SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 25, 2012

Running: A cultural education

Rachel Bell
The Salem News

---- — I’ve discovered that you can learn quite a bit about a country’s culture when you’re a runner. For example, I’ve recently been struck by two extremes of dog care: the non-interference, leave-them-alone, sometimes-leave-out-scraps-of-food attitude of people in Thailand, and the take-them-to-doggie-day-care, wrap-up-their-poop-in-little-blue-plastic-bags, hire-a-dog-sitter-when-you-go-anywhere protectiveness of people in America.

If you’re a morning runner — like me — you see all sorts of things that late risers don’t. Such as the people who walk their dogs on West Beach in Beverly, despite the “Absolutely No Dogs Year Round” sign at the entrance. In fact, I’ve become nodding-hello-as-we-pass friends with a brown-haired woman who walks her highly energetic collie on the beach every morning. The collie’s name is Max.

Max races up and down the beach, sniffing and panting as though each morning is his first time there, barking with ecstatic urgency at the gulls and plovers. Max doesn’t find me very exciting. Thank goodness.

Dogs can be a runner’s nightmare. They bite, they chase, they bark. They’re unpredictable. And unlike the gulls and plovers, I can’t fly away when I’m chased, an ability that would have come in very handy during the six months I lived in Thailand.

Chiang Mai, a beautiful, modern city on Northern Thailand, is full of dogs, and there’s no pound or animal shelter to keep them in check. They roam the streets in packs, sleep inside people’s doorways and live in temple grounds where monks (and tourists) won’t chase them away. Unlike the dogs here in the U.S., those dogs aren’t pets; they’re mangy, scrawny street dogs. While some Thai people do keep dogs as pets in their homes, most of the canine population lives on the streets.

I had to be on hyper-alert mode on my morning runs in Thailand crossing the street to the other side whenever I saw a pack of dogs ahead of me. Most of the time, they were docile or sleepy and completely ignored me. But not always.

One morning just before sunrise, I was running around “the old city” of Chiang Mai — a square block in the middle of the city that is surrounded by an ancient moat and the remnants of solid stone walls. I turned a corner, my MP3 music pumping in my ears, sweating in the 5:30 a.m. Asian humidity, when a small part of my consciousness registered a faint shout somewhere (some kind soul taking pity of the poor farang girl about to be attacked).

I took out my earphones and turned around to see a large, white dog running straight for me. And it wasn’t the “oh-look-someone-to-play-with” sort of running, it was the “I’m-gonna-bite-this-girl-in-the-leg” running.

Now, I’m certainly not brave. But I can be immensely practical and in that moment — as this strange dog raced toward me — my practical mind pushed the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified girl inside of me aside and took control.

I ran toward the dog, clapped my hands hard and shouted, “EY!” The dog stopped, completely surprised and stared at me in confusion. “Don’t!” I yelled.

Then I did something that made the cowardly, heart-racing, petrified side of me want to strangle the practical side of me. I turned around, and kept running. Luckily, the dog didn’t follow.

Jogging on the beach in Beverly, watching Max yap at the gulls, I am constantly reminded of that dog chase in Thailand. I’ve realized that jogging is something of a cultural education; it requires not only physical but also mental energy. You have to abide by the unspoken cultural, social, everyday rules around you and accept that they are necessary. You have to learn the flow of the country and ride along with it in order to survive. Or avoid being bitten in the leg by dogs.

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Rachel Bell is a recent graduate of Gordon College, where she studied international development. She currently works in the college’s chapel office and lives in Beverly Farms.