Going Barefoot can be Good for the Sole

When I first decided to go traveling overseas, well for the second time; I worried that I wouldn’t be able to run. Would it be too hot? Would it be unacceptable in different cultures? What if I got lost or worse, attacked? When I left I packed a 40 litre backpack and at the bottom a pair of running shoes and running pants…just in case. I was determined to be determined. My trip started in Thailand and carried on through SE Asia down to Indonesia.  At this time I was in my prime so they say. I was super fit, energetic and most of all optimistic. It was on a small beach in Thailand called Tonsai that I truly came alive.

Tonsai is a community of backpackers mixed with the Thai version of Rastafarian locals.  It is a place where people go to chill, listen to reggae, hide away in the bushes and most of all, climb. The day I arrived was by complete accident. I had just left my group of friends on an island further north. I was on a mission, a solo mission. I needed to escape. I just so happen to be on a bus with two German guys. These two German guys just so happen to sit beside me and I just so happen to ask them where they were going. “Tonsai” they said. “it’s meant be real chill, hippies, lots of climbing, not as touristy as Railey beach” Subconsciously I wasn’t into to any of those things at that moment. Consciously I knew I needed to do something different. When I arrived at Tonsai I felt out of place. I wandered down the dirt roads looking for accommodation. Everyone was Rasta or Rasta wanna-be. There were climbers walking with their ropes and fit bodies, chatting nonchalantly to one another. I felt completely out of place. The bungalow prices were shit and I was fed up. As I trudged along the road back the way I had come I saw another girl doing the same. “Hi” I ventured, knowing that I sounded tired and full of lackluster. “Hi” she replied. We walked along side for a little bit longer before striking up a conversation. She also had been led here by two random guys. Hers were Finnish instead of German. We chatted and tried to figure out what was so special about this place. It really was fairly quiet and unexciting. Where was everybody? We ended up deciding on having dinner together that night at a little beach bar. It was there we met some of the climbing community. There were actually a fair number of guys who were climbing instructors in their “real” lives. People swarmed here to climb all year round. I was in the midst of some of Asia’s best climbing, and I didn’t even climb. That night we were invited by our New Austrian friend to come climbing the next day. I was nervous; I had only ever climbed indoors and only a handful of times. I wasn’t confident in my ability and I wasn’t sure if these people would be patient with me but I wanted to break out of my shell and learn something new.

The next day my alarm didn’t go off and I awoke 30 minutes past the point I was supposed to meet them. Shit! Maybe I could still make it; I rushed around throwing clothes on inside out and backwards, and flew out my bungalow door. I bounced down the steps to the dirt road below and swerved barely missing a sign on the other side of the road advertising 20 baht pancakes. I flew down the road past the morning bustle of breakfast nooks and coffee drinkers. I was a maniac. I turned the last corner and up the steps to the meeting point. They were gone. The café owner told me I had missed them by about 15 minutes. Shit, shit, shit. Frustration washed over me. Two seconds later determination set in. I would run the trails and find them. Another two seconds later I realized I had forgotten my shoes. My first thought was to go back to get them; no, actually, my first thought was to give up entirely, and the second thought was to go back and get them. I did neither of these things. I would have to go barefoot.

Barefoot in the jungle is always a fairly unnerving idea. Perhaps I have watched too many nature programs or seen to many shows about venomous snakes and scorpions. I knew for a fact there was a certain kind of centipede in these jungles (pictured below) that came out after rain falls and would deal an extremely nasty and poisonous sting if stepped on or provoked. I knew this because I had seen one in another area earlier that month and been warned about it’s deadliness. It had rained the night before; my skin crawled.  But hey, I didn’t come to Asia to sit in a bungalow; adventure called.

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I spoke to some locals at the climbing shop about where most of the climbs were and was given the disheartening news that the climbs were scattered in all different directions around the area. So, not having even having a foggy idea which way to go, I headed in the direction of a few other people with ropes and harnesses. I started to run. At first my bare feet felt out of place and clumsy against this unfamiliar ground. I had gone barefoot back home at the beach lots but honestly, had never really ran barefoot up until this point. I came up to a crevice which I had seen swallow up two climbers earlier. I hoped that the crevice led to some hidden trail, which would lead me to my new friends. Through the crevice I ended up on a rocky uphill path. The rocks dug into my feet at awkward angles and more than once I felt close to losing my footing. Unknowingly, I started to change my style. I had to become a lighter runner. I had to almost incorporate a gymnastic element into my gait. I would step on a rock that had a sharp edge, but I would step on it only briefly and curl my toes around the sharp portion, and only ever so quickly before bouncing to the next step. The sort of running requires intense concentration and an ability to look at where you are stepping as well as ahead at the same time. The adrenaline was now on high and the course was becoming technical, and I was almost at the top of this incline.  I felt more animal than ever before. When I reached the top I stopped briefly to lookout I was in the middle of some jungle trail, shoeless, with no idea where I was going. It felt awesome. I could hear monkeys giggling in the trees and the rustle of birds. Through the jungle canopy I could see the other side and a large mountain shadowing the beach. The infamous Taiwand wall, one of Thailand’s most well-known climbs. I decided to go for it. I started my descent. Running downhill is even more difficult than going up. When you pick up speed there’s nothing you can do to really stop yourself once you have gained momentum. Stopping is potentially quite dangerous. All in all, I was doing something fairly stupid. My father would have shook his head in disapproval. I managed to get almost to the bottom were I was faced with a fairly large drop. You could risk it and jump or take the rope that had been set up to lower yourself to the sand. I was already in a reckless state of mind so I jumped. I flew off the rock and into the sand below. I hit hard and ended up having to roll out of it. This was not as agile as it sounds. In fact the image that comes to mind is some kind of clumsy dog jumping from something way too high and then skidding through the sand feet splayed in every direction. I looked around to see if I had been spotted looking foolish. I had. My new friends were standing a few metres away looking at the view of Taiwand wall. They had turned just in time to see my final descent. One of them was laughing and the other three were just smirking and staring. “Hi” I said gingerly. “Hi! Looks like you finally made it…and barefoot nonetheless” the young Swiss girl said and as she helped me brush the sand off my back. “Yes, yes, I suppose I did”.  I smiled and felt a little gurgle of pride somewhere buried beneath my humility.

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That day was amazing. I watched some of the best climbing I have ever seen with some of the most impressive backdrops imaginable. My new group of friends took me under their wing and showed me patience and kindness like nothing I had ever had from a group of so called ‘strangers’ before. They let me borrow all their gear…including their climbing shoes. I had never been so happy in my life that I didn’t give up. After that, I spent the next 5 weeks in Tonsai learning to climb and running barefoot through the jungle, this time voluntarily. I felt that I had broke through a barrier which I never knew was even there. I started to set goals for myself and realized that I could meet and even sometimes exceed them. It was possibly the first time I realized that physical barriers are 90 % mental and only 10% physical. If you envision yourself doing something, chances are you will be able to.

I’m glad my alarm didn’t work that morning; for if it had I may not have learned that going barefoot is actually good for the sole.

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