April 1992

Mad Jogs and Englishmen

Mad Jogs and Englishmen

April 1992, pp 42
By Randy Wayne White

ALTHOUGH IT DOESN'T ENJOY much currency, a subject that deserves discussion is a peculiar malady that sometimes befalls even hard-core, kick-butt-and-sleep-with-the-animals travelers, of which this republic has its proud share. It is a cerebral complaint, a kind of emotional virus that infects people who, for reasons they once thought perfectly rational, have committed themselves to staying far too long in a region or country that the travel books portrayed as far too attractive.

You may recognize some of the symptoms. The traveler's gaze hardens, while his posture degenerates. His hands, normally held at the ready for an unexpected handshake, become fists. His foreign vocabulary, once clumsy but at least varied, shrinks to three phrases:

  • “I don't want rice, I want beer.”
  • “Don't ever touch me there again.”
  • “That better not be yak butter.”

The affliction has no name, but it should. Maybe Travel Rot or the Dorothy Syndrome (“there's no place like home”). Road jaundice might be better, though, as it accurately describes the yellowing of the spirit that the afflicted traveler experiences. For reasons I don't understand, Road Jaundice usually strikes late in the first week of a trip or early in the third, and it's a little like having a bad reaction to prescription drugs and being homesick at the same time. To the afflicted traveler, food that once seemed exotic becomes a foul depot of mired flies and suspicious meats. The native tongue, which once resembled a warbling flute, becomes a defeating chorus of barking frogs. It's ugly business, and in the old days a traveler had no choice but to tough it out, to wait for these doldrums to ebb.

Not anymore, though; not for me anyway. I've stumbled onto a cure. Several years ago, I was in Medan, Sumatra, which is about as bizarre a place as the Western mind can imagine, what with its lunatic motorized rickshaw traffic, wailing calls to the mosque, and wok-fried dog fritters.

Spend a couple of weeks there, and you'll understand why no town on earth would consider choosing Medan as its sister city (except maybe Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where opium smokers and sexual deviants still have some say). I has been in Sumatra a lot longer than I wanted, but not nearly as long as I'd agreed to, so I was wandering the streets, lost as usual, enduring a grumpy bout of Road Jaundice when I sought refuge in the bar of the Pardede Hotel. It eas there that I fell in with a group of Australians who invited me to join them on a ten-kilometer jog – what they called a hash run.

But if ran in this weird country, I wanted to know, might not the police assume we were fleeing some outrageous crime, and open fire?

No worries, the Aussies insisted; the running group – the Medan Hash House Harriers, they called it – had a long and interesting history on the island and was well known in all quarters.

For reasons you'll soon understand, I don't recall a lot of what went on my first hash run. It was in a rural area southwest of Medan; I remember that. The Australians were there, of course, as were men and women from the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia, several Asian countries, and probably some other places, too – about 30 people in all. We were standing around talking, getting to know one another (it's a fine thing to hear English spoken while you're in the grips of Road Jaundice), when suddenly someone blew on a horn and yelled “On! On!” and everyone started running at once. Not down the road, mind you, but cross-country. We ran up hills, through a pasture, scattered a bunch of ducks in someone's yard, then crashed our way through a pretty chunk of jungle. Just when I'd decided I couldn't go much further at such a pace, the front runners stopped and began to hunt around in the grass. “Looking for the scent,” I was told, which I later learned meant they were looking for a trail of paper scraps that a pair of runners – the Hares had laid ten minutes earlier.

About the time I caught my breath, someone yelled “On! On!” again, and off we ran once more. And that's the way it went for an hour or so. We ran through jungles, waded creeks, loped down hills until the front runners lost the trail. Then we all split up to search out the correct path. It was like no run I'd ever done before; certainly it was a lot more interesting, and not just because of the unusual route. My fellow runners seemed to talk in code. “Checking!” they would yell. “On back!” “Slow the bloody FRBs!” (front running bastards). And: “No passing! You've won yourself a down-down when we get back to the piss bucket.” (Translation: Because you're being competitive, you must chug a beverage when we get to the beer cooler.)

Not that only competitive runners had to chug beverages at the conclusion of this has run, no. The members formed a circle, sang bawdy songs, the contrived outlandish reasons why participants has to do down-downs, either beer or soft drinks, the backwash remainder of which was poured over the drinker's head.

It sounds silly – well, hell, it was silly. But it was fun, I spent my time in the circle. I spent plenty of time around the piss bucket outside the circle, too. Like I said, I don't clearly remember everything that happened at my first hash run, but I do remember this: By the time was event was finished, I'd made several new friends, I'd learned a couple of memorable songs, I had a nifty new T-shirt, and Sumatra didn't seem so foreign after all. As for my symptoms of Road Jaundice, they weren't temporarily forgotten, they were completely gone.

IN SHORT, THE HASH HOSE HARRIERS IS AN international organization that attracts an interesting variety of expatriates and wandering souls, all of whom believe that running is a good thing – particularly when it's not done on some prissy road – and that socializing afterward is a great thing. Imagine a group of sorority/fraternity travel warriors with a fetish for bushwhacking and beer, and you'll get a pretty good picture of what hashing is all about.

