Why exercise when travelling can be a hilariously frustrating cultural experience

Finding a fitness regime in a foreign country can be a workout in itself, writes Benjamin Law.

Exercising in a foreign city is often an exercise in humiliation. Joggers in Paris look out of place. Cyclists in Delhi are practically inviting death. And if you're a lap-swimmer, like me, your options range from gross to demoralising.

Especially if you find yourself in China. 

Beijing isn't exactly a paradise for swimmers  but in the summer of 2010, Beijing was experiencing a record heatwave, and I was losing my mind. As temperatures soared near 40 degrees  – the highest they'd been in 60 years – all I wanted to do was swim or weep. And I probably would have wept, if it weren't for the fact my sweat glands had already released all that saline. 

So I determined to find a decent lap pool. It wasn't just the heat; I desperately needed to exercise.  Looking in the mirror, I noticed that I'd become … well, not fat, exactly. My weight had stayed steady (all that sweating), but my torso had become worryingly soft, like dough decorated with nipples.

Beijing had hosted the Olympics just two years earlier, so surely the famous Water Cube would guarantee international-standard lap swimming. I caught a metro to the Olympic district to be met with various "closed" signs and a thumping construction site ringing out with a chorus of 100 jackhammers. Turns out, the Chinese were so unenthusiastic about recreational swimming that, post-Olympics, the Water Cube was being transformed into an indoor waterslide wonderland. And  Happy Magic Water Cube was scheduled to open after I left Beijing.

Right. An online search offered a promising website: Beijing's Best Public Pools. That these pools were the "best" Beijing had to offer was worrying. Every listing came with significant disclaimers, from "hard to find" to "little here is brand new", to "murky". I settled on the one that least implied the pool was going to be 50 per cent human protein, and crossed my fingers. Sadly, Dongdan Swimming Pool was a scrappy, cement facility that had all the charm of a Third Reich medical laboratory. It was indoors, over-chlorinated and smelled like a body of water that couldn't possibly support any organic life. Still, it was Olympic-sized and clean enough. I changed into swimmers, walked through the mandatory foot bath and dived on in. 

After a single lap with my goggles firmly in place to prevent corneal corrosion, a red-faced supervisor angrily ordered me out. Every other swimmer stared as the supervisor barked at me in Mandarin. When I apologised and told her I couldn't speak Chinese very well, she rolled her eyes and started miming.

You're swimming too fast, she mimed. Then she acted out putting something on her head, and pointed at me. What was it? A bucket? A colander? A festive bonnet? 

"Oh," I said. "Swimming cap?" 

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She rolled her eyes. Yes, idiot. Where is yours? When I indicated I didn't have one, she pointed to the kiosk where I could buy one, then took out a small wallet-sized laminated card that said "swimming licence". Where was mine? When it was clear I didn't have a swimming licence – didn't know what a "swimming licence" was – she tsked at me, ordered me to read a list of instructions in English, then directed me back into the pool. 

After demonstrating I could swim 100 metres and tread water without drowning, the supervisor issued me with a wallet-sized laminated certificate.  Finally, official documentation to prove I was no longer the scrawny Asian kid so lousy at swimming that  I was frequently disqualified at school carnivals. Still, swimming at Dongdan was joy-draining, and the amount of chlorine they used made my lungs burn every time I came up for air. And the supervisor clearly hated me. I couldn't go back. 

Local friends recommended an idyllic park with an outdoors Olympic-size swimming pool bang in the middle. It was a 40-minute journey from where I was staying, but I didn't care. 

And I was rewarded.

Liulang Swimming Pool was lovely. Divided into three areas – kids' pool, wading pool, serious lap pool – it was as good as any facility I'd used in Australia. With my newly acquired "swimming licence" and cap snapped on, I swam with smug confidence, a foreigner who now knew local protocol inside out. Sure, my fellow swimmers were hocking up phlegm after every lap with an enthusiasm that suggested they were exorcising their souls, but this was standard in China. Everything else about the pool – visibility, cleanliness, viscosity – was perfect. 

Then after about an hour swimming, I needed to use the bathroom. We've all heard stories of how terrible the toilets in China can be, but this was something else. Squat toilets were plonked side by side without any walls separating them. If we wanted to, we could have held hands mid-poo. All that separated these doom chutes was a small ridge of cement, something my Beijing-based friends later delightfully referred to as "mud guards".

This wasn't even the worst of it. The squat toilets were arranged in two rows, designed so you had to face each other. I'll spare you the details I dropped my speedos, squatted, thanked God I'd remembered to bring my thongs and willed myself not to breathe. Or cry.

After China, I figured my swimming-only exercise regimen was becoming a problem. In the hunt for alternatives, I started using the gym. However, gyms in foreign countries are even more weird than pools sometimes. In Tokyo, I paid for a day pass at a gym, went to the lockers to change, then emerged in the weights room, ready to flex to be surrounded by a rush of mortified staff. My Western gym gear wasn't appropriate or allowed. I felt like I'd just run through the streets naked in Saudi Arabia. Embarrassed, I paid a fee and was given standard-issue pyjamas and slippers. 

Sure, it felt weird to pump iron and build up a sweat in PJs, but when I looked at the Japanese men and women around me – serene and glassy-eyed as they worked out – I thought maybe they had the right idea.

The more I've travelled, the more I've realised that it's actually an annoyingly Australian preoccupation to try maintaining your fitness while on the road. No one else seems to care as much, except the Americans. Websites from the US offer reams of stay-fit-while-travelling advice, ranging from how to get kilograms of protein powder past foreign customs, to how to transform sturdy tree branches and bus shelters into chin-up bars. Sadly, there isn't any advice on how you can do all this without looking like a epic tosser.

On one website's recommendation, I started getting into the habit of taking a skipping rope in my suitcase. This simple schoolyard favourite was a low-cost genius must-have! No treadmill? No problem! All you needed was to do 1000 or more jumps, and you'd be doing the equivalent of running several kilometres. After building up a virtuous sweat next to my hotel bed, my hotel phone rang. I picked up it, breathless and victorious. 

"Hello?"

"Are you the person in Room 504 using a skipping rope?" 

"Yes!" I said, thrilled a fellow traveller was also interested in my exercise strategies. "Yes, I am!"

"For f--k's sake, please stop," they said and hung up loudly.

I should have learned my lesson and just given up. But recently, I was in Paris, and my friend told me I had to visit the Josephine Baker Pool, a gorgeous bit of engineering that floats on the Seine. Where else in the world could one swim laps in the middle of the city, floating on a river? Sure, locals warned me there'd been regular emergency evacuations of the pool – never a great hygiene endorsement – but I figured I'd swum in enough revolting pools to survive this one. 

Needless to say, the swim was hilariously awful. The Josephine Baker pool was so packed that everyone swam without a gap between us, each of jammed together like plates on a full sushi train. Backstrokers accidentally molested the freestylers, who, in turn, barged their way past everyone else. Next to me, a young, athletic Turkish man didn't even attempt laps, opting instead to grunt his way through chin-ups on the backstroke bar. A former version of myself would have hated the entire experience, but I adored it. When you can't change your situation, laugh – it makes truly awful experiences much better.

After I changed, the Turkish guy and I made for the exit at the same time. After weeks without exercise in Europe, my lungs felt invigorated and clean. The Turkish guy got out a cigarette, lit up and walked off. I looked at him, slack-jawed with admiration. Maybe this guy had the right approach to exercise. After all, I was in a foreign country. And as they say, when in Rome...

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