Sunday, March 18, 2007

Pounding the Pavement

I was just asked if my head is okay. It's a perfectly acceptable question on this Monday morning as the entire school attempts to recover from a weekend of running, eating, and drinking the infamous Okinawan alcohol called awamori. Mind you, the teacher who asked me this is retiring and I witnessed her jogging up a steep hill as well as punishing the "bad kids" at our afterhours party with Saltines coated in wasabi paste. I should ask if her head is okay.

Only in Okinawa would you see various folks from retirees to young children running along Rt. 58 donning pink sashes. And I definitely cannot envision American teachers taking joy in running 60 kilometers to celebrate the end of the school year. But this is Japan. And the Japanese have strange ideas of fun. Although, I must admit that after participating in the event, it does make for a great day. So why did we make the run from Chatan to Nago? This is the last week of school in Japan and over twenty teachers will be departing our high school to go to new jobs and we have two teachers retiring. Hence, the running shoes and track suits were dusted off and put to good use.

The event began with teachers who weren't making the entire journey and their children kicking off the day by carrying a banner for the 2007 race. The journey was memorable and I will always see our Principal's little grey head bouncing around in the back of the lead van.

The course was divided into manageable segments of about 1 km each, basically ending each bit at a bus stop. Vans and cars would go ahead and the next runners would get ready to have the pink sash handed off to them. But no one ran alone. This is a community event and there were usually at least four people running at any given time, plus someone following on a bike. It took awhile for me to get worked into the rotation, but ultimately, I did my part and actually did three legs in a row because one segment seemed too easy. Mind you, my attempt was nothing compared to our famous professional marathon runner who just kept going and going without breaking a sweat. He is phenomenal to watch in action.

I drove along with Miyako-sensei, the only female English teacher, and we popped candy all day and ran various errands along the way because she was in charge of the event. We had Ryan Seacrest's Top 40 on the radio and enjoyed various visitors to the van along the way. Some teachers decided to finally try out their English and gestures with me and it was quite enjoyable. There was the obligatory soba stop along the way and some serious shopping for the party later in the evening.

Finally we approached Nago after seven hours of stopping alongside the road. We were all to do the last 4 kms together, so extra cars were driven in advance to the hotel. And we discovered that these last four kilometers were straight up a hill/mountain. I didn't see how we were going to make it up within four hours. But, like always, this had been planned for and as we congregated at the bottom of the hill, I was informed that we were going to do a sprint relay race. Essentially it was a giant game of leap frog, using two vans and people jumping out of the vehicle to take the sash and sprint for 200 meters or so to the next person and so on. It was incredibly dangerous on the curving road, and we almost lost a couple people falling out of the packed vans on the tight turns, but we made it up in record time and with lots of laughing along the way ... and then in a slightly moving moment, the banners were brought out and everyone sort of half-jogged, huffed and puffed, up the final hill to the hotel together with cheering and the retirees leading the way.

At the hotel that overlooks the ocean, we were divided into our respective rooms and I was given a space with Miyako and three other young teachers. We had a tatami room where we would later pull out five futons and sleep on the floor. Unfortunately, we only had one hour before dinner and five people to get showered. But, as always, the Japanese have a solution. Giant public baths. It's basically an onsen and there is one at my gym as well. I figured that since it was just Miyako, showering in public wouldn't be that bad. It wasn't until I was stark naked that I realized that almost every female teacher had the same idea to use the giant bath. Let's just say that it was one of my bravest moments and I feel stronger for it.

After getting cleaned up, we headed to an elaborate meal and some presentations. Of course there were speeches and then we were given a performance by some of the leaving teachers. This song is incredibly famous and I hear it quite a lot. I have no clue what is being said, of course.

Then the party moved to a suite and the fun began. I am pretty sure that one of my roommates came back to the room around 7:30 am. My favorite quote of the night came from another teacher, Sato, who said, "Rachel! I love you! I am going to call you Rach! I love "Friends" and they call Rachel "Rach!" So you are Rach!" I then called her Monica and then we were best friends. I felt very included the entire night and many teachers, emboldened by the awamori, decided to have some meaningful conversations with me. Maybe not meaningful, but amusing for sure.

After a night on the hard floor (I wonder why they even bothered with the futons), I enjoyed a relaxing breakfast and was soon on the road again with Miyako. Despite the massive amounts of alcohol consumed, no one looked to be struggling in the least. They have a talent for hiding hangovers, that's for sure.

Although I think that it must be difficult to form lasting relationships when you switch schools every three to five years, I admire the community spirit found among these teachers. And I can only hope that when it is my turn to retire, I will still be able to jog up a hill.

1 comment:

Carly said...

I finally found time to read about your adventures. I think you're having more fun than me. Americans are boring. (or maybe I'm just boring)

Good job showering naked. That took guts. I would have worn a swim suit. haha.