Sunday, 12 May 2013

traveling shoes

On Friday we're leaving for Benin, West Africa, a trip of a lifetime. We're excited, a little nervous, and packing. And what is on my mind most? Shoes. Embarrassing, but true.

I asked my facebook friends for advice on their favourite traveling shoes. Partly because I want to reduce the number of shoes I take, and if one amazing pair of shoes can serve me for all of my needs, that would be so great. Also because I secretly want to buy a new pair of shoes.

Here is the advice that I got: Keens. Birkenstocks. Tevas. Chacos. El Naturalista. Mephisto. Romika.

All great shoes. So I went into a local shoe store last week that had all of these brand name shoes. And I came out with: nothing.

Because here's the thing: in Benin, we'll be helping out at an orphanage for a couple of weeks, and we're collecting things that they've requested for the children there. So $100+ for a brand new pair of shoes could buy a lot of needed supplies for their home and school. I still have some Tevas that "work", although they're not my favourite shoes to wear. I haven't had a pair of Birkenstocks for 18 years, and here is why:

I have had 2 pair of Birkenstocks. One pair I wore until they needed to be thrown out. I LOVED them. So much. Then I bought another pair, just before a 7 month trip to India, Indonesia, and US/Canada. We were in India for 2.5 months, and we traveled a lot by train in the sleeper cars. We were told to sleep on anything that we didn't want stolen, including our shoes.

So I diligently slept with my Birks under my head every night. Safe and sound.

One day near the end of our time in India, our group was going for a hike near a river. There were lots of rocks to climb on, so I took off my shoes. It was a beautiful, secluded spot, and we went walked a little way away from the shoes, but came back after 5 minutes. I looked at the ground where my shoes once were, and guess what? No Birks. My heart sank. We hadn't seen a soul around that area, but I ran barefoot down the path, and spied 2 boys running down the other side of the river, my precious Birks in hand. "Stop!" I yelled. "I'll pay you for them!" I knew they would probably sell them at the market to make some money. But they didn't stop. They just kept on running.

We had a fair walk to go back into town, where we were staying. For half of the walk, I was barefoot. And it really made me think. About all of the Indian people that I saw every day without any shoes at all. And here I was, poor me, pining away for my $70 cushy shoes, when most would be happy with a pair of plastic flipflops.

The ground burned my feet so I had to keep moving, and stopped on any patch of grass I found. My soles were weak and uncalloused - not used to that kind of heat.

A little Indian woman saw me hopping along and offered me her flipflops. I said no, thank you, I'm fine, but she insisted. They were about 2 sizes too small, but she seemed happy to help me, so we walked the rest of the way to the town, side by side, her calloused feet on the gravel, my cushy feet in her shoes.

The next day I bought a new pair of shoes from the Bata store there. They were nothing like my Birks, but still fairly comfortable. They were a constant reminder of my wealth. Shoes are like that, you know.

So that's why in the last week I have walked out of the shoe store exactly 3 times with nothing in my hands. I know I am privileged in this world, and there are other ways that this is noticeable - not just in my shoes. In the next 5 days, I may yet bring myself to shell out some money for some shoes. I'll keep you posted.


  1. I understand your heart wrenching. I often ask myself why I get to be so lucky and so many others not. But I still think you should have good quality shoes (healthier and more economical in the long run). You actually made the point yourself in your story about the generous Indian woman, who didn't want you to go barefoot - in an ideal situation, fairness wouldn't be you going without shoes, but everyone WITH shoes! Why don't you buy a good quality pair second hand? (I have done this in the past: as I said earlier, mine have lasted more than ten years, so would one year's wear from someone else matter?) That way you get good travel shoes and with the money you save you can bring that many more supplies to the orphanage. :-)

    1. You're right, Mara - a world where everyone has a good pair of shoes. This is what I want too! I may just cobble together a small collection of my own shoes - no new ones for me THIS trip! I love the idea of getting some second hand ones, but it's always hit and miss as to what's available in the thrift store. Plus I don't have too much running around time left before we leave. If nothing else, this post is making me feel at peace with the (old) shoes I already have. :)

  2. Wow, do I remember that afternoon in India. A warning note--on that same trip, I wore a cheap Birkinstock-like shoe from K-mart, developed a horrible blister which got infected and was laid up by cellulitis and a high fever in Central Java at the same time you were ill in Jakarta. You may not know that story.

    More recently, I got some black suede Teva sandals on E-bay. On a one-month trip to Indonesia, I took no other shoes. They were my evening dress shoes and my daytime hiking shoes. I still have them and depend on them.

    1. Linda - I didn't know about your Central Java blister probem. Well, that story is convincing me to take good, quality shoes - that I'll definitely wear on other trips too.

  3. You have an amazing capacity to find meaning and profundity in every experience and thought and memory. Thank you.

    Speaking of flip-flops, in Bolivia I was always struck by the sandals made from worn-out tires. I wonder what kinds of footware you will find in Benin.

    Blessings as you prepare for your trip.

    1. Thank you for these words, Bryan. I'm looking forward to seeing the shoes in Benin too.