The Boot Cleaning Ceremony (Podcast 586)

by | Aug 21, 2017 | Musings, Podcast | 8 comments

On July 8 this year, almost three weeks after returning from Namibia, I cleaned my boots. So what? I can almost hear you saying, but to me, this is always a relatively deep, thought provoking, experience, which I’d like to explain today.

When I started hiking in the early nineties, I had a policy that no matter how tired I was, I would clean and wax my hiking boots as soon as I got home from a trip. It was my way of paying respect to perhaps one of the most important tools we use, our footwear.

Twenty-seven years on, I go through a similar process every time I get back from a trip, although no longer on the same day, and over the years, this has come to mean so much more to me than the simple act of removing dirt from my boots. Before you think I’ve gone totally insane and hit the stop button or close your browser, bear with me as I walk you through my thought process. It might come to mean something to you too if it doesn’t already.

Point of Closure

These days I find that I am leaving my boots in our doorway in my Tokyo apartment after a trip until I have finished all of the tasks that I feel are important to work through after I return home. This includes backing up my images, catching up on the email that I have stacked up while traveling, processing any print orders that might have come in while I was away, and inputting all of the receipts from the trip and other payments and regular business expenses that came in while I was away.

Because it’s now important for me to finalize my image processing and selection process, that usually takes preference over cleaning my boots too. The day before I cleaned my boots, I posted just under 400 images from Namibia to my stock agency, and copied my favorites of these to my Finals catalog in Capture One Pro, and to Apple Photos, so they are now available across all of my devices.

So, by the time I am able to clean my boots, I’ve generally come to a point of closure on the tour or trip on which I used my boots. It’s an important juncture in time, and for me, now, feels like the perfect time to reflect on what I have and pay respect to the tools that I use.

Cleaning Camera Gear

Before we go on, I should also say that I generally clean my camera gear earlier than this. After the Namibia tour, I cleaned my camera gear about three days after getting home and put it into my humidity control cabinet. 

This is partly to keep it from getting the hot sticky Tokyo summer humidity inside, but also because I need to get it out of the way, and there is also a large element of paying respect to the gear involved, and this is similar to what I’ll describe with regards to cleaning my boots.

I should also mention that if for example, I should get sea spray on my gear, I wet a towel and rub my camera bodies and lenses down as soon as I get back to our accommodation while traveling. There are times like this when cleaning my camera gear is one of the highest priority tasks after a shoot, and it varies depending on the conditions that the camera has been exposed to.

Humbled by My Situation

Anyway, on July 8, as I sat down on my balcony in the 32°C (90°F) heat, with a bucket of water, my scrubbing brush, and my boots, I found myself in a very happy place. First I unlaced the boots and dropped the laces into the bucket. The dust from Namibia broke free of the boot laces as I drew them through the lace holes, and I swear for a moment I could smell the desert.

As I dipped the scrubbing brush into the water and started to dislodge the grit and dirt on the sole of my boots, the water grew darker, and my boots gradually got cleaner. I started to think how lucky I am to be able to use an entire bucket of water in such a way. The Himba people that were gracious enough to let us photograph them walk for miles to get a bucket of water, and I’m sure wouldn’t dream of using it to wash the dust from their boots.

The Boot Cleaning Ceremony

The Boot Cleaning Ceremony

Of course, they don’t wear boots, and in fact, never bathe either. Water is too precious to them to use it even for bathing. There are probably times of the year when the only water they can get for cooking and drinking is even dirtier than the water I would shortly pour down the drain. You can’t think of this stuff without being humbled, almost to the point of tears.

On July 7 I donated $160 to Unicef Japan to help them in a drive to provide safe drinking water for people in Africa and parts of Asia. When we visit the Himba people, we take provisions and water as a thank you for them letting us into their lives. There is so much more we can do to help though, and I felt this incredibly poignantly as I poured my bucket of dirty water away.

Keeping My Feet on the Ground

I’d like to explain more the thoughts that go through my head as I scrub my boots. Boots are important. They are the point where the rubber hits the road, as it were. I choose my footwear carefully and have a number of different kinds of boots depending on where I’m headed.

