"You must be the change you wish to see in the world." - Mohandas Gandhi
If you find passing through airport security to be a hassle, imagine the plight of a bikini diva like Nicole Moneer trying to board an Air India flight from Chicago to Delhi. She has checked two bags and carries two more bursting with four meals, toiletries, clothing, competition bikinis, and all the other accoutrements of competition. Screeners look at her like she's off to arm a female fitness revolution, Homeland Security and TSA be damned.
After an hour of shakedowns and reluctant throwaways, Moneer boards with other passengers. Behind her lies a blur of bikini competitions—within a span of weeks, the St. Louis Pro, where she placed ninth, and the Olympia, where she took 16th. Before her lies a 14-hour flight to the Sheru Classic, a bodybuilding contest holding its first-ever bikini showdown.
For Moneer, on the cusp of turning 40, this is a journey into her past, a homecoming to a place she has never been before. For the people of India, this is a chance to witness a strong, ripped woman, the sort seldom seen in this rapidly developing nation. Two worlds are about to collide—but first there's a contest to win.
Moneer shares a cab from the airport to the hotel with pro bodybuilder Ed Nunn. Chicago may be plagued with congestion, but that pales next to traffic in Delhi, a sprawling metropolis of nearly 22 million people. The traffic is a mash-up of modern vehicles, blaring horns, paper-thin taxis, Vespas, horse-drawn carts and carriages, bicycles, sacred cattle and pedestrians. These include impoverished children who press against the car window yelling, "Feed me! Feed me!" The next moment, these same children bounce and tumble to their father's drumbeat.
"Untouchables" or dalits are not educated on nutrition and do not have the social framework to overcome their health deficiencies. Whereas the United States faces a health crisis of over-consumption—and the obesity and type 2 diabetes that it breeds—malnourishment blights Indian society.
In the midst of such poverty, Moneer and the other 34 athletes are treated like royalty by Aangrish and Hemanth Sheru, organizers of the competition and expo. Each athlete has been assigned an assistant, bodyguards and drivers. Hotel doors and gates are guarded. Scanners are placed at seemingly every door. The divide between social classes isn't just structural; it's enforced. Four years after the hotel attack in Mumbai, terrorism remains a major concern.
Nicole meets her assistant, Parampara. She settles into her hotel room and then walks to see India Gate, the National Monument of India. Nicole's pre-contest nutrition is timed to the minute. She nails her meal frequency and sleeps after the long flight.
The next days whirl together. Moneer joins Nicole Wilkins and Jay Cutler (who did not compete) for an appearance on national television Thursday. Their makeup artist says she wants muscle, but admits she doesn't exercise.
They go on national television to promote the Sheru Classic, but they are also promoting nutrition, health and fitness. They have to explain the difference between Jay, a bodybuilder, Wilkins, a figure model and Moneer, a bikini competitor.
New Delhi's sapping summer heat mugs them. Savage humidity weighs them down. The power goes out; the studio goes dark. No one panics. The hosts tell them to be patient … it will come back on. Rolling blackouts hit northern India on the regular; conservation is vital.
Later that night, Nicole hits up a gym in a nearby mall. Her assistant and bodyguard watch as she exercises. The room has free-motion equipment, foam rolling, pro trainers and a posh feel similar to U.S. gyms. The trainers, like most Indians Nicole met, happily shake her hand and speak kindly.
"You can tell someone who is 'our kind' and someone in the average," Moneer said. "In India, you don't see a lot of women who have lean body mass. You can always tell people in fitness, you can tell people who work out and compete, whether you're in the hotel or on the street."
Indian women seem torn between generations, between ancient expectations and modern aspirations. They want to be beautiful, attractive, but the source of their beauty is often based in the façade of makeup and fashion, the Bollywood starlet ideal.
Many Indian women perform yoga, but weightlifting is not common. Muscle tone isn't a goal, yet Moneer's combination of lean mass and curves turns heads at every turn.
On Friday, large, air-conditioned buses take the visiting athletes from the hotel to the expo. Nicole spends Friday as a "Fitness Witness," signing autographs, handing out samples and wristbands at the Bodybuilding.com, Unlimited Nutrition, MusclePharm and Nature's Best booths.
The fans are receptive, respectful and excited, crazy in a good way. The mass consists mainly of men, with a few women dotting the crowd. They get excited and surge forward against rows of security separating the judges and the mass. When Nicole spots a woman in the crowd, she pulls her to the front. This is her audience. She tries to explain all she can in brief encounters.
Nicole spends all day Friday at the expo, repping her sponsors, speaking and posing for photos. She returns to the hotel to rest before the Saturday showdown at the Sheru.
Nicole wakes up and prepares for the stage. She is tanned, in impeccable shape and because she regulated her nutrition, she is in prime condition. Her name is drawn. She will be the first competitor to take the stage.
"It looks like the Emmys, so bright and huge," Nicole says. "When I walked out, the crowd went on fire. I sucked it up and I felt like I was Madonna on stage at a concert. I stopped, looked to the right, scanned all the way to the left. I took my time. I soaked it up. It was electrifying"
This is the first year for Bikini at the Sheru, and only six women compete on Saturday. The raucous ovations the athletes receive make passive American responses seem staid. After three competitions in four weeks, Nicole hits her best condition, good enough for third place.
The competitors see the eyes of the crowd, their screaming faces. The fanaticism at the show aims at the athletes' celebrity status, and then their fitness levels. On the men's side, Phil Heath and Kai Greene receive rowdy applause. For Nicole, to finish behind Nagrani and Paulino is humbling.
"I'm standing next to the best of the best," she says. "I felt like I belonged next to those girls. It doesn't matter how old you are. If you work hard you can do anything you want."