Not that you have to enjoy alcohol to have fun with a hash run. Drinking isn't a requisite, nor is it ever pressed. But if you enjoy a tankard or two after a butt-busting cross-country jog, you will not lack for companionship.

The best thing about hashing, though, is that visitors are always welcome. It doesn't matter who you are, where you're from, whether you're male or female, young or old. As it says in the organization's membership guidelines, “No matter what colour, nationality, or disability... [as long as it is] somebody who can take a joke... who doesn't think he is better than any other... who is not chauvinistic and can listen to women... who is not a burn-the-bra type and can listen to men... someone not a know-all arsehole... and who is not too inhibited to scream On! On! Virtually anywhere... and drink out of your new running shoe.”

In other words, hashers have standards, just not very high ones.

What I didn't know when I stumbled upon the Hash House Harriers is that the organization is worldwide. It has more than 60,000 members affiliated with 1,191 clubs in 138 countries, including just about every far-flung, godforsaken spot on the planet. Stranded in Oman? There are three Hash House Harrier clubs in the sultanate, and most of them run once a week, year round. Missed your connection in Mombasa? The hashers there meet every Saturday and Monday. Suffer Road Jaundice in Tonga, Tunisia, Turkey, Andorra, Argentina, Algeria, Libya, Guyana, the Falklands, or Saipan, and the cure is only a hash run away. There is an Antarctic clan of hashers (though their runs are seasonal), and there are still more chapters with headquarters aboard oceangoing ships, such as the United Kingdom's HMS Edinburgh and Australia's HMAS Stalwart.

I know a little bit of this from my experience, but mostly I'm taking it from the Harrier International World Hash Handbook, which lists pertinent data for every chapter. I now consider the handbook a mainstay piece of travel equipage, and I pack it right along with other necessities like clean socks and Lomotil pills. The editor of the book is an Englishman named Tim “Magic” Hughes (for reasons I still don't understand all Harriers must have nicknames) and he also edits Harrier International magazine, a sporadically published periodical for hashing enthusiasts. Highes, who is the organization's historian and record keeper, does all of his work on a voluntary, break-even basis using the offices of his Bangkok advertising agency as a base for what must be the largest, strangest, funniest running club in the world.

Recently I was in Babgkok and met with Hughes on the day after a hash run; he discussed the history and aims of the Harriers with the same tongue-in-cheek cheer that pervades the club's jogs. “Running the hash got its start in 1938 in Kuala Lumpur,” he told me, “at a colonial establishment known as the Selangor Club, which had chambers behind it where the bachelors of the day had their billet. The barrack served meals, of course, and was know as the Hash House. One day the members staged a run styled after the hare-and hounds paper-chase game that was played in England, and the run was a great success. Back at the Selangor Club, after several rounds of rum drinks, the man who founded the organization, A.S. Gispert, proposed the name Hash House Harriers. It became very popular among the expats.”

A second HHH chapter was founded in Singapore in 1962, by an Englishman who posted and advertisement inviting expatriates for a run followed by “beer, sausages, and mash.” Although hashing clubs became well known in British colonial circles, it wasn't until the seventies that they began to attract a growing number of world travelers and international businesspeople who were impressed by the organization's aims (promote physical fitness among the members; get rid of weekend hangovers) and charmed by some of its prohibitions (no gaming or opium smoking at the meets; no using society funds to pay the fines of members who have been convicted in court). But ultimately, all of them came for the same reason people have been hashing all along: to run and socialize.

According to Hughes, the first world has run – called the InterHash Unconvention – was held in Hong Kong in 1978 and hosted by the Kowloon Hash House Harriers. Since then, the weekend celebration has been held every two years in places like Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, and Sydney, attracting thousands of members from around the world. This year's InterHash will be held in July in “InterHash Paradise” – Phuket, Thailand – and, of course, nonmembers are invited.

“Hashers run anywhere, anytime, regardless of what is going on around them,” Hughes told me. For instance, the Kuwait Hash House Harriers had a good turnout for their run on August 4, 1990 – which, if you remember, was two days after the Iraqi invasion.

“That is one of the grand traditions of the club,” Hughes continued, “to keep right on running. It goes back to the days of the founding club at Kuala Lumpur, where members continued to hash right through the outbreak of war in 1939. In some book, a British officer tells how he had set his men in ambush position in the jungle and was awaiting for the approaching enemy, and damn if 15 chaps in vests and running shorts from the local harriers club didn't come running past.”

Members of the early club also served bravely in that war. “A.S. Gispert, the founder, was killed in 1942 while defending his post on Bukit Timah,” said Hughes. “Gispert's orders had been to detain the Japanese force as long as possible.”

It is precisely this mad-dogs-and-Englishmen attitude that makes running with hashers so much fun. Why the ecentricities of such a group should void one's impatience with the oddities of a foreign land, I don't know. But it does. And those of us who have suffered Road Jaundice don't much care why. On! On!

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