I am inherently a lazy woman. But I do walk. You might remember from blogs of a few years ago that we used to be owned by Miss Meg, a beautiful blue heeler, mixed with a few other breeds. She walked me every day. Her chosen route was along the bayous or through the woods and, because her free running gave me pleasure, I was happy to comply. Now, however, when I walk the forests or the fields or the great outdoors in whichever country I happen to be in, I find that, once I have admired nature’s beauty, it does little to inspire me.
And so I have come to realize I am a street walker!
I pound the pavements with a sense of purpose until the first interesting or novel thing catches my eye. And I stop. Often I untuck my phone from wherever it is stuffed, take a photo then off I march again. I stop for people too.
There is no route. I follow my feet. Just sometimes these feet of mine have led to places I should not have been. To sights I should not have seen. A man masturbating in the ruins of a colonial building crumbling into the waiting Bahia de Malabo. A copulating couple under a Houston bridge was an embarrassing encounter. A man stumbling from De Wallen, part of the infamous Rosse Buurt (Red Light District) in Amsterdam, to die at our feet was a bit of downer. Fortunately my husband was with me on that particular occasion.
On a recent visit to wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen I found myself in the “free state of Christiania”. In existence since 1971 when abandoned barracks were taken over by squatters, it is now a governed community funded partly by proceeds from its cafés and handcrafts. The open sale of cannabis was banned in 2004, however signs demanding no photographs give a clue as to the possibility of wayward behaviours. But I am middle aged and exude respectability from every pore and so, more often than not, I am left alone. Not in Christiania. Or the wrong part of Christiania anyway. On one corner I was offered drugs, and on another, sex. I politely declined both.
I find I have different walks for different countries. Walking in Equatorial Guinea required an African amble. Westerners are so often in a hurry. With no time for the pleasantries required to ease the conversation into the more serious business of negotiation – whether for a cucumber or a contract. Good morning in any language, accompanied by a smile, goes a long way in international relations.
Days after an attempted coup in Malabo, I walked through N’mbili Barrio, a shanty town of rutted roads, open sewers, sporadic electricity, no running water and bars. I was a volunteer English teacher in the school and had been advised not to go as the streets were unsettled, and the market still closed – always a harbinger of civil unrest. I have though never taken advice very well and so I went to class. I was a little apprehensive but, as I pushed through the chicken wire, I was met by three of ‘my boys’. “We wark wid you today, teacher,” they unisoned.
A somnolent stroll allowed me to blend in, as far as is possible for a white woman in a black country. People were used to seeing me. And those three youths sent a message to any troublemakers in the barrio – I nearly cried at their kindness. I don’t for one minute presume I was accepted, but I was tolerated.
My wanderings have introduced me to the prescribed wonders of cities dressed in all their finery, but also to the side streets where people live. It’s there along the little alleys, in the local cafés or markets, that we get a glimpse of the soul of a town or city.
Downtown Houston might not have those labyrinthian lanes but it has an energy of its own. As always it’s about the people. And yes, sometimes even the hobos. Cities cannot function without the high powered financier or oil baron. Socialites or philanthropists. Councilmen or clerics. They have little time to stop jogging. But neither can cities function without the street cleaners, the janitors, the myriads in the service industries who make our lives easier. And as I walk the streets, usually early, it is these people who smile at me, who greet me in accented English. And I am humbled. We are so often worried we will be accosted, we forget to smile.
Today, two young men sitting on the curb, one white, one black, grinned and called out “Mornin’ Momma! God bless you.”
No wonder I follow my feet!