A few years ago you would never have caught me without shoes and socks. As a teenager I was so well known for my opposition towards the naked foot that friends used to joke that I didn’t take shoes off even in bed. I did, though I confess, being a typical northern lad who cared little for personal hygiene, the socks were sometimes remained on in the harsh winter nights.
Ironic then, that I should end up living and being deeply attached to Bangladesh where the normal day to day routine for most of its inhabitants is barefoot. At most, you will see dusty, old sandals being worn on the roads, to be kicked off when the home, field or dokan is reached. In the city business offices you will see shoes and socks but then you will also see shirts and ties with a complete absence of national clothing. These are the clothes of the westernised middle classes on the whole and those that wear them, in my limited experience, have a tendency to look down on those wearing the traditional clothes of Bangladesh. Such people are, however, still a minority amongst a people who continue to depend primarily on their land and its farmers.
I am aware, amongst the westerners who read this blog, that many of you also prefer to kick off the shoes in your homes and may even get rid of socks during the warmer months. I was not one of those brought up to remove shoes at the door as a lad and have often grimaced when I visit friends who require this from their guests. I would always realise that I was wearing socks that seriously need darning just a little too late and I tended to consider it a little unhygienic actually. After all, feet that have been in shoes all day tend to smell badly when taken out. Not nice in someone else’s home.
Well, much has changed in my attitude. In Bangladesh it is just far too hot for nearly 50 weeks of the year to wear shoes unless you know you are going to be working in well air-conditioned rooms (or at least have powerful ceiling fans). I suffer in the heat badly and as a kid I used to collapse regularly during summer weeks, needing vitamin drops daily to survive. I still don’t maintain body weight, sweating off every ounce of fat, and dislike being in the sun. In Bangladesh I suffer badly if I have to wear trousers for any length of time preferring the half-pant, as shorts are called in Bangla, but continuing to resist the wraparound lungi which still looks, in my mind, like a skirt. In such conditions sandals and no socks are essential and the tradition of removing footwear inside is a godsend. The feeling of a cool, concrete floor on your feet is as good, or better, than a cool breeze.
So, on returning to Cumbriaa month ago, I was surprised just how many places I’ve visited where shoes stay firmly on. Even in homes where the shoes may come off, the socks remain. Now, I am feeling the cold here despite everyone telling me “oh you’ve brought the Bangladeshweather with you!” (no, really, we haven’t – it’s freezing here) but everyone else thinks it is warm. I really don’t know how anyone can bear to wear socks. I can honestly say that, in one month of living in one of the hottest months of the English season, I have seen less than 5 pairs of bare feet at any time, not counting my own family’s.
I’ve tried kicking off my Bangla sandals (the only footwear I currently possess) in various places – restaurants, churches, houses, cars – but find myself at odds with those around. No one else is doing the same. I don’t know whether it is imagined or real, but I am sure I see people giving me looks.
No matter, this is what I am used to now and I love it. I hate having to have anything on my feet at all – certainly not socks – and people can stare all they want. I may be terribly out of fashion but hey, I was never in fashion anyway, so who cares? I’ve turned 40 and now I can really behave disgracefully.
So, no surprise then, when recently we turned up in Coniston to visit friends holidaying there that I decided our walk up the “old man” would be done in sandals. I did have a pair of trainers borrowed from my father-in-law and a pair of socks normally reserved for the harsh Bangla shitkal weather, but I was reluctant to assault my feet with them. I asked if the walk would be a leisurely one along clear paths on the and was assured this would be the case. So the trainers and socks remained in the car.
However, when one is with families, plans change. After an hour of delightful walking, exploring, going into caves, looking at disused mining shafts and buildings and splashing in running streams, we had walked much further than intended and the way down was now pathless, rocky and steep. As we started down it became obvious my slippy sandals were going to be the death of me.
So, off they came.
Even for me, going down a rocky hill (for my Bangladeshi friends who don’t know Cumbria- a small mountain) barefoot was a bit odd. But down Coniston I came anyway. Four years ago my soft and pathetic feet would never have managed more than a couple of steps accompanied by many “ouch” and “ooh” remarks before giving up. But I loved it now. It was like getting a foot massage off the rocks followed by a warm mud bath whenever I trod in…well, mud. Finally, at the bottom a cool bathe in the stream to clean up and my feet were as good as new.
Yet again my perspectives on life have changed. When I return to Bangladesh I am less likely to look at the poor villager walking barefoot on the dusty stony road and think “poor you”. Instead, I will have an urge to kick off my own sandals and go join them in their walk. I suspect they might rather have my sandals if they can’t afford their own, but I will certainly enjoy the freedom.
There is, though, one place where my view on footwear has not changed, maybe because, bar Cox’s Bazaar which boasts the world’s longest of all, Bangladesh doesn’t really have (m)any.
Can’t bear sand underfoot. Never could, never will. Unlike everyone else who seems to delight in it in England, you are unlikely to get me out of sandals on a beach. It’ll take a lot more than barefoot hill walking to bring me to that.