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The top of Mount Sinai

We have made it- the top of Mount Sinai, and the end of my 1500km journey on foot through the Middle East!

What an experience it's been. A heartfelt thanks to you all for following and encouraging me- I feel extremely privileged to have seen this part of the world in such an immersive way. I came here with a working theory that most people are good. This trip has reinforced that no end. This is one of the most maligned parts of our world, yet in reality I've found it to be perhaps the friendliest, kindest and -yes- peaceful places to spend time. It's not perfect- of course not. There are lots of things to disagree with here. The key though is that on a human level, it's filled with people who share the same values as anywhere else- people looking to work hard, have fun and co-exist happily. I can't overstate this enough.

Keep an eye for more blogging, more pictures, more films and eventually also a book to come out of this too. There are many stories from here that remain untold...

Thanks again - for now, from the roof of Egypt, over and out!

 

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Humans of the Masar

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Humans of the Masar

"Life is hard. I've been working since I was 6, and it's always hard. But now I have some money, so I bought this farm out here in the countryside. Every morning I drive here from Amman, and work for 3 hours. I grow lemons, grapefruit, watermelon. They're not for selling- I just give them to friends as a gift. After 3 hours here I go back home, have a shower and some breakfast, and go to my work. This is my routine. It's important to have a special place like this."

Nadal, countryside west of Amman - 16th February 2016

Nadal, countryside west of Amman - 16th February 2016


"There's gold in these hills! Treasure, everywhere. From Roman times, from Byzantine times. I've found lots of coins. And an amulet! I think it's very expensive. Next time you come back, bring one of those machines that makes a noise when it finds metal. Then we'll both be rich! If I was rich I'd buy a big house and sleep in the afternoons."

Yasser, Kuffrein - 18th February 2016

Yasser, Kuffrein - 18th February 2016


"I'm from Syria. I left in 2012 when things were getting too bad. This [Jordan] is home now. I don't think I'll be able to go back to Syria, although I would wish that. This place looks like my home did, but this is safe. Now I know these hills instead."

Shepherd, close to Wadi Hidan - 22nd February 2016

Shepherd, close to Wadi Hidan - 22nd February 2016


"You have walked here? From Umm Qais? Good, good. Good! Walking makes you strong. Your legs must be strong, eh? That's good! Keep walking. Jordan is very beautiful. It's good to go slow."

Bedouin, Wadi Mujib - 25th February 2016

Bedouin, Wadi Mujib - 25th February 2016


"A little while ago the wadi here flooded really badly. One family lost over 150 animals who got washed away. That was almost everything for them. Within a few days, the other families in the area had given 180 animals to them to replace those that were lost. That's how things work here- if somebody needs help, we help them. Charity is one of the five pillars of Islam, you know. It's also part of Bedouin life. We have a saying here- 'Give without remembering, Take without forgetting.' I wish more people would think like this."

Suleiman, Wadi Dana - 2nd March 2016

Suleiman, Wadi Dana - 2nd March 2016


“I’m ready to be famous. 'Mohammed of the Mountains.' That’s what they call me. I read about a lot of famous people and I think: I could do that. I’d suit it, you know. I’m really impatient for it. I just don’t know how to do it. This is my position for thinking. Someday I’ll figure it out and I’ll go do what I need to do. Insha’allah.”

Mohammed of the Mountains, Petra - 6th March 2016

Mohammed of the Mountains, Petra - 6th March 2016


"I like to sleep outside in the desert. Bedouin always like to be outside, day and night. I have been stung or bitten by 21 scorpions, 2 snakes, and something else. I forget what it was. I have a scar on my foot from the snake bite. But I don't mind. There are worse things in life that getting bitten by snakes. And it still means I get to sleep outside."

Suleiman, Desert south of Petra - 10th March 2016

Suleiman, Desert south of Petra - 10th March 2016


I don't like to walk on the flat ground. I prefer the mountains where there are rocks and trails. it's much more interesting. One time a tourist asked what made me happy about living in Wadi Rum. I told her: "I like to be able to sh*t where there's a good view or a sunrise."

Sulieman, Aqaba Mountain - 18th March 2016

Sulieman, Aqaba Mountain - 18th March 2016

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The Hills are Alive...

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The Hills are Alive...

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I’m lost in my own head. It’s been nearly two days since I saw another human. I’ve taken to watching beetles when I stop walking. London feels a long way away. 

Hours pass and I don’t notice. Things that impact upon me: hunger, heat, noise. Those three things are the only way into my world.

Suddenly the valley walls around me begin to sing. I wonder if I have finally gone crazy. Birds scatter from the crevices in the sandstone; one rock looks like a human skull, and the flying beasts emerging out of it are disconcerting. The sound though is beautiful - a human voice projecting out from the natural theatre the stone. Then an instrumental break; a flute solo. A chirpy tune starts up, high notes trilling their way back down the valley. I’ve lost interest in beetles now.

