Ever since I can remember, walking has been my expression for happiness, curiosity and departure.
Growing up amidst the beautiful hills of Shillong, in Northeast India, walking wasn’t as therapeutic as it is today. It was the only way of getting around the town; we used to walk to college, to weekend gatherings, to reluctant relatives, to unobstructed landscapes.
It is somewhat romanticized in my head now.
When I was visiting Spain, as I stared from my hotel room’s window, at the flat city of Seville. The only way I wanted to explore it was on foot. With pedestrian-friendly paths and ‘cars not allowed’ alleys, every turn looked intriguing. Tired from the frequent travels, I did walk a good 13 kilometres that day in Spain’s fourth largest city.
Distances shrink when we walk. The intimate spaces that we find ourselves in can be frightening for the amateur. In the active lanes of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, I found myself standing against a cow and an even stranger man beside her. While in the tall Deodar forests of Himachal Pradesh, distances stretched to the azure sky and left me overwhelmed, incapable of balance.
Vulnerability and awareness are my best defense against the unknown when I’m exploring on foot. And while I meddle with my thoughts of security, I realise that I’m just as vulnerable to that stranger as she is to me. When did I stop empathy from filling me up?
And if I did lose myself or my sense of security on an unexplored trail, who do I turn to for help?
Technology is our constant guide in this big bad world. Fortunately for me though there are still those forest covers and mountain tops, where the birds chirp, the wind adds rhythm to each step and where the gadgets are just another distraction. And often in moments like these, I have been lost and directionless. Literally.
My steps lead me to the solution — to that one person who can help me find my way back.
The first time it happened was in the summer of 2007. Engulfed by the sights of the Himachal hills, I hiked astray, unable to trace my path back. I asked a local villager to show me the descent, but instead, he guided me to his home for tea while his wife translated my query. (We didn’t speak a common language.) Soon, he accompanied me to the town centre and ensured I was confident enough to find my friends. That kind of guidance and aid wouldn’t have been possible if I was in a car navigated by Google Maps.
Walking also restored my faith in people.
There has always been a certain ease of conversations while I walked with strangers. Many of them graduate to friends and acquaintances answered curious questions more generously. May be it is the relationship between the mind and the feet that help our relationship to grow better?
Seeing is believing but could walking mean living?
Completing a trail in every city I visit has become imperative to my travels. Whether it has been the quaint lanes of Panjim, or through the chaotic troughs of Mumbai’s laundromat, or the resplendent gardens of Kashmir, or the scenic banks of Lake Geneva in Montreux, I have never missed an opportunity to live the geography, as intimately.
Perhaps, they come to life when I know I can touch them? Touching the wall to Mirza Ghalib’s home in Delhi or resting my hands on Ponte Vecchio in Florence, made the experience complete for me.
Or may be being allowed to actually walk the path that the great once did, reflects existence at a new level? Like Buddha’s Cloister Walk in Mahabodhi Temple, Bihar.
The significance of walking in my life is as elusive as it is addictive. It has become a part of me that I can no longer ignore or question.
Perhaps Rumi elucidates it the best, ‘Beauty surrounds us, but usually we need to be walking in a garden to know it.’
Has walking added value to your life?
I wrote this post for Medium two years ago.