Show and tell, one step at a time
“Avanti! Avanti!” I scream in chorus with my father, as the pedestrian sign flashes green. My four-year-old hand burrowed securely in the hollow of his, we run to the other side, laughing. Rome may not have been built in a day but we are out to prove that it can certainly be walked in one.
It is not inappropriate then that the Italian word for “Go!” is the first one I picked up all those years ago. We traipse around cobblestoned streets and manage to throw coins into both the Trevi and Tivoli fountains. I shudder in mock-horror outside the Colosseum while my father’s camera clicks. At the end of the day, to celebrate the feat, there is another photo of me holding aloft a cone of multicoloured gelato like a victory torch. I date my love of walking back to that day.
To walk me is to know me. Every place I have visited since seems to whisper this mantra. The call is so urgent that I once abandoned a taxi in a traffic jam in Paris in favour of legging it. I was rewarded with the discovery of an Aztec chocolate store tucked away in a side-street in the Marais where I yielded to the temptation of the dark chilli, clove and cardamom-flavoured cubes on offer.
While passing an apartment building, I glimpsed unexpectedly a bronzed statue of Pan, perched atop a fountain, flute delicately poised at his lips. Around another corner, a small park had erupted in bouquets of purple, pink and white gladioli. On another occasion, it was the taxi driver who deserted me in Old Havana late on a Saturday night claiming regulations did not allow him to drive any further. Annoyed and mapless, I wandered aimlessly around a maze of unknown alleyways only to come across a crumbling mansion in which a lady was giving tango lessons. Catching sight of me peering in curiously through the doorway she drew me inside with panther-like grace. I stayed for a midnight concert in the courtyard where a husky-voiced Cuban version of Marlene Dietrich crooned sentimental Spanish ballads and I clinked mojitos with artists and poets.
Streets are the arteries and veins through which a city’s lifeblood courses and walking is a way to join the current. In cities such as Kolkata, walking may mean navigating an obstacle course of street vendors, even men lathering up by a roadside tube-well, oblivious to passers-by. There is also the risk of getting elbowed in the ankle by the ubiquitous shoe polish boy vigorously brushing an impatient officegoer’s black leather Oxfords with the frenzy of a crazed violinist. Or you may have to step gingerly over squares of someone’s laundry left out to dry by the neighbourhood dhobi. Once, after running the gamut of these, and other, hurdles, I came across a young girl sitting cross-legged on the dusty footpath calmly rocking her baby sister to sleep in a makeshift hammock fashioned from an old sari. I tried ever so softly to sidestep her “bedroom”.
I have yet to taste a sweeter mango than the one offered by our Jamaican guide near the summit of the Blue Mountain. We had been walking up from midnight, our head-torches making cones of light before us, spitting moths out from our mouths.
On a clear day, the guidebooks insist you can see Cuba from the peak at dawn. We reached it to find everything shrouded in soupy mist. Our guide shrugged, “Unfortunately, there are very few clear days”. His deep velvety voice curled around the words, making the news somewhat more tolerable. That was when he offered us the mango, cutting slices with his penknife. The yellow pieces glistened like bits of sunshine and melted in our mouths. So often it is the walking, the process of getting there, that makes a destination worthwhile.
Seeing sights such as Rome’s Trevi Fountain can be a formative experience for the young traveller