I think it was sometime around my mid-teens when I discovered some truths about long walks. 1. They are enjoyable. 2. Their problem-solving reputation is a bit overrated. (They did help me to walk away from more than one problem though.)
3. You need semi-decent shoes to enjoy them.
Even though I had a cycle and an overcrowded city bus at my disposal during my school days in Guwahati, I used to prefer walking to school. Or to the inescapable tuition classes. The attractions on the way were many – Dighalipukhuri (a big pond rumoured to have an underwater connection to the Brahmaputra), Latashil Field (perfect to catch an ongoing cricket match) and my favourite, the Ambari Archaeological Site. Every now and then, on my way back, I used to casually saunter inside the site hoping that maybe a bespectacled archaeologist would find something similar to King Tutankhamen’s tomb. And I’d be right in the midst of all the excitement. But all I used to see is a couple of labourers in grimy vests shooting the breeze and swatting flies with practiced ease beside an excavated part. An area that frankly looked more like a couple of deeper-than-usual ditches than the major excavation promised on the signboard. On one particularly memorable occasion, I spotted these two gentlemen in vests swinging their spades actively at a mound while a portly official under a black Mohendra Dutt umbrella sweated and cursed profusely. I guess they were looking for some iron treasure chest or something equally solid. Because nothing made of earthenware would have survived that onslaught. I also enjoyed experimenting with different routes, each longer than the other, to reach my Chemistry professor’s house on a hillside. One was through a well-maintained WWII graveyard. Which I used to avoid once it got dark.
After shifting to Pune for my graduation and PG, the long walks of my school days looked like short trips to the neighbourhood grocer. The camaraderie of new friends shrunk huge distances considerably. College. Good Luck Café. Cinema halls. Especially cinema halls. We walked everywhere irrespective of the distance. The well-heeled ones biked it to the nearest movie theatre. Some of us had just about enough money for the ticket. And that meant more long walks. Watching a late-night show at Rahul Cinema or Vijay LNCM (Lok Nritya Chita Mandali), or Westend at Camp (almost 10 km one way), meant long merry hikes from our respective hostels. There was this iconic TV commercial of the 80’s – Lijjat Papad – in which an overgrown rabbit, clumsily chomping on papads, used to end the commercial with a moronic ‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’. The Pune Lijjat Papad office had this aforementioned rabbit grinning away on a hoarding. And this office was right on our well-trodden route. The moment we saw the Lijjat Rabbit, we’d all stand at attention and yell away ‘‘Lijjat Papad…eh…heh…heh…eh…heh…heh’. Now that I think of it, we must have been directly responsible for the sale of sleeping pills to go up in the neighbourhood.
Working in Bombay meant one ran, instead of walking. Run to catch Bus No. 164 to the station. Run to catch the 8:57 slow. Run out of the station at Elphinstone Road to catch a cab. I did figure out a short walk to the agency through a peaceful railway colony. I kept it a secret as long as I could. I am sure if everybody in Bombay takes a week off, stop eating kacchi dabeli and build a little bit of stamina, we can easily beat the Kenyan/Ethiopian long distance runners at their game. But I had the occasional day when the urge to walk would override all common sense. I’d then dodge errant auto rickshaws, Schumi-inspired BEST bus drivers and generous loads of sputum, and march relentlessly to the rocky beach at Versova to watch the tide come in.
Shifting base to Dubai meant my passion for long walks was reignited. Empty sidewalks. A peaceful and long stretch of beach. The atmospheric lanes leading to the Dubai Creek. Everything appealed to my walker’s instinct and I walked everywhere. Till I got my driving licence. And then I fell prey to the ‘why-walk-when-you-can-drive’ syndrome. An affliction common to the residents here. I think that day is not far when people will be able to drive straight inside their house and roll out onto a travelator that crisscrosses the house.
Thankfully, long walks are still my (and my companion’s) preferred way of exploring a place when we travel. Long walks in unfamiliar places have helped us discover ancient mountain villages, non-touristy culinary gems, friendly apricot-gifting strangers and icy cold streams on a hot summer day.
Times may have changed. But the essence of long walks has remained the same. But yes, you still need a good pair of shoes.