be spurred on by rousing heart-rate elevating music. Unless I’ve forgotten to close the door to the studio where bumpin‘ techno remixes blast in from the fitness floor, there is no music for me to shout over especially the latest hits by superstar Bryan Adams, a singer I abandoned at about the same moment tears over my junior high heartbreak dried up. Slight Indian ladies walk in and learn how to twist off a man’s balls set to the tune of my barking voice. India has no idea what I’ve just done given that most of the women I’ve met here have 1/10 of my muscle but ten times my attitude evidenced by the ladies at the bar who had Vinayak, with his advanced training, ducking their flying fists. I was scared of them in spite of my purple belt and before any of them could aim.

Frankly, I find the inevitable physical assault of some of the males here both justified and long overdue. I’ve had several conversations with strange Indian men here that have made me consider giving up peace, love and harmony in favor of militant feminism. On two occasions, I was tricked into what I can only describe as a job interview which is particularly accurate given that dating either of these gentlemen would have felt a lot like work. Apparently some men here believe all it takes is a thirty-minute rapid-fire Q&A to get that whole girlfriend thing handled over a cup of coffee.

One gentleman chatted me up while I was at a café writing and as he ticked each question off his list he sidled his chair ever closer to me until our knees would brush and I’d move my chair. Had he actually listened to my answers rather than wait for my mouth to stop making noises, he would have heard that I was annoyed and had he noticed the way I turned my chair to halt his advance he would have had the good sense to run away. What happened instead was a good ole Sicilian what-for complete with hand gestures and a very detailed list of reasons why he should leave white women alone.

I think he just waited for my mouth to stop making noise so he could apologize for something he didn’t quite understand. And this is where a good ball twisting becomes absolutely necessary.

The finale occurred after the following exchange:

“Are you married?” he said, with a nervous twitch in the form of rapid-fire blinking while he grinned in a fake ‘group photo’ sort of way.

“No” I said, shuffling my chair away from him further.

“You don’t want to marry?” with all the shock of an Indian auntie.

“I haven’t found anyone I’d like to marry, no.” I said in a tone that should have registered ‘please notice that I’m being dismissive.’

“You can’t find anyone to marry? After all this time?!” he said after having resolved the ‘how old are you’ question. Even the numerologist at brunch on Sunday felt compelled to point out that time was running out. He assured me I’d be wed by the time I was forty which caused me to put down my fork because that’s less than twelve months to fit in a wedding dress and I had allowed myself to indulge in a little Biryani after beating the 20-year-old Raghu’s time in the workout that morning. The fortune-teller gave me his number so I could call in the next two months with ‘happy news’ though I’m told that ‘happy news’ in India generally means you’re pregnant which is the news my sister would have preferred from me rather than marriage.

“No. I have found men I COULD marry, I just haven’t found one I WANTED to marry,” I said.

Dear India: Please note the distinction so I’m saved from saying it again. Sincerely, Heather.

And as he chased me from the café puzzled that I hadn’t set up a time to meet again especially since it was clear that we were now dating, I wondered why violence isn’t a more legitimate form of communication. Instead I got in the car with Shiva and exclaimed, present company excluded, “You, no problem! But Indian men are blech!” hoping in spite of his inability to understand English that ‘Blech!’ might be universal. I had already explained to him when he asked me a few days earlier, “Drive other country? No English? Three years, maybe?” that he could be a driver in another country because women don’t expect men to understand them even after a couple of years. Heck, I myself recently proved it. And then he grinned like he knew what I was saying and that was close enough.

I was however hoping for a deeper level of understanding when I got in the car a couple of days ago on my way to Kanteerava Stadium. It was finally my day to work out with the Olympic Lifters and Power Lifters who had just returned from a competition in Mysore over Dessera and Shiva was driving me to the stadium. I told him that I was scared and I threw in a pouty, “I feel fat!” since he couldn’t understand what I was saying anyway and wouldn’t think to tell me I was being ridiculous. Shiva is my best friend.

“Shiva, you don’t understand! I saw a skinny, little Indian mom who can deadlift 151 Kilos!” I told him.

“How much you lift Madame?” he asked in a way that made it sound like the chorus of a pop song.

“Well, I can squat about 102 kilos,” I said a little shyly.