On the hilltop I see a figure; at first a silhouette, then features. It is a young man, sitting sidesaddle on a donkey. To the left side of his face he holds a metal tube and his eyes are closes as he concentrates. This is the source of my wilderness concert. 

The pace of the shepherd is slow. He plays his own soundtrack as he rides towards me, a Biblical flock of goats leading the vanguard. With the timing of a true professional he finishes his tune and jumps off to shake my hand. I tell him in bad Arabic that his playing was beautiful. He sidesteps the compliment. It all comes from the shababa, he says - his instrument. We drink tea and he plays some more. I try: I used to play the tin whistle pretty well. I try a jig on the shababa and embarrass myself. More tea is poured to cover the moment.

The pot empties and the piper leaves. I forgot to ask his name. He jumps back aside his donkey and begins to sing once more. A few minutes pass and he’s gone, over the far hillside. The echoes of his song slowly leave the valley in his wake.

I’m back where I was. Back to the beetles, and onwards down the valley.

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Time Travel in Petra

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Time Travel in Petra

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How many times has this picture been taken over the years? Or sketched, drawn, painted, or simply etched into memory?

Petra was the centre of a Kingdom- the bustling, busy hub for Nabatean caravan routes from Damascus to Aqaba, and Gaza to the Persian Gulf. It was built to impress, and now as then it still succeeds. The Nabateans have mostly faded from popular histories outside of their great masterpiece here, but this remains a testament to skill and purpose. 

Two things strike me from visiting- firstly, the aptitude they had for copying designs of the other great cultures of the world- a walk through Petra is like a rock-cut version tour of Athens, Rome and the far-east- and secondly, the incredible architectural precision achieved over 2000 years ago. 

The Treasury (pictured) is the figurehead for a visit to the site these days, but even more interesting (to me) are the early representations of the gods of the Nabateans. They take symmetry and balance to a new level- the first deities here were perfect cubes, lacking any human features. Perhaps the gods were assumed to not need to stoop to mimicking the look of mere mortals, or perhaps geometry and equilibrium was the purest form of worship. Maybe someone knows; I don't. But I enjoy guessing.

Petra is best visited with imagination: for what it was like when 30,000 inhabitants looked out from their caves on the passing trade, and also now imagination for all the secrets that are still hidden under the sands, or that have been lost to time. 

It is a place that lives up to expectation. Perhaps that's the greatest compliment I can pay it...

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Mahmoud

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Mahmoud

It's been a long day- the second longest of my journey so far. I've lost track of distance and time. My GPS hasn't- 37km over 11 hours. A more accurate summary: a long way, over a long time.

I've climbed over 1000 metres and find myself on a windy plateau. The still dead silence of the lower reaches of the valleys now only exist in my memory. I put on two more layers and walk along a road. A road! There are cars and people again. The novelty is intoxicating.

There is much that is new, but there is also a lot that is now missing. For example: trees, shelter. Isolation. Easy camping spots. In fact, there's nothing like that here- a single track road through a flat landscapes with scattered houses on either side.

I could put up my tent anywhere and it wouldn't be a problem, but I would be disturbed by curious passers-by. My safety instinct also isn't happy with the notion of such blasé pitching.

Dusk has crept in while I wander and think. Time is short. I amble past a house, and a man in a checkered scarf and smart shoes nods a hello. By force of habit, I take this as an invitation to ask if I can camp in his garden. "Where in my garden?" he asks. I point at a flat patch.

He inspects it, then says simply, "no." He walks back towards his house and I follow to apologise for asking. Before I can speak, he parts the curtains of an outhouse to reveal a living-room set up inside. "This is where my friends and I hang out. You should sleep here instead."

My new friend is called Mahmoud, and his sons are summoned to meet me. They shake my hand and practice their best 'Hello.' The youngest skips off and returns with a jug, which he holds to his chest and looks patiently up at me.

"You are tired," observes Mahmoud. "Please hold out your hands for washing. After that, take off your shoes and my son will wash your feet. You've had a long day."

I cannot remember the last time someone offered to wash my feet. Almost certainly never. The gesture is so grandly Biblical that it's overwhelming to me, but to Mahmoud and his sons: it's just what you do. Someone has arrived who is tired, so you help them. You do what you can to make them comfortable. It is part of their Islamic faith, and it is part of the Arab culture. It is also an example of their personal humanity, which shines through profoundly.

To walk is to be constantly humbled; by landscapes, by emotions, by people. By gestures and kindnesses. Today is no different.

#walkthemasar


Follow my journey via www.walkthemasar.com
Check out The Jordan Trail at www.jordantrail.org

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The gifts...

