Monday, February 18, 2013

On footwear.

A friend posted a challenge when I said I wasn’t sure what I should write about. She gave me a few suggestions of ways to approach what I might write here but then like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and his famous “Plastics” she said “Shoes.”  And I thought for a minute and then said to myself, “Huh, oddly enough there’s probably a lot I could say about shoes and traveling.”

I could talk about what shoes I take on trips.  The ones I wear on the plane versus the ones I wear walking around sightseeing.  I could talk about the shoes I see in the countries I visit.  For what seems like a topic very unrelated to travel, there’s quite a bunch of things shoes and travel have in common.

The first rule for anyone who considers themselves a traveler is no sneakers.  Everyone can picture the stereotypical American tourist in khaki shorts, baseball cap, fanny pack and sneakers.  And funny enough, that accurately describes most Chinese and Japanese tourists I’ve seen.  But wanting to stay as far as possible from looking like an American tourist I won’t wear sneakers.  Although one could easily argue that my Patagonia hiking shoes bear a very close resemblance to a sneaker.

Still with the mud from the Plain of Jars, Laos.
I bought these shoes for our trip to Kenya.  I thought that we’d be walking around the plains and in lieu of sneakers, they might do the trick.  But in reality we did relatively little walking on our safari and instead spent much of our time in the back seat of a Jeep.  And from there most any shoe would have sufficed.  But now they’ve become my airplane shoes.  Something comfortable, easy to walk in, fairly easy on and off.  Something I can handle being on my feet for 24 or more hours at a time through various modes of transportation until I arrive at my final destination.  

My most recent trips have been to Asia and once arriving there one is faced with a somewhat difficult shoe dilemma.  Shoes are prohibited in Buddhist temples.  Shoes are also removed entering many businesses.  And most Asians take off their shoes at the door to their homes and therefore it’s expected that by extension you don’t wear shoes in your hotel room.

I remember the first time I saw this, on my first trip to Asia when I traveled to Thailand.  I went to a little visited island called Koh Lanta.  Small island, down in the south of Thailand, a bit of a distance away from the more well known Phuket.  I left my beachfront hotel one morning and was walking along the avenue behind the hotel.  It was early in the morning, I was jet lagged, the sun was barely up.  At the time I had a pretty serious Diet Pepsi addiction and to be honest I was in search of a fix.  There were a few Thais out and about on motorbikes, headed to work.  I came upon a 7-11 and thought aha, I've found what I am looking for!  As I approached the door I saw several pairs of flip flops and other shoes strewn across the front step.  Later, I remember seeing what exactly goes down.  The Thais don’t lose a single second, there’s not a moment’s hesitation as they approach the door, slip out of their shoes and enter.  For Americans such myself, it's an awkward transition.  You approach the door.  You stop.  You kick off one flip flop, maybe your foot releases it, or may be it dangles halfway on and halfway off.  You brush it off.  You stand and do the same with the other foot.  Only then do you enter the store barefoot.  And if you're me, you try to improve your time and skill each time you enter a shop.  I recall walking up the driveway or parking lot, thinking in my mind as I approached the door how I was going to keep moving, keep moving while removing my shoes. I would be a smooth, swift Thai and do it quickly and in one continuous motion.  Never happened.

The same thing goes down at the temples, only there it seems like there’s a little less pressure to move quickly.  Thank god because it’s really not possible.  I happened to be wearing flip flops on that first trip to Thailand because I was at the beach.  But in general, flip flops are not really appropriate footwear for a day of sightseeing through any Asian city.  So what to wear that is comfortable but can be easily taken off and put back on again and again throughout the day?  Well after quite a bit of thought about this, I bought what I think is a slightly more feminine version of the Teva athletic sandal.  They don’t slip on and off quite as easily as a flip flop, but they are comfortable for a full day of walking and require only bending down and adjusting the strap to get them on and off.  Hey, no one ever said traveling was pretty or fashionable.

Good in theory, not in practice.

I also bought these slip on things for my most recent trip with the temple visiting in mind.  They lasted one day and I never wore them again.  I felt like my feet were constantly backing out of the shoe with every step I took. Also, even less pretty and fashionable. 

So for the trip to Laos I packed the athletic sandals, those slip on whatever they are shoes, and as is my usual custom now, I wore the hiking shoes when I left home.  But in packing for the two week trip I decided to bring a little casual knit dress.  You never know where you might want to go out to eat or who you might meet, right?  And along those same lines, I thought I might as well bring some dressy sandals too, to complete the outfit.  Well let this be a lesson to all of you: should you ever travel to Laos, leave the gold Tory Burch sandals at home.  There's not a place in the whole country where you need them.

1 comment:

  1. Fun post! A challenge well met.

    A lot of Alaskans do the no-shoes-indoors thing, too. We're often in snow boots, rubber rain boots, muddy hiking boots, etc., so it makes sense. I (and others) routinely carry slippers when visiting friends and slip those on when I take off the outdoor shoes. Alaska temps aren't Thailand temps, after all. This is not a smooth or speedy process.

    What size are those one-day-only shoes? I'd give them a shot.

    I'm afraid I break your "no sneakers" rule all the time, but I have an excellent excuse: My feet are a mess. "Real" shoes are torture devices on my feet, resulting in blisters and blood and pain. I'm not kidding or even exaggerating. Heck, I have serious trouble finding sneakers that fit and are comfortable.

    I just tried on a bunch of Danskos, Keens, Tevas, etc. a week ago and did not find a single thing that I could wear in the store, let alone for hours outside the store. It's a problem.

    I wear hiking boots a good bit, and I do best with little boys' boots (short and wide). Unfortunately, I have yet to find little boys' shoes that look good with a dress.

    Then there's the whole packing light issue. If I want to wear one/take one, those two pairs have to be comfortable.