Saturday, November 22, 2008

Sir “Are you going to win? How much are they paying you?”

That is how my discussion began when I explained to our old driver Raju that I was training for a marathon in Singapore.

“No Raju, I will not win the marathon and I have to pay them to participate.” Brief moment of silence as he processes why I am would possibly want to run 42 K and have to pay for it. “How long will it take you?” Four hours, he quickly realizes it is about 10 kilometers per hour and slows to that speed and says “this does not seem that fast”
I reply “then you get out and run 10 kph for awhile and see how it feels.” He declines and stops asking more questions as we log distances so I can escape from Palm Meadows and run in the villages around us.

One of the goals I had for myself when we moved to India was to run a marathon on this side of the world. Bangalore had a marathon earlier this year, the lead runners were both delayed by traffic half way through the race and chased by stray dogs. After searching the web for alternatives, Singapore was the winner, great excuse for another family trip and a very well organized race for over 30,000 runners.

Training in India has been a tale of two worlds. Running inside Palm Meadows got old real fast, up and down the palm tree lined roads staring at the same very expensive houses lap after lap. When I reached the 10 mile mark, I decided it was time to journey into the real world and “awaken” as Chandra may say.

The mean streets of Palm Meadows

Before India, most of my running has been the chain of lakes in Minneapolis, whether it was 85 and sunny, 40 and raining, 25 and snowing or even 5 below and too cold for sane humans, I always loved the scenery, company of our old dog Marley and conversations or toe counting with Jeff D.

Once you leave the friendly gates you had better be awake and aware or you’re going to be run down, pedestrians are the lowest rung on the ladder in India. I cannot count the number of times a motorcycle or bus sees the crazy white guy running on the road and deliberately moves a little closer to the shoulder to see if I flinch. Chandra threatened to kill me if I was run down on my adventures, so far, I only have a lot of close calls.

How does one accurately describe the time that I rounded a corner in a village at 7 am and suddenly ten feet in front of me was a pack of stray dogs sleeping in the road? As I “awaken” my senses and count over 15 sleeping dogs, I decide to quickly turn around and calmly walk away.

Other highlights from my runs:
· School children always “joining” me for my run
· People always watching me wondering what I am doing
· Getting caught behind the morning cattle drive – watch your step
· Looking at the beautiful scenery and piles of garbage mixed together
· It is always around 70 degrees and sunny on every run

While I had lofty training ambitions for this marathon that went unfulfilled, I will be lined up on December 7th with thousands of other mentally unbalanced individuals. For a Minnesota guy that loves running in the snow, running a race that promises high heat and humidity will be an adventure.

Two weeks and counting

Monday, November 17, 2008

Awakening to India...

The other day, at the end of my yoga class, our instructor was talking about how the “luxuries” of life tend to make us dull, slow, and asleep at the wheel… To awaken, we often need to feel some deprivation, unmet needs, an absence of ease, or simply the edge of the unexpected.

Why does India hold such powerful sway over people? Why do some foreigners come to this country, with all its squalor…garbage, poverty, strangeness, dust, and find beauty? How can anyone, by Western standards, claim to “love India?” On a personal level, why do we find India both completely, frustratingly exasperating and intoxicatingly wonderful?

I think it is directly related to this concept of being AWAKE, of being present, attuned, attentive to the very moment. It is difficult to be complacent here. Everything, the horrific and the lovely, can be seen. Nothing is hidden. As a friend has said, the highs are higher here and the lows are much lower!

I awake to sound and smell; the pungent taste of the air. We drive and are constantly shifted. I stand still on a swirling street and purposely notice others posed in stillness. A visit to the shops finds empty shelves, or twelve of everything I do not need to buy. A bus has driven off the edge of the earth and 35 people are dead. The T.V. blares out ads for bubble gum and noodles and washing machines, while the woman down the road beats her clothing on a rock. An elephant is accidentally electrocuted by power lines slung too low in a jungle village. My driver who makes the equivalent of $200 per month and has just recovered from some personal and financial losses takes out a loan for a $500 television. There is money here…a lot or a little depending upon your position in society, your karma, your luck… There is passion here…for family, duty, intelligence, God, freedom and at the same time, a lack of freedom. There is brutal hardship here. Corruption here. Laughter here. Some people cannot imagine how India functions, how anyone can claim that India is the world’s next “superpower….” I’ve heard it said by more than one person upset by the seeming disconnection and lack of outrage at the absence of infrastructure that “Indians don’t care about their own country.” I am sometimes as puzzled as anyone…not understanding…exasperated or even angry but I have to say that my experience has shown me that the opposite is true. The problems are immense and some may be insurmountable but it seems there are plenty of people willing to try climbing that mountain, anyway.

The other day, we were invited to spend the day with some Indian homeschoolers. We drove out of Bangalore to an organic farm owned by one of the families. We hiked, the kids swam in a rocky pool in the river, played games, we shared a meal, we laughed and talked of education…what it is, what it means here, what it needs to be for all children.

For several months I’ve been involved with the Bangalore Birth Network, an eclectic group of women working to improve birth experiences and outcomes here in Bangalore. One of our active members has started a mother-to-mother group…the second meeting was standing room only.

One of my closest friends…coordinates an English program for several local government schools. She has many volunteers helping.

Our housekeeper tells me about a young woman with several children that lives near her. The family is very poor and the husband has a drinking problem, so our housekeeper brings her extra food. There have been many instances in which I have seen or been told about similar acts of charity by people who have little extra themselves. Poverty is inhuman but it doesn’t automatically strip away human values.

Numerous charitable organization and non-profit NGO’s exist with large goals such as the eradication of poverty and caste, and the economic uplift of women in India. Some work on a more local level…feeding and educating street children, housing the mentally ill, creating small businesses for local village women.

I won’t be the first or last person to note that people everywhere pretty much have the same needs…to love and be loved, to be respected, to not go hungry, to have adequate shelter, and to raise their children with the hope of a better life. In India, the difference is not in the needs, desires, hopes and fears but in the vast numbers and the vast visibility of who has and has not and what is and is not.

We’ve met artists, activists, adventurers, business people, parents, beggars, children, shopkeepers, domestic workers, farmers, gurus and expats from everywhere. People are poor, rich, hardworking, desperate, angry, enthralled, blessed, weak, strong, hungry, happy…and the world continues to spin on that.

The Fischers

in Bangalore, India