Awakin Calls » Polly Letofsky » Transcript
Polly Letofsky: Adventurer, Traveler, Author
Aug 8, 2015: Walking the World at 3 Miles Per Hour
Guest Speaker and Topic: Polly Letofsky, "Walking the World at 3 Miles per Hour"
Host: Deven P-Shah
Moderator: Nicole Huguenin
Deven: Today we are in conversation with Polly Letofsky. Today's theme is "Walking at Three Miles an Hour." Nicole, the very first thing that came to my mind when I saw the theme, was Andrew Weil's work. The book is called "Spontaneous Healing." One of the things he emphasizes so much in his eight-week program is walking. When I thought about it I wasn't sure, but I said "You know, I'm getting into it and taking time to read. I might as well try what he's saying." I started walking 20 minutes a day and amazing things actually happened. I'm a runner; I run quite a bit. I'm not much of a walker, but I actually started walking and it does have a soothing effect. In reading more about it in Dr. Herbert Benson's work, "The Relaxation Response," he's saying that the crossed movements of hands and legs (we are genetically wired to walk) has tremendous healing, soothing effects if we just pay our attention to that, just like mindful walking. What is your experience with walking, Nicole? I know you are into walking as well. Could you share a little bit of that and introduce our guests to callers?
Nicole: I have a deep love of walking and a very personal experience of it. One, I run an organization called "Wild Dream Walks," so I use walking as a tool for a lot of things I do. Starting this past January I made a lot of shifts in my life and I was asking myself, "What do I value the most?" I really value connection. I know on ServiceSpace we talk a lot about changing transaction to trust. I wanted to create that. I knew myself… I would let myself off the hook if I didn't have some type of commitment, so I committed to walk every single day this year with a new person or a new group of people. Here it is August 8th and I've learned so much from the thousands of people I've walked with. But that inner transformation for me is exactly what you said: as I slowed my body to 3 miles per hour, which is our born way of transportation, my thoughts have slowed to that as well, and that feels so much more natural. It is healing. In this journey I've personally taken on, I've been so thankful for the community --- I'm in Denver, Colorado, here in the United States, and in a community that includes Polly Letofsky in our local walking movement.
Polly is this amazing woman, and the only woman to have walked across the world. She started in 1999 and took over five years. Right in the middle of that, "2001" happened. So a large shift in the way the world responds to things happened technologically and in cultures. I'm so honored to bring her into this conversation and to learn about her walk around the world, and also how she lives a life at 3 miles per hour. Welcome, Polly.
Polly: Thank you for having me.
Nicole: The first question is to just wrap our heads around what it means to walk around the world. What constitutes that? What does it mean when we say that you walked around the world?
Polly: That's a really good question, and it can mean many things. What I did when I was getting ready to start out is contact the Guinness Book of World Records. But before we go any further I want to preface that by saying I've never given two hoots about the Guinness Book of World Records. It had nothing to do at all with why I wanted to do a walk or anything else. People kept asking me, "Is this going to be a world record?" So I thought, "Well, in the event that someday I give a hoot, I'd hate to then lose out on a technicality." So I thought I'd contact them. I also got the guidelines. And they were the guidelines that I chose to go by. Those guidelines are that you need to start and finish in the same place, which for me was the mountains of Colorado. I was living in a town called Vail. It's a mountain resort town. You need to walk across at least four continents and cover at least 14,000 miles. You need to get signatures, along the way, of people seeing you walk every day.
Those are the guidelines that I was told to go by. But I had guidelines of my own as well. My guidelines were very much stemming around my "Why? Why am I doing this?" And my "Why?" was really to discover the world and how it ticks, and the people of the world. It wasn't to be a martyr. People wanted to stop and pluck me off the road and take me to lunch or take me home for the night and put me up. That was great. But they had to drop me off at the exact same spot. So I in fact walked every step of the way. We would mark my spot in a variety of different ways. I recorded all my mileage according to that one path. I didn't count the mileage of all the miles that were off course, that I got lost. Because ironically I have no sense of direction. So I probably did a lot of extra mileage as well. So that's what constitutes a walk around the world.
There was also flying across the ocean, of course, and the Guinness book (rule) was, of course, that you could fly from continent to continent; you just have to walk four continents. Those are the guidelines I chose to go by.
Nicole: Wow! I'm sure all the callers are saying, "Let's think about that. What does that mean?"
Polly: It means I crossed 22 countries. And even the word "crossing" is deceptive because I "crossed" four continents but I didn't "cross" 22 countries. Some countries I was in for literally overnight. Well, that was two. Then some countries I'd spend three, four days in, and others for nine months. So that part was all over the board, of course. It was 22 countries, four continents, and I did 14,124 miles. That again does not include all the miles that I was lost, because I have no sense of direction. I think we could easily add another couple thousand on to that (laughing).
Nicole: You touched a little bit on this. I would love to dive a little bit deeper into what the call was. What called you to walk across the world?
Polly: The really deep "Why" would probably take a lot of self-analysis. I've never dug that deep. But here's how the seed was planted. It was back in the summer of 1974 and I was 12 years old that summer. I was living up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. It's right in the heart of the Midwest in America, and I remember a friend of mine in the second grade went to Iowa, and I just thought that was the coolest thing. "Wow, you traveled across the border." That was a pretty big deal. But anyway, when I was 12, I really started to discover that there was this whole big world going on around me that didn't look anything like my world. And that was through the newspaper. And I started reading the newspaper every day, and started seeing that people are living a very different life. It got me really curious about the world and how it ticks.
