The air's warm thickness Always catches me by surprise - An enveloping tropical blanket That I breathe in and feel settling, As I lace up running shoes To the sweep of a broom Outside my gate I’m coaxed up off the perch of my Front door step By the prospect of adventure - In autopilot I saunter up the driveway, My muscles purring at the Inevitability of the kilometres ahead Dawn is still an hour away - The overwhelming morning rays That slow-cook the city Will follow soon after, Baking the uneven pavements And simmering between layers of long-sleeved Crowds, astride their spluttering scooters, As they inch forward in morning traffic, Past sugar cane juice vendors and the Waft of street-food Until the chaos and jostle of life here unfolds I have these streets to myself - With each new stride the pulse of blood and adrenalin Propel me, Numbing the aches and pains that Escorted my lumbering frame down the stairs Moments earlier Allowing a freedom of feeling, An openness and calm, Anchors the rest of me in a Temporary vacuum, Sealed off from the humdrum of the day ahead - Egos and speculations, Emails and negotiations – A freedom of feeling connected to oneself Threading through the darkly lit hems and alleyways - An urban avatar of sorts - I choose my path, Control my outcomes, Primordial, raging instincts pull me faster forward until The stillness is complete Exhausted and gasping, I stare at the giant orange orb Cresting over Saigon bridge.
Blown by the wind I lean in
To each next flailing stride,
Eyes creep up,
Take in the green ‘scape
A rhythmic shudder of coarse
Every sinew clenched,
Fighting for oxygen
With teeth grinding left and right,
Another 100 yards,
– A kilometer even –
Holding on, and holding
Around the corner
Forest breeze surfs through my hair
And then, assured, then –
A gear change,
A release between
Then and now and why and how
Fluid, perfectly fluid,
The strokes as if through water,
Beyond pain and forward,
I woke before the shrill of my alarm clock. 12:50am. The wooden floorboards creaked as the weight of my body eased itself into a standing position, the fan above tickling my face. I excitedly purveyed the heap of running kit laid out on the floor next to my mattress.
Time waits for no man, and May 25th 2019 was here. It had been far off on the horizon when we’d signed up to run the 2019 Vietnam Jungle Marathon in Pu Luong. But, now, as I consciously took my first few breathes of the day and begun to get changed, that horizon was gone and this was starting to feel real.
I’d run one ultra marathon race before – https://definitelymaybe.me/2017/09/22/thoughts-on-motivation/ – and the memories of numerous painful moments during those 13 hours had gradually dimmed and vanished from my mind. This race was a 55km-er (so, 15km shorter than the one up in Sapa) but with plenty of steep elevation to conquer.
Although struggling with a heel problem since the end of 2017, I’d somewhat stubbornly set out and run 10kms a day on average since the beginning of January this year, and was determined to immerse myself once more in the comprehensive and full sensory experience that these events offer up. Continue reading
This often quoted line from Shakespeare’s infamous lead character, Hamlet, strikes a chord for me at the moment.
I remember Hamlet’s lasting messages, about 30 years ago at school, when we read the script in class, and were fortunate enough to then watch Kenneth Branagh play the lead at a production at The Barbican.
Since I last wrote a blog – over on the sister site to this one https://definitelymaybe.me/2019/02/04/transformation-of-the-third-sector/ – countless global news events have made Hamlet’s tormented reflections about the state of the world only more resonant.
I was sat on the balcony of The Galleface hotel, in Colombo, back in February when I wrote that last piece. Issy and me had that morning come from breakfast at The Shangri-La, a short walk away, and one of the hotels in which a terrorist blew himself up on Easter Sunday earlier this month.
Out of such horrific acts can only come the positive inklings of resilience. All else is pervasive and lasting devastation. Continue reading
So, I’m 43 years old and last week I was taught how to walk properly. Turns out I hadn’t quite got it right these last four decades of trying.
The reason I needed the refresh, for something I’d taken for granted for so many years, was the amount of running I took on last year, to complete the personal challenge of finishing the Sapa Vietnam Mountain Marathon – a sizeable 70 kms, 3,000 metres and 13 hours of mountain running on the day itself.
By New Year’s Eve, I’d clocked up over 3,500 kms of running for 2017. Enough, it transpired, to ensure a memorable time in Sapa, but also to cause a serious malfunction in my left heel.
Many people in the world today have their sights set on personal challenges and an ambition for satisfying outcomes. Longer, faster, tougher – the pursuit of something that seems unobtainable, combined with the thrill of proving, ultimately, that it isn’t.
I’ve written about why I like to run in previous posts. The programme of rehabilitation I’m now on, following 6 months of chronic heel pain and various misdiagnoses, I hope, will get me running again.
However, first, I’ve to fundamentally change a number of things I do in order to walk.
