Note: This is an adaptation of a blog post, “Feet,” that I wrote and posted on the “Where There Be Dragons Yak Board” (11/24/22). It represents well some of the learning I did and conversations I had while in Bolivia and Peru.
I have a confession to make: I love shoes. For my trip to South America, I painstakingly limited myself to bringing three pairs: my Hoka hiking boots, my rubber Birkenstocks, and my thrifted navy blue low-top converse. My feet are small, size 3.5 kids, and they are soft and smooth with nails intact. They endured the beginnings of a blister or two on the first trek of my trip, but nothing major. My feet aren’t beautiful, they aren’t anything special, but they definitely spend most of their time tucked neatly into Nike’s or converse, with comfy cute socks acting as a cover between foot and shoe. Why am I giving you a vivid idea of my ten toes and their preferences? Here’s why:
Watching 72-year-old Don Jose of Asunción del Quiquibey (an indigenous Amazonian community) stand with bare feet at the head of a canoe for the better portion of an hour-and-a-half-long boat ride, I had an epiphany: since the start of my time in Bolivia, I’d seen a lot more feet than I normally do in New Jersey. And the feet here tell some pretty cool stories. The guides on my first trek wore sandals for the entirety of the trek, the Quechua women I’ve met have all worn sandals, and my new friends in Asunción del Quiquibey have impeccable balance and control of their boats in the Amazon because of a lifetime of experience and the grip of their bare feet.
The feet here look different from mine; they are weathered, calloused, and have nails that have overcome brokenness and fought to stay intact. These feet live under the sun and in the dirt and Amazonian waters. They have crossed Incan trails and withstood the busy streets of La Paz.
In culture and in medicine, feet are vastly important. They keep us in contact with the earth beneath us, they carry the weight of our bodies, thoughts, and things, and they are widely important indicators of overall health and healing. I remember giggling when I was younger over “free the foot” movements in the United States; people would run marathons barefoot as the ultimate show of strength and people even invented toe shoes (which were basically gloves for your feet). I laugh at those same things still now, but for a different reason. They’ve turned something quite simple into something unnecessarily grandiose. Here in Latin America, generations of people have humbly kept in touch with their roots by never abandoning the ground from which we’re all derived. The physical inch of distance that a rubber sole maintains separates a person from Pachamama and diminishes the fundamental relationship and reliance between humans and homeland.
Shoes can trick us into believing that we are entities separate from the land that we occupy. After eating locally here, harvesting my own cacao beans, weeping in the mountains, and observing the way that the Quiquibeyans can read the river like an old friend or a brother, I conclude that we are all extensions of the land – like trees or like rocks.
The Andean cross, the Chakana, is composed of smaller cubes circling a larger central cube. As I learned from a class on Andean Cosmovision, the central cube is representative of a mother figure to the smaller cubes. Through observing her children, the mother, Pachamama, discovers more about herself, and in turn, the children also benefit from her knowledge. I believe that us humans are her children, and as I described, fundamentally connected to her as our life and information source. Our feet facilitate this connection best. They physically connect us to our origin and remind us of our interdependence with the land.
If we eat from the earth, breath of the earth, and live in its cradles, how are we any less animal? Any less earth? To know our earth best is to live in sync with the land and to treat it as a life source, in the same way that we respect our own mothers for doing the same. To do so, our feet must embrace the land, feel the dirt between our toes, and accept the embrace that the earth offers back.