For Namibia, I wear relatively lightweight boots, but I select boots over shoes, to protect my ankles from the remote but real possibility of being bitten by a snake and much more realistic risk of being bitten by mosquitos and other insects. The sole of my boots for Namibia and other warm countries is also important to giving me grip, and literally keeping my feet firmly on the ground. They are an important tool in enabling me to do my job and return home safely.

Symbolically though, during my boot scrubbing sessions, I always feel humbled by the fact that I am able to do this job and see the amazing places that I’ve seen over the last seven years. I’m reminded of the need to keep my own feet on the ground figuratively, as well as physically. I think I’m a realist and don’t allow myself to get ahead of myself, but this often crosses my mind as I scrub my boots.

Paying Respect to my Tools

One of the main things that I think about, as I mentioned earlier, is that cleaning my boots is a way of paying them respect for helping me to do my job. This is probably one the effects that living in Japan for the past 26 years has had on me, but I feel that if we don’t show respect for the things that help us to be who we are, there may come a point when we stop being able to be who we are.

If I was to leave my boots dirty and embark on another tour in them, I’d feel as though my disrespecting them might somehow cause something bad to happen. In a Feng Shui sense, there is probably something unlucky about leaving uncleaned boots in the entrance to a house too. In the past, I’ve cleaned my boots and then something great happened that very afternoon! I’m only suspicious when it suits me, but some coincidences are harder to ignore than others.

Putting Things into Perspective

It’s not really the fear of something bad happening that drives me though. Cleaning my boots after a trip really is an incredibly enjoyable experience for me. I may be easily pleased, but I generally save this job for a sunny day, be it warm or cold, and the world just seems to be alright for those few minutes, even though my thoughts sometimes drift towards things such as people without safe drinking water.

I actually feel fortunate to be in a position to think such deep thoughts as I do, even regarding something as mundane as cleaning my boots. This comes back to my feeling thankful for the life I’m fortunate enough to live, in addition to the fact that I’m being given experiences as profound as seeing first hand the hardship of living without readily available water.

The mear fact that many of the people listening to this live lives where we take clean running water for granted will hopefully also lead us to take action to try and improve the situation for less fortunate others that share this world with us.

Onwards and Upwards

Before we close, I’d like to just mention that what I’ve talked about today isn’t me trying to relay some kind of religious message. It’s just me, openly sharing my thoughts in the hope that they might be of interest to at least some of you.

For me, as I bring my nice clean boots back in from the balcony after allowing them to dry, and threading my laces back through their holes, I feel good about the experience and excited for the future. I feel as though I’ve completed one more big job, and I’m now ready to move on to my next big challenge.

I have a bunch of stuff to do in the office this summer, which I now feel ready to start, and in the back of my mind, I’ll also now start to look forward to the next chance I’ll get to wear my boots, which will on my Morocco Tour from the end of October (2017). It’s my hope my nice clean boots will once again carry me safely to foreign lands, and more importantly, bring me safely back home again to my family.

Namibia 2019

Join us on the 2019 Complete Namibia Tour! Details here:

Complete Namibia Tour 2019

Show Notes

Music by Martin Bailey


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  1. Lynne Bergbreiter

    This post made me smile and look back at all my wonderful travels.

    • Martin Bailey

      That’s great Lynne. Thanks for letting me know!


  2. Eric Bier

    I just ordered a boot brush! As a drought-stricken Californian, I will be careful with my water usage.

    Thank you.

    • Martin Bailey

      Hee hee, cool stuff Eric.

      I heard that you are having a hard time in California in recent years. You may need to keep your bucket of water to cook with at some point. (just kidding)

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. 🙂

  3. Gladys

    Thanks for another inspiring podcast Martin!
    Greetings from Amsterdam,

    • Martin Bailey

      You’re very welcome Gladys! Thanks for stopping by, and I hope all is well!


  4. Keith Walker

    It is often said that many photographers see and reflect upon the world in a manner which differs from other people. Your insightful comments strongly suggest that this is true

    Thanks for the podcast. It has brightened up a rather ironically damp Scottish evening!

    • Martin Bailey

      Hi Keith,

      I guess this is one reason why I love photography so much. It makes us much more observant and mindful.

      We’ve had a lot of rain here in Tokyo over the last month, resulting in the wettest August for over 40 years, but it’s back to hot and humid now, so a rainy Scottish evening sounds very appealing.

      Thanks for stopping by and for the comment Keith.



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