A Mile A Day #18: How Gratitude Makes Your Walk Better

moravia

“Gracias!”

I’ve been in Costa Rica for three months, and I still can’t speak Spanish. 

Like most language-learners, I’ve started with the most colourful swear words, like “you ***ing ****er“, “I **** on you, you ****” and the curiously untranslatable puta sal (“salty whore”).

But most of Costa Rican Spanish is completely beyond me right now. Consequently, I’m saying “thanks” a lot, usually when they translate what they’re saying into English. I’m almost totally reliant on this, along with a bit of creative sign language and mime – and it’s a good habit to get into. I’m in an alien environment, and I barely know how things work. Is this a shop? Oh god oh god, it’s your home, I’m so sorry, uh – perdón, soy inglaterra de Gran Bretaña y tenemos enormes estúpidos. Oh hello officer, I was just leaving, yes. I won’t come back, no.

As with most of the countries I’ve travelled to, it’s a good place to appreciate the effort other people go to on my behalf – and that particularly applies when I go for a walk.

northumberland

Going for a walk always feels like a solitary kind of activity, and sometimes solitude is exactly what you’re after – but what you’re really doing is putting yourself at the mercy of other people.

People who don’t go out for long walks might say things like, What if you’re kidnapped, or run over by a bus? There might be anyone out there.

Yes, there might be – and I’d say that’s an excellent reason to go for a walk. In the words of world traveller Gary Arndt, “people are generally good“. This is supposed to be the big lesson of travel.

So why does the stereotype of the experienced walker cling to the idea of the sociopathic loner, and that it’s supposed to be about walking away from everyone?

northumberland walking

Even in England, land of awkward social graces, meeting someone when you’ve been walking for hours is an unnerving but welcome thing. You mumble something about the weather, you exchange “whew”-style comments about the exertions that got you here, maybe giving a few warning tips if you’re going opposite directions (“…and I thought to myself, that goat has murder in its heart, Mike. You stay on this side of the fence, d’y’hear?”)

And then, nine times out of ten, off you both stride in opposite directions to reclaim your solitude, feeling like the world of people isn’t such a bad place really. This feeling usually lasts until you check BBC News on your phone.

(The tenth time is where you make a new friend – or encounter an eccentric lunatic you can’t wait to be shot of. That occasionally happens, and sometimes I worry I’m on the wrong side of that equation. If you’ve ever met me on the side of a mountain, don’t write in. Thanks.)

But if you really want to see how good people are, ask for help. If you get yourself into a pickle, of course you can yell for assistance – because generally speaking, people are trustworthy.

(If you’re raising an eyebrow at that statement, here’s some encouraging science on it.)

costa rica

I’m grateful for the people that I meet when I go walking here – particularly for their willingness to meet me a lot more than halfway where the language is concerned.

And I’m grateful to the people I meet in my own country, especially the ones who know a lot more than I do about the outdoors and are willing to share a little of that wisdom with me.

I’m also grateful for the reminder to feel grateful.

It’s a mindset worth cultivating, since not only is it a great way to tackle mild anxiety, depression and burnout (all very relevant for me at the moment) – it’s also, you know, honest. As a traveller of any kind, you get the chance to do a lot of what you do because of other people. Acknowledging that stops you getting uppity and insufferable.

For example, here’s something uppity and insufferable that got a lot of flak last week for being horribly ungrateful.

So, every time you step out your front door and head for the wild, or indeed any time you climb into an airplane, remember you’re stepping into a new social circle, a brightly-clad scatter of people more or less just like you. You might not meet any of them today. You’ll never, ever meet all of them.

But most of them have already got your back.

I’d say that’s a good thing to be grateful for.


A bunch of days this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?

Sign up here for week-day updates.

PS. Podcast coming soon.


PREVIOUSLY: A Mile A Day #17: Walk The Walk Before Everything Blows Up On You


 Images: Mike Sowden
  • This was a really uplifting post. Thanks for sharing all that – it really hit home for me as another immigrant/expat to a foreign country.

    You really do have to learn to adjust, to set aside all your preconceived notions, and realize that you’re now the cultural equivalent of a 5-year-old (that’s my description, but I do like your calling it an alien world). In any case, that’s a pretty big step down the social ladder, and a lot to adjust to if you’re used to understanding what’s going on around you, and how people act and why.

    So you’re right – we need to remind ourselves to be grateful that we’re able to do what we do. Because it is on the shoulders of other people. Not just those that have come before us, but more on those around us, who definitely go out of their way to help out a helpless alien in their world.

    • Glad it resonated, Tom, and thanks for the kind words. Very much sounds like Germany is giving you the same feeling.

      That step down the social ladder – yep, that’s probably a better way of putting it. Every country feels like stepping in at the ground floor…but weirdly combined with that special status that comes from being a tourist who didn’t leave when his trip was done. It’s all just….very weird, and takes a lot of learning. Having people to lean on is a good thing indeed. How have you found Munich in this respect?

      • It really is very weird. But hey, that just means it’s a new experience, and it’s definitely not something most people do. All the more reason to give it a go.

        On that note, Munich has been good to me. It is an open enough town, but I’m lucky enough to be in a master’s program, which has made it easy to bond with both other migrants/expats, and locals.

        I also moved into a shared apartment/house with a bunch of Germans 10 days after moving here, so my integration to the community and to the culture was jumpstarted from that point on. I actually met my current girlfriend in that shared house, and to say the least she’s been someone I have certainly been able to lean on as I get used to life here.

        I’d say I’m more or less adjusted at this point, outside of the finer points of the language – though I am very comfortable in almost all conversations. All in all it has been a wonderful experience, and I will be staying here for some time it seems.

  • Good stuff here (as usual). Just one quibble:

    “Gary Arndt, ‘people are generally good’.”? Please. You disappoint, Mike. Clearly a travel blogger of (then but) 3 years – isn’t the first (nor the last) to voice that sentiment. I mean, at least give credit where credit is due: I believe you’ll find that it was Anne Frank – not Mr. Arndt – who (years earlier, and arguably far more poignantly) coined the phrase: “Despite everything, I believe that people are really good at heart”.

    That said (sorry, but quoting a single, nascent travel blogger on such a ubiquitous phrase seems a bit lame/self-serving)…

    I DO wholeheartedly agree with you on the “gratitude” thing. Indeed, I dare say I have a personal quip on the subject – that may just expand your proficiency in the Spanish language:

    This (Traveln) Lass is soooo supremely GRATEFUL for any and all her blessings – last March for my (dodderin’) birthday, I opted to TATTOO the word permanently on my forearm. Ah but – not in English. As a 3+ year expat likewise here in Latin America (Ecuador) – I had my “Gratitude” inked in Spanish: “Agradecido”!

    • Ha – no, I wasn’t claiming Gary invented that term. For example, I remember a Greek philosopher saying it (will check that and edit this comment when I find it). But I was giving Gary credit for saying it, for doing so in a high-profile place, and for putting it first on his list, because I reckon it’s the biggest takeaway from travel and well worth repeating at any opportunity.

      And having it tattooed on your arm is badass. Even better than wearing your convictions on your sleeve. :)

  • ‘Love it!
    You’re so right Mike, people are generally alright when walking on their lonesome. It’s the horses and cows that worry me. They never seem to want to leave me alone!

  • Akshat Jain

    Interacting with the locals is always the best experience for me while travelling. Great to know that you are enjoying your time in Costa Rica!