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.
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?
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.)
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.
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?
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PS. Podcast coming soon.