By Etan Doronne
22 Oct 2012
Sandals. The land of sandals.
It was hard not to pack a pair of shoes in January, when in California I got ready to leave for India. "Look at some photos you took on your last trip" I tipped myself.
Yes, last time in 2007 I took a pair of hiking boots. I can remember the bulk in my backpack, it first came handy only 4 months into my journey - and even then for just 2 months, while in the state of Himachal Pradesh at the northern tip of India. Socks won't be one of the first Hindi words you'll need either, forget about woolen. During the rainy season across India, Monsoon, it is still warm - no use to steam inside moist shoes or boots. I finally left my shoes at Rais's home in Rajasthan, the hottest state in India. I hope he returned to Himachal Pradesh the following year, where we first met, so he could have used those.
This time, 2011, even the clogs remained stashed in my backpack while crossing southern India.
India is the land of chappals. Not even a strap in the back: easy on, easy off. Homes, shops, temples - footwear stays at the door.
Traditionally it seems Indian were a barefeet nation. The Hindi word Jutti (shoes) rings like jute (hemp textile, rough canvas) that probably points to the material of ancient sandals. Was it nonviolence (Ahimsa) that left cows wearing their own skin rather than padding human soles?
These days, in villages and even elder villagers in rural town markets walk the streets on their weathered bare soles.
Babies and little kids don't usually get footwear till they go to school, that's how they roam the yard and neighborhood ally. I found Indian toes to be well spaced and more able then what I see in the west. Children enjoy jumping into a pair of adult chappals left at the door and 'rowing' away.
My first encounter with Indian footwear shopping was because of a printed cloth banner. I looked for fabric printed with Hindi fonts to turn into a shirt/pant. None of my local friends seemed to tackle such request before, in Indian fashion slogans cool=English. Only garments printed Hindi are political campaign T-shirts, product promotion T-shirts, uniform such as school, marching band, cricket team and religious holiday or temple T-shirts or shawls.
I was determined, motivated by my advance in Hindi reading thanks to my chai shop teacher Ashish. And then it flashed!, every morning riding my bicycle through market street to Soma's chai shop I remembered the Paragon shoe shop banner. It was printed Hindi!
The seller was patient enough to accommodate my pantomime request. My spoken Hindi haven't even sprouted yet. He was gone behind a curtain, came back with a folded banner and refused to take any pay.
For 60 Rupees (around $1) This banner turned into a fishermen pant under Ajai tailor skilled hands. He was the Chai shop next door neighbor.
I remembered the jooti dukan wala's (shoe shop owner) gift and returned. When I wanted to gift my Yoga teacher, who also refused to take any pay, I purchased a pair of similar chappals to the eroded ones wore. We also took a photo with the seller smiling while holding my new Paragon banner pant. They happened to say "good to walk in those" while an illustrated hand pointed at the groin.
In those days I walked around in my Birckestock clogs. "How difficult is it to eject?' you may think of no-laced footwear... try thinking your cell phone out of a pouch... can get sticky when you do it all day long... that's how often you take your footwear off in India. And it makes sense, would smear dog's doo or chewing gum on your livingroom carpet? Would you step into your bathtub with shoes on?
Indian traditionally use the floor as a bed and a dinning table, their floors are kept cleaner then our's.
On the other hand, stary dogs top the chappal-violator list. Seconed come kids, misplacing while playing and third the very rare thief or confused person. Only once along my 2 years all over India did I witness the disappearance of a pair of chappals: those belonged to a senior friend and while we entered the remains of a Tamil temple in his wife's native village somehow his pair of new chappals left at the gate-step disappeared.
Leather isn't the popular choice, although it's available even in India. Rubber/vinyl/plastic are at number one and those are worked till they dissolve, which takes about 3 months in Indian manufacturing quality, road condition and outdoor storage. Just like tires on Indian cars and motorbikes, footwear isn't dumped when eroded and cracking but kept in use or as a backup/second pair through stitching or re-surfacing the soles which utilizes used tire plies. Clogs and shoes are often cut into chappals when deteriorate.
Pointing a sole towards another is improper especially toward a senior or teacher/religious. On the other hand a humbling gesture toward such is bending down in front and touching his/her feet. Sounds humiliating? not for Indian which do it with the ease of saying a simple thank you.
More of my stories about 2 years backpacking and living in remote villages and towns across India on www.myindiaexperience.com