I am often asked how I got into barefooting. It's one of those things that come up either in casual conversation with friends or in most of the interviews I've had on the subject over the years. The truth is that I don't remember clearly how, why or when I started disliking the feel of things on my feet. What I do remember, though, is the fact that I started wanting to be barefoot at a fairly early age -- the first clear memories of my wanting to be barefoot are from when I was as little as 6 years old. I'm sure the actual desire started when I was much younger, but I guess I didn't consciously recognize it until I was that age.
I was born and grew up in El Salvador. It's a tiny nation of 21,500 square kilometres nestled in Central America, surrounded by Guatemala to the west, Honduras to the north, Nicaragua to the East and the Pacific Ocean bathing its entire south end. El Salvador is blessed by beautiful warm and hot weather year-round, high humidity and gorgeous landscapes and beaches -- it is very island-like down there. Anyone who hears this description would assume that El Salvador is also blessed with people who are laid back and care free. It might be, in some ways and compared to other Western societies. Nevertheless, unfortunately for me, I grew up as the 4th son of a pretty uptight couple: a well-known artist/interior designer and an entrepreneuress, both products of very self-conscious, uptight, middle class families.
To most Salvadorans, as for most Latin Americans, keeping up with appearances and making sure your social status is well "advertised" is second nature and, apparently, shoes have a lot to do with making sure you're not horribly mistaken by some "sirviente" (a servant) or some other undesirably low class person. The pressure builds even more when your parents' financial situation doesn't match their "social ideal" and they are forced to try making up for it by making sure they are still "who they are" in front of "others" at all cost. It's stupid, I know, and the more I think about it and understand it, the more I'm amazed at people's superficiality -- it's sad indeed...
As a consequence of all this nonsense, added to the fact that my mom is a world-class clean freak, and my dad was a border-line obsessive-compulsive germaphobe, there was no chance yours truly, along with my 3 siblings, would venture barefoot anywhere, ever. Just to give you an idea of how anal my parents were about our footwear, we were not allowed to go barefoot even in the house! It was also customary to wear some sort of rubber flip-flops in the shower, around pools and even at the beach... I mean, c'mon!!
In my case, I think my desire to be barefoot comes naturally due to the fact that I'm a fairly tactile guy. I love touching and to be touched. I love to feel all sorts of textures with both my hands and feet. My desire to liberate my feet also was fuelled by the fact that I attended a school which uniform dictated that we wear black leather shoes!
I remember, as a kid, being curious to feel something with my bare feet and discretely taking my shoes and socks off to sneak a "feel" while no one was watching. More than once, I arrived to school very early some mornings so I could kick my shoes off and walk barefoot through the empty hallways until I got to my classroom. I truly loved the cool polished cement floors and often thought it was such a waste no one else would ever feel that under their feet!
As you can probably guess, despite flip-flops and sandals were not very fashionable or popular among men in El Salvador through the 70's or the 80's, I grew fond of my rubber flip-flops because they were the closest I could be to actually being barefoot, without risking my parents' or siblings disapproval. However, I could only wear them in public occasionally, as they were a "no-no" for my family's prestige and a target to my friends' mockery. So, I often found myself going for clandestine barefoot (which I started in sandals, of course) outings in the neighbourhood, when my family's watchful eyes were not lurking so closely.
Often, I idealized North America as being a "barefooter's paradise"; mostly because we got a lot of surfers and other laid-back type Americans (and most likely Canadians and even Europeans, but to us they were all "gringos") who often strolled barefoot on the Salvadoran streets, without a care in the world -- Little did I know that all these tourists were taking advantage of their anonymity in our land to be able to be more "themselves". At any rate, I was jealous of them because no one batted an eye at the sight of their publicly displayed bare feet.
Another group that made me very jealous back then were poor kids -- or as we call them down there "street kids" -- and blue collar workerts, who could not afford to buy shoes. As crazy as it sounds, I was indeed jealous of their misery, which gave them that inherent freedom I so much wanted for myself. As they say, we always want what we don't have.
