When I was a child mother would call out to us, ‘Leave your boots at the door!’ — and we would topple upon each other, kicking off the seemingly unimportant footwear, unaware of the value or the privilege of those boots.
Even in the leanest of years, some kind of footwear was always provided, despite mother’s protests about the cost and the rate of growth of our young feet.
I have since been in a few places where the value of my boots was equivalent to what local people earned in a month or even longer. In their eyes, I was walking in gold and they would often comment on my leather hiking boots, ask to see them, or want the privilege of cleaning them.
There are rules for remote travel and one of them is to never take your boots off as they are the cornerstone of your safety and comfort. I have actually showered with my boots on, often in extreme conditions or at a very remote hostel where the water only ran for a minute anyway. And I have slept with my boots on — not so much in terms of being at the ready to escape, but those boots were valuable and one could lose your life for them.
I have also been chased down the street, knocked down and then roughed up as well as shot at, tear gassed, harassed, mocked, and whisked away from civil unrest with wits and boots intact.
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That all makes for a dramatic story, but on the other side of that caution is the beauty of humanity and the boots themselves. Together, my boots and I have hiked mountains, walked through water, danced on tile floors, navigated soiled streets, tramped through jungles, run with children, gone to church, rested on beaches, sorted cattle, and worked in fields and barns.
My boots have travelled with me on airplanes, helicopters, buses, trains, rickshaws, taxis, canoes, elevators, escalators, and elephants. They have been just as at home in a hostel, fancy hotel or hut, and were often elegantly hidden under a long skirt at a diplomatic reception. They do not tire and stand steadfast.
It is a great act of servitude to be at someone’s feet, as my boots are. We often hear stories and see examples of someone asking for forgiveness at the foot of another. I think of the less fortunate I have seen, the beggars who kneel at the feet of a prospective giver, putting their forehead to the ground in every season with their hands cupped out in front of them.
Truthfully, I am always humbled by the goodness of people and the graciousness of the poor. I can often think of no other way to thank them than at their feet. And that is why I leave my boots behind on every trip. The recipient may wear them or sell them or give them away. It does not matter what they do — it matters what they know.
I want them to know that I was privileged to share a little moment in my history with them — that they are now part of my story and that I was grateful for their kindness and protection.
It takes so little to put a foundation under the sole of another human being. The gift of a pair of boots may seem minor in our world, but we can understand the importance of building a good foundation and working with trusted partners. We can see the value in passing a little bit of that along and in developing relationships outside of our normal circle of influence.
There is a saying that the measure of a man is how he treats someone who is not of benefit to him. Perhaps that is true, but our measures are ours alone. And how we view the world is a reflection of our engagement within it.
The choice of leaving my boots may seem irrational and expensive — and certainly it is a costly venture but then again, how does one measure the return?
I often cannot say in words what it is that I feel when I work alongside those with so much less than I. It is humbling to be loved so unconditionally, even as a stranger, and to be given the best that they have — be that a little bit of fish or the extravagance of a warm soda. I can only say a heartfelt ‘thank you’ and quietly and simply kneel at their feet and in a simple act of gratitude, leave them my boots.