The Forgotten Act of Walking


To make a long story very short, we recently lost one of the two vehicles we owned. An unintentional delay (and perhaps an additional intentional pause) in replacing the vehicle have lead me to recover the largely forgotten mode of transport that is called “walking” or what is defined by as “to advance or travel on foot at a moderate speed or pace”. Or should I say largely forgotten by the bourgeoisie in South Africa…and here I include myself. Some of my friends and family have been horrified when they come to know that I have been walking (and sometimes running) to get myself home and a couple of other places I needed to be. After the first week, I realised that this was not a mere act of necessity as much as it was going to be an important change in perspective… perhaps something sacred.

Besides the very obvious fitness and health benefits, the saving on petrol expenses and the environmental good that comes from walking, there was something more sacred to advancing on foot at a moderate speed or pace…

I have realised that walking humanises people. When you drive, you see cars. You interact with cars and you get upset with cars and you yell at cars – much more easily than what you have done with people. Why? Because seeing cars dehumanises – it makes a person, or a group of people, a “thing”. It is easier to justify our reactions to “things” than to people. When you walk you see people. You see their expressions, you see their eyes, you see the clothes they are wearing. You can often smell the person you walk past whether it is the smell of sweat and dirt, or the smell of perfume and bath soap. You can hear the sound of their voice. You can see if they are tired, happy, relieved, upset or indifferent. Walking helps us see each other…see each other as human beings.

I realised that the people of this country are walkers! Walking as a mode of transport, is for many many South Africans the only independent mode of transport available to them. Walking very very far every single day is a not a foreign concept, but a familiar reality for many millions of people in South Africa. Most of the walkers I have encountered on the road are much older or much younger than I am. Most of them had shoes that were in worse shape than mine. Many of them were in poorer health that I am. I would guess that most of them did not have a choice other than walking that day. If the weather was bad or I didn’t feel like it, I could have asked a friend or a colleague for a lift. Most days I still had the choice of walking. I have the blessing of good shoes and healthy legs and warm clothes and sunglasses and money in my bag and the choice to walk… Still some react with shock when they hear that I choose to walk…? Furthermore, not once was I concerned about my safety. This is also more than what can be said for many other persons in South Africa. Many “walkers” have to face the danger of being robbed, raped and killed on their way to work.

Walking opens up the senses. I am not sure if it was Hollywood or consumerism or individualism or some other “ism”, but somehow we have grown accustomed to live life oh so very “hygienic”. Somehow we have been deceived and started equating the “good” life with life minus anything mildly unpleasant, such as smelliness, suffering, and hurt. We have not noticed that along with the removal of these things, we have also lost colour, victory and joy. When we walk, sounds, smells, colours come to us in a very real and authentic way. When we walk, the air-conned temperature and the radio/podcast is not under our control, but what we experience is real. Real life can be dirty and smelly and loud…and honest, beautiful and exciting.

I know that you will object soon by saying that walking simply takes too long. It is just not practical. And yes, you are right. But also no, not necessarily. In the light of all the above, how much does the couple of extra minutes a day actually matter? (Just to add food to that thought…some simple calculations helped us to realise that we have saved between R1000 – R2000 a week for the past two weeks by not having a car – insurance, petrol, cost of having a vehicle adds up!!) If I drive home it takes me 10 minutes. If I run home it takes me 25 minutes. If I walk home it takes me 50 minutes. Yes, 40 minutes four or five times a week also adds up…and at times over the past couple of days I have found myself growing impatient and feeling restricted, but somehow the act of walking helped me realise that proceeding in a moderate pace, rather than a fast one could actually be a good thing… It helped me realise that we could re-frame “restriction” and understand it as simplifying: walking restricted choices (where I could go and what I could carry and do), and by making peace with the restrictions, we can get to a place of surrender and things just seem simpler.

I am not going to pretend that I am going to have the humility, the courage, the patience and the strength of character to keep on walking instead of driving. I am not going to pretend that walking is the better option for me, or for anyone in South Africa for that matter. What I do know is that if I return to driving, I will miss walking. I will pay for my “full tank” with sorrow. I will yap at the “car” in front of me having lost a little humanity. Maybe then I will switch of the radio and open up my window to see, and hear, and smell LIFE…

And perhaps (I kind of hope), that will not be good enough for me…and I will be content once again with advancing on foot at a moderate pace…

Disclaimer: This is a post about generosity, contentment, simplicity and being human. It is not meant as a promulgation of stinginess, defeatist or an ascetic existence. I have found that when we are brave enough to venture into the smelliness, suffering and pain of the world and this life, we surprisingly find right there the seeds of colour, victory and joy.