If Cattle Can Walk in the Streets of India, Can I Run in Them?

By William J. Furney

This Easter Sunday morning on my sweltering hour-plus run along a long stretch of beach by the frenzied Goan town of Candolim, I received several waves of inspiration. This is not unusual, as running both clears my mind and fills it with all kinds of creative thoughts that I use to fuel my work as a writer and “editorial operative” and personal-life experiences. It’s a kind of therapy that’s hugely beneficial for the body, mind and indeed the soul, and I need to get out there and tear around for long stretches, at least once, and sometimes twice, a day.

It’s 37-38C most days now in Goa, and for many locals the rising heat, as the monsoon season approaches in just over a month’s time, in June, is unwelcome. “Don’t you find it too hot?” a local woman asked me soon after my arrival in mid-April. No, I told her, I lived in Southeast Asia for 14 years, in Jakarta and Bali, and the weather there’s the same. “The hotter the better,” I added with a warm grin.

It’s so hot that almost no one runs, and they barely even manage to walk at all; when they do, it’s a languid shuffle. It’s just so blistering that expending any sort of energy is way too hard: a battle to move and exist that is frustratingly unending and entirely pervasive and you mostly just sit in the shade and your overheated brain has no option but to turn to treacle. I’m sure they thought I — kitted out in my gear and running at speed — was mad: just another crazy foreigner who would soon learn the ways of India and lay about doing very little at all.

Untouchables: Cattle are considered sacred in India, because they provide and do so much — dairy products, tilling land and dung for fertiliser — and also because they resemble the Hindu God Bhoomi. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Why do cattle in India walk in the middle of the traffic-clogged streets, and not on the sidewalks? Who are their owners and how do they find them? “They have their patented tracking device, I guess,” my landlord, Kishore, told me. Many times I have stood, and photographed and filmed, these bony beats that are revered by the predominant Hindu population as they meander along where the median strip of streets should be but mostly is not, either impervious or ambivalent to the hordes of traffic screaming towards, behind and all around them. Motorcyclists weave past in a sudden, delicate dance and colourful, heaving, ancient buses bellow and swerve as cars and trucks also give way to a creature that may neither be killed nor eaten.

Daring greatly, the power of vulnerability and not letting toxic people transfer their issues onto you — these are terms that are going through my mind as I race along the beautiful Goan beach early this Christian holy-day morning as equally stunning Indian women, dressed in exquisite dresses and fully made up, dash merrily in and out of the gentle surf and excitedly pose for photographs they will surely cherish years from now. The previous evening I had watched a talk on Netflix by University of Houston research professor Brené Brown, who specialises in vulnerability, shame, courage and authenticity. The talk — called The Call to Courage — hadn’t particularly interested me as a topic, but as often happens on the globally dominant streaming service, you end up watching stuff you otherwise wouldn’t, as there’s not always all that much to choose from.

Brown talks about things like joy and people being afraid of experiencing it when it happens because it’s just too good and they’re scared of the feeling — so they try to sabotage joy by doing something bad to make themselves feel “normal” again. So the paradox is that most of us are terrified by something we all want and strive every day to achieve.

Brown rose to prominence following a TED talk in 2010 that has since been watched more than 39.4 million times. She’s written such books as Rising Strong; Men, Women and Worthiness; and Daring Greatly, the title taken from a speech by American president Theodore Roosevelt in which he says: “It’s not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly… Who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat.”

Brown says reading that passage changed her life, including her relationships with people, and by choosing to be vulnerable, instead of shielding herself, she opened up a whole new world of courage, strengths and successes. She says that if you won’t allow yourself to be vulnerable, you will never be a creative person, as you’re effectively shutting yourself off from a world of experiences that would drive your creativity.

People who quickly dismiss such “psychobabble” as New Age nonsense are not in touch with their feelings and are barricading themselves against their vulnerabilities. That’s me talking, not Brown. But she says, in her TED talk, that “We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability… we (the United States) are the most in-debt (consumer spending with credit cards, mostly), obese, addicted and medicated [group of people] in US history.”  

She goes on to say that “The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selectively numb emotion.” By that, she means having a beer, stuffing yourself with food or taking meds to block out something you’d rather not deal with.

Brown — whose theatre audience for her lengthy Netflix talk, during which she didn’t stop to take a sip of water, was composed of what looked like equal amounts of men and women — says vulnerabilities, shame, feelings of unworthiness and their many associated fears are what are holding us back from doing the things we really want to do, and that this ultimately leads to regrets towards the end of our lives. We have to, so, be courageous and let go of them. It’s not, it unsurprisingly turns out, manly to repress your emotions, because you want to be “strong”, but harmful and even deadly (a chat I had with my children recently, saying that men talking about their feelings, instead of hiding them, as that’s what society “expects”, but yet leads to high suicide rates, is good and healthy — just as men eating tons of red meat, to make them “more masculine” but that often creates cancers and obesity, is not healthy either and there’s certainly no “shame” in living on a plant-based diet, as I do).

