Walking Barefoot To Experience The Essence of New Zealand Culture

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

A big part of travel, in my opinion, is observing and trying local traditions that are different than your own. Flowing across continents, I’ve eaten foods I’ve never heard of, tried new herbs, spoken new languages, worn different clothing, and even learned a few dances and tried strange alcohols.

Now in New Zealand, I’ve mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I have been first shocked, then gotten used to, New Zealanders walking barefoot, all over the place. Before coming here, I associated bare feet with poverty or living in a rural tribe. Here, It’s got nothing to do with either. Kids and adults do it in supermarkets, on the street, on nature trails, everywhere!

woman walking in Peru

Woman walking with one shoe in Peru.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

Speaking with many kiwis, I’ve come to understand it’s about a connection to nature. As a New York City gal, I grew up walking on pavement with shards of glass from broken car windows or discarded evidence of a night of debauchery. So walking barefoot has never been enticing, to me. Whenever I’ve watched other people do it, I cringe with each of their steps, worrying they’ll happen on glass or a nail or something painful.

“The ground became my shoes.”

In New Zealand,  barefoot walking starts very young, so, by the time you’re an adult, you’ve literally got thick skin, or so I’m told. I took a trip to Russell recently and ran into a man walking up a trail barefoot with his girlfriend, who wore shoes. I of course started a conversation with him and learned he was prepping his feet for summer, during which time he won’t be wearing his shoes at all. In fact, he said, he plans to be at the beach a lot, and wants to avoid carrying his shoes all toegether. He’s getting his feet ready for all kinds of terrain. His girlfriend did not share his love of barefoot walking.

The main street of Russell

The posh main street of Russell, New Zealand.

Photograph by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020

I came away from the conversation feeling impulsive. I’ve been thinking about a pair of “barefoot shoes” to train my feet. But, I mean, “when in Rome.” So, when I got back to the main road, I couldn’t resist! I removed my shoes. I walked down the main street of Russell, with bare feet. The effect was delectably sensual.

First, I felt like I was a little kid doing something I shouldn’t, and yet, I knew I wouldn’t get in trouble. I mean, I was walking down the main street of town with NAKED FEET! All my foot skin was hanging out for everyone to see!

Once the initial mischievous feeling subsided, I began, quite literally, to notice what I felt. The pavement was the perfect temperature and I noticed the heat, the sensation of the ground, and a lovely energy coming up through my feet. I felt, well, completely elated. My feet were naked, and it didn’t bother anyone. Most importantly, it didn’t bother me. My feet felt better naked than trying to mold themselves to shoes. It reminded me of life – trying to fit myself into the wrong life, for so many years, and then releasing myself to be the best version of myself. This act of removing my shoes rekindled a grand sense of freedom. I’m so used to feeling surfaces with my hands that feeling them with my feet was like awakening a part of my body I had forgotten about. It was like the moment of eureka I’ve had when studying a foreign language and realizing I’ve begun thinking in it with no intentional effort.

Even when I reached the parking lot, I braved the gravel. I expected to shriek in pain, but it was only mildly painful. I could have put my shoes on but instead, I challenged myself to make it all the way to the car in bare feet. Once inside the car, I never wanted to put my shoes back on. When I did, it was with great disappointment.

Since this wonderful beginning, I’ve found myself needing to remove my shoes each day. First, on the walk from Paihia to Opua, I walked barefoot along the beach, even on the shells of discarded crustaceans. Then, on a walk to the Te Wairere waterfalls, I braved naked feet along the trail, covered with dirt and trees, and grass. The more I walked, the more I realized I didn’t need to worry about the stones in my shoes. The stones had become my shoes.

My feet feel better with no separation from the earth, and even the arthritis in my knees stops bothering me when I discard my shoes. Bizarrely, I feel more stable touching uneven surfaces with my feet than in my shoes. There’s a visceral connection to the people and places of the world whom I’ve watched walk along paths with no shoes. One simple action and I feel simultaneously in one place and yet connected to many others.

The other day I chatted with a new Kiwi friend, Rob. He suggested I should try walking into a pub barefoot. He said that’s the greatest feeling of doing something that seems naughty and against the rules, even though it’s not. I’ve added that activity to my to-do list!

I’m officially in naked-foot-walking-training, and I’m proud of it.

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