Note: One of the things I wanted to do during this 20 days of 20 minutes is to go back and rewrite some things I had previously written. So, while the following is not new content, I hope it is better than the piece I wrote years ago… And, since I had a GREAT run today, this is the rewrite I decided to work on first.
I am a runner. And as all runners know, there are a few runs over the course of time that stand out as “epic.” The runs that fly by, effortlessly, heart beat kept in check, muscles never tired. I can count on one hand that kind. And this was one.
I arrived in just another foreign city for work after an endless flight (20 hours or more was never unusual back then). And, as was almost always the case in the last years of my travels, I really just wanted to go home. The flight and the taxi ride from the airport were blurs of drowsy half sleep; again, as always.
As was my practice, I arrived a few days early to have some time to walk the streets and get settled in. Still… this particular trip was different. I apparently had a whole day to myself.
So, when my hosts, who were aware of my love of running, invited me to run with a few of them on a tour of the city, I agreed with real excitement. I was excited because some of my best runs ever were during times when I was jet-lagged beyond description (like that run from the canyons south of SLO to Avila Beach after the 24 flight from India—8 miles that flew by on a sprint from the hills to the sea along the California coast).
Anyway, they encouraged me to tag along and suggested that it would be a great way to get to know the city. I was too tired to remember other runs I had had in that place and, frankly, was so fried I was not even thinking about where I was.
There was only one caveat: we were going to a “rough part of town” and they needed to clear it with a seasoned runner (run club leader?) who knew the terrain. Apparently, he was going to “approve” me (or not). Though marginally irked that I might not be able to hack it (I mean, dammit, I had already run in about 30 different countries and was in great shape), I was also cognizant that he may not want to drag someone along who was going to wimp out after a couple of miles in a difficult environment. I counted on my colleagues (though I must say that I did not really know them all that well) to smooth the way with the run leader. The fact that they seemed unconcerned about my “fitness” put me at ease.
They picked me up before the sun (I had been up for hours already—again, jet lag) and we headed off to meet the others. We arrived in a part of town (I never really followed the route—why should I, I was with them?), away from where I arrived and they led me into a small room. I knew that the town was poor and “broken down”—I would not have been there if they had NOT needed “development” (right? I mean, that was my job). The runner/leader entered soon after (we were about 6 in all) and sidled by. He seemed to pay limited attention to me but, kind of dismissively, acknowledged my presence and indicated I was “good to go.”
But I was caught up short. The leader seemed to take me in from “the side.” He never really looked at me but kind of caught me from a peripheral glance. I know it sounds strange but… he did not see me at all.
He was blind.
At least “legally”. He wore no glasses but I knew immediately that he could not see (at least in the way I was used to seeing).
But, I was approved and I figured that one of the group was going to guide him on the way. I have seen stranger things. I have known “blind” people who ride bikes (and even a few who drive—during the day), so the fact that he was in that state was not alarming. More a curiosity than a concern.
We headed out soon afterward and what did shock me a bit was that he led the way. I mean, no one guided him, verbally or otherwise. He was on his own but clearly knew the way. Strange but kind of cool. The minute we left the building where we had all met up I realized that the city was both new and strangely familiar to me.
(Look, when you have traveled as much as I have EVERY place reminds you of somewhere else, even as it is unique and strange. I can’t explain it beyond that.)
But this place was similar/unique in a different way. It was clearly a very poor place. Rubble was everywhere but it was also clearly not the rubble of war or conflict. No, this place was in decay. The broken walls, the crumbling houses, the piles of brick—they were not due to bombardment. Rather, the whole place was simply falling apart. Streets were clogged with broken concrete that had simply given way after years without maintenance. It was evident that houses had stood here but their walls had crumbled and their inhabitants lived in the open with little fire pits or stoves to warm their food and sheets (torn and tattered) strung up to separate “rooms” that lacked roofs.
There was a serene, sad, failure about the whole scene.
Our run through this landscape was with a quick pace and required nimble feet (glad I had brought my “trail runners”). The leader led the way without pause. I was, frankly, shocked that he could wend his way among this mess, this mass, without stumbling. I mean, the guy really was blind.
We followed and I was amazed that he seemed to know the path by heart and his foot never faltered though we dodged debris and the piles of what had tumbled. As we ran he blithely noted, here and there, the projects underway to fix this or that, to mend this wall, to rebuild this quadrant. I quickly ascertained that he was some kind of development expert who had been here for some time and had a vision for what was needed to turn this thing around. (I can’t really remember much about him—except that the others running with us seemed to treat him as someone who really knew the place and they seemed to be full of respect for him and his knowledge of the place).
He greeted lots of folks along the way and they replied with smiles. We ran single-file and all I remember is that we had to run single-file because the wasteland of that place was startling. I mean, this was as bad as I had ever seen. What “quartier” were we in any way? I would have to check into that later.
But my mind was troubled as we ran (Had we gone about 2 miles or more like 6? It was hard to tell, like any “new” run, this one held so much intrigue that I was really not keeping track).
Everything seemed familiar… everything different.
It reminded me of Kolkata where I had arisen at 4:00 am to run before the heat and had stumbled over bodies along the sidewalks. That was the time I had added up the cost of my running gear (shoes, shirt and shorts) and realized the value was way beyond the annual wage of the people who slept under the burlap sacks over which I stumbled on the sidewalk outside my hotel. But it was not Kolkata.
It reminded me of Ouagadougou, where I had run past the Presidential palace with guards who eyed me at 6:00 am, nervous, until I waved and we shared a “bon jour” and I breathed in the pre-dawn heat of a Sahel morning. The dust already up and mangoes awaiting me for breakfast. But it was not Ouaga.
It reminded me of Bay, on the main island of the Philippines, where the humidity strangled me after two miles and I gasped my way back to the guest house, sweat pouring from me for hours afterward as I doubted my heart’s ability to keep up. But this was not “Metro Manila.”
But it was one of those good runs. I never tired and my heart never raced (thanks, jet lag) and the leader kept up his commentary of how this was all going to change and the rubble was going to give way to clinics, and houses, and the end of addiction, and no more violence, and children without sickness (of mind and body) and… And I felt like I had never felt so nimble and free and I started wondering if I might be able to run forever and… I felt SO good. Like I said… One of THOSE runs (you know what I mean).
But the rubble was stacked up and I felt bad about the “brokenness” of the place. Like Haiti? Like Mazar es Sharif? Like the Townships?
The leader brought us to a halt on a small pile of rubble—a bit higher than the others. I was thoroughly impressed. This blind guy had led us across the busted terrain without a stumble. We breathed in the morning air. Feeling good. I was NOT tired and ready to go on.
From somewhere he brought out a kind of telescope—or eyeglass (“Where the hell did that come from?”—was all I could think). He asked me to have a look. I was going to ask those who had invited me whether we were going to be working here or somewhere else… but…
I hold it to my eye and see the expanse of the city through which we have just passed to the south and east and west. It is far worse than I had thought. Things really are bad here (I often say that to myself on such trips). I look north (sun just starting to rise to my right) and see empty fields strewn with weeds. My heart aches. The productive capacity of those fields… But they sit fallow.
And then the telescope seems to invert.
And I am looking through the “wrong” end.
And I am rushing away from the fields and town and…
I look down at the Garmin on my wrist… Ten miles… Wow… Got “lost” in the run again.
Where have I been for the last hour and a half?
Mind drifting. Yeah.
I stop my watch. I am standing in front of my apartment, having crossed the ten miles of my town…
All so familiar.