Then, one morning, reading the paper, I saw this story of a man from Minnesota who was walking around the world. He was in Colorado on his way home to Minnesota to become the first man to walk around the world. And I just thought that was the coolest thing ever... that this man could literally put one step in front of the other. One by one, those little steps are nothing, seemingly. But when strung together, they become so powerful that they can serve as your transportation around the world. And I thought that was the coolest thing. I really think to this day that that is the coolest thing. I thought, "I didn't know you were allowed to think of such a thing if you were from Minnesota." So I just said "I can do that, if he can do that." And in fact, I remember, I was 12 and saw that article and went outside and just walked around the house. I walked around the house for about five or six hours. I walked around the house. I thought, "Next stop, the world."
I always had it in my head, but even then I knew that was thinking way outside the box for a 12-year-old girl from Minnesota in 1974. It sat in the back of my head and brewed and stirred for a number of years, and life's journey over the next 20-plus years brought me to living in Colorado. There was a year in my life when a number of women in my world were diagnosed with breast cancer. They were from all over, but suddenly it was around me all the time. I remember one night coming home; I always had a little two-mile walk home, in the dark, because it was ten o'clock at night, and I was thinking of the day, and all of these women going through breast cancer. It struck me. I remember exactly where I was when I had my idea: "That's what I'll do that walk for, that I always wanted to do." And I loved the idea immediately of a woman walking for women, and educating women about this disease that does affect us all worldwide. It's in every hamlet of India to the biggest cities of America; it really is everywhere. And that night, walking my two miles home, I started planning my global walk for breast cancer.
Nicole: Your objective for this walk was not necessarily fitness or speed. The objective really was to honor these women, and in a sense, honor yourself, yes?
Polly: I think it was about discovery. People come up to me all the time saying that I did this for breast cancer, and while, yes, that's true, that was the final catalyst for making me launch into this, it was really the other way around. It was the walk that I wanted to do. And then when breast cancer suddenly arrived in my world, that was the final move into it.
Nicole: I want to jump into some of the things that happened on your walk. Before we do that, we can go to, how many pairs of shoes you had, and went through, and that sort of thing. But what is it you came away with from the walk? What did you discover?
Polly: I had this vision in my head that of course I would go out into the world and discover geography and language and religion and the heritage and culture, etcetera. And of course I learned those. Some other things I learned, though, that I never expected, were simple things like people's habits and hobbies. Really, their hobbies.
I should explain this before I go on. The first seven months of the walk, I had crew support. It was never by design that I have crew support. But people kept falling in my lap, saying, "I think that sounds like fun; I think I'll go with you." That was never a very good idea, to expect them to have the same vision and passion and commitment that I did. I had this in my head since I was 12 years old. It never really worked out. So I decided I really had to back up to the real, true story that had always been in my head, and that was to go alone. I created..... It's a baby-buggy by a company called Bob. It's not an old boyfriend that I like to push around or anything (laughs), but because it has this big "Bob" across the front of it. It was a baby-buggy with a baby sling, and I created this sort of backpack on wheels. That, then, once I hit Australia, is how I started carrying my gear.
Then it was just me alone from then on. For the first seven months I was with someone else. And from then on I was really on my own.
[At this point, Polly describes how a woman she met along the road in Australia invited her to the local Lions' Club.]
The Lions' Club, if you're not familiar, is made up of volunteers on a local basis. Almost every town around the world has a Lions' Club. I didn't know that. She took me home and called all her Lions' Club buddies and they took me out fundraising that night because I had a breast cancer organization in every country that was the beneficiary of a portion of the walk. They would raise funds and send it down to the breast cancer network of Australia. They sent me on to the next Lions' Club.
[Polly indicates that at the next Lions' Club she would again engage in fundraising, and that began a process of being "passed" from one Lions' Club to another, starting in Australia, She qualifies that, however, by saying that it was more systematic than that .]
The people of the world then started taking care of me and putting me up in their homes, and I would see the differences; that cultures don't just change when you cross a border. But they cross when you enter someone's home. And they have the different hobbies and they eat differently and raise their kids differently, and they decorate differently and celebrate holidays differently, and it was the best education I ever could have gotten.
That really lays out how it all worked. To get back to your question, "What are the lessons you learned?" One of the ones I take with me every single day is one that had to be really conscious of every day. I felt so honored and blessed that people would put me up every day. They also tried to almost control you. So I always had to draw a line between when to be patient and when to stick up for yourself. It was a constant balance.
Nicole: Do you have an example of that?
Polly: One of them was in food-pushing. I had to be very careful of what I ate, of course. What I ate had to be, one, what agreed with me physically, that wouldn't harm me, that I wouldn't get sick on because I wasn't used to. That was sometimes difficult, because people have their foods as part of their culture. And some of it I couldn't eat. People would always say, "Would you like this?" Well, "No, I can't eat that, eyeball soup, let's say.”(Laughs). I'm being facetious. I would say, "No thank you." I love food and love experimenting with food, but there were some places I couldn't go with the experiments because I didn't know how I would react. So I had to say no to that. But they would say, "No, you really need to try it." And I would say, "No thank you." Then they would push it some more and push it some more. That's when I have to be very patient, and patient, and patient, and then I have to stick up for myself. "No, I can't have that, because I need to be very careful of what I can eat. I can only eat these 20 things." But they would push it.
So that's an example. "We eat at midnight," they say in some cultures. But I can't eat at midnight. I have to get up at 5 a.m. to get the coolest hours of the day, which is still 95 degrees. So I had to draw that line. When to be patient and when to stick up for myself.
