Running in Pittsburgh feels familiar to me. I learned to run on hills much bigger than these last summer, when I spent 11 weeks in the eastern mountains of Nepal.
As I run through Schenley Park or up to Squirrel Hill, I feel a similar crispness in the air, a liveliness that only seems to exist in places that roll and dance with mountains. I run alone, as I like to be, but amid these mountains, I'm haunted by a shadowy memory of my one-time running companion from last summer: a young man named Krishna whom I will likely never see again, and who taught me what it meant to move.
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I was in Nepal studying women's issues in one of the worst countries in the world to be a woman. I lived alone in a guesthouse in Ilam, a town of only a few thousand people. The closest villages are a two- or three-hour hike away.
I arrived worn out from a tough sophomore year at college. I wasn't any closer to deciding what I wanted to do with my life and was consumed with the kinds of problems that 19-year-olds consider massive barriers to becoming who we are meant to be.
It's difficult to be in a foreign place when you're shaky on who you are.
I spent my days trying to communicate with people who spoke little English about why I thought gender inequality mattered and my nights feeling like a fraud for asserting that I, a teenager, could tell adults how to run their country.
Truthfully, I started running in Nepal mainly because I'd spent the year struggling to live a healthy lifestyle in college, the land of late-night, greasy pizza and too much caffeine. I didn't like how I felt (or looked), and runners I knew seemed to love how they felt. They seemed braver, in some way, to plunge on ahead with no intent of stopping. And I felt stalled, unsure of my major or career. In Nepal, it seemed that my idealism, and all the potential I'd embodied two years earlier as I left high school, was crashing against the reality that change is hard.
I went to a country that Westerners started flocking to in the 1970s in hopes that it held some kind of higher, spiritual truth. I couldn't see that truth. All I could see were problems -- a political crisis, inching development and a country frustrated at being ignored by the rest of the world. I was going to fix all of that?
If I couldn't change Nepal, maybe I could change me.
The first day I ran it was clear I wasn't in great shape. I hit the unevenly paved road, which twisted endlessly uphill into the green, foggy mountainside, and the terrain felt unfamiliar, even unwelcoming, beneath my sneakers. The very mountains seemed unfriendly.
The first part of my run was quiet except for a few trucks rumbling by. Passengers hung off of the sides or sat atop the vehicles, whooping at me. They were confused by the sight of a young woman jogging, offended and enthralled by how much of my legs were exposed by my shorts.
I expected this reaction. I ignored it at first. But I felt assaulted when I reached a bit of road lined by shops. It was early evening and young workers had gathered outside a metalworking shop, drinking hot chiya (tea) and eating street snacks. As I approached the young men, I could feel their eyes on me, mocking, violating. I ran on, faster, to avoid their cat-calls and yelps.
Women don't run in Nepal. Those living in farming areas spend their days on tough manual labor in the rice paddies, toting a baby on their back and maybe chatting on a cell phone (despite the country's extreme poverty, globalization has brought cheap technology to even the most rural places). But the majority spend their days indoors, cooking for large, extended families and caring for the children. Many rarely leave the house.
I came to Nepal because I was angry that so many disenfranchised women live like this. I was angry that amid our excitement over globalization, we let ourselves forget about corners of the world like Nepal, where hordes of women are simply forgotten.
Most days I wore traditional Nepali clothes and spoke to people in broken Nepali. I moved with care, trying to be open to a different culture. In meetings, I let men speak first because I knew they could get things done I couldn't.
I had been in the country for only a few weeks and I felt trapped. So I did the most obvious thing I could to remind myself, and the Nepalis watching me, that I was an American. I put on Nike shorts, New Balance running shoes and a college T-shirt, grabbed my iPod and went for a run. When I ran, I shed my assimilating skin and proclaimed loudly -- more to myself than anyone else -- that I could move, that I could get out of this place, that I was separate from it all.
I took a few days off after my first run. I was shaken by the looks people had given me, and I worried that I'd worn my American-ness too brazenly. The second time, I wore yoga pants to cover up more.
As I came around the bend by the metalworking shop, a group of teenage boys called after me. When I turned and yelled angrily in English, they laughed, and followed me.
I ran faster than ever. They were young, but they had the look in their eyes that any woman knows to run from. I ran until I passed into a forest preserve. Some of the boys grew bored and left. A few continued to follow me.
It was growing dark and I couldn't see another person, car or house. Hoping to lose them, I turned suddenly up a small path curving up a steep hillside and nearly fell on my face. When I turned around a few minutes later, the boys were gone.And I was lost.
I spent nearly half an hour trying to find a main road. By the time I did, it was fully dark -- and dark means pitch-black on these windy mountain roads. I was probably 2 miles from my guesthouse.My knees were shaky; my breath came in short spurts. I was confused, scared, and alone -- and not just on that road.
That's when I heard the sound of runners coming toward me.
I turned to see a pack of muscled Nepali men moving in a thick pack down the hill, sprinting, with a look of pure determination. They were moving to prove they could, just like me.
