Take walking for example.
Like most humans, I discovered walking at an early age.
Growing up in India, walking for me was not a recreational activity, but a daily chore. I walked to school. I walked to the store. I walked to friends’ houses. I walked to extracurricular activities like dancing and singing.
I remember realizing as a little girl, however, that there was more to walking than just getting from point A to point B.
Whenever we set out to go somewhere, say the nearby Friday market, my parents would always hail a ricksha. My brother would stand stubbornly on the pavement, refusing to budge, because he was obsessed with buses.
And I would say, “Why can’t we walk? It is only a furlong away.”
As a little girl, I was once taken to the Korhadi temple on the annual school picnic, an event so exciting that I could scarcely sleep the night before. The packing of tiffin boxes, the ride in the bus, the singing en route, would forever stay etched in my memory, because the number of times I had crossed the Nagpur city boundaries during my entire childhood could be counted on the fingers of one hand.
I remember jumping out of the bus to witness a strange vista: a rocky, grassy field with no signs of habitation at all. I stood among the group of excited children as our teacher pointed to a hill to the left, explaining that those of us in a more adventurous mood could attempt to climb it; his manner so cautious that you would think we were about to scale Mt. Everest.
I was a scrawny girl who was constantly teased as a bookworm. As if such insults were not enough, my mother regularly scolded me for reading too much, and warned me that I would have to wear disfiguring eyeglasses, stopping just short of threatening that no one would then marry me.
Although an active child, I was not good at sports.
But the sight of that hill dotted with boulders stirred something in me. I ran up its slopes vigorously and was soon the first one at the top.
Alas, no one gave me a flag to plant at the summit, no one commented that I had achieved a rare first in an athletic activity.
But I was amazed at my own accomplishment.
As I grew older, I took to walking the neighborhood with my friends. We lived on the outskirts of town then and as we ventured down “Cement Road,” with its posh bungalows sporting grilled verandas and cute names like Rim Zim and Parag, we would admire the lush gardens with bougainvillea, krishnakamal, and jasmine, listening to the music of the fountains. At the patch of scrub at the end of the road, we would watch the bright orange sky, the cumulous clouds, the occasional green flash. Then as dusk fell, we would walk home dreamily, as if towards some monumental destiny that we were convinced awaited us.
It wasn’t until I went to the Indian Institute of Technology that I discovered that foreigners called walking “hiking.”
Later, back at Nagpur University to pursue a Ph.D. in physics, I started the first ever hiking club in my hometown. On Saturdays, which were half working days for us, we would set off in the afternoon from the Post Graduate University Campus, on to the three hills surrounding the city. We would traverse the Seminary Hill with its convent schools, its posh badminton courts and chapels, the unusual quiet of its teak forests, and on to the public gardens where, for the first time, I would see a peacock dancing in the scattered rains of an early monsoon.
Time ran so much slower back then that during those hikes I would get to know my fellow researchers and professors like the backs of my own hands.
After I came to America, I bought my first pair of hiking boots at REI and went hiking to the top of the falls in Yosemite with my Berkeley classmates. I climbed half way up Mt. Shasta, I scaled the glaciers of New Zealand, I walked across the ridge separating the leeward side from the windward side of Oahu in Hawaii, I discovered Point Reyes and its Alamere Falls and Arch Rock.
But recently, when my doctor advised me that daily, not weekly exercise was a must, I once again began to walk my neighborhood.
Most days I get out of my door in Albany now, and head up the hills. On early summer evenings, when the warm air is beginning to be tinged with fog, I climb the hidden stairways of the East Bay, marveling at the city planners who designed these narrow public rights of way between houses so that a person in the know can perhaps descend from the East Bay Ridge to the Bay in less than an hour.
As during my childhood, I ponder the meaning of life every evening as the sun sets, realizing that perhaps no huge destiny awaits me now. Yet I feel gratitude for small pleasures, like a series of poems I recently discovered pasted on a fencepost by a narrow path.
In the autumn, as days become shorter, I watch a full moon on a clear night and inhale the cool air, realizing the transience, not only of my own life, but of all civilization and culture.
I know then that to walk with deliberation is as important as living an examined life.
Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED. A collection of her writings can be found at www.saritasarvate.com.