Nicole: Let's get into some of the things that happened on the walk. I've heard you speak before, and one of the commonest questions is "How many pairs of shoes did you go through?"
Polly: (Laughs) But I get a nickel every time I get asked that question. I went through 29 pairs of shoes, actually. It was actually 28 pairs until the very last mile, when some friends of mine, under the theme, "There's no place like home," gave me a pair of ruby-colored, sparkly New Balance shoes, which were my shoe of choice. Even though that last pair only made it a mile, I officially brought the tally up to 29.
Nicole: (Laughs) The image of you wearing ruby shoes is just great. I imagine them in a glass case in your home. Something popped into my head earlier when you were speaking about the differences and the habits, and of the various homes you entered. Were there any similarities you came away with? Any stories that could show the similarities between two different cultures that you experienced?
Polly: How people really want to host you. People really want to host you and show you a good time, almost from town to town around the world. It's really not necessarily universal. I did hit a couple of countries/cultures there were not like that... a couple out of five years. But otherwise I was always really surprised by that, from town to town. The Lions' Clubs, remember, are passing me from town to town, for the most part. There were other times when, for a variety of reasons, they weren't as involved.
They almost got into a competition to see who could treat me the best, who could out-host me (laughter). So coming up through Malaysia, they were very hospitable. They would say, "Oh, that Lions’ Club put you up at that hotel? We're going to put you up at this hotel, with two massages.” I always thought that was so funny, in trying to compete. It was funny; I got a good kick out of that.
You know, even in the best of times, walking around the world, of course is no picnic. It's tough every day. I equate it to raising children (I haven't raised children. I haven't had any children). But it's like, "It's tough every day, but you love it and you wouldn't give it up for anything." It's the labor of love. So, even though it's tough, I did it. I really had a pretty good go of it, all the way around. Considering what happened in the middle of it, which was 9/11. People really did take good care of me. I had a pretty good go of it, even though it was still tough.
Nicole: That leads perfectly into my next question, which is that you have this pretty major event in the middle of the walk. What were the shifts you saw, and do you have any specific stories around that time period? And what was going on in your head, in terms of continuing the walk at that time?
Polly: I was in Malaysia, which was my first Muslim country. I was exactly halfway through. It's almost hard for us to remember where our heads were before 9/11, when we didn't understand the Muslim world at all. We'd heard about it, but we really didn't understand it much. So I'm entering my first Muslim country, and everyone is telling me, "You should go up the west coast, because that's a lot more liberal. You don't want to go up the east coast. Well, even going up the west coast, once you hit halfway, which is their capital of Kuala Lumpur, the second half gets to be a lot more conservative-Muslim. This is what I'd been hearing, anyway. Sure enough, I'm halfway through the country, in Kuala Lumpur, when 9/11 strikes. So I'm getting ready to enter the more conservative area of Malaysia. It's not as populated, so I don't have as much support, and I'm aiming for the Thai border. It's hard for me to say, then, how the world shifted, because I'm moving anyway. I'm moving into another culture. It was shifting for me regardless. I'd never been to those new locations before 9/11. It's tough for me to say how it shifted.
What I can tell you, though, is, yes, there were some really dodgy things going on that I will never, ever know about. As an example, when I was in Malaysia, Lions' Clubs got so heavily involved. They're a very large organization anyway in Malaysia. They then get the Rotary Clubs involved, which are very renowned and highly-connected and highly regarded. Now there's a hundred people walking with me every day --- every day, all day, morning, noon and night, this crowd of people walking with me every day. So then 9/11 strikes and not only do I have this crowd of people, but now the police show up. And nobody knows where the police showed up. How did the police know where I was? Who called them? Lions' Clubs swear they didn't call anybody and I hadn't even contacted the American embassy. Where did they come from? Why are they there? I will never know. To this day I will never know. But the police would show up at my door and stay outside my hotel door every night for a couple weeks after 9/11.
So there's a lot of mystery that's going on, and right after 9/11, heading toward the Thai border, that to this day I'll never know what that was about, how the police heard. And so I would --- and again, these Lions' Clubs are highly-connected people. I'd see them in a crowd and go up to them and say "What's up?" and they’d say, "You're fine, you are just fine. Don't you worry about a thing. You are just fine." Well, I didn't know I wasn't okay. (Laughs). I suspect there was a lot going on. Ignorance is fabulous bliss. I just kept going, "Okay." I just kept marching up. Those were some kinds of things that were going on.
Nicole: It can be construed as ignorance, but also trust. There's a level of trust. I would love to explore that --- how you were able to trust in the journey that you were on. Especially when you talked about going at it alone, and making the choice to not have a team and a companion walker. How did that show up for you?
Polly: It's a really good one, and that's a lesson I take with me every day. This is something that I did in the planning stages, that I didn't realize was such a professional development tool until I got back from my walk into the professional world and started taking classes..... "Oh, that's what I did." But when I was in my planning stages and really making a commitment..... making a commitment mean s you are prepared to have tough times. You understand that there will be. Not if. There will be. No matter what you do, if you're going to start a business, if you expect everything to run smoothly, you're really kidding yourself and you're not ready. You have to be able to accept the tough times that will inevitably come about. That can also go for, say, marriage, having children. You're making a commitment, and within that commitment you are accepting the tough times.