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The gifts...

I am constantly being bestowed with gifts on this trip. Water here, fruit there; biscuits, bread, Pepsi. Mostly the offerings are consumable, but not always. Prayer beads, soap and books have also come my way. Once, a pair of trousers was proffered. I declined; they were still being worn by the benefactor.

Sometimes though the thought is good, but the details slightly off. This morning, for example: a half drunk can of beer with a straw. The good: it was still chilled. The bad: it was 9am. 

That's not to say I poured it all away- that would be rude...

#walkthemasar

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To Start from the Top

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To Start from the Top

 

This journey began as a concept. To walk around the Middle East, seeing things that perhaps before have gone unseen. Looking for normality, positivity, humanity - the things that connect all humans around the world, but that are too easily forgotten when all we hear and see from certain sources is war, terror and fear.

After that, it became a joint effort. Dave and I planned and schemed, focused, laughed, let excitement and nerves build. We set off from Jerusalem and walked 250 kilometres together before fate/chance/destiny/bad luck intervened and Dave’s left foot cracked under the strain of a heavy pack and the hills of the West Bank of the Jordan Valley.

We broke for a month before realising that I’d be continuing alone. Control and decisions had been wrestled from us by unchangeable circumstances, so to rally against this I restarted the walk at the very top of Jordan - a few days north of where Dave and I had travelled. This was a new chapter, and it felt proper to begin it somewhere with gravitas. 

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I arrive by car at Umm Qais - as far north as I could go - on a cold morning. That's it for motors for a while. I hope. Fat raindrops chase me down the old Roman roads of the ancient city that once sat on the site. Behind the columns of the main street lies a vista of Lake Tiberius, impressive beyond words even in this weather. Ahmad, the on-site guide from a museum located in a refurbished Byzantine villa, points out the various places worthy of note. To the left of the lake is Israel. Or, to some, Palestine. To the right the Golan Heights. Again Israel, but to many here it’s important to continue to call it ‘Occupied Syria.’ The Yarmouk gorge is in front of us, and then beyond that, a few more kilometres, Syria proper. 100km further on, Damascus. Between here and there cities split in two between government forces and rebel soldiers. That terminology too is loaded. Nothing here is simply explained. 

Ahmad points to a distant bump beyond the lake. “Mount Hermon,” he says. Lebanon. “I was in Lebanon once, in the south, and I could nearly have cried. I could see Jordan. It was only 50 kilometres away, but to get home I had to go back to Beirut, then to Amman.” It’s not the only time I’ll hear this - throughout my journey south I’ll listen to that sentiment being echoed again and again by Jordanians, Palestinians, Syrians. This place used to feel so big and connected, they say. Jerusalem, Amman, Damascus - some even did them all in one weekend. Now everyone feels increasingly boxed in, especially Jordanians with bad news looming over just about ever border line they have.

Wide-eyed Palestinians join me to look out over a lost land from the Roman ruins. There is sadness here; that undeniable. But there’s so much more too. The pain and suffering has been reported, by others who can do much more justice to it than I can. I’m in search of something else. I leave town and head south, along a narrow, sloping valley. The rain continues and I speed downhill through lush, green mountains that look like Ireland. Maybe they don’t, but it doesn’t matter. I’m on my own, so I say they do, and it becomes true to me. 

Quickly I find myself boxed in by flash floods; the wadi is raging, and the country road washed away. I think about jumping across. Or I think about thinking about it. I’m almost certain that I’d drown, so I sit down and watch the torrent for a while instead. I have no option but to head back uphill and try my luck on the main highway. 

Cars stop and beep and drivers shout out the windows; my afternoon is a compilation of Doppler Effect Greatest Hits. I see a family who’s house is flooded, and speak to a man who is trying to help them rebuild their roof. ‘This family is very poor,” he says. “In the last rainstorm a lot of their house was washed away. I thought they would need help, so I tracked them down and offered to pay for a new roof. It working in some places, but now we need more money or the rest.” Why did he help, I ask. “Because they are poor and they needed it,” he replied.

The next day an orange sun pierces a sky bluer than blue, and I push my raincoat to the bottom of the bag in symbolic defiance. I climb out of the Jordan valley and into the mountains. The rainwater in my eyes has been replaced by sweat and I can’t find my hat. I’m still rusty. Soon I’ll know again where every belonging I own is. Each will have its place in the pack. To others it’ll be a smelly pile of grubby gear in a sack. To me it’ll become a finely tuned tool kit for life and work. I tie my scarf around my head like a Bedouin wannabe and walk on.

