Saturday, January 28, 2012

Where are your feet planted?

I think a lot about my feet. They are my foundations, after all: the roots to my tree pose in yoga, the vehicle for exploration, a way to connect to the earth ( those long solitary hikes in the canyons north of Malibu), and the key to my mobility (even when it's just those twenty steps I take to get in my car to drive to my next destination).

Longhouse ladder, Northern Vietnam.
I thought a lot about my feet when I was traveling through Southeast Asia. I was backpacking after all, so my foundations were taking on another 15 or so kilograms and an untold number of kilometers.

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.
I've hated those sandals for years (about ten years, now that I see the figures in front of me). They are light gray synthetic material with coral accents. In theory, they can take me slipping through rivers, get kicked off by the campfire and be equally supportive pounding the city pavement. In reality, they always made my sensitive right knee ache a bit and my feet kind of stinky from the incubation of sweat and dirt on the plastic petri dish sole for hours at a time. And I guess I was always a little grossed out to see the swirling patterns of dirt crusted into my toe prints at the end of a day and mirrored like a Rorschach blot inside the sandals.

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.
My feet burned on the coarse white grains as I walked. The kind of warm, tingly burn you get when you put your feet in hot bathwater after a day on the ski slopes. I spent a day and a half walking along the turquoise verge of the South China Sea, and eventually I stopped noticing the hot jagged-edged sand.

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.

Walking around town at the weekend in my new shoes I felt like a poster child for REI. But I could feel my feet. I felt light. And I got that there is nothing wrong with any of my shoes. Nor is there anything wrong with me that a pair of shoes will ameliorate. There is nothing wrong with my feet, which erstwhile spent so much time cloistered in Italian leather boots, pumiced to vulnerable smoothness, with toenails painted to a gainly shine. My feet have toughened up. It may hurt a bit when I make contact with the hard surfaces of the world. It may register in my feet, or in a more subtle place in my being. But those hard surfaces become less so the more mindfully I walk. I continue lifting and forwarding and stepping, noticing all the while where my feet are planted.

In Phnom Penh.
Postscript: as soon as my toenails finish growing back in I'm going to get a pedicure!