If I have a fear, it’s not being able to do the things that I want to do, and this probably explains why my running tune du jour is Our Time Is Now by Montmatre, which begins: “Doing all the things you like to, everything you want to…”

During the night, after watching the Netflix talk, I’d had a vivid dream of my late mother — lost to cancer decades ago — and I said to her that she was neither happy nor fulfilled. When I woke and did a brief gratitude meditation — for my fortunate life, my children, my health and my innate ability to run like the wind — swirls of the dream came back and I said to myself that I would be and am happy and fulfilled, and always would be.

On Track: One of my running routes in Candolim, Goa. (Photo: William J. Furney)

Easter Sunday many years ago I climbed a volcano in Java, in flip-flops and shorts and a t-shirt, and when my party got to the top of the nearly 3,000-meter-high Mt Merapi, people from Australia were sitting at a ledge, smoking pot and throwing chicken eggs they had painted over the side. All I did was rent my guide’s jacket, as it was freezing up there.

And I’m thinking this Easter Sunday that when I call my kids and wish them a Happy Easter, how strange it is that we feel compelled to make these religious gestures when none of us are religious at all. If I mention this to then, as I often do at Christmas, I know what the response would be: “It’s Chocolate Day”, and so I won’t. And I won’t be having any chocolate this day, as in India I haven’t been able to find 100% dark, or pure cacao, and that’s all I’ll eat.

I might have a Kingfisher beer, though, before a booze ban comes into effect for the next three days as India votes in its massive general election in which some 900 million people are eligible to cast their votes in the world’s largest democracy of more than 1.3 billion people, and voting takes place for more than a month. I had a couple at a beachside restaurant the other evening with Xavier, a 49-year-old Portuguese who has been traveling the world for four years. He used to work in Dubai, marketing the glittering emirate city to the wider world before he fell out of love with the hardline government — I told him I would be spending a night there in a few weeks — and was now heading back to his homeland to settle down.

Xavier said he believed India was sabotaging its own tourism industry. Whereas before, many foreigners, and especially Russians, flocked to Goa, lured by its boho lifestyle and dirt-cheap prices, now they were increasingly opting to travel further, to such places as Thailand. “Goa has become too expensive,” he said. On my first day in the tourism-dependent state I paid around $6 for a packet of crisps/chips — albeit blue potato ones flown in from America. Last year India doubled the cost of a tourist visa for the citizens of many countries, hiking it to at least $100, and in something of an own-goal disaster is wondering why tourism figures have been falling ever since. It smacks of near-sighted greed, and any family of four considering India and around $400 just to enter will almost surely look to kinder, more welcoming shores.

Contemplation: On my balcony in Goa, ahead of another early morning run in high heat. (Photo: William J. Furney)

I’m thinking about all this as I race from the beach to the dusty roads where electricity cables snarl like bunched up, irate snakes and almost touch the ground — is it any reason there are rolling blackouts throughout the day? — and again I play the theme tune to the brilliant Portuguese-colonial missionary film The Mission, set in Brazil, and I experience rolling waves of pure joy that I am certainly not afraid to accept and that I have experienced many times in Bali, especially when riding a motorbike through country roads lined with thin and towering coconut trees, and I almost weep with the pleasure of unhindered movement; the majesty of the slightly swaying trees; the grace of the people I pass, who may not have all that much but are rich in spirit and spirituality; and the chance to exist for another day in our glorious speck of dust that we’re fast destroying as we fight over resources, land and, ultimately, money that in the end don’t matter at all.

In the afternoon I have an Ayurvedic massage called Shiro Dara (shiro meaning head and dara, flow). You’ve probably seen it somewhere, as it’s the one where oil is dripped on your forehead (helpfully, there’s a photo below). The masseur gave me a full-body massage first, followed by an incredibly hard and sore head scrub. When the oil came, it was warm and delicious, and I smiled; it felt like featherweight fingers dancing on my temple. I thought about the time I had had a double massage somewhere in Java with my Indonesian girlfriend who was killed in an airplane crash off Jakarta last October (the Lion Air-Boeing Max one) and no matter where she was — here or in another realm — that I would love her forever. I met her equally gorgeous and stylish daughter in Barcelona a few weeks ago, although I had been dreading it, as I feared not being able to keep it together, but I did a helpful meditation on death and grief while in Gran Canaria, just before arriving. The long weekend we spent together, in an apartment I rented, along with her Dutch-Indonesian boyfriend, Rico, and my daughter, Wallis, who had flown in from London, on her first overseas trip alone, was amazing and a sort of celebration of her life.

Oil’s Good: Me and my delicious Ayurvedic massage. (Photo: Kerala Ayurvedic Centre)

And so on this Easter Sunday morning, I wound my running way up and down boiling beach backstreets and wanted to keep doing it all day; and when I reached the main road again it occured to me that cows walk in streets because it’s the only level area around — the sidewalks are broken and in bits. So I take a deep breath, leap into the middle of the road and run away with myself.

If cows can do it, so can I.

  • Title photograph by William J. Furney

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