Ironically enough, however, I did -- and still do -- like my shoes. Yes! Believe it or not, as much as I love being barefoot, I also love a good pair of shoes, especially leather shoes. There is something about the smell of a new pair of leather shoes that really drives me nuts. Don't ask me why, I just know I do -- I guess my parent's appreciation for good stuff had to rub off on me one way or another. Since I was stuck wearing shoes for most of my upbringing, I guess I had to find something positive about it if I was to survive the torture! Gosh, I'm a confused soul, aren't I?
Now back to the bare feet... Through middle and high school and my early years in college back in El Salvador, barefooting remained a secret pleasure of mine, buried in my mind as something I should only indulge while in private, or a "goal" to reach when I became more independent. My only indulgence with barefooting while in school was my friendship with Carlos Martínez -- a burly guy who also loved going barefoot and whose laid back parents couldn't care less about what he wore on his feet as soon as he was at home or in the immediate vicinity. Often times, I'd spend afternoons at his place after school and he'd encourage me to take my shoes and socks off to join him in barefoot comradery -- man, those were the days! But they came to an abrupt end when I graduated from high school in 1988 and I was never to see Carlos again.
In 1989, the civil war that had been tearing apart the country side in El Salvador for more than 10 years finally reached the capital city, my home town San Salvador, with the FMLN "Offensive" in November of that year. The city was paralyzed for nearly two weeks when the guerrillas took over to fighting the military on the streets in numerous neighbourhoods, and we had to take refuge in our homes, hoping for it to end soon.Within those very days, my oldest brother, with his wife and two kids were booked to fly to Canada as their immigration documents had been approved barely 2 weeks before. They almost didn't make it, since the airport was closed for a couple of days, given the civil unrest in the city. The airport was re-opened the very day their flight was booked. Their farewell was very dramatic and traumatizing for the whole family-- it was uncertain when we would see them again, if ever. Little did we know, we would be joining them a year later, almost to the day...
After a very tumultuous year, in which I went from being a pre-med student, with a part time job as a radio dj, to a 1st year graphic design student, my other two siblings, my mom and I also got approval to move to Canada in October of 1990. Our flight to Toronto was booked for November 6. November 5, 1990 was the last day I ever saw my dad, when we held back tears, embraced, and said good bye. His words to me that evening: "Hagamos de caso que nos vamos a ver mañana" ("Let's pretend we're seeing each other tomorrow"). After that, I only traded letters and phone calls with him, until his passing in 2003 -- my siblings and my mom had the chance to visit him a couple of times in that period. I've never been back to El Salvador after we left.
Upon my learning about our move to Canada, I envisioned a great life opportunity for myself. At 21, through the bitter-sweet farewells, I could barely contain my excitement thinking of all the possibilities that my future in Canada would bring: better education, great job opportunities, money and, most importantly, BARE FEET! (At least when there wasn't snow). As I mentioned before, as a kid I had idealized North America as this paradise, where no one cared what you dressed like and what you wore on your feet-- you were free to be "YOU". My gosh, I was in for a BIG surprise when I quickly found out that people up here are even more concerned about appearance and are totally obsessed with having their feet "protected" at all cost and separated from the "harmful" ground at all times. The only saving grace here in Canada was that, unlike our neighbours in the States, we take our shoes off at the door when entering the house and we hang out either socked or bare footed at home. At last! I had found some middle ground I could work with, and my family wouldn't pester me about padding around barefooted, at least at home!
Despite my newly-found freedom at home, I was still missing something. I still yearned and longed for the true feeling of "ground" and "dirt" under my feet but I didn't act upon it till a little later, around 1993. Prior to that, I indulged in treating myself to a couple of pairs of nice leather sandals as I noticed they were much more acceptable as footwear among men here in North America; slowly but surely, I was gaining confidence towards my final steps!
