As a former collegiate athlete, exercise has always been a part of my life. In recent years, running has been my go-to stress relief and I have maintained my routine since arriving in India. However, unlike my long runs on Chicago’s Lake Shore path, I have found it nearly impossible to clear my head.
This isn’t surprising. I’ve already described the traffic, which forces me to be constantly aware of my surroundings. I have also mentioned that my blonde hair and fair skin elicit curious looks, though the sheer fact that I am running is enough for people to stare (in my nearly three months in Chakradharpur, I have only seen three other people running). And this is one of the times I am grateful that I do not understand the language — I’d rather not know what people are saying as I run by in my too-tight-for-rural-India-standards running attire. All of this comes with the territory of running in a place like Chakradhapur and I have, for the most part, come to accept it.
By living here, I’ve realized that running, and exercise in general, is a luxury. As I run, I can’t help but notice that most people are not wearing shoes, which leads me to wonder if they even own a pair. Running also requires “free” time. I usually run between 6-7AM, and sometimes even earlier. It seems that, no matter how early I am up, people are already working: the woman sweeping the entry to my building, the young boys herding cattle and the men constructing a new building. In a place like Chakradharpur, with sporadic electricity and very few street lamps, all running and work has to be done in the daylight. Finally, manual labor is exercise. These people spend all day long doing backbreaking work: harvesting the fields, hand-washing laundry, cooking, cleaning and other forms of manual labor. Could you imagine going for a run after doing this all day?
These are my thoughts during each run. Like many people who live and work in developing countries, I have learned that I cannot feel guilty for the advantages I have had growing up in the U.S. One thing I try to remember is that while I see and understand the injustices in these communities – the high rates of infant and maternal mortality, deaths from preventable diseases, inadequate education systems, lack of clean water, the list goes on and on – for the poorest of the poor, this is the only life they know. And while this is a hard for us to understand and accept, it does not mean they are unhappy or dissatisfied with their lives.
As outsiders, we understand what it takes to improve these people’s lives. Not only does there need to be system-wide improvements, but before change can be made, these people need to understand that they can have control over their own lives.
Put it this way: before people in Chakradharpur can imagine what life is like in Chicago, they need to know that it exists.