“No more than ten steps ahead,” my father warned us as we walked into the night. In my hometown of Aurora, Ill., my sister and I never got out much. We weren’t old enough to play outside without supervision, and we spent most days cooped up inside with books from the public library. But every night we took a walk with our parents.
It was always the same route around our subdivision — first the secret path along the lake, where we’d swat gnats out of our faces, then through the Shenandoah Drive playground, past a pond overtaken by reeds, along a small path that led to the elementary school, all the way to the main street past CVS, and down Eola Road back home. It was always a source of comfort to tread those paths, racing my sister through the balmy summer air, narrating a book in intricate detail to my mother, or laughing as we slipped on ice in the winter.
In all of these memories, I am always accompanied by my family members. I had never taken a walk on my own. My mother did, sometimes, and before she left, she’d say wryly, “If anyone shoots me because I’m a suspicious-looking brown lady, you know the route I take. Don’t worry.” Living in my town’s residential area, I never left the house alone except to walk down the street to the bus stop; the idea of going solo filled me with dread.
Weekend walks were the best because we’d get to finish the raspberries we’d bought on Saturday shopping trips when we came home. One night, as I finished the last berry, I watched in fascination as Usain Bolt ran past the finish line that fateful night at the Olympics. While he sprinted, I preferred to walk ahead at a more leisurely pace.
A few years later my family relocated across the Atlantic Ocean. Mumbai’s crowded roads were quite different from Aurora’s deserted ones: You were more likely to die on the noisy, narrow roads by collision with the speeding motorbikes and rickshaws than by way of a lone car that didn’t brake at the stop sign.
I’m not sure whether it was the fact that I got older, or the fact that that my parents got bored of taking me everywhere, but once I knew how to read the road signs, buy tickets from bus conductors, and argue for change with shopkeepers, I was allowed to venture out on my own. My favorite time to walk was during the rainy season. Walking in the monsoon was the best feeling in the world: if I didn’t notice the mud, and all I could see was greenery as I inhaled the refreshingly clean air. My short journey down the road to the bus stop every morning, as I expertly sidestepped speeding school buses, was a chance to clear my head between home and school — to escape.
I was in love with my walks until the day I was called for a college admissions interview. I had never been to South Bombay on my own. The first part of my trip was nerve-wracking but manageable — I took a local train to Parel Station and felt distinctly overdressed.
Flagging down a taxi at the station was a bit more difficult, as I stood in about ten different places, getting in the way of a fruit seller balancing his wares on his bike and a car speeding down a highway. Once in the taxi, I sat back, lazily content to have avoided Mumbai’s traffic until I realized I had an interview and frantically began to look over my notes.
After a brief assembly line interview at Starbucks, I decided to walk back to Parel Station in order to save the cab fare. I wasn’t in any rush for this leg of the journey — after all, the only thing that awaited me at home was homework. Possibly making the worst decision of my life, I chose to put my faith in Google Maps and 2G internet connection. I was driven round and round by the feature which tells you where to go until the next turn. Cursing my Internet service provider and the municipal corporation for the timing of its infrastructure projects, I wished I had just kept it simple and tried to retrace my first taxi journey.
I had planned this trip so well, even saving an offline map and testing out the map in an area near my house. Why wasn’t this working? As I passed the same sidewalk under construction, I felt like walking off the road to sit and have a good cry, but most of the footpath was cordoned off by metro construction barriers. Also, I was wearing my favorite formal dress, and I felt wary of the men staring at me from a nearby tea shop. Embarrassed, I went to the slightly less shady establishment next door to ask for help, and was sent on my way in the opposite direction.
How was I ever going to manage at an American college, miles away from everything that wasn’t familiar to me? Getting lost in the city where I became independent made me feel powerless.
I was a stranger in my own city, the city where I learned how to put on my shoes and face the world. The sun was setting and I knew that my choice was a foolish one —I would betrapped during rush hour. In the end, I flagged down a cabbie who informed me that I had walked all the way to Lower Parel Station; the shopkeeper had directed me to a station on the more posh Western Railway Train Line, as if assuming that no one would want to take the Central line. Fuming at the bias of all of SoBo, I angrily asked the driver to take me back to my beloved Central Railway station. I paid the exact same cab fare as I did for my first leg of the trip.
These days, stepping out for a walk is no longer a family ordeal, or an experience I look ahead to with terror. Rather, walking has proved indispensable in familiarizing myself with Harvard’s campus. I met my first friend here on a Fall Clean-Up walking tour of Boston and deepened other friendships walking in circles around Harvard Yard.
While at first walks were explorations, they quickly became an effective way to destress. I discovered that Pennypacker was farther from Weld than Annenberg while learning to gauge exactly how drunk someone was. I spent a night staring at the divinely beautiful Andover Hall until realizing that the leafy smell wafting out of the darkness was weed.
One night, making my first-ever trek to the Quad, a lady thought that a tourist map held in my brown hands was a gun. “Don’t shoot at me!” she yelled, wagging her finger.
Once, I managed to ask a boy I remotely liked on a walk with me. When we reached the gates of Winthrop House, I knew they’d be invariably locked. And, remembering a similar situation from a beloved childhood series, I remarked that if we were to climb over, he should go first, based on our respective outfits. “There’s this scene in ‘Eragon’…” I began to clarify.
“I loved that book!” he said, and I felt luxurious, talking about silly young adult novels at this serious, classics-obsessed school.
“Do you do this often where you live?” I asked, trying not to seem like I was looking at his face.
“I never do this at home,” he said. I felt a pang of dread. Were we incompatible?
Then again, I realized, I didn’t go on walks simply for the sake of it in either of my hometowns. It was always an adventure, to walk through the markets with my father, shop with my mother and sister on weekends, or rush to school for an extra-curricular. But for the first time, I reveled in the fact that this walk — and perhaps every other walk I took here — was a chance for discovery.
—Magazine writer Maya S. Bhagat can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.