Shepherds stop to say hi and offer me tea. I go through the spiel - who I am, where I’m from, why I’m walking. With each recital my Arabic accept gets a little better. A tall, dark herder called Feras makes me tea and points at places in the hills that he likes. They all look the same to me, but to him each has a story and a memory. Why does he like this life, I ask. “I don’t like to live among the people all of the time. Here there is space. It’s better for me. I go to town when I need things or want to see people. Then I come back here to the hills.”

I walk for a couple of days with Eisa, a local guide who opened up a lot of trails in the region. He smiles broadly at everyone we meet and points out everything we pass. “These are figs,” he says. “These ones pomegranate.” “This man is building a new house.” “Here’s an old water mill - people used to come from all over and spend days here using it before everything became automated.” Much of it washes over me but some sticks - the willow trees, the springs, the herbs that are good for tea and the others that are good for ailments. 

Villagers stop in their tracks when they see us and, specifically, me. They ask Eisa what’s going on, and to each he replies the same. “Come with us and see! You have your things? Your sleeping bag and boots? Come on? Ta’al!” They never do, but they leave smiling.

I climb more hills than I can count, and walk along lonely valleys in the shadow of the hills. In a small town a man called Yassar invites me in for felafel. “There’s gold here,” he says. “I haven’t found any yet, but I really would like to. If you see any, you let me know!” I promise to keep my eyes peeled.

At night I pitch my tent wherever is convenient. It feels now like the Mediterranean - but for the faces and voices I could be in Italy or Spain. To begin with I try to hide my camp in the olive groves, but after a while this seems pointless. I don’t aim for brashness, but I start to choose the nicest spots while making sure they are just far enough away from roads and houses that no-one is likely to find me unless they are looking. Or so I think. One evening I am curled up inside my tent on a small rise above a ruined village when I hear footsteps.

Afwan,” says a voice. “Excuse me. I am Ali the farmer. I’m here to bring you tea.” I poke my head out and in the darkness stands a small man in an overcoat and keffiyeh with a silver platter. On it rests a blackened kettle and two freshly washed cups. We drink and practice each other’s language, then sit in silence and watch the stars burst through the night sky.

This becomes my life. 

I walk and talk; sweat and breathe. I clack my hiking poles together at barking dogs, and I drink deeply when I find a spring. I look to the sky regularly for more rain, and I scan hilltops when I hear the greetings of a shepherd. 

I head south at 3 miles an hour. Onwards, along the masar.

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Keep following live on Facebook | Twitter | Instagram

I'm walking mostly on the Jordan Trail - read more about it here. If you'd like to organise your own journey in the North of Jordan, I recommend contacting Experience Jordan who can help facilitate. 

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A view to the south

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A view to the south

A view to the south. Today Jordan is expressing itself mostly in greens and blues; the lush vegetation of the irrigated hillsides, and the water, sky and mountains beyond.

This afternoon I'll walk down to the dam- a drop of 300 metres- then back up into those far hills that fade into paler shades of blue on the horizon.

I don't know where I'll sleep. That's just fine. Where would the fun be in having it all planned out?

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Thoughts of a solo walker

Tonight I am tired. So tired that all I can think about is lying down and closing my eyes. It's all self-inflicted, of course- I choose my schedule, and I choose how to approach it. And this week I've chosen overload.

(Alongside the stories I'm finding on the masar, I'd also like to share some of the other aspects of this journey. This is a trip that moves at 3mph and relies only on the contents of a backpack to continue, and these are some of the ups, downs and thoughts that come from walking alone through unfamiliar places...)

I've never been very good at pacing myself. Mentally now I'm drained from trying to process everything that's going on around me every minute of every day. I try and capture it all - remember it, write it down in my notepad, take a picture of the scene, film it extensively. My synapses work overtime in the background trying to decide, if all of these actions are not possible simultaneously, which is the most appropriate or useful way to record the experience? How do I accurately represent what's happening without adversely affecting it by documenting it? This is meta-storytelling at its most brain-aching.

Physically too, it's grinding. It's been some time since I last hiked this hard, through terrain this tough. Part of me still enjoys the visceral nature of the challenge- I like to know that I can do it. And I can do it. 35+ kilos in my pack, powering up and down slopes from sun rise to set, resting only minutes at a time and rationing water in military fashion. There's satisfaction there, and a flicker of encouragement to push even more. But it definitely interests me less than it did 5 years ago. It used to be such a thrill to go further and faster and higher, again and again and again until I reached a limit where my body could simply not withstand any more. I did quite a bit of that- it was daft, of course, but I learned a lot about myself by finding out where my limits were (or are.)

These days, I can mostly get the same physical satisfaction from an intense 10k run around a London park. Perhaps I've finally put myself in enough ludicrous situations that I no longer feel the need to prove myself to anyone (even myself.) This journey, by nature, will include some sweating up hills and hobbling down the other side, but it shouldn't be about trying to show how tough I am or am not. Conceptually, at least, it's much more than that.