“Ooh, good job, Madame!” he said and then exclaimed “40 Kilos” and made motions demonstrating how he’d buckle under a 40K bicep curl all while he maneuvered through traffic. Then I grinned while he grinned. I marched into the stadium with that and nothing to lose.

Kavia set up the squat rack, alternated lifts with me and interpreted the directions from the head coach whose name has more than three syllables. It means I won’t have any idea how to pronounce it for at least a couple more weeks. I just smiled at her a lot and lowered my gaze to communicate her alpha status and then I nodded and thanked her when she said I’ll be competing in a month.

Chandana, who’s life tends to proceed as if it were planned or something, asked me all the questions that any reasonable person would ask as we sat poolside watching Diya’s swimming class at the Catholic Club.

Reasonable question one: “competing in what, exactly?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question two: “Who are you representing?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question three: “Where?”

“I don’t know”

Reasonable question four: “Can you do that?”

“I don’t know”

I sometimes find logic irritating. And it went on like that but I’ll spare the details.
The trainers asked none of those questions since they just appreciate competition and assume I’ll win because: 1. They believe there are strong Indian women as strongly as they believe in unicorns and fairies and 2. I’m ‘big’.

Ganesh offered his usual advice, “dye your hair black,” which is what he generally says because he thinks I’ll blend better and because I think he doesn’t like the looks he gets when I’m on the back of his motorcycle any more than I do. I offered my usual reply, “Shave your moustache.”

The friends back home who had the romantic notion that I would come here to marry underestimated the obstacle that is the south Indian moustache. It’s everywhere and for me it’s nothing more than a libido crusher designed to keep Indian men lonely and turn them back to the tradition of arranged marriage. Instead of ‘I’m in the mood for love,’ I find myself humming ‘Sabotage’ by the Beastie Boys and giggling to myself.

I’ve explained this to Ganesh who has the softest, smiling brown eyes. This is a feature I noticed only after staring at his moustache for a solid week. I told him, “THAT,” as I pointed accusingly, “Was invented by Indian mothers to keep white women away.” He laughed and nodded slightly with confidence, “It’s MANLY.”

Poor, sweet, Ganesh. I hope his mother has good taste.

Ganesh was the one who got me set up with the coaches at Kanteerava like he was returning a stray kitten. It’s partly because of his kindness and partly because I strongly believe that you never swagger into somebody else’s dojo that I’m committed to keeping my mouth closed and my ears open. And I was also drawn in by the promise of a 150 Kilos squat by a male coach there with the movement and the mannerisms of a capoeirista.

Didn’t I just complain that Indian men are not smooth talkers? He had me at 150 Kilos.

As I started day two of my training with snatch practice I could only laugh to myself. How many different languages must I be told I have an early arm bend? It’s a bad habit that somehow made it through customs with all the rest of my baggage. I saw the correction coming long before the Kannada started to flow.

As the female coach with the impossible name I can’t pronounce focused her energy on training for an upcoming competition, I was given directions by her husband Sanjay, a name I can pronounce, who coached me using that impossible-to-interpret head bobble, a movement I simply can’t understand. I would make a correction look at Sanjay who would wobble about and then look at Kavia, “Yes? No? Maybe? Not-so-much? You’ll never work in this town again?” I deciphered.

“He said it’s fixed.”

Meanwhile across the room, the other coach examined me with his third chakra. Something was disturbing the energy in the room and I had my grip on it. Every time my hands inched in ever so slightly to accommodate my aching and swollen thumbs he paused before picking up his bar, turned slowly towards me and scolded me with his eyes.

Heather keeps her mouth completely shut: Day two. My tasks over the next month are simple: Say goodbye to the birthday Burfi to make weigh-in, go to the stadium everyday at 2 p.m. to train, and try really hard not to get crushed under heavy weight. Oh, and keep my mouth completely shut.

I’ve already fallen into a routine with my nutrition in spite of the couple of lapses and the increase in carbohydrates that can’t be avoided here. Thank Allah for ‘State of Punjab,’ a fast-food kebab joint in Sigma mall where I can eat a decent serving of chicken Tikka for Rs 140 and practice eating with my right hand in case I’m ever invited back to a real Muslim restaurant with better food.