One day, in the spring of 1993, while riding the bus in Ottawa, I picked up a newspaper someone had left behind on the seat next to me: The Ottawa Sun. To my sheer amazement (I wouldn't be surprised if my fellow passengers actually heard me gasping, although I couldn't tell you if I actually did or not), I found a tiny entry on page 4 about some fellow called Richard Frazine, who claimed that hiking in bare feet was the next best thing. They also mentioned that Mr. Frazine had written and published a book called "The Barefoot Hiker" in which he summarized all the benefits and pleasures of this great practise of his. I HAD to get my hands on a copy of this BOOK!
So, I stayed on the bus till we reached the nearest mall and I ran to the bookstore and asked a clerk for the book, only to find out they didn't carry it. I had the same luck in 4 or 5 more bookstores over the next few days until someone finally suggested I could special order it and it would take about a week to get it. I paid in advance, even though it wasn't required! I couldn't wait to read it.
Sure enough, about a week later, I got a call from the bookstore announcing that my book had arrived and it was waiting for me at the service counter. I went to pick it up that same afternoon and started reading it right away on my bus ride back home -- I couldn't put it down and I basically read it in one sitting. I was so delighted and felt so "understood" by reading this book that I had to do two things: 1. Go for a barefoot hike and 2. Contact Mr. Frazine.
And so I did. After reading the great recommendations on Richard's book I started going for walks around the parks in Ottawa. I was lucky to live in such a "green" city, with plenty of parkland and beautiful areas to go for solitary hikes; you see, this is something I was still keeping from my family. I soon found out that my feet were very soft and that I needed to do some serious conditioning and endure myself with patience if I wanted to do this "barefooting" thing. At the time, it helped tremendously that the following summer I met the man who was to become my first long-term partner: Bill Gayner. Bill was very outdoorsy and would try anything at least once. He also had a car, which made it possible for us to go outside of the city and explore other hiking areas such as the Gatineaus, just across the Rideau River on the Quebec side. He was very supportive and encouraging right from the beginning and he indulged in barefoot hiking with me plenty of weekends during the years we were together. It was amazing to have my new found freedom and a great man to share it with.
I also ended up contacting Mr. Frazine, as he had formed a hiking group in Connecticut where he lived. He had printed a sample brochure in his book for others who wanted to start their own groups. He was kind enough to leave his contact info there so I went ahead and called him. He was a charming fellow and he introduced me to a mail group that eventually became the online "Dirty Sole Society"; which later on changed its name to "Society for Barefoot Living" or SBL. Finding all these people interested in both barefoot hiking and barefooting as a lifestyle choice really opened up my mind and my possibilities. While I have also encountered plenty of negativity and antagonism towards my lifestyle choice, I owe my current joy and pride in barefooting to those early experiences I found along my way shortly after I became a Canadian.
My moving to Toronto in January of 1998, further helped my cause, as I could start anew and I was finally away form the watchful eyes of my family. It was then when I really got into public barefooting as I started doing it everywhere possible, including work, the subways, downtown, you name it. I, of course found confused and close-minded people everywhere along my path but I got stubborn and I think that was my best ally at the time. If anything, barefooting really helped building my self assurance.
The rest is history, literally. I found the more I did it, the more I wanted to do it and the more I wanted to push the envelope with my bare feet. It also helped to find tremendous support from my friends and my current partner, Gary -- who also indulges in some barefoot hikes from time to time, and who has fought many an arguments along with me with misguided store clerks and store managers over the last 10 years. I have been extremely lucky to also be able to work barefooted for most part at my all my jobs here in Canada, and now as a freelance graphic designer for the last 8 years.
As the years go by, and mostly thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I keep finding interesting people, both near and far, who also love being barefoot and wish they could put all their shoes in the garbage and live the rest of their lives barefoot (just as I wish I could do!). I also find myself less militant about my barefooting, as I keep realizing I don't need to make my joy and preference for bare feet into a campaign or a political statement but enjoy it just the way it is: "a personal passion" that I can share with those who are genuinely interested in it and who want to embrace it the way I instinctively did from such an early age.
So, my friends, that's how I became the barefooter I am today.
Keep 'em bare, keep 'em happy,