When in Rome

Erbil, Kurdistan (Northern Iraq) isn’t what you’d call cycle-friendly, with its cars drifting across lanes, driving with no lights, minor unmarked roadworks at intersections, with spikes of rebar exposed to impale yourself upon, you could get into trouble on a bicycle very quickly. So, until the airport ever re-opens, allowing me to bring out a smart trainer and road or TT bike to train in the apartment, it’s down to the local gym.

Last night, I visited a new gym and pool facility for my first session.  I say new, the only thing new in this place is my enthusiasm for training indoors!

The equipment is old and the bikes in the gym have saddles that are just about tolerable but at least they don’t look like they belong on a Harley Davidson (as the ones in the other gyms in Erbil do).  Old equipment isn’t really an issue,  as let’s face it, in everything I do, I’m using some pretty old equipment that’s still just about functioning, so I should be a good fit.

The gym is men-only (the women-only gym is upstairs).  Consider a region that has suffered decades of oppressive dictatorship, wars with its neighbors, routine bombing of its northern reaches by Turkey, refugees from Syria, displaced by IS, who themselves got within 25km (16 miles) of Erbil as they advanced across Iraq.  These guys take fitness seriously. It’s a real possibility that some day, in who knows what circumstances, they may find themselves fighting for their lives and I have to say, they look ready! The gym is full of men that in most gyms back home would stand out from the crowd.  The work they’re putting in fills the air – quite literally.  Once you’ve been in there for a while, you don’t notice it anymore…. I tell myself.

What the Kurds boast in the gym, they lack in the pool.  As I jumped in for my swim session, I was faced with groups of men standing in the middle of the pool chatting, a few marching across the shallows with their hands over their heads that reminded me of scenes from Vietnam war movies.  Those that were swimming, swam widths, not lengths of the pool, in a style that most closely resembled the kids of my youth, swimming across the canal, heads high and gasping for air.  The balance of them were in the deep end, repeatedly diving off the side, displaying the antics of middle-aged teen agers.

I knew it would be challenging but determined to get by session done, I set about it.  Almost immediately, I realised that I’d have to modify the session.  There seemed to be no awareness of space or pace through the water.  After three collisions and several near misses, I resolved that they were so unused to someone swimming both up and back down the pool in one go, only to immediately repeat it, that they couldn’t help but step right into my path.  I’m pretty sure it wasn’t deliberate either.

After half of my session (30 minutes) I got out of the pool and headed for the showers, feeling fairly dejected. I need to find ways of doing the training, not 101 legitimate reasons not to.

Reflecting on the experience last night, it came to me that in all my reading on the nature of culture and cultural differences, it suggests that to be truly culturally aware, we should strive to view any situation as a local person and within the bounds of ethical practice, respond to it as if you were yourself, a local.

It’s clear that the members of my gym see nothing wrong with standing around, walking the shallows, or swimming widths.  They aren’t about to change just because some expat has shown up, who expects to swim the length of the pool unhindered.  I’d switched to this gym because my last gym had no usable bikes and only an 18m pool.  Here, the pool is also non-standard in it proportions, being about 30m long but is at least 20m wide. If swimming lengths isn’t feasible, then perhaps I should just pick a spot, join in with the locals and swim widths?

Of course, it’s less than ideal but in this environment, compromising on expectations, so that I can settle into a session with a mindset that I can fully execute it, seems worth the trade-off.

I don’t think I’ve swum the width of a pool for forty years but maybe it’s time for an old dog to re-learn old tricks?

Ultimately, we have to train the best we can, with what we’ve got and for the time being, that appears to be all I have!


GI Tri Coach


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