For the most part, it’s not a place where I’ll be judged no matter how awkward my table manners which is made obvious by all the teenage Muslim girls who hide in the food court booths letting their hijab down and holding their boyfriend’s hands. Every now and then one of them gives me a look and I feel like saying, “Oh, don’t look at me like that, sister! I’ll tell you what – I’m calling your dad. Feel free to call mine.”

In fact, I called mine the other evening to leave an accusatory voicemail after my birthday. I was out with my friend Tammy, who’s a spinning instructor from South Africa and happens to know more about the nightlife in these parts than I do. With her urgings to order a birthday cocktail, I scanned the happy hour buy-one-get-one-free menu and my eyes landed on ‘Gin’ in the form of Gin and Lime Juice. Given that Gin is my father’s drink of choice I felt as if I was tipping a glass to the old man at a moment when I was feeling especially homesick and especially lost since I don’t know anything about cocktails. I also thought the reference to gin ‘n juice was funny and smart given that sweeter drinks give me the room spins almost instantly.

By the end of the evening, there were several things I was unclear about. First, I’m not sure how that particular buy-one-get-one-free deal worked since drinks kept arriving in my hand and I’m not sure how long that went on in a country where happy hour begins at five pm. I’m also unclear about how and when I’ve agreed to go to Mozambique and why my background in martial arts will be particularly useful when I go though I recall that being an important detail.

Any unanswered questions regarding my arrival back on Cunningham Road that evening or any speculation regarding how drunk I might have been will continue to be available at any security guard station from here to the end of the street until something more interesting happens. I do know that all of the drivers now greet me warmly whenever I come home and at any moment I’m likely to be invited to sit on the curb with them and play cards. I have now been officially defrocked of ‘Madame’ and have lost any privileges associated with the title. I feel like Vanessa Williams.

Of course, this is my father’s fault and I made that clear on the voicemail that I left. I was only influenced by the fact that I’m teetering on forty which I’m continually told is a little late to get married though I don’t recall asking, and I miss my dad. The next two days taught me never to buckle to that sort of silliness again since my hangover was epic. Later, Tammy and I were convinced that the exaggerated aftermath suffered by the both of us was either because the gin was made in a local bathtub with the sort of sanitation I’ve come to expect here or because the drinks were chilled with unfiltered ice cubes. Of course my dad was sympathetic and assured me that he’d be shipping a birthday present to his homesick daughter in a few days and he was wondering how long it would take for me to get the bottle of Gin he’d be sending.

Should I elect to blow the Muslim girls' cover and call their dads I suspect it will have far greater impact than anything whispered from the guard posts in Bangalore. I have sworn off Gin for several reasons now: 1. I’m training more seriously, 2. I have to know what my weight is doing, 3. I love my liver and it loves me and 4. I don’t even want to know what was in that drink.

I’ve decided instead to focus on more innocent pursuits while I train. I’m embracing cricket simply because everybody here is mad for it including Shiva and Chandana’s mother. I explained to Chandana that I intended to sit with 'agee' during the next test match with funny hats and foam fingers. I enlisted Shiva and I explained that it would be a party.

“Beer?” he asked.

“No beer,” I said clearly finished with alcohol and not wanting to turn Agee’s party into a Kegger.

“No Beer? Where’s party?” Some things really are universal.

I told Chandana about this and she told me, “Oh, you don’t know my mother!”

“She drinks beer?!” I asked.

“No. Gin and lime juice.”

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Rock On, Shiva!

In a world where traffic laws go unheeded, it only makes sense that you'd rely on whatever other resource could offer protection. This morning Shiva did the annual Puja for the car, performing an elaborate ritual to bless it and keep us all safe. After seeing the garlands draped, the windows painted and splattered and the banana leaves affixed to the front grill, I couldn't help but wonder as Shiva drove off with the family like he was headed for the parade route if the ritual is meant to remind us what a blessing it is to see out of an unobstructed windshield on the other 364 days of the year. Keep in mind that all vehicles on the road including buses, bikes and autos will be likewise adorned with drivers navigating the usual hazards while trying to peek through greenery.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Bumping into bureaucrats

