I'll be honest: I'm not a gym person. Believe me; I've tried to be. In college, my friends and I would hit the elliptical machines on weekends, but looking back, I think what motivated me to do it was the fact that we would invariably head to the dining hall afterward and treat ourselves to marathon multi-course brunches. However, without an edible incentive -- or an approaching beach trip -- I find the idea of skiing in place relatively unappealing.
It's not that I don't like to be active. I love biking, playing team sports and going for extended walks. For me, the critical difference between these activities and sweating atop a stationary gym machine is that they involve tangible progress. Teams work together toward common objectives; when you bike or walk, you actually go somewhere. There are enough distractions to make you forget you're working out.
When I was in Chile as an exchange student, I bought a gym membership and went twice, which my former host family makes fun of me for to this day. By the time I arrived in Quito two years later, I had come to terms with my aversion to mechanized individual exercise and quickly found another way to stay in shape: trekking the city's notoriously steep hills and staircases.
Quito's altitude did not make this easy. It was several months before I was able to make it more than a few blocks uphill without getting winded. As time passed, however, I found I was covering extended distances with increasing ease. I would walk for hours. I would snake along the western edge of the city into the historical center with its colonial churches, adobe houses and flower-filled balconies. I would climb through the neighborhoods -- like my own -- that clung to the urban foothills of the Pichincha volcano and was always rewarded with sweeping panoramic views of the city.
The vistas weren't the only payoff. As one might imagine, hiking at high altitudes makes your body work hard. This may be why I found myself to be something of an athletic powerhouse during the weeks after I ended my 14-month stint in Ecuador and returned to Minnesota. Shortly after I'd arrived Stateside, some friends and I went rock climbing at Wisconsin Dells. To my disbelief, I -- who had made only a few unimpressive attempts to scale things before -- was a rock climbing machine. The guide said I was the first woman he'd seen make it to the top of the course, which -- to me -- hadn't even seemed that hard. Evidently, my body had gotten so used to workin' it on scant mountain oxygen that doing anything at sea level was a walk in the park.
My superstar days didn't last long, but I will never forget everything I learned about Quito while walking. I discovered neighborhoods I never would have seen had I remained tied to bus routes. I witnessed close up the tremendous diversity the city has to offer in everything ranging from culture to ethnicity to architecture. Once, I met two little girls who recruited me into their elaborate sidewalk chalk project for over an hour. And every time I returned home after a walk, I felt more comfortable and at home in Quito than ever before.
I walk in Santiago, too. Sometimes I leave home with a route mapped out, while on other occasions I simply wander. Occasionally what starts out as a quick stroll down the block turns into an hours-long odyssey that leaves my feet in pain and my eyes glutted with new sights.
For example, last night V. and I set out to grab some quick dinner near his student pension. We started walking south and, somewhere along the line, implicitly decided not to stop. We walked the entire stretch of Parque O'Higgins, then turned east near Franklin and made a couple loops around the tucked-away Plaza Huemul with its old stone theater. We continued south into San Miguel, where we met an adorable four-year-old at a playground and played a game of tag that left me with a scab on my toe (flip flops had not been the best footwear choice). Once I was all bandaged up, we kept walking, this time at my insistence: If we made it to Metro Lo Vial, we would have officially crossed onto the "Santiago Sur" plane of the Metro map, which I had decided was a milestone.
We made it all the way to Departamental. By the time we got there (around 11 p.m.), we were so hungry that we staggered into a Domino's and ordered a medium pizza each. After chowing down, we hopped on a bus that dropped us off about a 20-minute walk from the pension. I don't know whether the stray dog that accompanied us the entire way was more interested in our company or our leftovers.
I probably would have burned more calories sweating away on the elliptical for a much shorter period of time, especially when you take the pizza into account. But I'd take city streets over the gym any day. When you walk, you have direct contact with your surroundings, impossible when you’re observing them through a bus window or speeding underneath them on the Metro. You move slowly enough to take everything in. You can peer through windows and stop to talk. You can set your own route instead of following the programs on a machine. And, most importantly, you learn something new.