A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas

by Rachel Pieh Jones on December 6, 2013

running wealthOther posts in the series:

A Practical (Running) Life Overseas (tips for starting to run as an expat)

A Communal (Running) Life Overseas (building community while doing what you love)

A Philosophical (Running) Life Overseas 

I run with my iPhone. In an armband. With earphones. In Djibouti this makes me feel excessively wealthy, especially when I consider that runners I knew, interviewed, ran with, have died in search of a better life than the Horn of Africa can offer.

The armband Velcro melted off months ago so I twist it all around itself to keep it on. The earphones are missing the cushiony part on one side and only one earplug actually works. In places were suffering means you still use the iPhone 4 or can only go out to eat twice per week, this constitutes severe deprivation.

I wear a waist belt packed full with four bottles of water I freeze overnight and Gu and Chapstick and enough change for a taxi or a phone call or another bottle of water. The zippers rusted out on the pack so none of the pockets close. The Velcro salted over and I have to continually retighten it to keep from losing the belt. This means I drink more water while running than some people drink in a day. I have more money in my running belt than some earn in a day.

I alternate between Asics and Saucony shoes. I wear running pants and shirts and sports bras and socks that, even though I bought them on clearance and keep them until they literally fall apart, mean I spend more on my running clothes than most of the people I run by in the early mornings will spend on clothing for the year.

I struggle with this. Here I come, burning calories because I have more than enough to eat. Here I come, with the leisure time to spend running. Here I come, wearing my rich clothes. Here I come, with my fancy gadgets.running and wealth

Am I not supopsed to run until everyone, everywhere, has the time, money, and energy to run? I could stay inside and use exercise DVDs to stay in shape, I could join a club (if there was an affordable one with functioning machines) where I would exercise indoors and street kids wouldn’t see me. I could quit exercising altogether.

But. I am very aware of my privilege, running is an example of that privilege. Not running, or running in secret does nothing to address this issue. It would simply mask my abundance. There is a subtle lie here, easily believed, that hiding behind walls or being ashamed of quality running shoes would somehow make the economic difference between myself and many Djiboutians less true.

So I’m not going to stop and I’m not going to hide and I’m not going to run in terrible shoes that will cause an injury.

What should I do? I can make wise choices about my clothes and shoes and gadgets. I can make them last as long as possible and can not be pressured to buy the latest model or fashion when there is nothing (drastically) wrong with the one I have. I can give my water bottle, still half-full, to the boy begging, when I realize I won’t need it all today.

I don’t plan on quitting running. I don’t plan on running barefoot (tried) or without water (tried) or naked (never tried). But I do think about the people I run by and pray for them. I smile at the kids and slap their hands, high-five style. I greet the older women, macooyo, grandmother. I cheer on the few other runners.

When I run in Djibouti, I’m entering the dust and heat and sunrises of this nation. I’m passing the donkey carts with loads of grass and sticks, jumping over cat carcasses. Smelling rotisserie chickens and fresh baguettes. I’m waving at women weaving baskets and humming along with the call to prayer. I pound my fist on taxis when they drive too close and explore side streets that lead to the ocean. I’m greeting shopkeepers and promising fruit stand guys that I’ll come by later for their delish-looking mangoes. I know when construction starts a few blocks over and when a new family set up a shack in the empty lot on the corner.

Instead of hiding my abundance from Djiboutians, when I run, I am learning to engage with them.

running and wealth

And I don’t feel the disparity in those moments. I don’t know, maybe they do, but I have had men selling bananas tell me the only reason they went out to watch the half marathon was because they thought I would be running in it, felt they knew me, and wanted to cheer.

This idea of ‘relationship’ doesn’t solve issues of economic divides. But at least running in the streets makes me aware and forces me to think, relate, respond. I’m still working on how to live with my plenty with integrity, how to be generous without feeling pressured, how to live with gratitude without guilt, how to live with my eyes wide open and my heart tenderly malleable.

This issue is a marathon issue, probably even an ultra. I have a long ways to go.

Do you run (or engage in other similar activites) in a developing country? In what ways do you feel compelled to mask your abundance?

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About Rachel Pieh Jones

Rachel was raised in the Christian west and said, ‘you betcha’ and ate Jell-O salads, she now lives in the Muslim east, says ‘insha Allah,’ and eats samosas. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Family Fun, Running Times, and more, and she blogs for Brain Child and Babble.
  • Honorine

    I run in Congo and have had the same struggles. But the Congolese are so encouraging when I run, cheering me on. That is what keeps me going.

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      This is great to hear – that they cheer you on. Sometimes I get cheered, other times jeered. But the cheers do seem to carry more weight.

