Sponsored by:

Comment, blog & share photos

Log in | Become a member
The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, June 23, 2002

Going barefoot part of Hawai'i's heart and soul

 •  Savoring summer
 •  10 ways to keep cool during heat of Hawai'i summer

By Michael Tsai
Advertiser Staff Writer

Robert Rose, a petty officer in the Navy, paid homage to his ancestry by running the Honolulu Marathon barefoot and in native clothing.

Jeff Widener • The Honolulu Advertiser

When Navy Petty Officer Robert Rose decided he wanted to pay tribute to his Hawaiian heritage at last year's Honolulu Marathon, he knew where to start.

He took off his shoes.

Rose, 37, who competed under his Hawaiian name, Lopaka Loke, ran the entire 26.2 miles in a Hawaiian warrior outfit designed by fiancée Cathy Ahana and nary a thing between his pups and the pavement.

"I just wanted people to see something about my heritage," said Rose, who is of Hawaiian, Chinese and Portuguese ancestry. "I thought people from the Mainland could get an understanding of what things used to be like in Hawai'i. And, I wanted local people to see it and think 'imua' (go forward) for themselves."

Like many in Hawai'i, Rose said, he spent his childhood running barefoot on grass, sand, pavement, whatever.

"I grew up in Wai'anae and I went barefoot probably all the way up until seventh grade," he said. "That's just how it was."

But that isn't necessarily how it is anymore. In step with the rest of the country, barefooters have become something of a rare breed in Hawai'i.

At a time when Americans buy a billion pairs of shoes a year — shoes for work, school, formal occasions, informal occasions, walking, running, hiking, skateboarding, sports indoors and sports outdoors — the naked foot has never seemed so — well — naked.

Brent Pedro, 53, is one of the holdouts.

Pedro, who moved to Hawai'i in 1974, said he's spent most of his adult life sans shoes.

"There was a time in the 1960s and '70s when people were just looking for alternative ways of thinking about the world and connecting with the world," he said. "Some people took drugs, some people wrote poetry. A lot of us just went barefoot."

For Pedro, going barefoot is a way to engage what he sees as the lost sense of touch.

"I don't think people are very used to feeling things anymore," he said. "We see and hear and smell, but we don't touch very much. When you go barefoot, you get a sense of where you are. It's what they mean when they say you have your feet on the ground — you're grounded."

In fact, the bare foot has been a powerful signifier of cultural belief and distinction throughout human history.

In the Bible, the following line appears in Exodus: "Put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place where they standest is holy ground."

In ancient Greece, the distinction between free men and slaves was that slaves were barefoot.

And Native American chief Sitting Bull said, "Healthy feet can hear the very heart of Mother Earth."

Ancient Hawaiians, of course, walked the terrain of their islands barefoot if possible.

And in a curious way, the image of walking barefoot in Hawai'i has endured as one of the world's most enduring and complicated ideas of what it means to be "on vacation."

Tourist businesses continue to lure clients with the promise of island-style relaxation — usually depicted as going barefoot and sipping mai tais. Wedding planners continue to pitch out-of-town couples the idea of tying the knot with naked toes tucked in the sand of a Hawaiian beach.

In plantation-era Hawai'i, where differences in race and class were reflected in everyday social transactions, it was a given for children of any background that the way to play was barefoot. That simple unifying fact held true for generations.

Gary Pak, the noted local author, attended public school in the late-1950s and early '60s. As he recalls, some kids came to school in shoes, some didn't, but at recess everyone was the same.

"We all wanted to play barefoot," he said. "Sometimes, some of the kids kept them off when they went back to class. If you went barefoot, nobody assumed that you were poor. You took it for what it was."

Pak remembers the experience of growing up barefoot as something "distinctly a part of our local culture."

And while he has no desire to turn back the clock, he does recognize the passing of an era as fewer Hawai'i children grow up with feet uncovered.

Recently, Pak visited his son's halau and spent an evening walking around barefoot for the first time in a long while.

"It felt really liberating just walking on the grass and the sidewalk like that," he said.

The development of lightweight, comfortable tennis and walking shoes in the late '70s and the aggressive marketing of athletic shoes by Nike in 1980s marked the beginning of the end of going barefoot. Kids grew up wanting Air Jordans, not air between the toes.

In fact, the sight of bare feet in public has become has become rare enough that some Hawai'i residents are disturbed when they see them

Jennifer Colter, 21, associates bare feet with homelessness.

"You see feet in slippers and it doesn't seem that bad," she said. "But just bare is kind of rare. You only really see homeless people walking around barefooot. It's gross. I don't want to see someone's dirty feet when I'm eating somewhere."

Better health education also played a role in getting the nation's feet under canvas and leather.

As Honolulu podiatrist Dr. Theodore York explained, bare feet are fine for walking on sand or grass, but harder surfaces require the support offered by a good shoe to assure proper development of young feet and healthy alignment for walkers of all ages.

And, of course, shoes do prevent puncture wounds, which are scarier today that they used to be, with flesh-eating bacteria taking the place of tetanus as Mom's biological boogieman of choice.

York said open-toe sandals of the sort made by Birkenstock and Mephisto are good alternatives, offering good support and protection with less restriction than regular shoes.

But for some, barefoot is a way of life too precious to give up.

Pedro said he carries a pair of sandals in his backpack to accommodate the growing number of "No shirt, no shoes, no service" businesses.

Other than that, he said, "Nothing comes between me and the ground I walk on."