My day ends as the sun drops down over the Dead Sea- the salt adds a dense clarity to the reflection (or so I think.) Either way, it makes me pause to breathe it in. (I take one picture too, and jot down a quick note in my diary, lest I forget the feeling.)

It's a beautiful spot, out here in this most ancient of landscapes with only the fading light for company. It can also be a lonely place. The fine line between solitude and loneliness is territory constantly requiring re-navigation by the solo traveller. It's been a few days since I had a proper, solid human interaction. Waving wildly at a far off shepherd doesn't really count.

It's important to be comfortable with one's own company- it's a good test of sanity and self-assurance. I find that, alone, there is no escape from the depths of human emotion. Whatever is in there, lodged in dark recesses of memory or thought, it all eventually gets dragged out. Walking solo is the most intense, unremitting, all-encompassing form of self-therapy that I've ever found.

All mental processes here come with a more extreme, manic edge to them. They can spiral rapidly. If one starts the day feeling positive, it can often end high as a kite on life. Good thoughts breed more of the same. Start low though, and it's downhill from there. I first realised this when I was hiking for 7 months in China and had a lot of time to let life rattle round in my head. I discovered that it was not only possible but essential to actively try and direct emotional wellbeing through positive thinking. If you don't get a handle on it, it can be crushing.

So tonight I will put up my tent and tell myself how lucky I am to be here. That's true. I can sit down, make coffee and rest aching muscles. I'm likely to sleep for 10 hours, then wake to natural light piecing through my tent at sunrise. I even have two flavours of instant noodles. All of these things keep me in the positive spiral for now.

Tomorrow looks like it'll be similarly remote, so I'll have more time alone with my thoughts. I expect to pass through some more vast, spectacular landscapes and eventually, in a couple of days, I'll reach a town where I can collapse into a cheap hotel room and treat myself to a shower and a kebab.

That too is good news, for as much as I love the wilderness, I also like the occasional luxury of civilisation. Hot water and a greasy sandwich are the stuff of dreams right now.

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In a different time and place

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In a different time and place

My tent is up with the last light of the day. There are a few farms scattered around the hills, but they're unlikely to be concerned with my tiny orange bedroom. Even if they are, I'm not worried about it being a problem for anyone. Last time I was 'spotted', the farmer came out in the dark to introduce himself and bring me tea ("I am Ali. If you need anything in the night- like more tea maybe- you shout for me, okay? Shout like this: Hey! Aliiii! Okay?")

When the sun finally fades I'll be able to see the lights of Jerash through one valley and Amman from another. Just a matter of kilometres away are millions of people doing millions of jobs; hustling, bustling, rushing. Traffic jams and business calls; crowded restaurants and overflowing malls.

In a different time and different place I would enjoy that pace of life, but not right now. I've adapted to the speed of the masar, and all I want to do now is sleep. I'll read or write to pass the time until it's acceptable to call it a night (8.30pm, if you're interested.)

It's not really rock 'n roll, but I like it...

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I am a strange sight

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I am a strange sight

I am a strange sight.

I am, without doubt, an abnormality here.

It's an unusual sensation, to expect to be the oddest part of the day for everyone one meets.

At times it is a joy to look forward to- the promise of people, conversation, food and change. The cups of tea brought quickly without solicitation; the directions given in earnest and the refusal to accept any money for the felafel I've gorged on. Thankfully, most frequently, this is the scenario I find myself in. I suppose that's why I'm here. This is where I find the stories that I love, and where I make the memories that last longest.

Occasionally though it can feel like a hassle; after many, bruising miles through hills and wadis I have found myself at times dreading the attention I'll garner when I enter a village. The questions, the looks, the hands on my arm telling me that no, my destination is not this way. The explanation that is required, and the mental strength needed to pluck an appropriate Arabic word from the recesses of memory. It can be too much for a tired mind to handle- the appeal of a quiet tent out in the hills quickly becomes an aspirational dream to clutch at beyond the crowds of enquiring faces.

These are the thoughts and emotions of the walker; the competing desires to converse and learn, but also to find peace and solitude after physical exertion.

I like it, I admit. I love it, really. I love the people and the stories, but I also love the challenge of managing energy and emotion and enthusiasm at 3 miles an hour. I like it even when I don't like it. It feels like a positive thing to experience. I don't know if that's true or not, but I've told myself it is, and so it feels true.

This is what I have been thinking about this morning because I've had a lot of time to myself. Later, I'm going to try and name 100 songs by Bob Dylan, with extra points if I get them in the right order according to each album.

Variety is king!

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Back on the trail…

He’s off! As strange as the feeling is to see Leon hit the Masar once more, this time without his annoying little English friend in tow, I’m so excited for him.

