"What about athletes?" I said. "Which ones do you admire most?" A few mentioned Pelé, a few others Maradona. The rest remained silent. I began to list other athletes I had supposed to be known by 13-year-olds worldwide—Larry Holmes, John McEnroe, Carl Lewis. They stared back blankly.
They had no role models here; they had no ladder. No high school, university or professional leagues, except for soccer, where the average player earned $4,000 a year and knew better than to keep reminding children that they could do it, too. They had no concept of sports as a ticket out of hell. Few of the children even realized exercise might prolong their lives. Few looked as if that was something to strive for.
Weeks passed. Jogging grew more joyless. I had run the dirt roads of black townships in South Africa, past crumbling, overcrowded tenements in Bombay, some days observing, some days dreaming, but every day having fun. Why was it different here?
One morning I ran past a neighbor whom I knew to be a teacher. I began to calculate. The $40 it cost to buy my sneakers was two months' income for him. I ran by a post-office employee trudging up the steps to his work; the price of my jock was his weekly salary. I passed a nurse walking toward the hospital; one of my sweat-soaked socks was twice her daily wage. In Africa and Asia I was a one-week visitor. Here I was living for a year, talking to people, entering their homes, reading, learning. Here I knew.
I spun around a corner and felt something strike my chest. The arm of a wrinkled beggar, outstretched. He reeled against a wall. I stopped, put my hand on his shoulder, apologizing. He extended his open palm.
I tried to explain and turn away. He tugged on my $15 warmup jacket and mumbled. Finally I pulled free. The men who sleep on sidewalk grates in New York City—they know not to beg from joggers.
Sports are a luxury. The activity I once considered to be a necessary function, as natural as the breathing in of oxygen and the breathing out of carbon dioxide. I now saw as one for people who could dream where it might take them, for people with spare time, energy and money.
I went to a sporting goods store to buy a basketball net for some kids who shot now and then at a crooked rim. The price was the equivalent of $12. I asked about a decent soccer ball: $27. A regular pair of sneakers: same cost as in the U.S. A canister of tennis balls: $7.50, three times what it costs back home. How could they possibly afford it?
I bought the tennis balls anyway and went to my closet for the racket I had brought from home. The town's clay courts were isolated, enclosed by a fence and bushes.
I had taken up tennis only a year before. My wife, a former university player, thrashed me regularly. I cursed my mistakes, praying no one nearby knew English, but still I paid dearly. One morning a powerful forehand stroke, all on its own, missed the ball and hit my mouth, which bled for an hour and swelled to the size and color of something you could float down the Snake River.