So when I was on my walk, this was in my head, it was absolute commitment there. I knew there was going to be tough times. But they're not times that I could predict or plan for. So when they were surprising me, it was almost as if you clap your hands and go, "Okay, here we go." This was what was thrown at me. It was almost like a game. So when 9/11 struck, everyone was calling me, emailing me, "What's your emergency escape plan? How are you going to get back to the United States?" Even when I was 12 years old and I got this into my head for the very first time.... even when I was walking that two-mile stretch home that night in the dark when I lived up in the mountains in Colorado, and got this idea with a clear vision and a passion, I knew that I couldn't embark on this journey if I couldn't accept those tough times, those surprise times, the times I could never predict or plan for.
So when 9/11 strikes, I was "Okay, here we go." There wasn't a thought in my head as to, "How do I fly home? How do I get out of this?" The thoughts in my head were, "What's ahead here, and what do I need?" I had to re-evaluate, restructure, and reach out. Now here I am sitting with, literally, a hundred people a day that are so highly-connected and well-respected, so I asked them at breakfast one morning, I asked these Lions' Club members, "Do you guys think you could help me contact the international Lions' Club president and see if he would consider an international sponsorship?"
They said, "Well, we'll give it a shot." And they met me for dinner and it was a done deal. He loved the idea. So as world events started swirling around me, and they were very high in Southeast Asia, where I was at the time, I had that foundation of all these people from village to village to village. I considered them my team. One of the things I talk about is, "How do you have a team when you're out there alone?" Well, I had my team at home that I could email, call, text, but I also had my team that were strangers on the road every day. New friends every day. The poor people had no idea that they were part of my team that day, but they were. And that gave me, of course, great strength, and great foundations as the world started swirling on around me that I had no control over. I felt a comfort knowing that someone was there.
Nicole: Talking about commitment, what you just said is, you didn't question the commitment, you questioned what you needed to continue the commitment while the world changed around you.
Polly: When something isn't an option, you don't waste a lot of time and energy on it. For example, I'm not going to go to the moon for vacation this weekend. It's not an option, so I'm not going to waste my time and energy trying to get to the moon for vacation. It's just not going to happen. So for me, quitting wasn't an option. That part wasn't an option. I wasn't going to waste a lot of time and energy on that. My time and energy was re-evaluating and reaching out. My biggest lesson in five years was the reaching out and asking for help, which is not easy for most of us. It was my biggest lesson, and this was the statistic that I took with me every day. I take it with me now, and that 95 percent of people want to help. They just don't know how. So it is up to us to reach out and ask for that help. Sometimes that was a stranger in the middle of the road. I remember a couple of times --- I didn't do this often, three off the top of my head --- where it was all about food and directions. I would walk out into the middle of the street and wave someone down and ask for food or directions, and of course they were always thrilled to do so.
Nicole: That's such a beautiful lesson. Your book is called "3mph," and I know for me in my own life, when I'm walking and my thoughts get to that pace as well, is when those kinds of lessons come. So I would love to talk in the next few minutes, since you've come home, how have you incorporated that into your day-to-day life, the lessons you learned from your walk as well as keeping that pace of 3 miles per hour? How does that show up in your life now?
Polly: I still walk almost every day. Someone pointed out to me once, and I never thought about it before, about why I like to walk so much. I've never really thought about it. I just go for a walk. Someone mentioned, "Oh, that must be why you're so emotionally healthy," they said to me. Of course they didn't know me that well (laughing). I said, "What do you mean by that?" And she said, "Well, it's like your therapy. Some people meditate and you just go out and walk." I thought, "Well, by Jove, she's right. I just go out and it's like a therapy. It's a physical therapy and an emotional therapy. You just go out and you think, and it's healthy, and that's why I like it so much. I usually do my walking in the early morning. There's something about greeting the day that I like. There's a certain smell in the morning, too. Anyone who walks in the morning really understands. There's a certain smell in the morning, and there's something in the air. So that keeps the whole package healthy. I also go on a walk a lot of times right before bed-time. It really helps with sleep.
Nicole: How have you brought that mentality to your community?
Polly: I started, and Nicole, you're part of Walk2Connect as well. I lead a walk every Sunday morning in my neighborhood. We go out and we walk five miles through the parks of my neighborhood and the creek walks. We finish with a meal. I've only been doing it for four months now, but it's every Sunday morning. I impress upon people that this isn't about going out and doing a big workout. That's not the point. The point of it really is walking and chatting and getting to know your neighbors and breaking bread and discovering your neighborhood. Because you can drive past something for a lifetime, but not until you walk past it will you really discover it. I've really enjoyed that. More and more neighbors come. Let's say it's 20 people every Sunday morning, walking. That's fluid. It moves into new people and some people can't show up that week. New people come. That's how I've taken it to my community.
A lot of times, if I have a meeting --- I'm in the publishing business now --- we'll just go walk and talk. I work with writers a lot, and they'll call me and say "I'm stuck. What do I do when I'm stuck with writing?" I'll say, "Well, you go for a walk." So they'll go for one walk and say "It didn't work." And I'll say, "No, here's the deal, you need to walk every day. Make it a part of your plan and ideas will come to you. Plot lines will come to you."
To answer your question, those are two communities that I'm in, the physical community and my writing community, where I use walking as a tool.
Nicole: I have some deep experience with that as well. What I noticed about walking, especially when you walk with other people, is that it really does align the head, hand, and heart, and gives a space for that heart to call. It slows us down to be able to hear it. I know that's my personal experience. That's why I do it so much --- so I can listen to my heart. I'm going slow enough to be able to hear what my heart is saying to me. I would love to hear a story from your walk or post-walk that stand out to you, maybe about the alignment of head, hand, and heart, and listening to your heart. Because what it sounds like is that you really had your heart call to you at the age of 12. Have you had any heart calls since then, or have you experienced it in that way?
