Tools for being human, part six: Spending time in other people’s shoes


Before I started to travel, I thought the most inspirational experiences on the road would be those that belonged in an adventure film. Exploring intricate temples by torch-light, fighting imaginary foes on castle walls, passionate kisses on broken towers in front of rich sunsets. My first morning in Kuala Lumpur taught me that there was more to life than moments.

I woke early that day, a combination of time zones and excitement. I drew myself into thin clothing and stepped bleary-eyed into the dawn. I rose my hand over my eyes and admired the strong, early light painting a crumbling wall stone-fruit colours. I turned to look for shade and noticed an old woman shelling prawns on a step before a dark doorway. Our introduction was nods and smiles, and I stepped a little closer to look into her steel bowl. She tipped her head to the side as I made admiring noises, then held up a finger. She drew herself upward and then disappeared briefly through the doorway. She returned and passed me a second, smaller bowl, and nodded at the step. I sat down and she nudged the bucket between us. She showed me how to peel and de-vein with nimble movements, and then we sat, side-by-side, and watched the world wake.

She nodded to delivery men, she scolded children, and she kept an eye on my amateur efforts. She explained my presence to friends with shrugs of her shoulders, and they smiled in sympathy. And as the bucket slowly emptied, I imagined our spirits trading places, that it would be her that stood and brushed her hands on her thighs and walked out to find the tourist markets, and me that nodded gently and continued to shell prawns, rocking gently on the doorstep. And it was there, half-way through my second bowl, that I began a more important journey.

I once stopped over in Vancouver for a week, unsure what to expect. The first morning was cool and crisp, and I drew my beanie down over my ears as I walked towards the waterfront. I slowed to watch a young woman talking to her dog and rubbing its long ears. The two of them were curled under old blankets, beside steaming steel grates. I pretended to search through my bag for something, giving myself to observe without causing anxiety. I couldn’t get her out of my head as I continued down the streets, towards the super yachts and tourist float planes. What was the last thing she said to her parents? Did she befriend the dog here, in the city? The next day she was there again. And the next. I walked the same street each morning, hesitant to come too close, but curious for her story, for some understanding of the smiles she shared with her brindle hound.

On my final day in the city I bought a coffee, a hot chocolate, and some dog biscuits. I approached the lamppost which marked her spot with a mix of trepidation and excitement. I squinted into the sun as I approached the steam vent but there was no silhouette. Her spot was vacant. I was struggling with my backpack and hot drinks, so I awkwardly repositioned myself, arrayed my burdens around the lamppost and sat on my pack. I sat there in the sun’s glare, comfy in my three layers of jackets, sipping at the hot coffee. As I pushed the first empty cup aside a pedestrian glanced down at the cup and then to my eyes, and I shivered under their gaze. I was there for an hour with her ghosts, rubbing my hands and trying to guess her name. And wondering where or who I might be, if I’d lived through her days.

When I walk amongst the native forests in New Zealand, the birds are quiet. If I slow, then stop and lean gently against a giant Kauri tree, and close my eyes, I become accepted. The birds begin to pass messages on once more, and I become part of the bush. In the first days in a new neighbourhood I am an observer. I listen to the way people greet one another, the “good mornings” and “I’m enchanted”s. I swap nods with the old gents with hands clasped behind their backs. I find the streets where people sit and watch and wait for someone to ask how their week’s been. And gradually the gravity of communion draws me in, and I become a somewhat awkward part of the environment.

In the first weeks I’ve found good coffee (or began making it myself). I’ve hunted out the borscht made by the ex-mayor’s mother, and it may not be the best, but she speaks a little English and calls me ‘the lost one’ and introduces me to the regulars. I’ve found a piano shop where the students go to practice and dream, and on Thursdays a slim, dark browed man plays Crowded House songs with a gentle touch and his own version of the lyrics. Maybe I’m trying to understand the history of rebellion by hunting out ghosts and graffiti. I know what time the fresh custard tarts are drawn from the oven, and when to expect the rains.

After a year I am talking with new words and laughing at new ideas. I’ve found a job, or a way to live without one. I’ve found a new shirt, a new hat, and a pair of shoes that fits. When I walk through the dust and the mud I leave differently shaped footprints. I affect the economy, the gossip, even the scenery. And they affect me.

Taking these opportunities to dwell in places and situations far removed, it isn’t about the photographs, or the harvesting of stories. Ok, maybe a little, I’m a photographer, a writer. But more importantly it is the most effective method I know of for eroding my ignorance. Mornings sitting on a cool sidewalk, watching what was being delivered, peeled, stacked or washed. Watching how dogs and wives and spilt blood are treated. Standing in a queue at the post office, listening to the banter between builder and bailiff. Each step I take in another person’s shoes is a step towards a wider horizon.


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