Psychologically, a 235-pound deadlift only feels heavy when burdened by gym-etiquette and the potential hazards of poor workmanship in a gym where the barbells reside on the third floor of a building built with cheap labor in a developing country. Lifting is not the issue. Putting it down politely is. Sending a barbell FedEx/'In-Care-Of-Gravity' through three floors to rest on a bed of scooters in the parking garage would warrant a disinterested shrug from most residents and page-8 placement in ‘The Bangalore Mirror’ buried beneath the current debate about whether or not women should be allowed to tend bar. Afterall, this is a place where every missile designed to collapse the infrastructure of Pakistan looks as if it was tested first on the city’s sidewalks. It’s assumed then, after clamoring over the kind of debris that only a SCUD could leave that everyday safety issues are of little concern.

No that deadlift wasn’t a max lift, I explained to the trainers when asked and no I wasn’t planning a max attempt today for the sake of my safety and that of the Gym-Gerbils on treadmills two floors down. The reply was “Whaat?!” which wasn’t about the weight as much as it was a rhetorical question of, ‘why not go for it?’ Though I’m completely lost when it comes to the official local language, certain words have become familiar. In regards to the word ‘What’, Indians I’ve noticed can neatly and efficiently pack an entire sentence into that one word alone or they can use it at the beginning of a sentence guaranteed to be stuffed with indignation. Either way, it’s always more than just ‘what’ and never an actual question.

I arrived in Bangalore on a Wednesday morning at one of the few hours in a 24-hour cycle during which both ‘night people’ and ‘morning people’ can agree to sleep. Three days later I worked out for the first time at Gold’s Gym Bangalore and it was not an impressive effort. I was still breathing like a guppy from the heat and pollution and I was suffering from toxic levels of carbohydrate intake. Now that my lungs have adapted to the point that I can siphon oxygen through swamp water or, for that matter, Saran Wrap, breathing itself is no longer a preoccupation and as for the carbohydrates, I’ve been able to fend off much of the fruit with handfuls of nuts. It leaves me instead to ponder my fitness goals though in my head at times it sounds a lot like a shrill “what am I going to do now”.

Clearly I could take my place in the rank and file of beefy Hindu’s and bulk up since that’s what the gym is designed for: No plyo boxes, no bumper plates, and no room to navigate. As expected, you can find most of the trainers clustered at the cable apparatus trying to get their anterior delts and their posterior delts to stop speaking to one another and fend for themselves. In truth it matters little what limb is flapping since every illegal anabolic is available for the asking with the exception, I’m assuming, of Bovine Growth Hormone. Cows are sacred here, people are not. Consider that you’d be beaten to death by an angry mob if you broadside a cow on your scooter but passengers on said scooter are not required or even encouraged to wear a helmet. This gets listed under a category of reasons my mother would have wrapped herself around my ankles the minute I said I was moving to India had she been alive to see me even go near a scooter here.

Among my remaining options, I could become queen of cardio - a goal I’m least suited for - except that the brown-outs shut the treadmills off at least twice each morning which leads to even more complicated Kilometer math when piecing it all together in the end. I’d also like to refrain from personally processing more of Bangalore’s air than I have to given that all my walks have become one long game of ‘Name That Feces’ which I’d be skilled at if I knew more about the various breeds of monkeys populating the area and understood the motivation of India’s poor to defecate mid-sidewalk on streets usually teeming with traffic. It still amazes me to watch women wrapped in ethereal fabrics with mesmerizing colors and patterns in a landscape otherwise dulled by everyday grays dragging their pristine hems through the filth without once appearing inelegant.

As I inventoried options and equipment and began designing programs around obstacles –mostly the aforementioned beefy Hindu’s - I started hearing rumors that powerlifters and Olympic lifters lurked in dank, bleak stadiums that smelled of sweat, fear and pain (and maybe feces). Gold’s trainers knew about these places but had decided long ago to stop trying to understand the people in them once they failed to get adequate answers to the question, “What muscle does that work?” These are places where people lift heavy, make noise and spit in drinking fountains. I felt instantly warm and fuzzy - I must find this place.