[For those of you interested, in addition to some sturdier inner soles, the tweaks made to my walking style include: keeping my chin up; shoulders further back; hips up and forward; feet pointed slightly inward; and then pushing off of the bottom of the ball of the big toe. There you have it, I’ll give that to you for free!]
It ended up being of little shock to learn that, when it comes to walking and running, I’ve been doing some of the basic things not quite right for many years now, and without realizing. A situation which feels analogous to other things in life.
To anyone familiar with my writing, it’s the development sector – my precious development sector – that springs to mind when making such comparisons, and how organisations, like CARE, seek to bring about change, and understand what change means.
Change can happen in a day, it can happen in a week, and sometimes it can take a lifetime. The type of change that CARE, and many working in this sector aim for is, you’ve guessed it, long-term change. Sustained, meaningful, generational outcomes. How does that manifest? As a sector we’ve collectively tried different ways and forms of intervening, and we’ve learnt a lot – some of which I’ve covered through blog posts, here and over on http://www.definitelymaybe.me.
Details aside, I think the biological analogy is a good one. After 6 months of trying to repair my heel using various interventions (including acupuncture, laser treatment, shock wave therapy, white blood cell injections – you name it, I experimented the hell out of it) the root cause of the issue was revealed to be connected to a bunch of things located far, far away from my Achilles heel. My neck, my shoulders, my core, my hips, my glutes, my quads, pretty much all the other parts of my body were conspiring against my heel.
It became instantly clear then that my heel would never improve unless all these constituent parts had received a full, physical makeover.
I’m fortunate to have found, just a week ago, a Vietnamese sports physio, named Danny Dong. Danny’s is a name I’ll not forget for a while, not merely because of the sheer charm it conveys (never since being introduced to a ‘Mr Phuc Dat’ the second week I arrived in Saigon, in 2011, has a name left such an endearing impression on me) but because Danny has helped put me on a road to recovery that feels as close to empowering as I’ve felt in a good long while.
This has not been without some ‘growing pains’. Earlier today, Danny took me through an agonizing session, reinforcing his instinctive advice (when first watching me move) of how the right side of my body is so much more flexible and stronger than the left.
Suspicions he had about this (and about the nature of my overly stiff hamstrings, and soreness in my right shoulder) he readily set about confirming, as he attacked the solid lumps of innate muscle tissue underneath my left foot – dormant for months since being rendered too contorted to be otherwise – and subjected me to a form of foot torture the likes of which I’ve never experienced.
Moments of writhing pain later, and an initial softening of some of the muscles in my foot, and he set to work on some of the other culprits (alas, there were many). But, as the old adage goes – there is no gain without pain.
In social development terminologies, we know that to bring about change in a meaningful way, in countries such as Pakistan or Egypt or Sudan, does not always necessitate placing more resources directly into those contexts, but instead can be served better by resourcing elsewhere – around the policy making tables in Washington or in Brussels, perhaps.
Similarly, for many garment factory workers around the world, CARE has been able to build their individual agency and skills directly (through training courses, for example) however it is in dialogue with the world’s leading retail companies (whose procurement teams tend to be head-quartered in Hong Kong) that we stand more chance of influencing the conditions and the lives of garment workers, operating as they do out of the myriad of countries from where these buyers source products.
CARE does not have an office in Hong Kong, but there are ways and means of engaging these companies, provided 1.) we are clear on how the particular eco-system operates, and 2.) we are open to trying new approaches, and driving new conversations.
Just as I am now being schooled in how various parts of my body, overlooked for too long, each have an important role to play in the act of me walking.
Danny tells me that next week he is going to teach me how to run. Let me hope I can live up to his expectations and do so, and better than before and, fingers crossed, for another 43 years.
It seems to me that to do that – ie running “better” – requires me to make a continued shift (in my case, a literal ‘pivot’) on the topic of what I think running looks like in the first place.
And, as a concluding call to action from this particular reflection, I’d suggest, as a sector, that we take that spirit of reframing into as many of our discussions as we can.
We should take it into the exchange of ideas and engagement we have with our peers, or with the private sector and those companies with whom we partner, with policy makers, with local community leaders, activists, social changemakers, and the many others in society who are so often excluded, yet who we absolutely know hold the keys to unlocking many of the issues of the day, and of our time.
Let us never assume we know everything, and strive to be open to new ways of getting the job done – working, walking, running, scaling mountains, whatever our pursuit.
These things are all connected, and we can always find ways of improving, so that the learning curve each of us is on will never, in our lifetime, need plateau.
It’s been 9 weeks now since I ran a single kilometre. Some kind of achilles tendon issue, which I’ve been unable to resolve, has kept me off the roads. A corticosteroid injection this afternoon will mark the latest in a string of interventions.
Since that last outing, I’ve been mainly frustrated at being “off games” – as we used to say at school – and quickly realised the need for new goals and focus.
