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.