Polly: I have. Let me answer that two ways. You asked me to tell a story about the head, hand, and heart. It's such a small, subtle story, it's not exciting at all. No plot line. People ask me all the time, "What were some of your most memorable moments?" There wasn't a milestone. I met Gandhi's granddaughter. She greeted me into Mumbai. This was a stunning milestone moment. But those big moments, you're almost on, you've got to be entertaining. You can't really be in your own head during those big moments.
One of mine was this night when I was walking into London. I had walked the whole way. I had walked from Colorado, westbound, through how many countries, and I'm walking into London. It was a late November night, so it's dark already, even at 6 o'clock. I never walked into London before. I don't know where I am. It's before GPS's. I'm looking at maps saying "How do I get into London? I've got to cross the Thames River. How do I cross this?" The map has five bridges that will cross you in. I just randomly choose a bridge to walk over. I don't know one from another. It turns out the bridge I walked over is the one where Big Ben is greeting you, and there's the Parliament House, and it's such a moment, because there's the hustle and bustle of the city and the Thames River is just sparkling, and the lights are on it, and the moon is full. It was this whole energy swirling around me, and I was just in my own little world, walking across the bridge, into London. I had walked there. Four years before I had been dreaming about someday entering London, and how cool that will feel. But it's so far away that will happen. But it was happening. It was just a really special moment that you can't explain to anyone. You're not entertaining anyone --- you're just all in the moment, just you, right there, with the world around you.
Nicole: It sounds like you really experienced the presence of “being,” instead of "doing," the walk. Instead of having to be something for someone you're just "being the walk." I've been in that place too, several times. It's interesting, being in the hustle and bustle of the city and still being able to feel that connection to the Earth, and connection to that bustle that is going around, and still feel so.... to me, I feel very calm when I get to that place as well. If you were to describe an emotion, what emotions are in that space?
Polly: There was pride. I was proud of myself, that I had set this thing that I didn't have even a template to follow, because no one had done it. Everyone was nervous about it . "That's a bit silly." But I had done it. So I was really proud of myself for sticking to it. There was that.
There was a calmness. There was hustle and bustle all around, people running with their cell phones and their briefcases and running to the Tube and running across the bridge to their next meetings and their homes and their pubs. And there was just calmness. I was just watching. And it was really cool. It was right before the Iraq War started, so I knew looking at this Parliament Building that there were a lot of "big minds" going on, and phone calls internationally making big decisions, and the history that that involves. And I was just observing, and there was a calmness.
Nicole: When we talked yesterday, and we haven't gotten to this space, what was it like being a woman? What were the benefits or detriments of being a woman on a walk like this, and the first woman to walk around the world?
Polly: I'd like to clarify that a little bit. There has "kind of" been another woman that walked around the world, meaning she did it very differently than I did, to be clear and thorough. She would walk across a continent and then go home for two years and then raise money for the next continent and then go home for two years. It took about 11 years. And then afterwards, she had admitted to getting rides across most of America, which is one of the four continents. Some people said they thought she went back and did it again. I haven't had confirmation of that.
So that aside, just to be thorough, and frankly even if she didn't get rides across America, she did lots of mileage, so I'll give her credit for that. Just being a woman, as opposed to otherwise: honestly, it's nothing, I don't even think of gender when I have done anything in my life, I was not raised that way. So I have never pulled the gender card, ever. So I've never even thought about it going into this, or anything else. But in the middle of some of these cultures where it is in fact very different being a man than a woman, and you are going to be treated differently, I was rather shocked by that, by some of it. But I think that being a woman really helped me in those countries as opposed to being a detriment at all. Because people felt safe bringing me into their homes, with their children and all their belongings --- they felt safe. And not only were they protective of me, they were over-protective. It was "I'll be okay." (Laughing). And in fact it got very controlling sometimes.
But I've always thought that --- that being a woman probably helped me because people weren't afraid to bring me into their homes. I talk to other people now who have been walking across America who are men and they've got big, scraggly beards, and they say "I get asked to people's homes and they take good care of me." And I think, "Maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe I’m kidding myself entirely." (Laughter) Because I don't have facial hair that can get out of control. Of course the men who do that don't necessarily have access to keeping themselves up. Years later I have to re-think that. Maybe I'm kidding myself. Maybe it would have been fantastic if I were a guy as well. While it might not work for me, being a woman, it certainly was no detriment at all.
Deven: I read this one line on your website, Polly. It grabbed me the moment I read it. It says "Cultures don't change at borders. They change at the foot of every doorway and of every company in the world." Would you expand on that? I want to see where you are going with that. It's such a fascinating one-liner for me.
Polly: Cultures don't just happen over borders, although there is very much a new culture as you step over a border, which I found stunning sometimes. Now it's not "Ciao!" it's "Bonjour!" I've crossed an invisible border now, and things are suddenly different. People are suddenly dressing differently. But cultures also happen from doorstep to doorstep in people's homes. They eat different foods, they have different dietary needs, different hobbies, different ways they raise their children.
It's the same with companies. Companies have different cultures. Different companies representing different industries have a different language that you'd better understand going in. Even if it's the same industry, from company to company they have different words they have made up. There are different languages and different inside jokes, and different things that are acceptable in a company that wouldn't be elsewhere. For example, in regular culture some words are very acceptable here that aren't elsewhere. I'll say the word "fanny-pack" as an example. It's perfectly acceptable. We have towns named Fanny, and hills and ski resorts named Fanny. That's a very bad word in some cultures. And people laugh at you. I don't know if it's a bad word, it's just a silly word. So I could never say that when I stayed in New Zealand or Australia. That may be case in a company as well. You can't say this word because it means something very, very different.
