Ever woken up at the crack of dawn and thought to yourself, “I am about to head off to an enclosed space, passive-aggressively stand behind other sweaty people doing their reps, and then lift inanimate objects till I am as sweaty as they are and have the worst wedgie ever. I’m going to have so much fun!” No? Yeah, me neither. See, going to the gym is not the most pleasant activity. It really isn’t. After all, there is nothing in nature that enjoys pushing around heavy objects for the pure joy of it. Except maybe dung beetles. But gyms, unfortunately, are a necessary evil. Much like the DMV and prostate exams. Just like you need to service your car to keep it running properly, you need to keep your body in shape, so it doesn’t give up on you with the amount of chilli chicken kottu you stuff it with.
When you’re young, you don’t really think too much about exercise ‒ cricket, football, and the blessings of high metabolism handle most things. But a couple of months in corporate Sri Lanka has taught me one thing ‒ desk jobs and rice packets are tough on the old midsection. I used to be able to see my toes while I was standing. Now I need a mirror. So I decided to get fit. Or at least try, for the sake of my burgeoning waistline and disappearing toes (and other body parts).
Colombo, as I’m discovering, already has a pretty intense fitness culture, at least if Instagram is anything to go by. A visit to any public space can show you just how intense it can be. Independence Square is practically taken over every evening by chattering teens, uncles in track pants, kids on tricycles, and the occasional athletic type in tiny shorts. There are also groups attempting CrossFit (if a few burpees and jumping jacks can be called CrossFit), some doing yoga (an awkward downward dog), and even a few doing something that is supposed to be an MMA workout but looks like kittens batting at cotton. Don’t get me wrong. These comments might sound disparaging, but they are not. Well, maybe a little. But I always find tiny shorts to be great motivation when I’m trying to work myself up to a lumbering jog.
Dragging yourself to the gym every day is tough, and lifting weights is hard work. But as hard as these things are, there are a few types of people in the gym who can turn your gym session into an episode of Jersey Shore. All I wanted was to come in, lift some weights, get a six pack, and head back out. But now, I have to navigate an environment reminiscent of the Hunger Games just to get to the water cooler. It can be a pain, but it’s not impossible. But if you’re ever going to survive a year in the gym, you’ll have to learn to identify and tread carefully around these denizens of the dip, to get your sets done. Luckily, I’ve done most of the work for you. You can thank me later. In protein shakes.
Carefully curated mustaches, man buns, designer gym bags, and organic coconut protein smoothies ‒ these dapper gents are of no offence to anyone and commit no crimes unless they be crimes of fashion. Under Armour compression shirts, Nike lifting gloves, and Reebok CrossFit shoes are the order of the day, and that’s all fine, but the man tights are taking things too far. Nobody needs to see that you’ve manscaped and there’s no way you want that bulge hovering over your face when being spotted at the bench press.
They may also sometimes come to the gym in a sarong, though that is not a mistake that’s repeated twice.
The loudest creatures in the gym, in every way. They grunt while doing biceps, yell while doing bench presses, and absolutely scream while doing squats. They have friends who are equally loud, yelling things like, “You can do it, bro,” “Just one more,” and “that’s right, that’s RIIIGGHHTTTT.” Out of a sort of morbid curiosity, you might wander over to see what all the fuss is about, only to see them curling a 5 kg dumbbell or pressing 30 kg on the bench. It’s just a whole lot of noise, and very little substance, much like what comes after a beans-heavy dinner. Yet, you are afraid of turning your back on a grunt, because it sounds very much like they are making love to the vertical row machine.
These ladies are more likely to be covered in makeup than sweat, wear the latest Lululemon leggings, and sports bras one size too small. You’d find them either on the treadmills, or on the squat machines. The times they work out are also the times when productivity in the gym drops to near zero. The Insta-chick on the treadmill, with her very Baywatch-esque running style, draws eyes to her like the y-value of a sinusoidal wave pattern. The one at the squat machine draws the same sort of rapture the Israelites reserved for Moses parting the Red Sea, for much the same reason.
All this would make for a very unproductive gym if it weren’t for a fact that these ladies would stop after every set to take pictures of themselves in the mirror. Hashtagging would occupy another several minutes ‒ #fitgirls #exfatchick #thegrind #gains #fitforlife #gymislife. (They also afford all that expensive gym wear through the commissions they get from selling protein powder and weight loss pills through Instagram. )
You are going to sweat in the gym. It’s a given. But there are some guys who start sweating at the mere sight of a barbell. Half way through their workout, they are what Sponge Bob would be if he was ever taken out of the sea ‒ saltwater-soggy. There are little puddles of sweat under every machine they use. There are puddles of sweat wherever they stand. Every bench they use is now beaded over with glistening drops of man-water, and every barbell, dumbbell, and handle slippery with fresh sweat. Ever been hit by a flying wet rag? That’s what it’s like when Sponge Bob claps you on the shoulder in manly greeting, little droplets of palm sweat splattering your cheek.
These ladies are on a mission. They are at the gym early in the morning, work that treadmill for 25 minutes, switch to the Orbitrek for some toning, and then move on to sit-ups and the exercise ball. They finish their workout at the same time every day, don their saris in record time, and head off to work. They are focused and have no time for chit chat, Uncles, or any sort of nonsense. Also, god help you if you take their cycle machine.
Older men, past their prime, but looking to reclaim what they remember as their glory days when their guts weren’t as big, their arms not as flabby, and when hemorrhoids was just a difficult word to spell. But too much beer, curry, and a desk job have taken their toll. You’ll find them in polo shirts, and old track pants, hovering around the treadmills. These uncles are talkers. They talk to the gym owners, the trainers, and the lifters. They’ll ask for half a dozen fitness plans, find out which school you’ve been to, and stand in front of the television watching test match reruns. Basically anything to keep from doing any actual exercise. If by any chance you make eye contact, you’re in for a ten-minute chat on cricket, politics, or the financial situation in Greece.
Most people at the gym are pretty harmless and tend to leave you alone if you don’t bother them too much. Except for the ‘Roid Heads. These people are dangerous. They live on a diet of creatine, anabolic steroids, and protein powder. They hog every single free weight in the gym, scream through their sets while their fellow ‘roider spots them, and appear to be incapable of letting their arms hang vertically by their sides. They inject Synthol into their butt cheeks, have protruding veins like earthworms dancing the salsa under their skin, and have a tendency to fly into steroid-fuelled rages. Avoid at all costs. Do not attempt to be friendly, or say things like, “These are not the ‘roids you are looking for.” They are not known for a sense of humour.
Navigating the gym scene can require a mixture of sweaty savoir-faire, bravado, and judicious application of a towel, but as you stand in front of that mirror with your gut sucked in, beads of sweat on your skin, veins vaguely standing out in your forearms and your biceps tenths of an inch larger, you realise one very important thing ‒ at that very moment, you look like a brown Captain America, and nothing else matters.
This piece is part of a new series that is part satire, part social commentary, and part good natured nonsense. ‘BEING BROWN’ looks at the world through the eyes of a person with brown skin who struggles with connecting to his cultural roots while at the same time dealing with the pace of a Westernised society. Some of the things you read in BEING BROWN are based on real events, while others are a bit dramatised. Neither are meant to offend anybody except in the way that satire sometimes offends preconceived notions and social inertia. That kind of offence, we’d be happy to take the blame for.
Featured image: Roar/Rajith Maligaspe