The rush of the competition feed into the after party back at the hotel. Fans and Indian fare proliferate the scene. Pre-contest diets restrict intake, but the after party unleashes feasts of curries, spicy chicken dishes, and ornate desserts. The pressure enforced by performance demands sacrifice, but the release is sweet.
Nicole is supposed to catch a flight and head back to Chicago Monday morning, but Shashi Thadani, owner of Ultimate Nutrition in India, convinces her to extend her tour a few days to visit Mumbai, formerly Bombay. She says farewell to her assistant and bodyguards and catches a flight toward the Arabian Sea coast.
"It was an opportunity too good to pass up," Nicole says. "Mumbai looks a lot like Chicago's Lake Shore Drive. You see the poverty, but you see skyscrapers, shopping, dining; it is everyday business life."
Her next few days fill with television spots, snapshot appearances at Rikin Supplements and Gold's Gym in Kandivali to further represent Bodybuilding.com in India's largest metropolis, Mumbai. Her prepared food supply runs out, so she orders two chicken breasts and salad from the hotel. She cuts her vitamin intake in half so she won't run out. Her competition weekend has suddenly become a 10-day enterprise, so she needs to get creative.
Mumbai towers close to Pune, an industrial and educational hub, and the birthplace of Nicole's father, Yusef. He grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, before immigrating to the United States. He became a medical doctor specializing in oncology and hematology, brought his family to join him, married a nurse named Mary and they brought Nicole into the world. Throughout her childhood, Nicole heard stories of the Subcontinent, but never got to go.
Yusuf was a tall, slender man in good health by appearance, but he smoked and drank alcohol, and didn't begin eating healthfully or exercising until late in his life—too late. At the age of 57, he died from a heart attack. The shock of his death became one of the major influences in Nicole's fitness career.
Now, for the first time in her life, she was able to see, hear and smell the lost links in her personal history. We all come from places on maps, but origin is not the same as geography. Our origin stories, in and out of fitness, are the impetus of our existence.
"I never got to go to either country with him," Nicole says. "I was able to go and experience what he experienced. Even though my dad was born there, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The Mumbai police called me kasrat sanki (fitness freak). I wore a sleeveless dress and was showing off my cut arms. They don't often see that."
The world's largest slum lay in the shadow of Mumbai's skyscrapers. Part of the problem is historical divides from the defunct caste system. Part is due to corruption within national food agencies. In large part, people in India are not educated about nutrition.
"We went to a store and I got to see some of the stuff for sale," Nicole said. "They have basics, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, and brown rice. On the plane they served all carbs: rice, rolls, veggies. They don't get it in America either. They don't get enough meat in their portions. They get all these carbs."
Cereals and rice are staples in the Indian diet, partly due to religious reasons and part is due to food availability and overpopulation.
"People don't want to change their eating. Certain cultures eat certain foods: a lot of rice, naan and oils. They're not eating meat. A lot of people think veggies are healthy, but they eat a lot of carbs. People don't want to change, and don't want to go to the gym. They want a quick fix."
It isn't quick enough. Clean water is scarce. People sleep on tables instead of beds. Infants walk barefoot in the street. Sanitation issues abound. Nicole sees women washing dishes in gutters. People live or work out of the shacks the size of garages. As she walks toward the India Gate, the landmark welcoming visitors from the sea, she is surprised by a gentle touch.
"All of a sudden this kid is tugging at my hand, a little beggar," Nicole says. "And he was trying to get the water bottle. I carry water wherever I go. These poor children are just thirsty."
The United Nations estimates that four children under the age of five die from malnutrition every minute in India. A full 25 percent of the world's "hungry" live in India. More than 100 million Indians (mostly affluent) also suffer from overnutrition, which is caused by eating too many unhealthy calories.
In 2010, it was estimated that 50.8 million Indians have type 2 diabetes. Rising wealth in certain classes has sped the rise of diabetes in India. Wealthy families can afford the ornate desserts that accompany high-end meals. This creates a sugar imbalance in the populace.
Mumbai is one of the most densely populated cities on earth. There are more than 53,000 people per square mile in the city. Reaching the people is not impossible. About 94 percent of Mumbaikar are literate. Lessons about nutrition and exercise were the cornerstone of Nicole's mission, but lessons and change are different things.
"More women (and men) need to be educated on it, because they don't have anyone to look up to," Nicole says. "We were in India promoting fitness and health; they need more of this! They need more foods available to them, more education and the list goes on. India needs preventive medicine—real, whole, unprocessed, chemical and hormone-free foods readily available."
Nicole packed her bags again. A long flight again loomed before her. Her only remaining food was some plant protein. Her bags were light. Her heart was heavy.
Nicole's 10-day trip to India was no vacation. She traveled to compete in the Sheru Classic, but she found more than a stage, more than an eruptive ovation, more than a nation in great need. She found cause for concern, reflection, and understanding.
Moneer is Persian for "luminous, bright, or shining." It indicates that who you are will radiate from within you, that your light will fall upon others. India isn't used to seeing women like her—strong, fit, assertive, independent. What influence this will have on a nation of 1.2 billion people remains to be seen. Societal change comes slowly, if it comes at all.
International travelers must claim every item they bring into a nation, but the most valuable things they bring home can't be scrawled into an itemized list. They are lessons and ideas, perceptions and disappointments. India left Moneer appreciative of her life back at home and aware that for many nations, what we as a society have gained—fitness, healthy nutrition, etc.—is still only on the horizon.
Yet the trip to India also left her with a feeling of loss. "The whole experience was enlightening, to see the world," Nicole said. "But I couldn't come home and share the amazing experience with my mom and dad."
Although they are both deceased, Nicole's parents gave her India. Thanks to the Sheru, India gave Nicole another reason to shine.