I remember driving through Los Angeles and watching the trash swirl around an underpass. I thought about how protected I was to be in a car as we made a U-turn at the next exit. Vehicles safeguard us in many ways. As a lifelong pedestrian, I’m exposed to more than just the elements. I’m vulnerable to the surfaces, and the things that we can ignore when we move at a faster pace.
*Note to the reader. I normally do not write long posts because I don’t expect folks to read them. When I can, I include an audio upload, and in this case, I’d recommend it. Also, all of the photos included here are from a hike I did with friends in Alabama in 2009. Enjoy.
In Thailand, it’s the smell that lets you know that you are not in America anymore. When you’re walking, you can sometimes see the sewage under open blocks of concrete lining the side of the street.
When you’re walking, you often see trash stuck in the weeds, next to walls, and stuffed into crevices. Some cities have trash bins conveniently placed, and others do not. It is not unusual to see an overflowing garbage bin.
In Cambodia, I couldn’t believe how many people in the countryside dump their trash right outside their homes. As our minibus sped us to our destination, I stared at piles of plastic, trash, and waste among palm fronds and leaves.
Some piles were deliberate, and were certainly going to be burned at a later date. Other trash simply lined the dusty road as school kids on bicycles rode past them. Other garbage looked like it was chucked out the windows of traditional wooden houses on stilts, where it landed made no matter to its occupants.
When I lived in Ecuador, it was a welcome sight to see effective street cleaners. Women pushed silver cylindrical drums on wheels up and down Cuenca’s hilly streets. They wore uniforms. There were many of them, out and about when the city was quiet, and mostly out of sight when the sidewalks were busy, but the evidence of their presence was still to be found.
Pedestrians and People
As a pedestrian, I’m considered a second-class citizen in Thailand. Thais don’t normally walk unless they are at a park doing it for exercise. There is no right-of-way for folks who walk. Crosswalks with people on it are often ignored, and zebra crossings are neglected until the paint has faded away completely.
If you’re walking, you’re obviously too poor to afford a motorbike or car, so get out of the way. This is where I think most Westerners have the hardest problem with Thai or Cambodian culture. The rules of the road are so different than what we are used to, and lives are at stake.
I was in a tuk-tuk that was weaving helter-skelter through downtown Siem Reap when I saw a blond woman cursing and yelling at the side of the road as she was trying to cross it. As we rambled by, I was sympathetic, but as a long-time expat, I wanted to tell her, you just have to brave it. Frogger is not only an 80s video game, but a way of living over here.
I’ve been known to link arms with a friend when crossing streets. I sometimes shriek. After all these years, I’m still a terrified rabbit. It’s the unpredictability of drivers and they don’t necessarily slow down when you’re near. I know a couple of people who were hit while walking, both in Thailand and Cambodia.
My BF is the worst. He’s learned to walk into traffic no matter how many times I’ve gotten angry at him for being so blasé about his life and limbs. As someone who has lived in China and Vietnam, he’s learned to pretend he doesn’t see them. This, of course, goes counter to what we Americans have learned – make eye contact with the driver before you cross. But he’s right, you can’t look at them, if you do then they know you know they’re there.
Walking with an umbrella is the key. I can use it as a weapon. It makes me more visible and larger. I wave it around when I’m feeling vulnerable. It shields me from not only the laser rays of the sun, but dust from the street, and exhaust from cars. If there’s something unsavory around, I can, for example, use it to block out a person who is staring at me. I always carry it with me even if I don’t always use it.
I don’t like the rain. When I was a child, storms would prevent me from sleeping. If it’s raining and I don’t have to leave the house, then yeah, it’s nice and cozy. But there’s no romance in walking in the rain. With every step, street grit is kicked up and sticks to the back of my legs. My shoes get soaked. Surfaces become slick. Sometimes it’s difficult to see puddles.
Raincoats here are not the raincoats of home. They’re paper thin plastic ponchos that seem as effective as taking a large garbage bag and sticking your head and arms through.
And yes, this is the land of monsoons and heavy downpours, and still, folks walk around with a plastic grocery bag on their heads, and poorly made raincoats. My students come to class soaked and shivering. Proper drainage is no guarantee. Particular areas are known to flood, including right outside my apartment.
The other day a car sped by splashing a wall of water up. I couldn’t help it I gave the driver the bird.
On my first day in Cuenca, I got caught in the rain, and learned to hate not only my lack of directions, but cobblestone sidewalks. I twisted my ankle on those damn uneven surfaces and my LL Bean jacket by this point was barely keeping me dry as I kept trying to get back to my guesthouse. I was a soggy mess by the time I made it back, long after the sun had set.
I watched the women in their tacos (high heels) link arms with their friends or sisters as they daintily navigated walking around town. It’s the only way to do in those things, I figured.
Back in Thailand, Chiang Mai made the decision years ago to rip up the cobblestone city center and replace it with the standard gravel and tar. The city claimed it was too expensive to maintain. Folks and shopkeepers along the street saved some of the bricks.
Since I worked in the main city center, I was there when they took out the cobblestones and after they had tarmacked the road. As I reached it, waiting to cross the street, the waves of heat practically knocked my senses out of my head. I couldn’t believe how much hotter the area had become simply from repaving the road. Yes, the cobblestone had aesthetic appeal, but I had no idea how much better they were for the environment as well.
