One of the first to take me up on my offer to share is a friend of mine who I met in graduate school at Stanford. We spent many hours together in the computer lab, as well as on road trips to Yosemite and Moab. She is a remarkable woman who has spent the last decade living abroad in places like Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and, most recently, Egypt during the revolution. She works for a non-profit that focuses on improving drinking water and sanitation conditions in the developing world. She recently became a mom and not only are our sons only 6 weeks apart in age, but, in an odd coincidence, her son was born on my birthday and my son was born on her birthday. We will forever be connected in this way.
I asked her to share her experience of being an American woman living, working, and working out in such conservative, foreign countries and what the cultural perspective on fitness was in her part of the world. This is what she said:
|Dubai Jungle Gym|
The most marked difference in terms of working out is that there are separate gyms for women. (Actually there are separate facilities or women’s areas in most places of any sort, like the ladies’ cars on the metro. This habit is out of respect for women and such areas are not obligatory, rather it is to give women the choice to be among only women.) My gym had three branches within a few blocks of each other: the main branch with a large selection of machines, sauna, and whirlpool; the branch for group classes like yoga, aerobics, and whatnot; and the women’s gym with a smaller selection of machines, a whirlpool, sauna, and classes.
As a member I could access all of the branches, which was perfect. I started at the main gym, where I could work with a trainer to develop an appropriate routine for myself. As far as I could tell Ayat, my trainer, was the only female trainer in the whole gym (besides the nutritionist), and she was awesome. About 21, well trained and studying for a degree in fitness and health, knowledgeable with cute, but poor English. Counting off crunches, she would say “…nine, ten, ten-one, ten-two…”
Once I got pregnant and had a big belly, I really appreciated being able to go to the women’s gym, while having access to the main branch to meet with my trainer when I wanted. Not because the men were rude or anything, just because it felt good to be among women with my growing belly.
The women who I worked out with were a mix of Egyptians and foreigners, and their fitness habits seemed fairly stereotypical, following the habits of their own cultures: western women from Europe or the US tended to be more hard-core and use the main gym, while the Egyptians, Indians, and other eastern ladies tended to be more mellow and use the women’s gym almost exclusively. (I must be a weirdo, cause I did a little of both.)
The main thing I miss while living abroad is access to outdoor activities, though this impression is clearly a function of the countries where I’ve been. The US (and the Bay Area in particular) spoils you in this regard. Often parks are small and poorly maintained, with a lot of cigarette butts. Near Cairo, there was a single nature preserve, which was basically a dry, sandy gully – a far cry from the forests, hills, and beaches I love. City hiking in Cairo was also not enjoyable due to non-existent sidewalks, horrible drivers and traffic (fearing for our lives), and terrible pollution (producing black snot at the end of the day). Lastly, most of the places I’ve lived have had a hot climate wise (often over 100 degrees F), which makes an air-conditioned gym somewhat of a necessity.
While it may seem superficial, working out in a conservative culture does demand a little attention to your clothes. Fitness is seen as an activity that demands a “uniform” of some sort, so you have some leeway to wear normal gym clothes, especially while in the gym itself. I’ve see women in sports bras and tiny shorts, but it is not respectful and not recommended. Basically, one should dress a bit more conservatively than you would at home, but not drastically. Throw on a t-shirt over your bra or tank top and wear longer stretchy pants rather than shorts. This is true especially if you are a runner outdoors (I am not). Some women, like Ayat, work out in their hijabs (headscarfs).
The last thing I’ve found to be consistently true in most foreign countries is that if you need or want something specific for your fitness routine, be prepared to do it yourself. My gym in Egypt advertised pre-natal yoga, but alas this class never materialized, even after my pregnancy was over. I contended to download free, pre-natal videos from Mamaste Yoga - which were great, but not the same as a group class. The gym did have a regular yoga class, which was quite good, but this too was cancelled after 2 classes when the teacher left the country because of the revolution.
All in all, living in a foreign country demands that you adapt yourself to the context somewhat, but less in terms of culture and more in terms of infrastructure. I’m not super hard-core so I find it quite easy to get what I need, despite my love of the outdoors. In fact, I have recently moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, which is a great improvement, fitness wise, over Egypt. I am looking forward to attending a yoga class with a strong Indian influence. I enjoy a small gym right in my building. The parks are artificial and flat, but they are immaculate and have lots of jungle gyms for my 17-month-old boy (change of priorities).