Before we left for the mission field, my parents read a lot of books about the living conditions and inhabitants of Pacific islands. One particular account by a turn-of-the-century explorer still stands out in my mind. The man was navigating the South Seas, making acquaintance with the cannibals who lived there while searching for King Solomon's lost gold. The explorer tells of a native who, to demonstrate the utter uselessness of wearing shoes, put his machete to his heel and cut off a full inch of callous.
I was convinced that the story had to be an exaggeration. But when we got to Papua New Guinea, I stared in horrified fascination at the dusty brown feet walking past me. They were as wide as a man's hand, flat, with thick, rough, white pads on the bottom. The toes stretched so far apart that you could easily fit a penny, width-wise, between each one. Some of the more sophisticated Papuans wore flip-flops, and their toes overflowed from the rubber soles onto the ground. Seemed a bit superfluous to me. Like the teeny tiny pillbox hats ladies used to wear, perched like sleek bird's nests on their molded hair.
Three years later, I had become so efficiently acclimated to the Island culture that I was proud of my 'island feet'. I didn't have to mince around anymore like some delicate china doll. Instead, there I was, running over the razor sharp coral reef at low tide, virtually unscathed. I grew thick, protective callouses on my feet, and my toes stretched out to embrace the earth, strong to grip into the dirt when I ran.
Being barefoot became so normal to me, that when we went back to the States for furlough my feet rebelled against anything other than flip flops. It was the summer after my 9th grade year. My parents sent me to church camp as a crash course, I guess, in preparation for public school integration that fall. The first day of camp, the counselors all loaded us up into a bus and drove us out into the Texas hill country. We stopped by a dusty little embankment, about 15 feet high. Everyone piled out of the bus and began to kick around.
Of course, it quickly became a competition to see who could get to the top of the little cliff first. The boys jostled each other, their testosterone spilling out with their sweat into the dirt as they worked to impress the girls, most of whom were pawing at the cliff and saying, "Omigosh, it's so high. Like ... you know ... whatever."
Sizing the cliff up, I saw a little indentation running up it, where I should be able to wedge myself in and lever up with my legs and arms pressed against both sides. Quickly, I shed my shoes, and after a few dusty moments was sitting in the dry grass at the top of the embankment in the shade of a little live oak tree.
"Woah, how did you get up here?!" a guy drawled.
I shrugged. "Over there," I pointed, a little shy to be talking to a boy. In the village, boys and girls were kept strictly separated after puberty. I hadn't had a real conversation with someone my age, of the opposite sex, who wasn't related to me, in years. From then on, I shed my shoes every time we played tag football, ultimate Frisbee, or any of the 'mingling' games everyone is so enthusiastic about at youth camps.
A week later, we were having our end-of-camp 'awards ceremony'. People were getting awards for silly things, like the most grapes eaten in one sitting, or loudest sneeze. I got the 'Barefoot Award'. It wasn't until I had gone up to receive my paper plate with the words 'Barefoot Award' written in Sharpie across it that it dawned on me that it wasn't normal to go everywhere without shoes.
This was the first lesson in many I learned that year about how little I really did know about American culture.