By Marc Lacey
Monday, March 17, 2008
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti: The grunts are no different. The clang of the weights sounds pretty much the same as well. And sweat drips off bodies at both the chichi Gold's Gym in Port-au-Prince's priciest suburb and at the far more humble open-air workout joint farther down the hill known by regulars as the Temple of Pain.
These two gyms might as well be in different worlds, situated as they are on opposite sides of the class divide that has long been such an entrenched part of Haiti.
"Someone at Gold's would laugh at this place," said Julien Spencer, 34, a burly bodybuilder who lifts at the temple, where the weight machines are made from scrap metal, car batteries and disassembled car engines, a testament to Haitian ingenuity. "He'd take one look at what we have and walk away shaking his head. He'd say we're crazy, lifting with all this garbage while they have their fancy machines and air conditioning."
Spencer, who used to work as a trainer at Gold's, said he still remembered the first time he walked into that sparkling facility in the upscale part of the Haitian capital and looked around. His heart was beating fast, he said, and it had nothing to do with cardiovascular activity.
He frankly could not believe all the luxury around him. What particularly caught his eye were all the electronic exercise machines, with lights and buttons and beepers. None of that is particularly practical in his working-class neighborhood since the electricity is going off all the time.
"Those machines are great there, but I feel more comfortable here," he said at the open-air workout pit the other day. "I like the vibe. My muscles prefer these homemade machines."
His remarks are tinged by the fact that he was recently fired from Gold's, where he got into a dispute with the management over his salary.
He also did not hit it off with some of the clients he encountered, not the foreigners so much as the well-heeled Haitians, who he said were used to being waited on hand and foot.
When he would remind a Haitian to put the weights away when they were finished, they would sometimes react with scorn.
"They'd say, 'I'm paying you for that,' " he said.
And although he finished fourth in a recent body-building competition, Spencer did not dare advise ornery clients on their workout technique.
"Rich people think they know more than me about everything," he said.
"They'll get mad if you point out that they are holding their elbows wrong."
Technique is one thing that does not change based on neighborhood - even though the free weights at the more humble gym are made from melting down car batteries and to reach the pull-up bar there exercisers stand on a chrome fender salvaged from an old wreck.
All around the facility, which used to be a rat-infested garbage dump before Harris Desire, a local bodybuilder, cleaned it up, is metal that has been forged into what Gold's purchases at a premium from Cybex International, an American company that makes fancy treadmills, steppers and cross-trainers, not to mention chest pressers, lat pullers, arm curlers and leg extenders.
Gold's sells sports drinks, protein supplements and fashionable exercise outfits to its 400-plus members in Port-au-Prince.
At the temple, there is nothing to eat or drink and the dozen gym members pay about $8 monthly, about one- eighth the cost of Gold's but still a sufficiently high a price that it is out of reach for most people in the Juvenat neighborhood.
In upscale Pétionville, Gold's shares space with a cappuccino shop, a clothing boutique and a wine shop. Together with some Domino's Pizza shops, it represents the relatively little outside investment in Haiti.
The talk of the gym in recent months has been the fate of one of the gym's proprietors, who was convicted last year in south Florida for drug trafficking.
Although class divisions are firmly drawn here and have played a key role in the political unrest the country has experienced in the past year, Port-au-Prince's power lifters note that income does not matter much when it comes to muscle mass.
"You can have all the money in the world but you can't buy a body," Spencer said, his pockets empty but his arms overflowing.
"That makes me feel good. If the rich guys could buy fitness they would buy it. They'd leave us with nothing."
Robert (Junior) Volcy, a four-time Mr. Haiti who grew up in a rough neighborhood but now works out at Gold's, said the class lines of Port-au-Prince meant little to him. He now lives up the hill and works there as a sports promoter, putting on body-building competitions that he hopes will end the stereotype that all Haitians are scrawny.
"I started out at a little hole-in-the-wall gym," said Volcy, 33, showing off biceps more ample than his questioner's thigh. "We used the flywheel of an engine block and all the other parts of an engine to make the weights.
"We melted down the lead from batteries. Those humble gyms are where I started and I still don't think they are beneath me."
In fact, Volcy still goes back to them sometimes when he wants to get away from all the networking at Gold's, where aid workers, diplomats, peacekeepers and elite entrepreneurs exercise and hobnob in equal doses and Haiti's poverty seems far - say 20 minutes on the treadmill, set at level 6 - away.