Bandra East, Mumbai
27 September 2015
The sun was barely peeking above the horizon when I woke this morning. It was still thirty minutes before my alarm, but my body was ready to hit the road. That’s the thing about sleeping alone – no distractions, no delays, and I am grateful for that. Oranges, pinks, and the most delicate whites streaked the sky just before a full dawn broke, and I stepped outside the gates. Anyone who knows me, actually knows me, can tell you I am runner. Any city, any weather, mountain trail or ancient cobbled streets, I run to find myself, the pounding on pavement or mud grounding me in this world, in each place I live. When I first moved to Mumbai, I was at a loss, wondering how I would ever find my way in the confusion of streets and pedestrians. I was scared of the filth, of the pollution, of the dogs and heat. I made excuses not to run, found every opportunity to sleep in, and even tried (gasp!) crossfit. But none of it felt quite right until October came and a friend and I started running together, braving the dark mornings and honking rickshaws to eke out a few miles before school.
What started as two miles a couple of times a week has transitioned slowly into marathon training, and as my runs have gotten longer and my body stronger, I feel my heart beating again in a familiar way, for this purest form of happiness. And still…I live in Mumbai, and for anyone who has not been here (and even more so if you have!) you might question my sanity for running in this city, for Mumbai is insanity realized, it is love and crazy and wealth and well-being, sickness and beauty and deep, deep despair mixed with celebration, ceremony and ritual. It is the juxtaposition of everything opposite, lovely and dank. It is an adventure in living, for an expat like me. And so I treat it like one, and my runs are the same – urban trail running, I call it, though it’s nothing like the Burke-Gilman or a jaunt along Lake Shore Drive.
As soon as I step through the gate, my sense of awareness ratchets up, not unlike starting an ultra race in the cold dark morning. Though I might not be wearing a head lamp, and my trail is not twisting up a narrow mountain switchback, my eyes are wide open and I am tuned into every step. Roots do not cross my path, but sleeping dogs lie stretched out in the middle of the road, limbs twitching in half sleep, one eye opening at the vibration of my feet on the pavement. I carry my water on my back during longer runs, and when I turn the corner, adjusting my pack, I come face to face with a woman carrying her water on her head, two silver jugs stacked one on the other, a slim, bangled arm reaching delicately up for balance. I want to smile, to wave at her, explaining how we are ‘same same’, except I don’t have the language, and I know we are mostly different different when it comes to carrying water.
The sun continues to rise, but this morning I am lucky for the cooler air and a breeze on my face. The rounded top of a mosque is backlit and brilliant as my legs take me past a river of sorts. Men wash up on the side of the road, next to their homes of metal and blue plastic, and the runoff flows as water does anywhere, downhill, following the path of least resistance. Trucks are scrubbed down, and twice I am almost caught in a downpour of discarded rinse water. Twice I side step just in time, water cascading down the windshield, the doors, as I slide by. These are the features of the urban trail run.
My legs carry me forward and sunglasses shade my eyes from curious stares. Ever the spectacle in India, I’ve shifted my frame of mind, pretending they are spectators at a race, cheering me forward on this longest run of the year (so far!). Instead of mountain bikers racing down hill towards me, it is men with carts of bananas and scrap metal and eggs, so many eggs, their heavy loads carried along by inertia and a simple machine. To avoid oncoming traffic, I squeeze between a parked taxi and a chaiwallah stirring the morning’s brew in that way that they do: one ladle, raise it up, pour it out, again and again the milky sweet tea frothy on top, no doubt heavy with spice on the bottom. This could be considered one of many aid stations on my current course, though I don’t stop and I don’t look back.
Forward momentum carries me on, past the Jain temple, past Kanakia construction and the Bharat Diamond building. Past four boys leading a post-Eid goat down the street on a leash and past the paan-wallah with his myriad tins of spices, tobacco, and water soaked leaves. By bridge I pass over the river and through the woods, though in this case the woods are palm trees and frangipani, bougainvillea and the sweetly scented Copper Pod tree, masking the stench of the sickly Mithi River. The roads are less crowded here, and I open up my stride in much the same way as I would when traversing a mountain pass. I hurdle low benches and gates that block the sidewalk, my trail. I’m almost home now, seven miles under my belt. My shirt is soaked through with sweat, my pack lighter for all the water hastily gulped around mile five. I stop to walk, cooling down (if one can call it that in the Mumbai heat!). Cows saunter by at a slight slower pace, and I wish for a coconut seller, but all I can find are bananas. My legs are already sore and heavy, a reminder of the training I have yet to do, of all the miles yet to run in this adventure, but my mind is light and ready. And with trails like these…it’s no wonder. So, who’s up for a run?
“She who reconciles the ill-matched threads/ of her life, and weaves them gratefully/ into a single cloth — / it’s she who drives the loudmouths from the hall/ and clears it for a different celebration…” Rilke, I,17, The Book of a Monastic Life
May you be happy and healthy.
May you safe and free.
May you take care of yourself with ease.