There’s a saying in the State Department that people who come to difficult posts such as Yemen will end up one of five ways – as a skunk, monk, drunk, chunk, or hunk. Those first two refer to losing the will to clean oneself (and probably wallowing in depression as well) and to not getting any tail, respectively. The second two refer to a person getting fat, or getting phat, respectively.
Regarding the last two: My personal high horse stance is that there is no good reason that a person serving in Yemen shouldn’t leave here in crazy good shape. (The constant diarrhea alone is enough to drop like like five lbs). First, there isn’t a whole lot to do here, which leaves ample time to work out. Yes, people do tend to work crazy long hours and there are few ways to naturally incorporate exercise into one’s daily routine, such as walking to work. But we’re not allowed to leave the hotel for anything social, so in some ways, it’s a lot like being in prison. And I’ve seen Prison Break, so I know that prisoners work out all the time and are mad fit and look like Wentworth Miller. There is a decent gym at our hotel with tons of bikes, ellipticals, steppers, and loads of weights. And there are nice lap pools at both the embassy at the hotel. It’s also a big help that the physical fitness mentality is pervasive here – in large part because of all the military folks for whom fitness is essentially part of their job description.
Another tidbit that makes Sana’a conducive to getting fit is that it’s one of the highest capital cities in the world at 7,500 feet above sea level (which is about 2,000 feet higher than Denver). The first few weeks after I arrived, I was panting my way up flights of stairs and feeling like I was drowning while swimming laps. Now, breathing ain’t no thang. I think this means I’ll have super endurance when we leave Yemen and that I will be able to survive on less oxygen. This is good because I’d like to spend less time breathing air on our upcoming trip to France and Italy and more time inhaling camenbert and parmiggiano reggiano.
The main reason I just can’t understand emerging from Yemen as a chunk is because the food is just not good. If I’m going to get fat, it’ll be from developing a delicious but ultimately destructive manchego and quince paste addiction when we live in Madrid. It will not be from eating hummus, flaccid boiled vegetables, and high school cafeteria-style pizza in Yemen.
All this said, it was difficult for me to establish a workout routine here in Sana’a when I first arrived. I was in the loveliest fitness groove in Washington DC before coming here. A few girlfriends and I belonged to an amazing gym down the street and we’d all go regularly for group exercise classes like weight lifting and cycling and yoga. I love group exercise because you really only have to be motivated enough to pull yourself off the couch, get dressed, and walk to the gym. The groups’ energy and the promise of the shame if one were to walk out midway through the class is enough to propel one to the finish. And I need that because often when I work out totally alone, at the halfway point I’m all “Why am I torturing myself? I look good enough! I’m not trying to be a Sports Illustrated model! Plus, I wear baggy clothes in Yemen so my rolls will be hidden!”
When I first arrived in Sana’a, I declared the weekly Zumba class to not really be my thing, what with me being a terrible dancer at all. I relied on my Jillian Michaels videos for a bit, but again…the whole solo workout thing. So I had no choice but to join Mr.YemenEm for his workouts.
Mr.YemenEm is one of the millions of people who discovered CrossFit in the past few years. For those who haven’t read any of the dozens of New York Times articles on the CrossFit Craze over the past few months, CrossFit is basically doing a bunch of basic moves – squatting, pushing, and pulling, mixed in with some intense short bursts of cardio. But the catch is, you should be moving in ways you’d actually move in everyday life. For instance, you squat down a bunch of times in a given day to pick up a piece of paper or a piece of cheese you dropped, but you’d never do the thigh-master type move of sitting while pushing heavy weight with your inner and outer thighs. So basically all the machines at the gym that work just one muscle at a time (often while you’re sitting down) are totally outdated, according to CrossFit.
I like the philosophy of CrossFit well enough. It’s practical and it’s not ridiculously hard to the point of being unsustainable like Insanity. But some of the moves are ridiculously advanced and likely part of the audition process for Cirque du Soleil. For instance: handstand push-ups. Also, the workouts we do often consist of short bursts of activity (like a set of shoulder presses) followed by lots of rest. I’m more of a charge-through-the-workout type of person and I’m often left a little unsure of what to do with myself during breaks while Mr.YemenEm meticulously takes notes in his tiny, sweat-stained notebooks.
CrossFit, the high altitude, and adhering to the CrossFit way of eating (meat, vegetables, and limited carbs and hardly any sugar) have certainly solidified Mr.YemenEm’s status as a hunk. I think I look about the same as I did when I arrived, with the exception of my arms, which certainly have benefited from many (assisted) pull-ups. Oh and the calluses on my hands are known to snag sweaters, which surely must be a sign of accomplishment in the CrossFit world. I feel stronger and a little more muscular and like I’d win in a casual street fight against an unarmed woman who is roughly my weight.
Whether I’ll stick with handstand pushups and toes-to-bars when I get back to Washington or rejoin my girls at my beloved gym and do lunges to “Apple Bottom Jeans” in a humid room with two dozen gay guys remains to be seen.
I know that it is always a struggle to work out regularly and to eat healthfully. But without the distraction of a social life, restaurants, a DVR, and tasty food, it’s a bit easier.
To not being a skunk, monk, or chunk, and being only a little bit of a drunk,