  • Pingback: Running, Wealth, and Poverty | Djibouti Jones()

  • Kate

    I run in Papua New Guinea, but I do it on a treadmill inside a stuffy room now, because I got fed up with people staring at me, fed up with running in a skirt, and fed up with twisting my ankles on the rocky roads. And, yes, I felt bad running past women who have walked 2 hours barefoot in the early morning to come and clean the expat houses I run past. A woman’s life here is hard. No-one runs for fun, or does anything ‘for exercise’. I’m still trying to figure out the ‘guilt’ thing after 10+ years here. But the running is what keeps me sane – I can feel the stress melt away as soon as I start. I’m enjoying your posts Rachel, thanks.

  • These philosophical discussions always set my head spinning. There are no “right” answers about the disparaging vastness that separates the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’. You make a good point about not letting the lack of someone else be the excuse we use for neglecting a healthy practice. Still hard, though.

    I had a running experience yesterday morning. Many other joggers run at the park I go to. Usually a simple exchange of verbal greetings, and a grin, accompanies any passing or crossing of paths. I saw a pair of guys in running gear trotting towards me. They seemed harmless enough. As we approached each other on the path one of them called out in English, “You’re tie-red!” I wasn’t even half done with my run! Grated, I get tomato red when I exercise. And maybe I hadn’t yet put the customary greeting grin on my face. But still! Not cool.

    As I reflected on that exchange, and how much it bugged me, I was reminded about the power of encouragement. As we run on this path of life (working, parenting, marriage, social stuff, daily duties, serving, friendships, etc.) and we encounter others out there trying to do life, too, we should say nice things to each other. Not practice our clever language skills to tear others down. Seriously!

    Thanks for writing this series. I hope many others are encouraged like I was. You rock, Rachel!

    • Rachel ‘Pieh’ Jones

      Thanks Angie. Right back at you! About the running – I totally agree, good point to connect that to other areas in which we need encouragement. Almost everytime I run people tell me that I look tired, that I should stop, that I’m slow, that I’m about to get passed by a group of French soldiers (all male and all in tight shorts!). Not exactly encouraging. But then once in a while someone will smile softly, give a thumbs up or say bon courage and that makes such a huge difference, I feel encouraged for the whole day afterwards. Oh, and I also turn that tomato red.

  • Tara Porter-Livesay

    I’ve had amazing human connections made running in Port au Prince and I’ve been left feeling vulnerable and upset — running is for sure a way to see life at street level (way different than from the window of your car) and to engage as best we can in the reality of the streets our friends occupy.

  • Whitney Conard

    I’ve stopped running since getting pregnant, but I do try to take evening walks through our neighborhood. The Cambodians love it – I think it amuses them to see a pregnant woman exercising, since that just isn’t a cultural “thing” here. Pregnant women are expected to sit around and do basically nothing. But I’ve even walked with a couple other women who have watched me walk and decided to join me. I find it as a great way to open up conversations with them and encourage them.

    As far as masking my abundance – to some extent, I don’t think I can mask the fact that I am a rich, white, educated Westerner. I do try hard to be sensitive to how that affects the way I interact with Cambodians. But I know I can’t hide who I am. Cambodians will ask me point-blank how much my housing costs, or how much money my husband makes, or how much it costs to fly back home – and I don’t feel comfortable lying or avoiding telling them the truth. I think when you develop relationships with people, it helps overcome those barriers and the misconceptions that both sides have about each other.

  • Abigail Snyder

    When I moved to Tanzania in June, I brought my (by U.S. cyclists’ standards) average-priced mountain bike along with me, originally intending on using that as my primary means of transportation. Here, while in some parts of the country, many women do ride bicycles, in Dar es Salaam, it is rare to see women on bicycles. There are a few “decent” bicycles around, but most are old, run-down, and would be given away or trashed on the side of a U.S. street. But those beat-up, run-down bicycles are the sole valuable possessions of their riders here in Dar. And so when I roll by, whether in spandex cycling shorts on a training ride, or even just in street clothes commuting to the market or to work, I sometimes pale in embarrassment. Should I just walk? I could walk. It would only take 45 minutes (as opposed to 10 or 15). In recent months, I haven’t worn my cycling shorts and shoes, opting instead for basketball shorts and flip-flops, which, though less conducive to cycling itself, help me to blend in (who am I really kidding?) a bit more. Oh yeah. And my helmet sits unused in my room. Because nobody here wears them (although after almost getting hit head-on by a car this week, I’m re-thinking that decision).

    Maybe this weekend I need to go for a ride. And really ride.

  • Bev Kauffeldt

    Great read! I work and have worked and lived in Liberia West Africa for the past 10 years with a faith based organization. I run. I run a lot-I have trained for 3 marathons and one half while living here, and most recently an ultra. What has been great to see-is many of my coworkers join in exercising or running including our Liberian staff. It has been something we have shared together. Recently I ran an ultra from one village to another-37.5 miles-a not a race just a run a co-worker and i wanted to do. Passing through villages that we have worked in-where people knew us and cheered for us was a great experience. They don’t see my shoes, running gear, they see a person ‘taking exercise’-as we wave and say ‘hello’. Thank you so much for your great wise words and honesty-will share it with my running friends!

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