Monday, March 15, 2010

Walk a mile in my shoes

(These shoes now reside in Paris.  Ignore the mismatched socks; that was just an absent-minded professor thing.)

The heavy, tight-fitting leather shoes were hurting my feet something awful, and I couldn't take it anymore.  So I removed them as soon as we disembarked from the subway near our room, and set them in an obvious place on the sidewalk against a building.  I walked the remainder of the distance to our room in my socks.  I suppose this was the first time an American had ever left a pair of perfectly good shoes on the sidewalk in the 16th arrondissement (the Trocadero section) in Paris.  My feet felt better instantly and I felt liberated generally.  Nearly barefoot on a Parisian sidewalk, and I didn't give a damn.

About a year after this, I was in Kenya for an international meeting in Nairobi.  After the meeting, I went on a little safari to the Maasai-Mara, where I stayed in a small tent camp.  On this trip I took a pair of sandals, to wear around the camp, and some high-top hiking shoes for daily excursions onto the savanna.  My Maasai guide and I hit it off right away; he knew all the birds in the area, and I wanted to know them all.  But during my two days with him it was obvious that he coveted my sandals, which he saw me wear to dinner each night.  When I was about to leave on the third day, I made a gift of the sandals to this young guy, who was extremely pleased to receive them.  He promised that if I ever returned, one of his wives would fix me a nice dinner.  Sounded good to me, as long as the dinner did not consist only of cattle blood.  By the way, if you have any good recipes using this "food", please pass it along.

Then, last month in Costa Rica my feet developed a rash that would stop the bulls in Pamplona.  I was convinced it was due to the Crocs I had been wearing, and they weren't very comfortable anyway.  However, I admit that the Facebook group that I had only just discovered titled "I Don't Care How Comfortable Crocs Are, You Look Like A Dumbass" was haunting me. I seem to have a deficiency when it comes to buying footwear that works for me.  So I gave the Crocs to the cleaning lady at the Hotel Herradura in San Jose.  They were nearly new and I didn't want to just toss them in the trash.  Bon appetit, or I'd guess you'd say bon chaussures.

So, three pairs of footwear left on three continents during a 3-year period.  I had become a one-man TOMS shoes' representative.  Although I was feeling a bit like a poor-man's philanthropist, I was more taken by the kind of story I might tell about this behavior.  Of course, the idiom that came to mind was"walk a mile in my shoes".  But that is an invitation for someone to see the world from your point of view or station in life, and literally wearing someone else's shoes does not accomplish that at all.   Ironically, given that people in the countries I visited wanted to own MY shoes almost allowed me to walk a bit in their shoes, if you catch my drift.

I suppose it is not a coincidence that we focus so much on footwear.  After all, you could walk around without a shirt or pants or dress if you really had to.  You might be embarrassed, but you can physically do it.  But try walking around Paris or San Jose or the tropical savannas of Africa barefooted and your physical metal would be sorely tested.  In other words, shoes may have become a method of making a fashion statement in the modern, affluent world, but it is damned practical to have some protection on the bottom of your walking tools.  I have stated this before but, after spending time in agricultural areas of tropical America, I have never looked at a banana or a cup of coffee without deep appreciation for the human sweat it took to produce those commodities.  Similarly, I will never look again at the choices in my shoe collection with passive disdain, even if the selection of the day makes me look like a dumbass.