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.