Tuesday, August 17, 2010

It's a Cultural Difference: Running Through Traffic in Kathmandu

Now I've been better at keeping up some good habits than others. For instance I am no closer to speaking fluent Nepali now than I was three months ago. This is of course my fault, as I haven't kept up with classes and spend all my time speaking to people who speak English. Sometimes I'm really good about sitting down and writing, and sometimes not as much, but I have stuck to it and get at least three pages written or edited each day. In line with that project I have also been reading quite a bit and have been going through rather in depth books every week or two. Thank god for Kindles, because I would never ever find the books I'm reading anywhere in Kathmandu, or most US bookstores for that matter. I have also kept up my running, and continue to run to Boudha about every other day or more, and that has made for some interesting adventures.

South Asia as a whole doesn't seem to be all that interested in athletics. Sure they watch and occasionally play soccer and cricket, and in the press I see things about badminton, table tennis and judo, but serious competitive athletics are just not part of daily life for school kids apparently, not on any scale like what we do in the US anyway. As for running you occasionally see people do some fairly lazy laps around the palace wall, or a few people on cardio machines at some of the gyms, but even there it is most often expats. I have never ever in all my times I've gone running seen another person running as well. You see some Nepali's doing back breaking work, so they aren't afraid of breaking a sweat, but they seem quite averse to doing so if they don't have to. Judging from some of the puzzled looks I get as I go running and some of the conversations I have with people here, most Nepali's don't have any idea why you would put yourself through running across town.   While people back in the US might think you're still nuts they implicitly understand the health and fitness benefits that go along with running, and I'm not sure that is ingrained in the psyche of South Asia.

As I have finally gotten back to actually running and not just jogging I am starting to find that I actually can move faster than a large segment of Kathmandu traffic, which brings some benefits as well as some awkward situations. Kathmandu has an incredibly dense population, and there are people everywhere. There are no sidewalks, so people, bovines, dogs, and all manner of transportation from tractors and tuk-tuks to SUVs and school buses all fill the roads. Trash is not collected in bins or bags, but dumped in piles on the side of the road for pick up. The monsoons have eroded some parts of the streets and new sink holes have opened up in places to add to the already large array of pot holes, large puddles, open manholes that one can encounter in the streets of Kathmandu. This all makes for some tricky maneuvering when you are running, and you rarely get to keep a nice even pace as you have to switch sides of the roads, temporarily jump up onto a limited sidewalk, or slow down as you reach a traffic jam.

The strangest thing is that people do not look where they are going for the most part, and even if they do see you coming they continue on what ever path they are on, regardless of if they are on foot, on bikes, motorcycles or in a taxi. The other day I almost slammed into a woman who just stepped out in front of me without looking, luckily I just put my hands out, and kind of moved to the side so as not to fully collide with her, but had I been a motorcycle or a car, she would have been seriously hurt. Bicycles tend to go at a very lazy pace through the city, and often many of the men I pass who are on bikes feel it is some kind of personal challenge to them that I have run by them and start peddling a little faster. For a minute they will get ahead, especially if we are on a down hill, but then they go back to their lazy pace again and I pass them. I get the most puzzled looks from these guys.

The funniest thing is when I get out past the ring road I start passing a lot of the white mini-vans that transport people out toward Boudha. I'll pass them in traffic, and they will pass me on some open road,  but then I pass them again when they stop to drop people off or pick them up. Then as we inevitably hit traffic again as we close in on Boudha I often am running right next to them, and the looks I get from the boys that holler out where the van is going and collect money from passengers is priceless. Sometimes they or someone else in the van will try and say something to me in garbled in English, and sometimes they will even cheer me on. I passed a school bus the other day on a downhill where the bus had to keep stopping for speed bumps. The children on the bus had moved to the side I was passing it on and many of them were cheering me on, and as the bus hit traffic I pulled away to them all pointing and laughing.

Now navigating traffic here is on a bit of a learning curve, as many of the rules and signals from back home just don't apply. Blinkers for instance often are a signal saying that it is OK to pass on the side that blinker is flashing on. On the buses and vans that have young men hanging out the door, they kind of hit the side panel of the vehicle every once in a while, two whacks indicating that it is OK to proceed and one whack means stop (they are signalling to their driver). This is done most often when they are backing up, when people are trying to squeeze by each other in a very congested street and when passenger vehicles are letting people on and off. Horns also constantly update you on a vehicles location, if they are coming up behind you or if they are coming around a tight corner. Luckily Kathmandu traffic rarely exceeds about 25 MPH giving you plenty of time to assess your situation in relation to everything on the road, and more often then not in stop and go traffic you can actually move just as fast if not faster than they can. In fact I am averaging about +/- 17 minute runs out to Boudha right now, and there is no way in hell I could get a taxi out there that fast.

When I get to Boudha I generally do three walking laps around the stupa to kind of collect myself and take some deep breaths. Often a curious monk will start talking to me, and several have asked me why I am sweating so much. I tell them, that I ran from Lazimpat, and they just kind of look at me like I have three heads, but are then happy to move on to more traditional conversation about where I am from, if I have seen the monasteries here and some general questions about any interest in Buddhism. Taxi drivers waiting at the exit to Boudha, people normally perplexed that westerners would want to walk instead of ride in a taxi, always point and shake their heads as I go running back toward Lazimpat. Sorry guys, it's faster and it's free.

I really think that in my school days I learned as much from athletics as I did in the classroom. In school you learn math, English, critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, etc. In athletics you really develop discipline, courage, character, teamwork, and leadership. While those traits can be tested under other non-athletic conditions, it seems to come naturally and easily in that kind of environment, and is something that most youths enjoy. Track and cross country are not expensive sports, you just need a place to run, any country or community can support that. It's somewhat strange then to see a society where it is so under utilized as an educational and developmental tool. To be honest, as cool as it was to have those kids cheering me on as I passed their bus, I kind of wish it was myself and other adults cheering them on.

1 comment:

  1. I get similar looks when i take a break and hit golf balls off my building in Boston.


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