So one thing I really started to learn and have a great love for is linguistics, because, of course, you're walking town to town and across borders, and you're seeing similarities in language but they're not exactly the same. And how did that happen? So I really started to love and study the history of linguistics. Sure enough, they happen in every company. So you have to know or at least get to know that company's culture, and be very clear, if you're running that company, on what that culture is.
Right now I have a growing business and I'm starting to think, "What do I want my culture to look like in this company?" So I'm very conscious of that and I'm glad that that sentence jumped out at you because it is something I talk about.
Deven: It's coming to me so well now, when I'm hearing this from you. It's not just your ambiance but what you do; and it's proactively what you think through, and what you make happen is such a big part of culture as well. It's rhyming with something we have in ServiceSpace, which is "Be the change you wish to see in the world." You are your culture if you set your mind to it. Another thing that is fascinating to me is, 14,000 miles of walking. That is just inspiring. And 29 pair of shoes, and trekking to all these countries on your feet. Before and after, if there is one change it had in your life. How it changed your perspective. How it impacted on you personally, these 14,000 miles of journey and all the experiences you had with all these interesting people. If something jumps out at you, what would be the highlight that is like a nice, major shift in your perspective?
Polly: One shift I've had in my perspective is that --- and this sounds really clichèd, and we all really know this --- but when you're there and you're seeing it and you're experiencing it firsthand, it means something very different, and that is that there's always another side to the story. I can paint this picture two ways.
When I was walking up through this sugar cane farming area in Australia ---- for weeks I was there, probably six weeks, walking through this sugar cane farming area. There was a strike going on, and I don't even remember the details of the strike, except that there were two different sides to this strike. There was one family that was on one side of the strike, and I was sitting at the dinner table with them. They would tell me about their side and I was "Well, yeah! I'm with you! Absolutely!" And then I'd walk to the next dinner table and they were on the other side, and they would tell me their side, and I was "You're absolutely right! How dare they? I'm on your side."
And then on to the next walk to the next dinner table and the next dinner table for six weeks. And both sides had legitimate claims. It was a powerful lesson for me that I take with me every day. Right away, if I hear myself say "Well, yes, absolutely, that makes perfect sense, I'm on your side," I stop myself, and I think, "What is the other side, what is their side?" So that was a very powerful tool for me, and I really think that if anyone gets into politics, business, journalism, they should do exactly what I did, and walk dinner table to dinner table to dinner table and hear the other side.
The other picture is that I dealt with the media a lot. I was dealing with the media sometimes four times a day. We're talking radio, television, newspapers, the whole thing. They would ask the same questions, the "Who, what, why where when." And understandably. It got to the point where I was making bullet-pointed answers because they were never getting the answers right. The story would come out in the paper, "Polly has walked 37,000 miles." I was, "Where did they even get that?" --- "She uses 500 pairs of shoes." --- "How did you get that information? That has never come out of my mouth." So instead, I created this bullet-pointed document with the questions and the answers and I would hand that to them. And I would also want to talk to them but then hand them this, so they don't get the wrong notes. Well, sure enough, they do not get the right information still. This was stunning to me. I did the math one day. I've probably been in 2,500 newspapers, radio, this kind of thing. And I can tell you, the ones that I know of that got all the information correct was probably five or six. Isn't that crazy? They never, even when I hand them bullet-pointed statistics, facts and numbers, get that right. One of the lessons I learned is, now I read the paper, watch the news, listen to the radio, and my thought is, "I wonder what they got right?" So I can't just blindly listen to the radio or television or newspaper. It's always, "Gee, I wonder what they got right in that story?" Because I know they didn't get all of it. Isn't that sad? There's something sad about that.
Deven: I loved the part of just explaining the perspective of meeting the people at dinner tables, and how it's a completely different experience. It's a fascinating journey. We have one question that came over email, Polly. The question is from Jacqueline. I'm going to read what she has written here:
Email Questioner: "Hi. I'm fascinated by your incredible journey and all the people helping you along the way. What I'm wondering is how you managed to keep yourself safe. Traveling alone is very risky for a woman, especially with a venture like this. What precautions did you take to protect yourself from being attacked? Do you know self-defense or do you carry a weapon just in case? And how were you able to so easily trust strangers in foreign lands, such as accepting accommodations? It's great that you had the support of the Lions' Club, and you had other people walking with you the first seven months. Did you consider having a group the whole way? Not constantly walking with others, you would still be the only one walking all the way. It seems you were unbelievably lucky to get through your long trek without incident."
Polly: No, I never really considered having a group of people. I was very committed to my goal and it's just unrealistic to pretend that someone could have that same commitment. It just wasn't going to work. And crew support just really didn't work for those reasons. The picture in my head that I had as a kid was that I was going to do this alone, and it wasn't to be a martyr. So when people said they wanted to go with me I was, "Okay, that sounds like fun." And it never worked out. So I really had to get to the true picture in my head and go alone.
