Walking and commuting

POINT OF VIEW - Dorothy Delgado Novicio - The Philippine Star

Walking and commuting are essential parts of our New York existence. We live in a walking city after all and we decided not to buy a car. Coming as tourists, we previously experienced the efficiency of the city’s mass transport system. Coming back as transient residents, we are benefitting from it all the more.

I have always liked walking because of poignant memories I associate with it. When cash-strapped as a student, I saved my Ikot fare and negotiated instead the distance between my dorm and my college by foot. I still relish the unhurried strolls or brisk walks I had beneath canopies of acacia trees, even if it meant arriving in class with a not so sweet scent of sweat.

In his groundbreaking book, “The Blue Zones,” which I read a few years back, Dan Buettner validated that walking is “one activity that all successful centenarians did – and do – almost daily.” It explored how this free and accessible activity allays stress, benefits digestion and promotes cardiovascular health. By walking daily, the hubby has noticed how his waistline has shrunk by an inch or two.

A New York Times article claimed that aside from its physical rewards to our body, walking arguably cultivates creativity. Citing notable writers like Charles Dickens, Virginia Wolf and William Blake, the commentary attested how walking had helped squeeze out the creative juices of literary luminaries. The same piece quoted J.K. Rowling: “There is nothing like a nighttime stroll to give you ideas.” As someone who has read with fascination all her Harry Potter books, I know now what fueled her most imaginative thoughts.

To wander is to wonder indeed. My walking moments here in New York almost always morph into ruminative minutes. A sight of an art deco building, the vastness of a park, people ambling by in multi-languages or the tangiest waft of sizzling street food could easily spark an inspiration.

Walking hastily one day, I almost collided with a well-coiffed lady pushing a stroller. Before I could even apologize she smiled instead. I beamed back, stooped a little to wave at her “baby” only to be greeted, not with a coo but with an annoyed whimper of a hostile chihuahua. Such are the surprises walking gives. But it doesn’t feel fun at all if you’re petite and nudged by a burly guy that must have regarded you as invisible.

In her inspirational book, “The Camino, A Journey of the Spirit,” Hollywood actress Shirley MacLaine attributed the deepening of her spirituality after traversing the Santiago de Compostela Camino, a well-known pilgrimage by foot across Northern Spain. While not necessarily the Camino, my most meaningful spiritual journeys are the ones that involved a lot of walking or trekking. Walking literally keeps us grounded. Wandering through Manhattan’s busiest streets, I had, on many occasions, felt how a calculated cadence when united with an earnest wish can wonderfully transform into a powerful prayer.

While walking can be solitary at times, commuting and taking the public transport is communal at all times. In a city where bus and train schedules are almost precise except when major disruptions happen (which is rare – like when we got stuck in a station for almost an hour because a nude man was reported running along the railway tracks) commuting is an exercise in time management and expands our empathy.

Taking the bus allows me to observe behavioral patterns or covertly snoop at amusing conversations of passengers. By demographic, I see that majority of bus riders are the elderly. This is understandable because all NY buses are designed to suit the needs of PWDs and seniors. When taking the bus, the mere sight of a weaker or bent person allows me to become more sensitive but not inquisitive, helpful but not intrusive.

Taking the subway frequently teaches me to unravel the complex connections of lettered, numbered and color-coded lines. With the onset of apps, gone are the days of unpredictable commutes. My family appreciates this everyday convenience and we wish to have the same back home. My children were too young to remember it was almost the same with Hong Kong’s MTR. They do recall though how cool it was to take Beijing’s subway, especially after infrastructure were refurbished in time for the Olympics.

But even when smartphones were not yet popular, we had already experienced such efficiency as Hong Kong residents almost two decades ago. With a baby and a hyper-active pre-schooler, we chose to reside in Discovery Bay, a family friendly enclave, where the main mode of transport was a 20-minute fast ferry ride to and from the city. To manage our commute, we relied on printed timetables stuck on the fridge or cards the size of an ATM kept in our purse.

Back then a smile to a seatmate could spark a conversation or parents would hush their kids at the sight of a napping passenger, someone reading a book or a newspaper, or a commuter enjoying the tranquil view of the bay. In a communal space like the ferry, a sprightly chat punctuated by a hearty laugh was tolerated inasmuch as one’s silence was respected.

These days in the NY subway, except when a group of contortionists would start dangling by the steel bars to perform an entertaining acrobatic act or when a preacher would deliver the most nerve-wracking sermon on when and how the world would end, commuting seems to have evolved into a solitary routine. Almost everyone is now glued to his or her phone.

There is only one letter that sets commuting and communing apart. But each word’s meanings are absolutely intertwined. The former means traveling whereas the later relates to conversing and empathizing. And while it may appear to be plainly routine or utilitarian, walking is undeniably entwined with communing. We either walk inwardly, leisurely or towards a purposeful destination.

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