Until I left Hawaii for Colorado, I had no idea that snow could cover the landscape like a photo filter making everything look better. And when the snow started to melt, a reverse filter would show up creating a slushy, dirty mess. Snow though, is a lot of work to walk in. Only when it is falling gently, and when no one else is around is it the best condition to walk in.
These are the moments where magic is alive. Where walking down the middle of the road feels like Christmas because you’re the first person to create footsteps in the snow. It’s so quiet. It’s not too cold. It’s you and your friend or just you, and listening to your shoes make that crunching snow sound.
Or it’s that awkward gait as you figure out how to walk in snowshoes. You flounder and shuffle. Sometimes you laugh, sweat, and wished your nylon clothing didn’t make that swish-swish sound. You soon discover that some shoes are better than others. The old fashioned wooden ones aren’t nearly as effective as the fancy aluminum ones. But it’s fun, especially for this girl from Hawaii who was used to sand rather than snow.
I hated walking on ice. I never felt like I perfected it, taking mincing steps, holding on to a friend or anything, really, so I didn’t fall. I have wonky ankles and knees, both of which don’t instill confidence when walking on slippery surfaces. I once hurt myself badly on a freshly mopped floor. My coworker made jokes about calling 911 as I reeled in pain.
When you grow up in the States, you simply assume sidewalks (like so many things you take for granted) are the same around the world. They are not. My first post under my previously named blog Tell-Thai Heart was about looking down at the ground while you walked.
You never know what you might accidentally step in. Dog shit, trash, food offerings to birds or spirits, puddles, rebar, uneven surfaces, cracks, sewage, sticks serving as orange traffic cones, and my favorite – holes that you can lose your leg in.
Sidewalks in Thailand and Cambodia also serve as a kind of car park, spaces to park your motorbike and SUVs. It’s an extension of people’s homes and shops, places to hang laundry, dry fish or a slab of pork. I hear in some places in Vietnam that it’s impossible to walk down a sidewalk because they’re covered in scooters.
I’ve seen large groups of tourists take to walking in the street. Sometimes the BF does it, and I hate it. Of course, anyone who walks is forced to do it from time to time. If you’re lucky, the street dogs will be friendly.
I suppose you could daydream while you walked over here, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
I don’t mind a dirt road unless a car drives by and kicks up the dust. If you’re driving in a caravan, then you learn to drive a distance apart so that you don’t smoke out the car behind you. If you drive fast down a dirt and gravel road, you’ll most likely start to fish-tail. That is, your back end will start to move from left to right or right to left, and you’ll soon be out of control.
But walking on a dirt road or path reminds me that I’m in the countryside. Someone decided to not pave this road because it didn’t make sense to do so. It feels leisurely unless you have abandoned your car and are looking for help. Mostly, I like feeling alone in the world. That might seem strange, but if you think about hiking through the woods, you normally don’t want to walk on a crowded trail.
Good shoes become important, so the gravel or the uneven surfaces doesn’t bother you. Some folks like to leave the path, but I don’t. It’s not safe and unless I’m with someone who knows what they’re doing, I don’t chance it. I don’t want to be another ‘lost in the woods’ story.
Dirt roads make you feel like you’re here for the journey, and paved ones are all about the destination.
I fell in love with river walks when I lived in Oregon. My first city was Eugene, which is home to University of Oregon. I learned to become attuned to the way things were said here, from ‘Eugene’ to ‘Oregon’ to the ‘Willamette River’. And while I bicycled a lot here, I equally did a lot of walking because it’s a damn fine city to do both in.
There is a great long bike path from Eugene to the nearby city of Springfield. In Portland, I walked along the river, too. It’s invigorating. It’s cold and crisp. In the La Plata Mountains of Colorado, I felt hot and at elevation, but along Oregon’s rivers I often shivered and kept a brisk pace to keep warm.
River walks have a tendency to feel never-ending even though some river walks are better maintained and continue longer than others. On a mountain or trail, I had a destination, even if it was an in-and-back-out again hike. But rivers encouraged me to keep going.
Mililani, my hometown on the island of Oahu, is a walkers’ delight. Well, except for the hit and run fatalities and accidents. (If you don’t believe me, Google it.)
It’s a planned community with tree-lined streets and maintained sidewalks. There are parks everywhere. There are hills and long stretches, and you can walk for a long or short time depending on your mood.
I miss long walks. Walking in Thailand or Cambodia is pretty much confined to the city park where you’re most likely going to be going in a loop with all the other walkers when the sun is at its weakest. In Bangkok, there are throngs of pedestrians during rush hour, but the City of Angels is also infamous for its traffic.
Whether I lived in California, Oregon, or Alabama, I did a lot of walking. I’d explore neighborhoods with my then-boyfriend. We’d dream about the future, discuss plans, or whatever TV show we were watching. It didn’t matter, we walked and then walked some more. It was not uncommon to do more than one walk during the day. I can recall those walks more vividly than anything else from those times.
I walked to school with my younger brother. It was probably a 20-minute walk, maybe 15 as we cut through the high school. It’s hard to say as I never timed it, and as kids, I don’t know how fast we walked. The walk to school was uphill, but the walk back wasn’t.
When I was 16, I stopped walking after I got my driver’s license. But generally speaking, it was a childhood of walking and playing out of doors. The weather was fine, usually. Our neighborhood, safe. Plenty of other kids walked like us.
Looking back, I’m grateful. Walking to school and back home was a mini-adventure. It still is.
How often do you walk? Do you enjoy walking?