Now my strict 1000-mile rules have departed and the landscape (not geographically) has changed because of the unforeseen delay in this journey, Leon has decided to start in Um Qais in northern Jordan, just to see a little more of the country. In a couple of days he’ll be wandering right past the spot where my foot decided that it didn’t want to work anymore, and from then onwards he’ll be covering new ground. 

For the time being Leon will be alone or travelling with locals guides from The Jordan Trail, although we’re lining up some potential walking partners for future sections of the journey so he doesn’t get lonely. 

For now, stay tuned to Leon’s Facebook page and Instagram for updates as he starts his walk south.


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When the path ends...

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When the path ends...

This isn't an easy post to write.

"Three weeks" nodded the doctor. "I want you to keep weight off your foot for three weeks, and then you can start walking again."

"Are you sure? It's really that serious?"

"Clear as day," he said, prodding the the white smudge on my MRI, "we have a stress fracture..."


Leon and I were closing in on a month in the region, and although only 160 miles had passed underfoot we'd already completed a key section of our journey by walking from Jerusalem to Jericho, and then following the Masar Ibrahim through the West Bank.

We'd crossed into Jordan a few days earlier, buoyed by our experience in Palestine and were looking forward to plunging south, almost the length of Jordan on foot to the Red Sea. 

I was struggling the last day before crossing the border. A few extra kg of supplies in the pack, my left achilles was moaning and the calf was stiffening. It's all part of the territory, twinges and niggles come and go when you're on the move every day and I was treading carefully, waiting for the pain to pass as quickly as it had arrived.

Not a day had passed during our hike through the West Bank without the hills of Jordan rising ominously into our peripheral vision to the east. And all of a sudden we were there, climbing into the foothills following Wadi Siir away from Pella.

We rounded a bend to a lovely sight. A tree overhung the Wadi bed. Tumbled boulders all around waited patiently for us to pass by, and the sun filled the scene with warmth. "Let's catch this" said Leon, setting up his camera and then asking me to walk through the shot.

I approached a couple of rocks and used them as steps. One, then the other. "Ah, man, would you mind coming back and doing that again," Leon called out, just as I put my left foot down, a sharp pain shooting through ankle and up into my lower leg. "Ooof," I exhaled.

He took that as mild dissent toward the request for repetition, a cross to bear we'd both suffered through for years as punishment for deciding to film ourselves. "Stop moaning" he grinned. I obeyed, quietly returned to the camera, spun 180 and took the steps again.

The ankle wasn't right, somehow.

We paused shortly afterwards, sprawled on rocks, gulping on water. The wadi had kept us in shade for much of the morning but the sun was finally finding its height and despite the steep sides of our valley, more frequent angles to beat down on these two walkers.

The only discomfort of what was a beautiful, temperate day was the weight of our packs. Depending on water and food supplies, we were bearing between 20kg and 30kg at any given time. With my achilles and calf still niggling from the day before Leon had already taken some weight from me in the form of our tripod, but this new pain through the ankle and shin was new and uncomfortable, and more concerning for me, it was a pain I hadn't felt before. More than just a muscle or a tendon.

Over the course of the next hour I found it harder and harder to bear weight. The walking poles helped a little but I had slowed to a painful, slow limp and the frustration was palpable. The impact on our enjoyment and general wellbeing of effectively adding another third of our body weight had been obvious from the beginning of the trip, and although my situation still felt temporary it forced conversion into what we'd need to compromise in order to lessen the weight of our packs.

Dumping our camping gear and half the camera equipment, then buying a donkey to carry water and food became the dream. Eventually we reached the town of Beit Eidris as a crackling call to prayer began, and we filled our bags with food with the decision to head into the hills above town to find camp, then have a long night of rest before judging our next move.


The sun went down by 4:30pm and we giggled to ourselves as we bid each other goodnight and slipped into our tents before most decent toddlers were hitting the hay. 

15 hours later we were up again, well rested and packed up. Two and half miles of horribly slow limping on uphill road later, enough was enough. "Buddy, this isn't taking any weight, we need to have this looked at."

We marked our position on the map and hitchhiked to the nearby town of Orjan. Rather than immediately drive the 80km south to Amman and a doctor, we opted to give rest one more shot. Every minute not spent on the road was a palpable lack of distance travelled, and a round trip to the capital would eat into at least a day or two. Our schedule, although manageable, was tight. So I went to bed and only ventured out for the toilet and dinner at our guesthouse.

After 27 hours horizontal I slipped on my walking boots and ventured outside. After 20 metres there was no let up from the ankle. Leon had been out for a walk and found me limping near to our room. I shook my head as he approached. We both knew what that meant.