The problem with talking to fellow trainers about stadiums here is that there are a lot of fellow trainers and there are even more stadiums. The fact that I can’t make out what most of them are saying a majority of the time doesn’t help. Finally I latched onto Nisar who told me, “KarnatakaKarnatakaKarnataka stadium Karnataka,” or something like that. I said, “Great. I’ll meet you at 2:30.” I smiled. Again, I’m not sure what he said but he has the sweet face of a well-raised Indian boy. Shiva, our driver, has the same gentle face and he hasn’t killed me yet in spite of the mutually agreed upon initiative launched by all of Bangalore to run down Chandana’s Maruti.

Already you’ve got to wonder why all the bother. For me, finding a gym with bumper plates and lifting platforms simply means that I can bail out from under weight when necessary. That little safety feature allows me to attempt heavier loads. It also means I can resume a strength protocol and possibly find like-minded souls at the drop of a bar. Of course, I’m far happier when I complete a lift and not drop it but then, these things happen. Unfortunately based on the deafening clatter alone not to mention the damage to equipment in conventional gyms that is not designed for actual use, the first sign posted in a Globo-Gym will be ‘don’t drop weights’ though in the states it’s usually posted next to the sign ‘No spitting in the drinking fountains.’

At 2:30 I met Nisar, a very large, muscular man on a benign scooter that could have used a testosterone transfusion from it’s amply supplied owner. I felt like I should pat it’s seat and talk to it in soothing tones so as not to startle it. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the horn said ‘Pardon me’ in a voice not unlike a voicemail directory operator. For a man that imposing, you’d expect blades to pop out of the hubcaps to hamstring fellow travelers when necessary and even when not.

But this is Bangalore and even as a passenger I’d need to be prepared to fend for myself or be jousted off the back by scooters hauling 12 feet of bamboo, families of four carrying metal plumbing supplies or a passenger with five 10 Gallon water bottles stacked sideways on the footboard*. I yearned for my nailclippers since clearly they’re a lethal weapon given the way they’re handled by airport security. It turns out, however, that the schizophrenic beeping that once set me on edge makes sense when you’re in traffic and becomes a rather reassuring form of communication. I relaxed and settled into the work of not falling off.

Nisar checked his mirrors now and then more out of concern for me then for traffic. He’s very sweet and eager to make sure that India is a good host to the white woman with biceps and a funny accent who clearly has no idea what she’s doing. When I met him he described himself and his two best friends as the Three Stooges of Gold’s to which I replied, after noting his bald head, “You must be curly.” He had no idea what I was saying. It might have sounded like “seattle.seattle.Curly.seattle”

At 2:30 we headed for Chinnaswamy Stadium to talk to somebody who knows somebody who met somebody once. Nisar signed ‘Visitor’ logs and stated his business while I smiled humbly. Apparently I don’t visit and can’t possibly have business since my information was unnecessary. We shook lots of hands and shuffled from one office to another to sit in waiting rooms that felt more like a Petri dish given the way I was scrutinized.

Finally after shaking the hands of many a dapper bureaucrat and being sent along to the next visitor log, Nisar and I sat across a large desk from the chief of dapper bureaucrat. He stared, waiting for us to begin and then Nisar, who had handled every checkpoint so far, looked at me.

I launched into my request with an explosion of wordy English spilling from my pie hole (note: My insistence on using the term ‘Pie Hole’ is completely for the amusement of my sister). Nisar, who by the way didn’t speak much of the local language either, politely saved me the way Indian men seem to do. I say this because even in Seattle, they’d turn up in my life like superheroes rescuing me from dire circumstances while passersby looked on. Which is why if I was going to displace myself entirely, moving to India made the most sense.

Nisar interrupted me smoothly with succinct statements directed across the desk at the bureaucrat who had yet to make a sound.

“Not Possible!” was the first noise from the other side of the furniture and it was also succinct.

The answer didn’t seem to leave any room for the kind of bargaining I expected. Clearly this was not haggling for guavas. Nisar looked at me again. Once more the proliferation of babble about how I was visiting from the States and I really needed a lifting platform and that I know that he has a couple in this facility and I could certainly stay out of the way of the cricket players if I could just use his equipment every now and again which would mean several times a week. A pause for breath.

