Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Where are you going?

Many years ago a friend of mine explained to me why he liked walking to school after a snowfall. As he walked to school he would leave his footprints in the snow, marveling at the impressions laid out behind him, then as he walked home in the afternoon he would look for his shoe prints, to see if the marks he had left that morning were still apparent.

The other day I did the same thing without even realizing it. I went for a run down the one road here. It's about the width of two cars, the dirt is bright red and it is filled with potholes big enough to swallow a small goat. It had rained the night before so when I was on my way back I noticed my footprints in the mud. I could see where I'd weaved and jumped to avoid puddles and and sprained ankles. It was also very apparent that mine were the only shoe prints with a nifty tread design. The mud was full of deep tire tracks from the huge trucks that rattle by all day and most of the night, there were some hoof prints from goats and the occasional prints of bare feet left by the kids tending the goats.

It dawned on me then why I get the reactions I do from the drivers of trucks and motor bikes, as well as people in the community when I jog by. The most popular reaction is simply to return my wave and smile. Closely following that is a perplexed expression, shrugged shoulders, maybe a little head shaking. Then there are those who stop, they ask me where I'm going, after trying to explain that I'm just running for fun, that nothing is wrong, no one is chasing me, and no thank you I don't need a ride, I continue on my way, and they hang on to their confusion. I had one man stop his enormous truck, jump out and start waving his arms and shouting at me in Arabic. After a moment I got it across that I had no idea what I was saying, but his copilot managed to explain that they were coming from Somalia and he wanted me to take his picture so I could show it to people in America. Presenting my empty palms I apologized profusely and he shook my hand until he wore himself out and was on his way.

I pass two clusters of tukuls on my run, (as there's only one road and I've been instructed to run in only one direction, I know the scenery pretty well) and in one of the clusters is a set of kids who run out whenever I come by. I stop, shake lots of little hands, then try to explain that I'll stop and play on my way back. But at they sometimes want to run after me in their flip flops I want to yell "Stop, you don't have the calories to spare!" And that's what it is. The idea that there is so much food that you have extra calories to just throw around to go for a run in the heat is a completely foreign concept here. Exercise might just be the most pretentious thing I do here. It's like flaunting all the food we have to eat in the compound. But then again my running has gotten other people who work in my compound to get out walking which is a plus, because between the isolation and stress, plus the food drenched in palm oil and long days staring at our computers, we could all use a little exercise. So we walk together sometimes, generally to the only white tree which is about 25-30 minutes down the road. I get teased about keeping up because several of the people I work with come from nomadic or herding tribes. But then when I run I'm by myself, and on those long lazy Sundays when there is no power and I've already finished a book, written in my journal, painted a picture and contemplated going back to bed, I just run. As far as I can, and it just happens to be towards Juba (the future site of my departure from Southern Sudan). Eventually I get tired or a little bored and I walk back, sometimes through rainstorms if my timing is bad. My sojourns take me to the same place every day, but provide me with a great outlet for my Larium jitters (hey it's better than mefloquine induced psychosis...) and the other things that make me not feel like myself. So while my running could be described as culturally insensitive, I need it. Because if nothing else, after a long hot run, I feel alive again, and I feel almost the same way I do after a run in New York. Tired. A little wheezy from the exhaust. And generally slightly delirious and happy. I figure I'll take what I can get.

I've got about two weeks left in Mvolo, then I'm off to Rumbek for a few days, then Juba from there. Then finally to Nairobi and off for a whirlwind tour of Dubai and Abu Dhabi before coming back to New York on August 26th. Thanks to everyone for keeping in touch, it's been more helpful than you know, and keep it up! I'm going to be gone for a little over a month more!

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