Approaching a complex journey, and deciding how to share it…

From Old Author

There is no right or wrong when it comes to embarking on a project like this. For ten years adventures (and the stories generated by them) starting out as a hobby (or an urge) and slowly they became my living, my lifestyle and a core part of my being.

old author image

But until now I haven’t travelled anywhere so complex. Softly tackling controversial issues like gun control in the States always attracted me especially when travelling in the South, but compared to this area of the Middle East gun control in the States is a black and white issue.

Here, there is grey everywhere. Or, if you’re in the West Bank, Zones A, B and C.

Leon and I agreed from the off that this was a chance to show a different side to the Middle East. A human story, unravelling as we walked. A chance for individuals and families to tell their stories far removed from the news headlines and stereotypes often pushed by global media and a chance for us to perhaps gain a little understanding of what happens (and is felt) on the ground.

““You spend a week in Jerusalem and you’re ready to write a book. A month, an article. And after a year you don’t know where to start.” ”

— David Landis, author of The Jesus Trail

We don’t yet know how the final product(s) of this story are going to turn out, or even what their starting point is. A book and a film? Probably? Maybe? This journey will take us through so many different regions, each with their own beauties and struggles, many unconnected with their neighbours. So all we can do is travel with fresh, open minds, and not pretend to be anything we’re not.

But what is important to us is that we share as we go. This means a little extra work. It means we have to balance experiencing the moment with compromising any situation or conversation in order to grab a camera or make notes.

Speaking for myself, I’m starting from scratch with this region, so I’ll be sharing as I learn from the absolute basics upwards – think substitute teacher cramming for tomorrow’s lesson the night before class.

This journey is called Walk the Masar, as Masar means path in Arabic. We’ve chosen several local walking trails to roughly guide us on this hike. The Masar Ibrahim Al-Khalil through the West Bank, the Jordan Trail in Jordan and the Sinai Trail in Egypt. We’re still talking about the final stages of our walk, but have built some flexibility into the whole concept so as to allow a story to develop that we feel deserves telling.

Leon and I will both be sharing this journey in our own way. Now and then, if we feel the other deserves it, we’ll share a post, but largely our feeds will be different, although our timeline will naturally be similar as long as Leon keeps up with me 🙂

It’s worth mentioning that In addition to the unavoidable conversation about politics and religion this is still a good old adventure at heart. We’re just two humans walking 1000 miles or so through an area new to both of us, and as well as opening up a new side of cultures that many following this trip will not be fortunate enough to experience on their own terms, we’ll also try not to neglect the simple side of things. Blisters, gear, logistics, statistics, maps, tricks of the ‘trade’ and our personal methods of travelling sans motor.

I’ll apologise only for my lack of culture and the almost certain mistakes I’ll make in phrasing, naming and choosing the right terms along the way (there are often so many options!).

So without further ado it’s time to continue walking. I hope you enjoy this slow journey as much as I hope we will, and along the way it would be great to hear your thoughts, experiences, or simply your feedback on how we’re doing.

Signing out, a few miles in…

The Beginning

From Old Author

We wake at 5.15am. We only went to sleep at 1. There’s very little light in our room, which is fine by me – I’d happily stay asleep in the darkness forever. I have to remind myself: that’s an unhelpful attitude. This should be exciting! I bang my head on the low bathroom door of the hotel room and swear loudly. It’s day one of my journey on the masar, and my first word is an expletive.

I put my t-shirt on backwards, and spend too long tying shoelaces. Who designed laces to be so difficult? It’s already nearly 6. Where did all those minutes go? Time has a habit of running away at the most inopportune of times. I’m so very tired.

My bag is packed from the night before so I jam my toothbrush in the top, sling a video-camera round my neck and step out the door. I bang my head again. My second word of the day is worse than the first.

Outside, dawn has draped rays of light over the buildings in front of our hotel, dappling the street under my feet with golden spots. For a big city, it’s quiet out here. There’s a main road close by but the din of engines is so far just a background hum. There are people around but everyone is sticking to the periphery at this hour, scuttling along the inside of pavements with collars pulled high and scarves low against the cool of morning.

Some friends are waiting for us at the entrance – we say hello, and the fresh air and company brings with it a wave of relative alertness. For the first time today I take a proper look at Dave. I’m going to see him every day for the next quarter of a year – that’s a long time to spend with anyone. He’s wearing a ridiculously lumpy backpack and holding orange sticks that look like ski poles. That’s funny! I’m nearly ready to start.

Just 100 metres away from us is the Damascus Gate – one of eight main entrances to the Old City of Jerusalem. Beyond that, probably less than half a kilometre from where I sway under the weight of my pack is the Haram ash-Sharif, or Temple Mount. It is home to some of the holiest sites in Islam, Christendom and Judaism. That would be an auspicious place to begin any walk, especially so one that will pass through a city and a region that often seems defined and divided by faiths. Yet it’s too much – at least for right now. I can’t handle that level of spirituality at 6am, and certainly not before I’ve had coffee. Instead, we choose to start our walk from the hotel doorway, looking out at a bus stop. It’s a very fine hotel and, low doorways aside, a very comfortable one. But more than anything it’s a part of our story, much more so than sites of Abrahamic faiths. We are not pilgrims at the end of our journey. We are just setting out, and we don’t need to saddle ourselves with weight of expectation. If we want this walk to succeed, we have to make it our own; to seek out the stories that mean the most to us. For that reason, the hotel doorway will do just fine as a start line.

