When we arrived in Bangkok, the first thing I noticed was that it would not be practical to run outside. The sky was a sludgy color and the evening sun looked like a bright-orange moon over hazy high-rise silhouettes. Traffic on the expressway next to our hotel stretched bumper-to-bumper day and night. Even the little sideroad had no sidewalk and heavy traffic—a mix of giant tour buses and scooter taxis. The scent of gasoline fumes combined with a pungent smell emanating from a nearby canal made breathing something of a chore. And apart from that, it was 33 degrees centigrade on a cool day.
All the same, I did definitely need to run because running calms me down. Two days before, the Indian government had inexplicably refused John’s visa 24 hours before we were all set to fly there and 48 hours before we were required to leave Sri Lanka. The shock of this unexpected set-back, combined with the mental effort of making new arrangements, had left me fit for a strait-jacket.
Our hotel, which boasted of a fitness center on booking.com, mysteriously did not actually have a fitness center. It also, despite attractive ads featuring martinis in the elevator, did not have a ‘sky bar’, so seeking solace in drink was also out. Luckily, one of the non-imaginary services the hotel did provide was a free shuttle service to any destination within 5 kilometers. Accordingly, I searched for a gym and found something called Maxfit Performance exactly five kilometers from the hotel.
So the next morning I got into the van bright and early dressed in an old T-shirt, a little snug around the middle perhaps, and trackpants. The driver, avoiding choked-up main arteries, took me through a maze of roads and I looked with interest at the goings-on. Children in crisp white blouses and shirts headed off to school. Street-food vendors in wide-brimmed hats grilled tiny sausages, chopped mangoes and papaya, and neatly bagged soups and curries. Stray dogs trotted by the side of the road, expert traffic dodgers. Thousands of scooter riders wove between the cars—some of them carrying an entire family with the father driving, toddler squished in between (sometimes standing up!) and mother behind holding on to the child. Interestingly, there were taxi-scooters, identifiable by official orange vests complete with taxi ID stuck to the front. Women passengers in short skirts sometimes rode side-saddle.
After about half an hour, the van dropped me off at the address I’d given. It seemed to be an upscale, brand-new outdoor mall with a dog-centred theme. There was a dog-food bakery, a pet-accessories store, a tea shop with puppy pictures on the walls. I couldn’t immediately see the gym but the helpful driver asked a cleaning lady and she pointed me up a set of stairs.
At the top, I entered a big room that had zero treadmills or exercycles. There was a group of people jumping around holding weights and a guy in a baseball cap who gave me a big toothy smile and Mickey Mouse wave. I started backing away but before I could get out the door, a young guy with bulky upper arms emerged from his lair and asked if he could help me.
“Hi, I’m Adam,” he said in Australian accent. “Come into the office and we’ll see what we can do for you.”
I followed him. The office also contained a beefy blond fellow, an American named Jake who might have been in the United States Marine Corps and done five million push-ups before breakfast. Adam pointed to a chair and I dutifully sat down.
“What are you looking for today?” he said earnestly.
“I was just wanting somewhere to run,” I said, “With it being so hot,” I waved at the window.
He nodded seriously. I could see him taking in my sloppy attire.
“Have you ever been to a place like this?”
“Er, actually, what kind of place is this?” I asked.
“I’m glad you asked. We provide a service that is just like personal training except that it is done in small, supportive groups. Our customers come from all kinds of different backgrounds—yoga, weightlifting, pilates—and we all learn from each other.”
“Well, I was really looking for somewhere to run in the heat. Do you…run?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Do you have treadmills?” I asked hopefully.
“You can find treadmills in any of the commercial gyms on the street,” he grimaced.
“Oh. OK,” I felt heartened by the implication that there were thousands of them out there. I only had to walk a block before tripping over one.
“So let me tell you a little bit about what we do here. You’ve probably heard of the Body Mass Index, the BMI?”
“Well, where most gyms go wrong is not focusing on the fat-to-muscle ration of the body mass.”
Uh oh, I thought and sucked my stomach in a bit.
“How much do you weigh, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Er, I’m not sure. I haven’t weighed myself recently.”
“Probably 63 kilograms,” he shrugged. “And how tall are you?”
“About a meter sixty-five.”
“Right,” he nodded. “And,” he titled his head and looked at my middle, “Probably fourteen per cent fat.”
“Hmmm,” I said. He had the self-satisfied look of a magician pulling a rabbit out of a top hat, demonstrating his personal-trainer expertise. What really surprised me, though, was that there was no outward evidence of him having any sustained serious injuries. His nose had never been broken, for example. If his job was coolly estimating women’s fat percentage to their faces, it seemed like it would entail grave risks. He was safe with me because I have iron self-control where violent urges are concerned, but another day he would not be so lucky.
“If you joined us, we’d make a point of measuring your muscle-to-fat ration in order to accurately track your process.”
Over my fat, dead body, I thought.
He produced a folder from his shelf and opened it to a page full of headless female bellies. There was the ab-tastic ideal at the top left and things got fuller and floppier from there.
“Now,” Adam said, “I would say, considering your percentage, you would be somewhere around here,” he jabbed a scientific finger at number eleven, a wobbly paunch that looked like the ‘before’ photo from an infomercial for liposuction.
“Huh,” I said. Inside, I brooded. “What kind of lousy sales pitch is this? This gym should be renamed ‘Masochist Fat Gym’! FFS, I just want to run off some anxiety and now I’m getting lectured about diet by a juvenile steroid casualty! SMGDH.” I’m not saying that there wasn’t justice in young Adam’s remarks. I’m just saying that his approach revealed a lack insight into female psychology, particularly the psychology of a stressed female who just wants to go for a run and doesn’t care to focus on her love handles just at this moment thank you very much.
“The way we measure it,” Adam continued, warming to his subject, “Is with this fat caliper.”
I stared with dull horror at the plastic instrument he was waving around like some kind of deformed lobster pincer. Surely he did not intend to apply it now? If he did, I decided then and there, I would fight him. To the death. Sure he had the big muscles, but I had the crazy. The element of surprise would be an advantage—he’d never see it coming.
“But,” I sputtered, “Why does it matter?”
He looked amazed.
“Less fat means a fitter you,” he explained, as if to a confused child. “If you have a greater ratio of muscle then you will be stronger, faster and fitter. Have you ever done any exercise in the past?”
“Yes, I run,” I said through gritted teeth. Clearly he had not noticed that my T-shirt said ‘Patagonia Marathon’.
“Right!” he smiled brightly. “So with less fat you will be faster.”
“But I don’t want to win any races, I just like running.”
He looked perplexed. He knew I was wrong but I was so wrong that he couldn’t think of any logical way to respond.
“Well, to be honest I just want to run and not do other stuff,” I said, getting up “So I’m not sure this is the right fat–I mean fit–for me.”
“Well, why not sign up for a trial session?” He asked. “What have you got to lose?”
Possible answers: time, money, patience, self-esteem…
“Oh no, I think I’ll just…I’m only here for a few weeks, so I’ll just go to a commercial gym. Thanks very much!”
As I went down the stairs I thought it was kind of funny that this gym didn’t consider itself commercial. After all, it wasn’t exactly free. What did it think it was? A spiritual gym?