Wrote this for a college writing class back in the day:
There was a time when I used to walk past barbed wire on a regular basis. I walked beside a rusty brick wall, topped by equally rusty curled spikes, against a low grey sky. I didn’t find the wall shocking, or even particularly depressing, it was mostly boring. I found the occasional passerby, in a drab overcoat, a ‘kercheif on the head, or carrying a plain boxy brief case a welcome point of interest. I’d stare at them, with abandonment in regard to my Western manners, through the veil of my misting glasses. Every day it would rain – not rain – but mist. I had a sneaking suspicion the mist was a result of all the pollution in nearby Djerzhinsk during the Soviet era.
The mist made the leaves smell, and my glasses fog up. I had to watch my step in my high heel boots when traversing those rotted leaves. I never understood how the tight-legged Russian girls could totter so high up on their heels, on precarious ground, and never come toppling down. I’d watch those skinny heels shift awkwardly from side to side on the bumpy sidewalk, and wonder when it would happen – when it all would topple, like the wall of Jericho. I was always waiting. I wonder what those Israelites thought, walking and waiting for seven days. They must have believed, because they kept marching.
One morning in the spring of grade 12 I walked to school. You have to understand that I live in the country, and my school is 5 or 6 miles away, in the city. I woke up at 6:30 and stumbled out the door with the dawn – down the dewy gravel, across the highway, over wet brown grass still recovering from the snow. The Canadian winterland had recently given way to mud and gravel. The sun rose behind muted clouds, and I ignored the stares of the pickups on the nearby highway.
When I reached the first traffic lights of my city, I got a bit nervous. I still had substantial ground to cover, and it was already 8:20, only 10 minutes until school’s beginning. My first class was math, and tardiness was a habit of mine. My teacher would always lock the door after the last bell had rung, and coming late meant knocking politely, waiting patiently, and squirming under the teacher’s annoyed glare and reprimand when he finally let me in to class. That man once made me do pushups for being late.
I sped up my legs. I was also getting tired. Blisters were forming inside my old muddy running shoes. I started to doubt my genius in walking to school. My heart started beating, not from the physical exertion, but from stress. How could I have miscalculated? My day was ruined. This was embarrassing.
The Safwa people of the highlands in Southern Tanzania are always walking. I spent a week following my host parents through dirt mazes carved out of the hilly cornfields, winding under avocado trees, and skirting the neighbor’s shamba garden on the mountainous incline. They have no real roads. Everything is on foot. I never quite knew where I was going there. I just followed my parents around, and tried not to lose sight of my Mama disappearing behind a row of corn, with a pack of dried beans balanced perfectly on her head. I wished I could stop on the path and take in the beauty of my surroundings – the high mountain covered in clouds, the dark wetness of the blue forests, and the hills rolling on and up and all around, splashed with sunflowers in contrast to grey sky. The landscape was always lush and confusing. It was overwhelming at times. When the rains came every afternoon, I followed my Baba’s barefoot steps in the mud. The path was all I saw – all I had capacity to concentrate on. He’d always tell me “pole pole” – “slowly, slowly.” Messing up and slipping was a cause for chuckles and conversation. Nonetheless I tried to never slip. I had my pride.
Walking on ice can give you the feeling of swimming. There is nothing concrete to latch on to. It’s all fluid, relative. Each step is best done after a careful survey of the surrounding surface, a little nudge of the foot. Gravity, and whatever friction you can find will be your best friends. The secret is to make friction if you can’t find it. Little steps are best. It’s often beneficial to act confident, but always inwardly aware of the immense risk you make by stepping out. A seasoned icewalker appears as though they are strolling on a summer sidewalk. No one would know they are testing every move. Once you are used to the strategy of icewalking, any surface becomes walkable.
It was American Halloween in Russia – Halloween with ‘fourth graders,’ in a party for their English class. I practically ran the 8 blocks from the university to get to the school on time to don my pony costume. I had made a horse nose out of paper, and crudely coloured it brown with a marker I found in the apartment. Pony is the same word in Russian as English. I’m incapable of saying horse. I wore a bright orange synthetic wig as a mane. I told my fellow classmate volunteers that we would have to humiliate ourselves for the enjoyment of the fourth graders. And so we did – acting out some pathetically translated horror stories, and neighing with sincerity. I bobbed for apples with a soggy horse nose. All the while the stern Russian parents lined the walls of the crowded classroom, watching. Thank God the kids at least laughed at our antics. I don’t even like Halloween, but I guess I did it for the kids. I didn’t do it for America’s reputation. I didn’t do it for the candy, because we didn’t get any, and anyways, I got sick the next morning from a bad apple. Maybe the purposeful humiliation was in response to the teacher’s love and acceptance of us, to make her proud, to give back. The least we could do was humiliate ourselves for her children.
My last day in Quito, Ecuador, my Mom took an early flight out, so it was just me and my Dad. I didn’t quite know what to do with him for so long, so we public bussed it to an adventure in Old Quito. The capital of Ecuador is a few centuries old, dating back to Spanish colonialists, and their type of buildings. The high elevation and mountainous landscape give a depth that most cities don’t have, while simultaneously every hill takes your breath away. In the old section of the city, my Dad and I wandered aimlessly up the narrow streets, not understanding the Spanish, but nevertheless experiencing the people and place. Short squat natives in colorful weaving pushed carts of homemade icecream cones to the street corners, old men trudged up their hill to coffee, and playful children peeked out of their parents’ bins of corn and beans.
With my father I walked up and down the hills, sometimes retracing previous steps, but always learning anew, seeing more. We saw rich people and poor people, unhappy people and content ones, whole families and lonely strangers. Our legs got tired, but we kept going in order to see more. The companionship and shared experience was motivation. My Dad bought me a pineapple pastry from a streetside bakery, and I remember feeling free, because I knew he would provide for my needs.
I’ve been walking my whole life. Like the Israelites around Jericho, I know I need to keep going and keep trying. It can get boring, be overwhelming, sometimes the victory seems doubtful, sometimes the concept of merely walking seems inadequate. It can become tiring, but encouragement is often just around the corner. Maybe the humiliation is worth it. That battle of Jericho was less about the toppling, and more about the obedience, patience, and trust. When we walk in tough places, we learn to endure and we learn to trust.