Our bureaucrat looked tired. After a pause he began an explanation that I only sort of understood but that finished with the sentence, “women don’t lift weights here in this county,”
My initial thoughts about that line of reasoning may have been briefly communicated in the reflexive smart-ass look that I reconfigured as quickly as possible. “Well, where do your women athletes go to train?” I asked in a tone that conveyed sincere inquiry.

“They go to other countries,” was his clipped reply just short of an exclamation point and stated as if the answer should have been obvious.

“Well, I’m here. In this country. And I lift weight.” I explained slowly in the same humble and succinct manner I just learned from Nisar, “So I’m asking if I could please use your equipment.”
“Not Possible!”

Crap. He’s looped. This is going to require a bribe I can’t afford, a shameless exchange of ‘services’ with a cricket player or a programmer to debug our dapper bureaucrat.

Finally I asked to at least see the gym, assuming that I wouldn’t feel as bad if I discovered that the equipment wasn’t worth squabbling over. I recall going to a “gym” many years ago in one of the better hotels in Prague to find a room that housed only a hyperbaric chamber and an ancient stationary bike of which neither worked. Since India is a country where holes for ceiling fans are cut twice the size allowing wiring to hang out haphazardly and fixtures to wobble simply because ‘eyeballing’ is an excepted form of measure, I assumed lifting platforms would be of a similar design.

There were competition plates stacked everywhere around neatly built platforms. Sadly, the gym was beautiful. And really, really empty.

Nisar felt bad and he took me for the best meal I’ve had in India so far. It was a Muslim restaurant that served amazing kabobs and tolerated western woman only a little. Though left handed, I was on my best behavior and used my right as would be expected. This worked well considering the food was blistering hot and I wouldn’t be able to feel my fingertips for some time.

At Gold’s the next day, the trainers were hopeful asking if I found the stadium and if I got what I needed. After explaining far and wide that no, they would not let me lift at Chinnaswamy, Ganesh shook his head. “Not Chinniswami! Kanteevara! Come, we go.”

I’ll spare all the details but a different Indian man, a different scooter in the rain, a different nest of bureaucrats, the same heroic efforts and a text that read: “Hey Heather, I’ve spoke about u they said to meet on Monday noon at 3:30pm”

In Kanteerava, the platforms are built into the floor and look like they’ve seen centuries of missed lifts. I’m pretty sure Shah Jahan set a snatch PR here and it’s scrawled on the wall of a bathroom stall with the date. The room itself was suffering battle fatigue, with broken windows and sagging floors and had surrendered meekly to a rodent and bird infestation. Meager equipment sat in dusty corners and bars with arthritic bushings lay abandoned in a bathroom that was out of order. Ganesh assured me that Olympic champions were trained here and though everyone was at a competition in Mysore, this is where 25 of India’s best come to train.

I tried not to be mad or frustrated or disappointed while I thought of my lifting shoes that never touched pavement because it was important to take care of them. I kept asking, “if this is what these athletes are passionate about, if this is where top-level athletes train, why does it look like this? How can they use this equipment?” I could get tendinitis just looking at the equipment in what looked like a ransacked lifter's museum. There weren’t even enough plates scattered around for me to do a max squat. Ganesh kept shrugging. He had trained here eight years ago and abandoned the place to become a body builder.

On the way out, we swerved around four large padlocked and polished crates. Ganesh asked about them in Kannada since they were new to the gym since he had been there.

“Equipment,” The attendant said.

I felt like Indiana Jones in ‘Raiders of the Lost Arc’ and had just found the Arc, or rather Arcs, of the Covenant. My eyes went wide, Ganesh smiled. “We come back Friday,” he said.

If I had been looking for reasons to quit, I could find one every hour, every minute, every round every rep. What would I say to my clients, “I want to be healthy and do the things I’m passionate about but talking to bureaucrats is annoying and time consuming.” But quitting is just another way of saying the goal stopped being worth the cost. Is India really the challenge that’s really bigger than me? Hardly. I'll go back on Friday, or Monday, or however many times it takes to find what I need to make this work. As much as I want to consider myself a unique snowflake, I'm not the only person in India who wants to lift heavy. Maybe the trainers at Gold's will help me and maybe they'll just join me.

*Though I’m prone to hyperbole, this is factual. I have seen all of these things on a scooter including the water bottles though two of them were on laps while the rest were on the footboard.