|Longhouse ladder, Northern Vietnam.|
And I've owned a lot of shoes. Not necessarily the ones that immediately spring to mind when a woman mentions shoes, either. I'm talking about trail runners, cross trainers, MBTs and well-made boots. I'm talking about moccasins, cork-soles, clogs and comfort-engineered flats. Though you might find a pair of patent leather pumps for fancy occasions amongst the Clarks and Danskos, I've invested in lots of different shoes to keep my body in healthy alignment and happily pain free.
I took two pairs of shoes with me on my trip: a brand new pair of light, low top hikers purchased four weeks prior to my trip from the local sporting goods store that was going out of business, and a very old pair of Teva sandals that I purchased the day I started UCLA back in 2001.
|Angkored feet. Pre Rup, City of Angkor.|
What I noticed in traveling, though, is how my feet toughened up. My first hint of it was on the beach in Nha Trang. There is little else to do in this central Vietnam town except enjoy the waterfront. I woke up, put on my swimsuit, grabbed my towel, and walked across the street to the beach after a quick breakfast of fresh banana, pineapple, dragonfruit and mango and very strong french-style coffee.
I peeled off my sandals to sink into the beach experience, and walked to a high spot on the sand near a pair of European tourists. They were sipping green bottles of Saigon beer and frolicking in and out of the waves. (I checked my watch and it was before 9am. No judgment. I don't usually drink beer at 8 in the morning, but then I don't usually sunbathe that early either.)
|Occheuteal Beach, Sihanoukville, Cambodia.|
Other jarring experiences befell these tender feet throughout the trip. After a rainy day of hiking in the hills of Sapa in the far north of Vietnam, right near the border with China, I lost my big toe nails. My feet were water logged and pruney when I finally peeled off my soggy socks. A white ridge ran the width of my big toenails where the top layer of the nail sort of buckled up. Eventually the last quarter inch of the nail simply peeled away.
I got hot spots on my instep and the ball of my left foot. Blisters puffed up on the inside of my pinkie toe, which likes to sneak under the adjacent fourth toe when I'm trekking long distances, much to its disadvantage. Bedbugs and mosquitoes left a constellation of itchy red bites of varying magnitude that it took all my discipline to ignore. And I got used to seeing my feet dirty, powdered with the red dust of Cambodia.
The last day of my trip I stood on the veranda of Wat Mahathat in Bangkok, staring at the feet of a saffron-clad monk in front of me. "Stepping, lifting, forwarding," he instructed us in the mindfulness of walking meditation. I looked at his feet. Callouses lightened the caramelly skin in spots, and a rim of white, dry, cracks defined his heels and big toes. The toenails were craggy. He lifted one foot slowly, where it hovered over the cool pavers momentarily lost in his robes, until the heel softly met the gray stone.
|Reclining Buddha. Nha Trang, Vietnam.|
By the time I got back to Los Angeles I loved my old sandals. I kept grabbing for them despite the chill winter temperatures that normally bring me chilblains this time of year. I was used to having my feet exposed to the elements, and the skin was thicker, more resilient. My foundations had been transformed.
Last week I got my first pair of five finger shoes, those little split toe sheaths that are as close to barefoot as any urban dweller would sensibly be. I recall I almost broke my toes when I tried on a pair in a sporting goods shop in Hawaii in 2010. I would be hiking through ochre mud up to a waterfall on Kauai and I was sure my Tevas would not hack it. I'd heard how five finger shoes can improve your muscle tone and bring you back into alignment, and my yoga teacher swore by the barefoot lifestyle. "These things have got to be terrible for you. Not enough cushion between me and the world. I'm sure they'll make my knee/back/hip hurt," I thought to myself in that shoe store in Hawaii. My inner skeptic and reluctant consumer battled with the sunshine-and-lollipop part of me that is sure the open market has a fix for anything that ills me.
In Phnom Penh.