Fast forward four days. Our new friend Amjad, a walking guide and member of staff at Experience Jordan who had been instrumental in setting up The Jordan Trail which we were (meant to be) walking on, had kindly offered to drive me to hospital to see a specialist. It took three separate visits over the weekend for an initial consultation, then an MRI and then a final diagnosis before reality hit. "We have a stress fracture."

I took a taxi across town to catch up with Leon and pretty fast we'd decided that there was no use spending our budget on hotels in Jordan for the best part of a month. I flew back to the UK the next day just in time for Christmas, and in the UK I still am.

My foot is in a stiff boot designed to minimise movement and promote healing. Two crutches are always nearby. I can take the boot off for showers and sleep, and by the end of last week I realised there hadn't been much improvement in my pain levels. I visited a GP and was told that I needed not three weeks in the boot, but typically between eight and ten, plus physio time to rehabilitate an ankle and foot not properly used for a while.

Damn.

It had taken Leon and I the best part of four years to find enough space to engineer a trip together. Once the idea of walking the Masar came about in the Spring of 2015 we plotted hard, shifted engagements and cancelled speaking gigs, thus creating a tight space in which this journey of 1000 miles on foot would be possible.

With an initial delay of a month brought on by the initial diagnosis of my foot injury we'd already started to shuffle schedules (and mental expectations) for how we could finish this journey. With potentially another two months of delay, this was starting to be impossible.

We both have rather odd lifestyles, which we wouldn't swap for anything. But when we choose to go on expedition it means income switches off. We don't bring in much from financial sponsorship and mostly rely on speaking engagements to put bread on the table, so while dedicating the initially agreed three and a half months meant loosing a decent chunk of income, it was perfectly acceptable because this journey was another brilliant story for us both to tell, and subsequently added value to our future lectures, film portfolios, and so on.

But another three months makes things very tricky. Having initially expected the trip to end by mid March, our Spring and Summer schedules had already started to fill and not even considering the excess desert temperatures in Jordan and Sinai if we ended up walking there in the Summer, the lack of clarity about my foot's healing time has forced us into a corner.

I have to look after my fitness, that's the bottom line. And with both of us having dedicated over half a year (along with plenty of other advisors, sponsors and friends also playing a part) to bringing this journey to fruition it's not worth totally giving it up.

So Leon is going to carry on alone and I'll continue to support the journey and the school's project we've been working on from afar. I'm obviously disappointed not to be able to continue on and am intensely jealous of the experiences Leon has ahead of him. At the same time, the experience I've had in Palestine has grown a fondness for the Middle East and its people that will never leave me.

I'm a better person even for just those first three and a half weeks hiking through the West Bank and although this is the first time I've been unsuccessful in an attempt to complete one of my 1000 mile treks I can only look at the positives. These things happen for a reason and it's up to us  as individuals (and me in this case) to turn disappointment into opportunity. Somewhere down the line I have another 1000 miles of walking to look forward to and like it or not, with everything considered it feels like the right option to not play a part in this one anymore.

I haven't enjoyed travelling with anyone in my life as much as I did with Leon. He's a wonderful storyteller and has so much to share and teach, both from the regions he is about to walk through and from his own attitude to life and adventure. I've learned a huge amount from Leon over the last few weeks, and his calmness, rationale and professionalism have made this transition from walker to temporary invalid all the more bearable. He'll also be delighted that he doesn't have to look over his shoulder each day now, wondering whether I'm going to hide heavy bags of chocolate in his pack.

Thanks to everyone who has virtually dropped in on our journey so far, and please continue to follow and support Leon as he treads south through Jordan and then on into Sinai. Our journey now becomes his, make sure you're with him as I will be here on this blog, and through Leon's Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

For me, this is the end of the path. For now.

Dave

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A slight change of plan...

Happy New Year, all! We've had a slight change in plans over the last couple of weeks. Inevitably that means there is bad news, and good news...

The bad news is that Dave has been diagnosed with a stress fracture in his left foot. He'd had some pain for about a week- eventually it increased enough in intensity that we jumped in a car to the nearest big city (Amman) to get it checked out. The orders were to rest up completely for three-four weeks, with no weight on the foot at all.

Rather obviously, that's not an ideal prognosis for someone on a walking journey! However, there's room for optimism here too if we look at it in the right way.

Firstly, it has happened over Christmas and New Year! For us, that's a big deal. What better time to be ordered to take a comfy seat and enjoy lots of the fine things in life (my foot is thankfully un-fractured, but in solidarity with Dave I have also spent some time on the sofa eating cakes.) Secondly- it could have been worse. Three weeks feels like a long time, but it's a heck of a lot shorter of a recovery time than a proper break would have required.

