How hard can it be do go for a run in India’s international metropolis? Mumbai has a special place in many hearts including mine but that probably doesn’t include the terrible pollution and traffic.
Being from North America’s most liveable city, I grew up being spoilt by Vancouver’s long, straight roads with bicycle lanes and wide sidewalks. The fresh mountain and sea air make the perfect humidity and temperature to run outdoors, and the infrastructure makes it safe and even peaceful to run as long and as far as you can dream.
When I made the transition to living in Mumbai, it meant that I went from running 30 km’s a week to none. More than anything else, I was afraid of committing some social taboo since I didn’t see any female joggers on the roads. The thought of the people staring, the traffic, and the sidewalks kept me indoors. The cost of a gym membership, the gym small-talk, and the monotonous running on a treadmill kept me sedentary.
Living in India, I could handle many eyes staring at me on a daily basis and I only ever managed to let it piss me off about once a month when it would get really bad on a day when I have no patience. Being a caucasian with blond hair, I realized that it would just have to become a part of life. Still, I was conscious of running outside but the thought of sweaty body building men hitting on me at the gym seemed even worse.
After being told to stop complaining and just give it a try, I decided to go for an early morning run in my neighbourhood. I couldn’t imagine running in the afternoon/ evening after the streets had baked in the hot sun all day.
I used to say that the hardest part of exercising is putting on the running shoes but I have changed my mind about that. Running shoes on, I headed out for my adventure.
I decided to start out on the beach near my house. At low tide there is usually 2-4 kilometres of good beach to run along but I had only seen it at sunset when it was crowded with cricket players, young couples, and old men. At 7:30 am, I reached Versova beach to find it almost empty at high tide. I ran toward the fishing slum, the only direction I could.
As I was running, I suddenly passed an Indian man squatting in his lungi on the edge of the water and staring peacefully out to the horizon. I didn’t think much of it an assumed it was some kind of morning meditation and continued on. Then, I passed two more doing the same thing, lungi’s hitched up to their waists. One of them sleepily turned his head in my direction as I was approaching and I realized that perhaps this was not just a morning meditation but also a part of the daily morning ritual for all the men and women of the slum as I saw another 20 or so lined up further down the beach.
I decided to give them their relative privacy and headed back to the streets to give test the sidewalks.
I was on! Running on the sidewalks of Mumbai was like a full obstacle course. With the music playing in my headphones loud enough to just hear the car horns, I was dodging rickshaws, elderly people, roadworks, piles of dirt and garbage, and complete holes in the cement. I even thought that perhaps this could actually be a better workout than just running and I could become a hyper-alert runner and perhaps even start learning parkour.
That was when I passed a pack of stray dogs sleeping next to the chai-walla stall. They jumped up and started chasing me, biting at my heels. Scared shitless, I growled at them with my wolf-pack dog training yell and ran faster. I don’t know if I intimidated them with my growl or they just lost interest but they left me alone after that. I kept running forward and left behind a group of men laughing at me as they drank their chai.
Now utterly conscious of the people around me, I noticed that I was the only person running. I wondered if all the gyms were full and if running outside really was a societal taboo in Mumbai. Some cars swerved closer to me as they passed while the drivers were busy staring at me. Ready to go back, I picked a bus stop 20 meters ahead as my turnaround point.
The bus stop was full of 17-21 year old boys on their way to college. They saw me coming and I knew that they were pointing me out to their friends. Starting to get uptight about the whole thing, I stared ahead and ignored them, putting on my bitch-face. As I reached them, they broke into applause. I stopped to turn around and saw the shock and guilt on their faces. Secretly relishing the feeling, I took out my headphones and asked if the applause was for me. Silence. One of them lamely pointed to some indiscriminate spot across the street as if to displace the blame.
“That’s really not necessary,” I said to them in my hoighty-toighty highschool bitch attitude. I put in my headphones and started back, really proud of myself but not so satisfied with my run.
Taking a different route home to hang up my running shoes until I could afford a gym membership, I passed something that I had always thought was a private garden. I stopped to take a look inside and saw that it was actually a 500 meter running track, full of men and women walking, running, and sitting on the small benches meditating. “So, THIS is where all the runners have been hiding!” I thought.
As it turned out, many parts of suburban Mumbai have these private parks that have been built by private developers in order to get permits to build their boxy, high rise apartment societies. Entry was 2 rupees (4 cents), and it was open mornings and evenings.
So I had finally found my running-haven. I started going for runs whenever I could wake up in the morning early enough to avoid the heat. I found it difficult to run more than 4-5 kilometres because I would get very tired. I read the weather report and in Mumbai it had been a forecast of “Smoke” for the last 2 months. I heard a rumour that it was recommended to run only in the evenings to avoid the pollution which settled on the ground overnight making the morning air extra-polluted.
I started running in the evening, which turned out not to be the worst thing ever. The park was busier though, and after many runs feeling like an anonymous park-runner I finally had the experience I was really trying to avoid by staying away from the gym… conversation.
Running my laps, I noticed a young guy kept stopping his workout in the stretching area to come watch me run by. Ever damn time I would run past, he would stop what he was doing, walk to the edge of the track, and openly stare as I passed. When I finally finished, I couldn’t see him and was glad I didn’t have to face him. I bent down to touch my toes and stretch my hamstrings and closed my eyes, glad to finally have a peaceful place to work out. I slowly straightened my back and opened my eyes, and I turned around to find the guy standing directly behind me. Oh shit, seriously?
I went to the other side of the stretching area and resumed stretching. The guy tried to do a pull-up on the bar and failed. He then tried to get my attention again, “are you stretching?” he asked?
“Yes,” I replied with my expert bitch-face. I put my headphones in and faced the other direction.
He left. Message received.
I don’t think there will ever be a guarantee of exercising in Mumbai in peace. I’ll just have to keep running.
Featured image source: http://runangelrun.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/woman-running-beach-sunset-abh-patient-story.jpg