I caught up with the back of the pack, somehow feeling safe because of our mutual ambition. I fell into step with one, who told me his name was Krishna Rai. He spoke broken English much better than I spoke broken Nepali.
Krishna told me that he and his friends were running to train for the Gurkha Army. This army -- a contingent of the British Army that recruits from Nepal -- is an alluring prospect for twenty-something rural men like Krishna.
Krishna told me the story as we ran, reciting his history with an academic precision. In 1814, the British Army had its sights set on Nepal as its next territory. But the Gurkhas, an ethnic group in Nepal and northeastern India, banded together and, according to Nepali history, defeated the British Army. Western tellings of the story call it a stalemate. And Nepal, unlike neighboring India, was never colonized.
The British were so impressed with the ferocity of the Gurkha soldiers that they left Nepal alone, declaring it a protectorate rather than a colony. They offered jobs to some of the Gurkhas, and 200 years later, those jobs are even more sought-after by Nepalis. They're a ticket to a mystical, powerful West.
"It's my visa," Krishna told me.
He ran with me, trailing behind the pack of athletic men, until we reached the muddy path leading to my home. He wished me well and caught up with his pack. I watched him sprint around the curving mountain road, his shirtless torso glistening, almost glowing in the darkness.
After that, I planned my evening runs so I would run into the Gurkhas.
I'd set out by 6 p.m. just as the mountains softened to blue-gray in the evening. As I ran, watching the sky go from whipped-cream clouds to a sorbet sunset, I considered the things I was running from, and those I was running toward. At least, I tried to.
I thought about the two years ahead, and beyond. I considered whether I had the gumption to do this again -- to live in a strange country, trying to change it and trying to write about it. I wondered about how to build a life. I ran always with the smoky remnants of old friends, younger versions of me, and the even wispier imaginations of my possible future selves.
These thoughts hung around me, heavy and unanswered, and just as I slowed under their weight, I'd hear the footfalls of Krishna and his friends behind me. While most of them passed by, Krishna hung back sometimes, saying he needed a break. As we talked, I somehow ran faster and better, and my rhythm became smoother just from hearing another person's voice.
We talked about Krishna's upcoming test. In a few months, he would go to one of the hill station recruiting centers, where a few hundred young men like him would be tested on their English and math, their health and most importantly, their fitness. If he passed the first round, Krishna would have to carry more than 50 pounds of stones on his back and run 4 kilometers uphill, in the mountains.
If he succeeded, he could go to England. He would serve for five or 10 years, then either get a visa to stay or return with riches to live comfortably in a nearby city. He wanted to get married, but not until after his future was secure.
"I like to have a girlfriend," he told me, using the Hindi word that implies something like friend-lover. "But I like to have house, safety for her."
Krishna was unsurprised when I told him I would not be marrying anytime soon, either. He nodded somberly and asked if I would get a house for my husband so he could be safe, too.
It was the first time anyone -- in Nepal or the United States -- had assumed such total equality between genders, and I wanted to hug him in delight. Our conversations always went like that. Krishna spoke with confidence about his future, and then he'd turn and offer me that same confidence.
"You will be journalist," he said often, his inflection never turning upward in question. He told me I would be.
"You will speak Nepali," he always said. And my favorite: "You will know soon," when I told him I wasn't sure -- about whether I'd come back to Ilam, about whether I could ever learn to speak Nepali, about whether I'd make it as a writer.
Krishna's certainty about his future, and mine, was like the confidence I'd long admired in lanky, running girls in college. I'd watch them as I crossed campus, my shoulders hunched over against northeast winter winds. Their strides were like gazelles', their faces set, strong, happy. And I wondered why I couldn't look like that. I answered myself in plenty of ways: Those girls had jobs, or fancy internships for their summers. Those girls were born with a movement that propelled them through life; and that same movement let them run so well.
But Krishna wasn't born with anything. He was the oldest of three, and his father had died a long time ago. His mother washed clothes and sold vegetables at market. He wanted his two younger sisters cared for, but the army would guarantee it. Krishna taught himself to move. He had been doing push-ups on his cement floor since he was 14, when he first learned about the Gurkha regimen.
Running with Krishna, listening to the surety in his voice and feeling the rhythm of his feet next to mine, was like a pacesetter for me that summer. When I couldn't find the pulse in myself, I borrowed Krishna's. And soon, as I ran, I could see the tea hills as they were meant to be seen, their shadowy outlines against the darkening sky, and they looked friendly.
Krishna left Ilam a few weeks before I did. He had cousins to visit, and he didn't give me any warning about when he would be leaving. One evening, I went out for a run, saw the Gurkhas, and one of them told me Krishna was gone for a few months. He must have taken his test by now. I hope he is in England, training, and sending home monthly checks to his mother and sisters.
A year later, I find myself moving with a different sort of pace. I have the kind of movement that I long envied. Running here, in these hills on the other side of the world, I can feel Krishna's strides next to me. I think of him looking straight ahead and saying, "You will," and I do.
I keep running.
Sanjena Sathian, a junior at Yale University, is a Post-Gazette summer intern (firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1408). First Published August 5, 2012 4:00 AM