We purchased a juicer (to help keep the carbs down) and I’ve spent more time than usual contemplating other things. I’ve had a steady slew of trips and, whilst home, Issy and me have kept up the routine of work, spending time with the girls, socializing, planning holidays, and indulging in those divine moments of quiet, when the house is still and you have no commitments or reasons to be anywhere else.
Overall, not running has meant I’ve read more, written more, and thought more about the future.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m very keen to start exercising properly again. I wonder, however, to what extent my once regular 60+kms week was providing me with the space to think, or the space to feel dis-connected from the humdrum of the “day-to-day”? I think it was. Continue reading
I’m not on Facebook however, as of this week, I am on Facebook, thanks to a small voluntary organisation in Cambridge – called Fight Against Blindness – for whom I’m attempting to raise some funds over the next month.
Here is our combined “pitch” (just scroll down in the link) to anyone on Facebook, and interested in donating: https://www.facebook.com/fightagainstblindnessRP/?fref=ts
And for any non-Facebook users, this is the direct link to the JustGiving site I’ve set up, should you wish to get involved: http://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/saigonsays
Fight Against Blindness are a small voluntary organisation specialising in providing funds for Professional Cognitive Behavioural Therapy for children at Addenbrooke’s Hospital Eye Clinic Cambridge, as well as other clinics in the South East of England.
I was first introduced to them via friends whose son uses their counseling services, and for whom this has had profoundly positive effects (the JustGiving page provides a small window into their experiences.)
I can’t recall if I’ve doused these pages with ramblings about the event I’m under-taking?
Some time back I used to run marathons, and then for whatever reason, and after a long stretch away from running, 10 months ago I signed up for a new challenge. This one is quite a departure from anything I’ve done before: 70kms, and mainly in ‘trekking’ conditions as opposed to road running. The event in total involves climbing 3,000 metres.
I’ll be doing this in Vietnam, in some of the country’s northern highlands. It’s a 4am start and I hope to finish around 5pm.
So, I wouldn’t say I’m ‘fit as a fiddle’ at this stage, but I’ve definitely upped my game because of the impending event…
Training in the sweat-box that is Saigon, with its pollution, humidity, crazy traffic, and ruptured pavements, is not always an uplifting experience, but all in all I’ve really enjoyed being back on the running scene again. Last month, in the UK, I embraced exploring old routes down the River Thames, and then indulged in the open outcrops of green down at my parent’s house in the New Forest, catching the deer off guard at dawn.
I’ve been running as much as I can these past months, and on as many of my travels as possible. I wasn’t allowed to run in Gaza back in May, but everywhere else I’ve been this year I’ve tended to use the opportunity to see some sights: from dodging Jakarta traffic, running along the ocean (whilst koala spotting) in Australia, skipping down Colombo’s beach front, meeting elephants in Rajasthan whilst searching for Forts and Palaces, all the way through to jogging through the Old City in Jerusalem, in awe at the American flags on display at the time (the day before Trump arrived there) – some spectacular sights, and some memorable moments, have been had, for sure.
I wouldn’t admit, on the other hand, that my recent commitment to “stay off the booze for 6 weeks” to get “really fit” has totally succeeded. I’m leveling most of the blame here on Bombay Sapphire, which I recently discovered uses Queen Victoria as its brand ambassador (the only Royal ever to promote any product) after she once noted that it was “every Englishman’s right to drink gin”. Enough said.
However, regardless of my terrible will power when it comes to an evening tipple, as of today I’ve run 2,140 kms since first pacing around Raymond Island on New Year’s Day (which was followed at the time by jumping in the adjacent lake to cure the hangover). This morning I also managed to climb up 200 flights of stairs, as part of my workout, and in a vain attempt to practice “hills”.
I’m nervous, and just ever so slightly thrilled by the prospect of what September 23rd’s race day will bring for me (will I make it round the course “ok” or will it be utterly horrendous?) The thought of lining up at the start alongside, no doubt, a herd of wiry framed Mo Farah lookalikes, head torches glaring and pulses up, will be something that keeps me awake for the next four weeks, although I am sure it will be quite a special experience at the same time.
Your support and your solidarity behind me will give me that extra boost of confidence, I have no doubt, and, most importantly I can assure you that the Fight Against Blindness team will be hugely grateful for any funds or awareness you can raise for them in the process. Thank you in advance for either.
Wish me luck!
This morning I went out running and an unusual thing happened to me whilst I stopped to buy water – a toddler took a leak on my foot.
Unusual, perhaps, as I stop to buy water in Saigon most days whilst running, and in fact at least twice a day I’m likely to buy something from a street vendor, yet not in the 6.5 years since living here, has a toddler peed on me during any of these transactions.