[Addressing the second part of the question, safety] This isn't a plug for my book, but if you read my book I go more into it. I do talk about intuition and how powerful that is. It is a tool that is embedded in us that is like a little alarm clock. [She then refers to a statistic that indicates that our subconscious is aware of about 80 percent more than our conscious mind knows regarding what is going on around us.] That is why suddenly your hairs stand up on end and you don't know why. Because there's a lot going on within you that you don't even know about, you can't nail down. Here's how I envision that. If you've ever had one of those dog whistles, and the dog can hear it, but you can't. They have a much more developed hearing. There's a lot out there that we can't quite nail down but that affects our intuition. And I made some very-very bad decisions the first seven months of my walk. I got some people involved. Because I was completely ignoring the intuition. The intuition was there and it was raising high red flags but I was ignoring them, because I wanted to believe that they had my best interests, and they didn't.
So the big lesson that came out of that whole ugly scene was that I have this intuition and it's a very powerful tool, and I need to pay attention to it. So I made myself a promise from that point on that I would pay attention to this intuition even when consciously it doesn't make any sense. Just agree with it, believe in it, trust it, and sure enough, I lived up to that commitment. For whatever reason, if I didn't trust it... Here's an example. I was walking in the middle of Australia. There was nothing around me, nothing but eucalyptus trees and nothing but miles of road, nobody, not anything, and suddenly I got really nervous. For no reason whatsoever I got really nervous. I looked around me to see if there's a reason I should be nervous, and there wasn't. But I remembered the promise to myself: "I will not question the intuition. I will just trust it." I had a little pepper spray and I pulled that out and I was ready. There wasn't, seemingly, any reason why I should have, and eventually the feeling went away, and that was the end of it. But the point is that I made a commitment to myself that I would trust it, even when it made no sense.
So I had intuition and I learned to really trust it.... I made a promise to myself... I did have pepper spray in almost any country. In Australia, you can't have pepper spray. I forget how I got it; I think some Lions' Club members helped me get it. But it wasn't legal to have. So when I did a press interview one time, they asked about it, and I said "I have pepper spray." They put this in the newspaper. This apparently, unbeknownst to me, created quite a little hubbub in the editorial section: "How come we can't have pepper spray and this American girl has pepper spray?" And the police knew it, and they let me, and in fact cheered me on. The police would go, "Is that pepper spray on your hip?" and I would say, "Yes, sir," and they would go, "Good!" And they would let me go.
So those are two things. Also, I really did use the police. The police kind of protected me, and they would call the next police down the road. So the police were always there for me. I did things like contact the American embassy, particularly after 9/11 happened. I was constantly in communication with the embassies coming up. Thailand, the embassy I was very close to. India, the embassy I was very close to. Turkey, etcetera. [She then refers briefly to the possession of self-protection skills.]
When I speak to schools, I tell them this. I say, "Take every single opportunity you can to not be stupid.” I didn't take chances that weren't necessary. I didn't do any of that nonsense. I think I just made good decisions.
Deven: Intuition, and what you said, reminded me of Malcolm Gladwell's book, "Blink." He also developed a similar point, that your intuition and subconscious are incredible powers, if you just train yourself, if you program yourself to tune into it and listen to it.
Mani (Caller): This is Mani, hearing you at India. It's a fantastic journey. I just heard about it in the email today, and I just jumped on the call pretty quickly. A couple of quick questions for you. I have two daughters; one is 15 and one is 10. I'm just wondering, even if I did the walk myself, like what you did, which I haven't done yet, if they came and asked me, would I let them go? That's one question. I don't know if you have kids or not. The question is, doing the journey one's self is one thing, but letting others close to you do the journey is a different thing. So do you have a comment on that? The other part of the question is, man is a social animal, they say. Did you feel alone at any point in time?
Polly: Both terrific questions. No, I haven't had children. It was never a really conscious decision that I wouldn't have children. But equally, it wasn't this dream of mine to have children. And I knew again from that very young age of 12 that I wanted to do this. So I knew I couldn't, if I really wanted to do this. It had to come in sequential order. I couldn't have children and then go on my walk, or even get married and then go on my walk. So I was very conscious of that all the time. Naturally people ask all the time, "What do your children have to say about this?" and "Well, I don't have any children." Now I have three cats. The other question about people close to me letting me go --- I was 37 when I left, and in America it's different than in India. Where India is so family oriented; everyone kind of lives together until you go off into your next family, and they have their family. In America, you get to be 18 and you go away to college; and a lot of times that's in a different state. And you get a job anywhere in the country, and you move there. So families are really spread out. So, at the age of 37 I'd certainly lived away from the family for decades at that point and didn't live near any family; we're pretty spread out. Nonetheless they're still my team and my biggest supporters.
I remember when I announced it to my Mom. I was very committed by the time I told my parents. And my parents had been divorced, so they lived in different states. My Mom came driving through my town for a couple of days, and I sat her down, and I said "I have big news and I want your support," and I'm sure she's thinking, "Oh, God, she has a parole officer." She may have been very relieved --- "You're just walking around the world? Oh, well, no big deal." I remember she was overly enthusiastic, so enthusiastic. "This is fantastic. Whatever you need from me, you've got it." We had a conversation years later, when I was nearing the end of my walk, in fact. She said, "When you sat me down and told me, and I was so enthusiastic I thought, 'Well, I may as well go ahead and be supportive, because that's not going to happen anyway." That was Mom's reaction.
Dad's reaction: he chose to ignore it. I remember when I told him, there was no real look on his face, he didn't ask any questions, and it wasn't until I was getting closer and closer to actually leaving, that he realized, "Okay, so she's going about this," and he could see that I had put a lot of planning into it... and in fact really got on board and became my biggest supporter ever.
