Last weekend, I ran my first 10k in India. It was also one of the few times I had run outside after spending most of the past seven months running inside on a treadmill. I have run through the Bronx, through the streets of Brazil chased by wild dogs, through the forests of the American West, through Central Park, past Dodger Stadium, and under the Golden Gate Bridge, but I was initially intimidated to run through the streets of India. They are hot and crowded and loud, filled with people and bicycles, rickshaws and cows, but now that I have done it I never want to get back on the treadmill.
I get up at four, pull my running shorts on and lace my sneaks. I skip out the door into the dark and slam into a warm, wet wall. The sun is not even thinking of crawling over the horizon and it is nearly 85 degrees out, summer in South India. The mosque on the other side of the river is chanting the call to morning prayer from speakers at the top of its minarets, and I wonder how it doesn’t wake up the kids or why I don’t hear the blaring from bed, but in the coming days, I will hear it. Every morning. I think it is getting louder.
I swat flying ants from my face, pull open the gate to our house and start down the road. A street dog that is normally docile and humble barks and gives brief chase. I assume I startled him. Both the guard and the policeman at the end of the street are asleep in their chairs, their necks bent at a forty-five degree angle, and their heads resting on their shoulders.
I’ve been meeting a group. Our collected courage pushes us through the streets. I’m not normally out this time of day. Elise is, and I finally see what I have been missing all this time and finally understand how easy it is for her to get out of bed every weekend for her photo walks. On Tuesday, I reached Marina Beach just as the sun was coming up over the Bay of Bengal, a giant red star. Flocks of blackbirds were spinning in the air like cyclones. On Thursday, I ran past Pete’s school to Elliot’s Beach. There, a thousand walkers were strolling its length. Another running group was doing repeats. I see runners everywhere.
Things, I think, that would normally repulse most runners, I relish. As we cross rivers, an acrid miasma of human excrement assaults my nostrils. I breath in clouds of blue smoke, dodge auto tuk-tuks, leap over piles of poop, pass dogs and cows chowing down on large piles of garbage, race buses hollering at me with their deep-throated bugles. I see chickens and goats. I smell vada frying in a giant dish of popping oil from a tea stall. I run by fish markets just coming to life. But every single sensation is welcome. Every mile goes by quicker than the one before.
Then, I reach home, turn the corner to my street and see two giant water buffalos ambling toward me. They are, at the shoulder, several feet taller than me and as wide a VW Bugs. I pull up and ease around them, giving them a wide berth and sneak back through the gate to our house. It is 6:30, and I have seen and done more than I will in the rest of the day combined. I take off my shoes, ring my socks of sweat and get ready for work.