This story was first published in Issue #13 of Like the Wind Magazine
I start off slow. It’s more than 30°c and sticky. The surface under my running shoes is sandy dust. I’ll pick up the pace as I warm into my run, I think.
But suddenly, behind me, I can hear cries of: “Teacher! Teacher!”
I smile and turn around, awkwardly still running. I’m living in a remote rural village in Cambodia and these are some of the children to whom I’ve been teaching English. I had a lesson with these 10- and 11-year-olds this morning, teaching verbs in the past, present and future tense. They’re very good; they close their eyes as they think, reaching into their brains for the answer, and smile as they change a present-tense verb to the past tense. They know many verbs, regular and irregular.
Now, towards the end of the day, as I’m running my small 5km loop they are cycling their bikes home after a full day of lessons in the village school. Most of them ride adult bikes – they have to stand up to reach the pedals and their heads just about pop over the handlebars.
“Teacher! Teacher!” they shout again, laughing and smiling. Running alongside them, I greet them back. I have an idea. This is the perfect situation for a gonzo practical lesson.
“What am I doing?”
They laugh and smile some more and the most eager of the group of five children shouts: “You. Are. RUNNING!”
“Excellent,” I tell them between breaths. I get them to tell me what they are doing – cycling. I ask them to say it as if it happened yesterday. After only a moment of nervous hesitation, they nail it. Ran. Cycled.
By this point, the sweat is running on to my face and it’s not easy to pronounce my words clearly through my heavy breathing. But they practise their conversational English with me. Where are you from? How old are you? Who do you love? I’m not sure where that soul-searching last question came from.
Eventually, one by one, the children peel off and cycle to their homes, shouting: “See you tomorrow, teacher!” I say goodbye and carry on running. As I go along the dirt path, past palm trees and basic wooden houses, I hear random calls of “Teacher! Teacher!” from disembodied voices in the bushes. I also hear unidentified shuffling beasts just out of sight and hope they’re not poisonous snakes.
I cut on to a road, now about halfway through my little loop. Every few metres a dog chases me for a bit, barking violently. Each time this happens, I run backwards for a bit – not breaking eye contact with the dog in question – and tell it to fuck off until it eventually backs down. All this running backwards is playing havoc with my Strava time, but at least I’m not getting bitten by a rabid dog.
As I run back towards the village, nearly at the end of the loop, the tall coconut trees lining the dusty path look amazing. I’m hit with a little kick of endorphins and think about how a run is the perfect way to see this little village in Cambodia; the cows roam around you, the children talk to you, the roosters dart away from you and the local men and women you’ve become friends with wave to you as you run by.
These thoughts are just starting to open up inside me when a new dog starts barking and chasing me. This one’s going particularly mental. He’s probably not used to seeing people run. He can probably smell foreign on me. I try to ward off the dog while still running, but I trip on the rocky path. I go skidding. The whole of my left side is stained with red dirt. My hip is throbbing, my elbow is grazed and knee is bleeding. The dog bounds over to me, teeth bared, but I instinctively pick up a stone and lob it in the beast’s direction. It retreats.
The runner’s high fades and the positivity I felt towards the village also diminishes slightly. Stupid dog.
But, I say to myself as I limp back to the family I’m staying with, at least I helped those enthusiastic children learn their English verbs. Teacher is running! Teacher ran! Teacher is falling… teacher fell…
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