In fact, I’m 99% sure this is the first time anyone has urinated on me in my life.
I was as angry as I was crest-fallen during the experience – albeit an experience which lasted just the few seconds until I noticed what was happening, prompted as I was by another customer astride a scooter pointing it out to me. I was angry at the person selling the water – for it was her toddler. And crestfallen at the incongruity and farcical parameters which framed this, now documented, episode in my life.
To accuse a one year old of a roadside crime is clearly nonsense. Surely, I told myself just 20 metres away after marching off with my drink, this was a fluke coincidence of nature. A toddler needs to relieve himself and there, tree-like, stands a leg and a bright yellow trainer to take the hit.
However, once 50 metres away, I then recalled how, only moments before the act, the young chancer had tugged at the two inner soles I was carrying (my shoes were rubbing in the humidity and I’d removed the inners) but I’d refused him the chance of taking them from me. Perhaps then this was his way of having the last laugh, given I’d curtailed his advances on my tongue shaped slices of rubber?
As I’d marched off from the stall, snatching my change (and utterly losing face in the process, of course) the vendor yelled at the boy and started towards him. I started my run again but sure enough, as this quandary of speculation buzzed about in my head, I briefly turned to see the little guy bawling his eyes out, tottering about and looking just as confused as me about what had taken place.
So naturally I then felt the guilt of even stopping for the stupid bottle of water in the first place. I wished instead that I’d smiled more at both of them, found some empathy, rather than screwing my face up into the all-too-familiar incredulous ex-pat look, which somehow tries to convey, in one eyebrow scrunched-up stare, the words “seriously?!”
I invoke the “seriously” pose a lot in Vietnam – usually at 4×4 vehicles, driven badly or parked inconsiderately, however the pose is very adaptable, and works in restaurants, bars, taxis and generally in most walks of life out here. And each time the pose is deployed, I usually reflect afterwards what a waste of energy it (along with, now and again, some additional fist-pumping and gesticulating) ends up amounting to.
Another frequent “thing” concerns local dogs and their owners. I’ve often tried to take up roadside debates with dog owners here, as their mangy muts come hurtling up to me, yapping and biting at my heels.
Only this weekend, I was sprung upon by four dogs at once during a run, and the dog owner in question wouldn’t even look me in the face whilst I attempted to engage in a discussion about why they weren’t calling their dogs off me. Instead, the owner just swept their door-step. Their tactics and logic, I had to conclude, being that if they didn’t look at me they didn’t need to acknowledge the fact that I was stood there, with one of the snarling hounds attached firmly to my running laces, asking them to discuss their rather obvious lack of interest in disciplining their own dog.
After that encounter, I fantasized about picking up said dog, and hurling it into the canal opposite their owner’s house, only to then again wrestle with the guilt of doing such a thing when clearly, as pets, dogs who lunge at any passing stranger are probably reacting out of fear and might be being “disciplined” daily – in perhaps the same way that the young boy this morning experienced: more corporal punishment, than pastoral care.
What to do about something (whether you might believe I’m rightly or wrongly laying judgement down on these individuals) that is beyond your individual control or influence?
Well, social movements have proven to influence and changes norms, and are usually initiated and inspired by small numbers of people, so one answer to this question is to start a movement against….against what exactly? I am asking parents not to hit their kids and dog owners not to beat their dogs? Well, yes, and….
Cultural and social norms are clearly so pervasive that they remain complex tectonic plates to shift. Unless, perhaps, inside of a respective society there are consensual agreements about some of these topics and behaviours, shared by all. Schools, governments, civil society groups, employers, parents – a united front is required to make certain things really become binding. You’d think. But we know of course that just because a country signs on to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child doesn’t translate necessarily into all children NOT having these rights taken away from them.
And me living in a different country, thinking one thing and carrying my own set of values, does not translate very effectively (I’ve learnt) into me and my “way” having any credence or traction with other people living here.
Agree to disagree, move on and let it be? Maybe that is one answer, but it’s not really working for me (says the man who would throw a dog in a canal to win an argument).
At a recent meeting with a local Saigon NGO, a colleague there talked very plainly about growing up in Vietnam.
“I was never allowed an opinion as a child” she explained, “not at home and not at school – kids here aren’t expected to have a view on things, or be listened to by their elders. So, I never did really talk to adults, except to do what they told me to do.”
Funny, how in this “modernising” part of Asia – labelled as such by many because of the region’s accelerated construction projects, bustling coffee chains and fast-food franchises, catapulting the middle classes into new and exciting public spaces, which will empty their wallets and fatten their waistlines – funny, how this changing face of Asia is, at once, scarring the streets of cities like Saigon, with an ugly new frontage of brands and plastic products yet, at the same time, does perhaps modernising bring with it a helpful scythe across the ankles of existing cultural and social norms, which may just be in need of some updating?