What was really neat, on a complete side note, was that my parents had been divorced since 1976 and it was relatively amicable and all the rest of it, but boy, they really just joined forces to help me reach my goal. They were living in different states, but every time one of them talked to me, they'd call the other and say "Here's the update." If my Dad would get mail of certain newspaper articles, he would make copies and send them to my Mom. They were in constant touch. When I was heading into a very difficult time, they were both in phone calls, in my revision and re-structuring. I really was born to the greatest parents because not every parent would be supportive. At that age, of course, I could do whatever I wanted. But of course you want their support, and you want them to feel comfortable with it.
If you have a ten-year-old and a 14-year old, you can't go do this. That's just not a good idea.
Mani: The flip question is, If they come and ask me, I want to go do this? (Laughter)
Polly: The answer would be no. This was in my book: I was in Calcutta and this Indian girl came up to me, Gulab was her name, and she asked if she could come and join me and I said, "By all means." She joined me for the kickoff day in Calcutta and the next day, and she said she really wants to walk around the world but her family won't let her and they think she's crazy. She said, "I really want to, and I want to see what it's like," and I never heard from her again. I had her email address but she never responded. So one of the big mysteries of my walk, is in fact, what happened to Gulab? I never heard from her again. If you run into a "Gulab" in Calcutta...
Nicole: Polly, I really identify with your question about the intuition, and I've experienced that too. This might help with some of the parents out there, in ways to support a younger person who has a dream like this. I don't see the fear when I do a lot of walks on my own. Sometimes they're in places that I don't even have a filter that they might be unsafe. But I know now to ask my family and my friends, "What are you fearful about?" Instead of them coming back at me and saying that. It helps me to plan a little bit more. I loved what you said about listening to your intuition, and then if your intuition calls and says something's unsafe, get yourself out of that situation. Or use some of the tools that you have. I wonder how walking connects you to your intuition.
Polly: That's a good question! I don't know how to answer that.... perhaps YOU can help me answer that!
Nicole: I've just been pondering if that's been one of those unknown benefits of walking ---that it slows us down enough to be able to not only hear it, because I think we hear it often --- it's what you said, which is listening to it and trusting it. I've been pondering that question and not necessarily having an answer.
Polly: I get a number of people annually anyway that drop me an email or phone call and say, "I'm planning on doing a walk across the country or around the world, and could I sit down with you?" A couple have said they're getting no support at all from their family and "How do I deal with that?" I'm lucky to have had a very supportive family. A lot of people don't, necessarily. What I tell them is, in fact just what you said, "You have to respect that they are nervous about things. You've had your head around this for a long time and you've done the studying and you know you can do it and you know what it looks like. But they don't. They're hearing about it for the very first time. So obviously they have all those initial fears. The initial thoughts are in fact fears. They don't see the bigger picture. I said, "These are your loved ones. So you owe them explanations."
To a couple of them, I've said, "You know it's a good idea to almost form a contract with them, or a "Constitution," I called it. "This is an agreement between you and them. What are they nervous about? They're nervous about your safety. You will promise them that you will not go off with some guy that will promise you that you can play with his cute little puppies. This isn't a good idea."
You make that promise. You're going to take every opportunity to not be stupid. You are going to text them three times a day. It's much easier nowadays to be in touch like that. It wasn't really for me. You will make this promise to them, and that promise to them, and in exchange you want their support. But you have to understand why they're fearful. Make agreements with them to make them feel comfortable. It's worked well for them, when they've done that.
There is a group, called the Thirty-Two Hundred Club, of all these people who have walked across America. I don't think there are enough people that have walked around the world to make that a group. There was one time when a lot of people got on a phone call. It was a big conference call for people who have walked across the country, want to walk across the country, or are in the middle of it. And everyone could ask others questions. So there was probably 40 people on this phone call. One of the questions someone asked, who really wanted to walk across the country but hadn't started yet, and addressed to all of the people who had completed it --- they said, "What is your experience with people doing you harm? Getting into dodgy situations, etcetera?" And not one person had anything bad to say. That really is quite telling, about really a fear factor. Is it valid? I think, yes, it's valid, and you just don't make stupid moves. But it also shouldn't shy you away. Because the fact of the matter is, most people are pretty good people and want to help. That's primarily who you're going to bump into. So if you do that, with not being stupid, your chances are pretty good. "
Nicole: It reminds me that Tim Frees, too, is part of our walking community and he always has a saying that --- and he walks almost every day as well --- he says, "I walk because good people walk. And if they weren't good, they'll be good in a mere 30 seconds of starting to walk." I would love to know how we can support you, and help you in your journey.
Polly: I'll give you a personal one and then a broader one. One is, if you know anyone who is planning a walk across a state, a country, the world, please have them talk to me first. It really is so beneficial. It's almost like you can take a big jump forward, a big head start, if you learn some lessons from experience. So I will have that invitation until the day I die. I feel almost like the matriarch now of long walkers (laughs).
If anyone wants to join the 21-Day Life at 3 Miles per Hour Challenge. I think it's healthy. I've gone and signed up for it. And Nicole, I think you could give a little more information on that. If everyone could join that and really see the benefits and spread the word. We're creating a movement here.
Nicole: It's the 21-Day Life at 3 Miles per Hour Walking Challenge on KindSpring, and it starts next Saturday (Aug. 15, 2015). We're just seeding ideas about how to integrate a little more mindful walking into everyone's life, wherever they are.
Polly: It's kindspring.org
Deven: You've actually inspired me to join the challenge.
Polly: Slow it down from that running you're doing (Laughter).
Deven: Slow it down, and you might run into more exciting things if you just slow it down and let it unfold.
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