I jump rope everywhere I go. I learned when I did a little boxing training in Sacramento years back, and I’ve always liked it. I absolutely abhor running and don’t particularly love getting punched in the face, so skipping rope became my feel good part of the workout – my mental rest. So I got pretty good at it, honing my skills over the years until I could ‘rope’ smoothly like I was dancing.
When I left the U.S. almost three years ago and moved to places like Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and now all over Southeast Asia, the jump rope came with me. In places where you never know when you’ll find a gym or a suitable place to work out, the rope comes in handy. One of my favorite things here in SE Asia, especially in the main cities, is that they always have big public parks – tile-floored promenades lining the river or ocean and everyone comes out to exercise at sunset. Sometimes there are thousands of people packed in – playing badminton, chasing their kids around on their bicycle, ridiculous group dance fitness classes, football games, and other crazy Asian yoga-gymnastic stuff.
At first I was shy to go out there and work out with them – you’re conspicuous enough as a foreigner in Asia without sweating and jumping around – but I did find a corner of the plaza to take out my jump rope and go to work. After a while, I grew to love it. People did point or stop and stare, or walk but it was all out of fun - a lot of them have never even seen someone jump rope, so they were enthralled. Whole families would comer over and show their little ones, old ladies would watch for a while and give me the thumbs up, and little kids would gather around and laugh and replicate the moves without a rope, as enthusiastic as if I’d shown them a magic trick for the first time. It was my way of connecting with the community – the real people, not the tourist façade, and people would stop to say hello or talk and I’d offer them the rope to try. Sometimes, so many people gathered around that I seriously considered putting out a tip cup for noodle money!
I jumped rope in public parks in places like Nha Trang, Vietnam, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Boracay Island in the Philippines and Phuket, Thailand. But none were every as special as when I jumped rope here in Luang Prabal, Laos yesterday.
A charming town along the Mekong River in northern Laos, Luang Prabal is known for it’s French colonial architecture, Buddhist Wats, or temples, and night markets full of dazzling hand crafts and good eats after lazy, hot afternoons. Of course I wanted to exercise every day so I looked for a gym. There were internet posts from 2012 about one on the outskirts of town, but it took me an hour to walk there and I never found it so I kept walking and hiked up a big hill instead. But I found the perfect spot to work out in town – right on the main avenue there’s a small park that’s the entrance to a steep set of stairs up the mountain to a statue of Buddha where you can get a view of the whole town. The park had a tile floor, wasn’t too crowded, and had the most incredible view of a huge Wat across the street, with purple trees and gold lined rooftops. I started going there each late afternoon to jump rope and sprint up the stairs up the mountain, which almost killed me but was great sport, dodging hordes of camera-snapping Japanese tour groups on the way up.
On that same avenue they set up the night market every day, so around 5 pm you’ll see hundreds of red and blue-topped tents erected and the locals spreading their wares out on blankets to try and make a buck of tourists – incredible jewelry, cheap t-shirts, pirated DVDs, and more than a few Laos bakers who brought out donuts or coconut cakes. Since it was a tourist hotspot at night, the street kids came out, too – trying to collect bottles and cans for change or sell little trinkets and bracelets, though no one begs. They come up to the park, too, and started watching me jump rope. In between sets, when I went to run up the stairs, they held my rope and tried it themselves. Sheer hilarity ensued, and after a while I was spending so much time teaching them how to jump and there were so many kids who wanted a turn, I wouldn’t even get to use the rope again. I didn’t mind – the sheer joy on their faces was worth it.
Most of the kids just played around and stumbled and fell and it was a fun joke but the other day two little girls, barefoot and dirty, out on the street peddling something, stood close by and watched as I skipped rope. I offered the rope to them but at first they were super shy – Laos culture is extremely conservative, especially for females, but their curiosity got the best of them and one brave girl took the rope and tried. To my amazement, she jumped really well. It wasn’t smooth of course – she had no technique but was just going off instinct – but I’d stop and show her how to do one thing and then give the rope back to her and she’d copy it. Soon she was able to crossover like a champ – the move where you lower and cross your hands so the rope takes a big infinity symbol path around you. I couldn’t believe my eyes – soon she was doing ten crossovers in a row, something I can’t even do after years of jumping rope! Her friend was really good too, but this one girl just had a look in her eyes like she’d found something that transported her. She was jumping barefoot on a hard surface and her feet were so beat up they were almost bleeding, but she was having so much fun she couldn’t stop. I knew she’d be jumping rope the rest of her life if she could
The sun was going down and I was ready to puke a lung after running up the mountain 5 times so I told them I had to go. But I’d be back 6pm the next night if they wanted to jump more. They beamed ear to ear and agreed enthusiastically, high fiving me before going off to work all night.
The next evening I came again, but not to jump rope, myself, because of a nasty cold. I greeted the girls with chocolate cupcakes I’d bought for them and then we got down to the business of ‘roping. I handed it over and took out my GoPro and took a few shots of them skipping rope right in front of the Wat across the street. They didn’t have time to warm up so they weren’t quite as good as the day before, but still it was amazing for total beginners. Toward the end of our twenty minutes together, the one girl even tried double-unders, where you jump up and twirl the rope around you twice and land and keep going, something that’s pretty difficult. She got it on her last try, and was so psyched that she almost ran up to hug me like a proud daughter!
I knew I was leaving for Thailand the next day and there was no way I could leave them without a chance to jump rope again after seeing how much it meant, so I handed them my jump rope. After all I’ve been through with that rope, all the places we’ve gone together and the things we’ve seen, it was like giving away an appendage – like a baseball player giving his best lucky glove to a young fan. They weren’t sure what I meant by the gesture but I assured them that the rope was now theirs, a gift. They assured me they would share it, and I snapped a photo of them holding it before high-fiving and leaving them to the sunset.
So if you happen to travel to the end of the world, a little riverside town in Laos with golden temples and hot French afternoons, and you see two little girls jumping rope on the side of a mountain near a brilliant purple tree, with big smiles on their faces as Buddha watches over, you’ll know how it all began.
My little jump rope students holding up their new rope!
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Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.