We finish taking photos, and there’s an unspoken agreement that it’s time to go. I don’t know who starts first, but suddenly we’re walking. Which was the first step? I don’t remember. Or, when I think about it, care. What matters is that we’ve begun.

1000 miles lie ahead of us. Not every one will be memorable, but many will stick with me for years to come – I know this from experience. This year I’ve spent far too many months at a desk. Too many nights at my laptop; too much of my energy has been sucked into a screen and spat out as emails or Facebook statuses. The world – the real world – is waiting. It’s right here, right now as we walk – by the Old City walls as we waddle past, and by the street vendor selling bread and za’atar. It’s over the crest of the Mount of Olives, down in the checkpoint by the Separation Barrier and in the falafel shops of Al-Eizariya. It’s in the rain that I’d rather not have, but which comes anyway, and it’s in the sweat that runs down my back from the heavy pack. It’s clear in the hundreds of people who shout greetings at us (“Hello!” “How are you?” “My name is?”)

We are wet, warm and walking. We are on the masar, following a mazy network of trails that will lead us further away from anything predictable or certain. Our life will exist in the twenty kilos that we haul onto our shoulders each morning, and in the people and places that fill the hours until we sleep again. Ours days are what we make of them. We have begun!

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As was previously own by a travel blogger, so I decided to share some of his posts here. Have a look.

Post 1: People versus Politics (written on 24th Nov’15)

When asked to think of the Middle East, what comes to mind? Deserts and princes; camels and fairytales? Perhaps.

Ancient citadels on rocky outcrops and sleek new cities, petrodollars glinting out from the glass-walled skyscrapers? Maybe.

The Taliban, Al-Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS (IS, ISIL, Da’esh)? Sadly, this is all too often most common, at least among those who have never been to the area.

Politics, dictators, terrorism – the unholy triumvirate of reportage from the Middle East. The rise, fall and brutality of such things form my earliest memories of the region, listening from a distance as I was growing up in rural Northern Ireland (we loved hearing about bad guys worse than our own.) Those far off desert lands seemed simply to be a place where awful wars happened sporadically, and occasionally the USA had to go intervene to try and make it better. There was never (in my memory) another side presented – it was all too possible to forget, or not even think, that there might be a majority of very ordinary, peace-loving people there.

{As an aside, and a useful lesson on perspective – in my early days of travelling I once found myself stuck in a lengthy airport queue in Doha, and I began to chat with the two men either side of me. They were a Yemeni and a Somali, and they joked that I must be used to queuing coming from England. I corrected them, mentioning Northern Ireland. “My goodness!” one said. The other looked aghast. “But isn’t that place terribly dangerous?”}

I’m lucky now to have travelled quite widely in certain parts of the Middle East, and to have had any misconceptions truly and utterly vanquished. It’s an overwhelmingly beautiful and hospitable place; I’m now planning my third expedition there in as many years and I recently moved to Gulf- to the quaint port city of Muscat, wedged picturesquely between jagged beige mountains and the pale blue of the Indian Ocean.

As a general rule I try to travel by human power when I can, and the world that I find on these journeys is awe-inspiringly friendly (perhaps because of the vulnerability of arriving on foot or by bike, or perhaps just because it’s a fact that most people will go out of their way to help a stranger in need.) Recent trips in Oman and Iran left me convinced that, despite stiff competition, the Middle East is perhaps the friendliest of all places on a generally already very friendly earth (I won’t comment on whether Arab or Persian hospitality wins out though- that’s too close to call.)

I’ve been lucky to have had all these enlightening personal experiences. Yet I can’t recall the last time I heard a positive story from anywhere in the Gulf, or the Levant, or Iran, or North Africa, or anywhere close by – at least not in mainstream media. This journey that Dave and I are proposing is a conscious effort to try and find (and share) a different narrative. We will walk the trails, wadis, canyons and deserts around the Dead Sea; wandering amongst some of the most impressive landscapes on earth, and between cultures that lay claim to being the earliest hotbeds of civilisation. It’s a chance to travel slowly, to see the sights and meet the people on our route (people who share the same values as I do, as most of us do; people who want to work hard,  look after their families, have fun.)

In our digitised, technologically enabled world, we can feel like we are more connected to the rest of the world than ever before with 24/7 global news delivered straight to the tiny computers in our pockets. Yet that connection is often misleading – the riches of our planet are far too great to be reduced to the contents of a reporter’s dispatch (then skim-read by tired commuters through a 4-inch screen.) To understand the world to any real degree we must travel in person and feel the hot winds of the Sahara in our hair, or the wet brush of an Amazonian vine on our face (or the enormous blood-filled blister obscuring at least three of our toes – you get my point.) We must not be fooled into thinking that the world is small – I have spent years of my life walking and cycling on it, and I can report truthfully that it’s reassuring (exhaustingly!) vast, beyond all comprehension that I can muster.

So to come back to the point – this journey will actively attempt to not be political. It takes place in a part of the world where geopolitics dominates our understanding, and so a backdrop must be set. But the land, and many of the people, have been there much longer than the conflict. This is why Dave and I look at the route by region rather than country and why I think that the best way to depoliticise a place is by humanising it – by giving a voice to those who rarely get the opportunity to be heard, but who represent that rarest of things in storytelling from the Middle East – normality.

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