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Why we walk

A two year old walking

A friend of mine once said that he felt the most comfortable in Bangalore, as he had grown up there. In any other city, no matter how long he had lived there, he always felt like a foreigner. He explained further that he felt safe and assured in Bangalore. You could take away his smartphone and his money, blindfold him, leave him at a random location in Bangalore and then ask him to open his blindfolds. He felt quite assured he wouldn’t be flustered but somehow manage to work his way home or to a friend’s or relative’s place. It was not only about being fluent in the local language, Kannada, but he insisted it was also some feeling of knowing the lay of the land, a kind of intuitive understanding of the neighborhoods of Bangalore and their interconnections.

Our own notion of comfort may differ from the account of my friend, but we all share an intimate familiarity with the place of our childhood. Somehow, we feel at home. Perhaps as children, we absorb and memorise so many sensory cues about the place where we grew up that it never fails to feel familiar. Even a baby in its mother’s womb is supposed to absorb the sounds of its would-be home and neighborhood. I think, if there is one activity which contributes the most towards accumulating familiarity, it’s walking. When you walk, the scenery and the soundscape change, and yet at a gentle enough pace that lets you take it all in.

Walking is fundamental to humans. Although humans have been around for 200,000 years, the wheel is supposed to have been invented not more than 7000 years ago. In fact, the application of the wheel to locomotion is estimated to be even more recent, around 4000 years ago. Certainly, before wheels came about, we covered ground by walking. And until about 100 years ago, before we started stuffing our ears with playback audio, all our senses were unfettered and free to absorb the neighbourhood in its entirety. Now though, it is unthinkable to walk or jog without planning the route, the playlist, the podcast or the reading list, lest we be left with a moment of nothing to do.

I remember knowing my neighbourhood in minute detail when I was ten. I knew which block of flats shared a boundary with which other block of flats. I knew which compound wall had a loose brick, which gate creaked less, which backyard opened into which bylane which then allowed you to cut across a field, vault over another compound wall to land into a road which would have taken you three times as much time to reach had you just followed it the usual way. Perhaps, as a child if we didn’t know a neighborhood that well, we might not have felt we knew it at all. Even as a teenager growing up in Mumbai, I would relish the walk to find a place to get a snack or lunch, after having arrived to an unusual venue for a lecture or an exam by a taxi or an auto-rickshaw. Even now as an adult, I feel uneasy in exploring places in India from within a car.

Maybe only the sprawling suburbs of the American midwest have the potential to challenge the notion that walking is the best way to become intimate with your surroundings. The arrow straight roads, the slowly changing terrain and the scarcely featured landscape mean that yards turn into miles and driving seems to be faster yet sufficiently slow to take it all in. Yet, when I was in West Lafayette, Indiana, I felt walking gained the upper hand the moment you got close to a university campus or a public library with their neighbouring assortment of coffee shops and restaurants.

Technology, especially satellite imagery and navigation, has certainly changed the way we get around. Notably, Google’s street view feature even offers street-level imagery harvested by cameras actually driven through streets. Yet, the virtual walk that you can perform using Google’s street view feature, represents perhaps the best evidence of walking being so fundamental to developing familiarity. Street-level imagery enables us to virtually walk in a neighbourhood and absorb it in its full measure so that we can be comfortable upon encountering it. No surprises!

Another reason why we walk is to clear our head—to satisfy the need for a sense of motion and to stimulate our minds with whatever’s on the walkway. As we walk, if we take a turn we haven’t taken before, it heightens our concentration and takes our mind away from whatever we were thinking earlier. If the path is a well trodden one, we tend to glide through it in auto-pilot. But then there is always some action. Maybe a heated conversation overheard, a new shop that has opened, an uncovered manhole perhaps, or just a fellow walker saying hi that allows the mind to relax and pay attention to the here and now. Yet the subconscious mind is at work too, ready to serve an “a-ha” moment right around the bend.

Interestingly, a lot of what you see while you walk depends on where your eye-line is. Often when we are pre-occupied, we tend to look down or stare at the horizon straight ahead. But when we are more relaxed we look around a bit more. A colleague of mine gave me an excellent tip. He said at the times when you feel especially pre-occupied and you are out on foot, to look up above the horizon. I have given it a go a number of times. You would be surprised how much the upper floor landscape can differ from the ground level one.

Walking is not only a solo pursuit either. It is very much a bonafide social activity. We walk in the morning with a partner or a group to get some exercise, as we do after lunch to help our digestion. Or sometimes, we may venture on a 3 km hike through snow-covered streets, in -15 C weather, accompanied by equally fool-hardy friends. Halfway into one such journey, we found a coffee shop and crawled into it. We must have passed that way several times in a bus or in a car and we never noticed that there was a coffee shop there. But now it was our savior. After thawing and savoring a nice cup of coffee, we continued on our journey and completed it. Perhaps the intrepid explorer on Zomato might have found the coffee shop sooner, but the knowledge that the coffee tastes better if you crawl into the shop half frozen and part of a sheepish gang is priceless.

Walking also serves to break up a long or a heated meeting. Indeed a call to walk together is an inoffensive way of suggesting a cooling off. There is something liberating about not having to face one another for another round of verbal volleying, but rather be facing out to the same spectacle as our partners. We can walk in silence focusing on matching our march, instead of talking. Walking permits us to talk about what we all see. Perhaps, we see a common ground. Like the time, after a heated argument, two co-workers both noticed a car parked the wrong way on a one-way street and felt something in common.

At the most utilitarian level, walking is also about getting around — a valid form of transportation elegantly captured as “Bus Route #11” in the Indian vernacular, the two 1’s in “11” denoting walking legs. While getting around in Bangalore, the surly attitude of the auto-rickshaw drivers has always provided me with ample motivation to cover the last mile on foot. Also, the scarcity of parking has meant that I have found it more comforting to find good parking a little distance away from the destination and then walk the remainder to arrive, in style, on foot, as though you were teleported right into that neighborhood. Many of us are incredibly fortunate to take the services of “number 11” for granted. But the elderly and the physically handicapped can aspire to precious little of that good fortune. That tells us how much walking is an integral part of us.

Why do we walk then? We walk to get around, to explore, to clear our heads, to get lost and find our way back, to build intimacy with our place, to take a break from our war of words, to get some exercise or just to go places. The able amongst us almost never have to think about walking. We just walk when we need to. Walking is the most fundamental and primal form of an action item. In fact, it may not be an exaggeration to say “I walk, therefore I am!”