Finally- it's a really unique chance for us to reflect on the first leg of our journey. These type of trips are so immersive, which is the beauty of them, but sometimes they become so all-encompassing that the joys of each stage get lost in an attempt to appreciate or understand the whole. Dave and I have been presented with the gift of time to process our first month on the masar- to share more stories from the trail, and to think about how best to approach the next section.

So that's it! We'll continue to publish our thoughts and findings from nearly 200 miles of walking, and at some point towards the end of this month we'll lace up our boots again for the next stage of the trip (starting from exactly where we stopped before, of course!)

Thanks all, sincerely, from Dave and I - it's been a joy to have so many of you following and engaging with our walk. Please continue to do so - we love having the company and support..

Shukran!

Leon

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After a year...

In early October 2014 I rose from my hanging bed on an island, packed up my gear into its rightful dry bags, distributed them around my Hobie kayak as only I knew how, and took my seat for the final time. 

This was home, it had been for two months, and I felt that warm, sugary feeling of familiarity. The way my water-sandalled feet rested on the pedals, the seat’s tension behind me, the rustle of my waterproofs - winter was coming, and naturally I’d timed things to end before the weather became too harsh for my Renaud-riddled fingers. 

Back at the start, as I lowered myself into this strange yellow floating thing that powered itself with fins like penguin flippers and then stared right into the heart of the very unfamiliar Oslo city centre from my new perch, I didn’t have a clue what I was doing. I’ve never really known what I was doing when I began a big journey, but it’s not like that matters. You just need to start, and after a couple of days and a few well-won miles the aches and pains dissipate and this all becomes normal and you know where your head torch lives and this is life. 

And it was right up until I reached the other end and that boat ramp in Helsinki, and then the ramp again after a 3 minute dash around the marina because my GPS only read 999.6 miles on the approach. My yellow Hobie Kayak had been home and the nights between water-time I’d lived in my hammock (and the occasional home of a stranger). And all of a sudden it was over and Hobie was on a trailer driving away. And I was just a man with a dry bag in colourful waterproofs standing at the entrance to a fancy hotel, the Baltic still dripping from my fingers.

Playing in the Baltic towards the end of 1000 mile expedition #11. Image by Leif Rosas.

Playing in the Baltic towards the end of 1000 mile expedition #11. Image by Leif Rosas.

And what does this have to do with walking in the Middle East? Well, for me, it has everything to do with it. Because as far removed as pedal kayaking across Scandinavia is from hiking in Palestine they’re still two chapters in my own, unique book, and I long ago learned that an excuse for continuity is the key to avoiding the stagnant pool of nothing that begins to puddle as soon as personal inertia wanes. 

A year without a 1000+ mile adventure has been uncomfortable. The creaking, chronic reminder in my lower back and left hip of that fateful moment in June 2013 when I slipped down a narrow staircase in Zurich and my lower spine took the brunt of the 32kg elliptical bicycle I was carrying - my body hasn’t been the same since. Pain and me have been good friends since that disc ruptured so suddenly. And although I managed three journeys last year I’ve never quite rediscovered the belief that I had in my pre 2013 structure, and this year I let the pain get the better of me. 

And for all of the brilliance of the last few months I lost the reality of how wonderfully simple having a linear mission is. That there is nothing like a good, long adventure to blow the cobwebs into a different pattern.

The key components of any adventure: Idea. Action. Start. Move. Continue for a while. Enjoy and harness all of the incredible memories along the way. Finish. 

I’ve become addicted to this simplicity over the years, it’s a natural drug and without it I let a bubble form and the air inside made me lazy and doubtful. I forgot what it’s like to be on a clear mission and to be be wholly responsible for my actions. It’s my life, nobody else makes these decisions but me. And that includes the lack of them.

Bubbles are made to be popped from the inside and out, and a good idea is such a wonderful instrument to burst the heck out of self-made restrictions. It took just five days of walking to realise that I was powerful again. That yes, the pain was still there, but faded into the background more and more each day as more important things surfaced.

This walk for me is partly medical. A chance to refresh the mind and gather new stories and understanding. It would be wonderful if some people who followed Leon and I over the next few months one day decided to come here and hike a part of the Masar for themselves, but this isn’t for us to decide.

Different cultures, religions and traditions should not make enemies amongst us and although we’re not going to reverse a century-old media bias that tends to pit Muslims against the rest of the world, at the least I hope that our journey provides ripples of deeper understanding that shrinks the chasm between the Middle East and elsewhere. 

Since we started walking, Donald Trump called for a barring of all Muslims trying to enter the USA and an Arab was kicked off a London underground tube because he ‘switched off an iPad suspiciously.’ Meanwhile, we’ve spent our days with Muslims. Walking, talking, eating, laughing. This is my first direct experience of the Middle East and in three weeks I haven’t felt a moment of danger, doubt, suspicion or dread. 

If the consistency of global anti-Arab reporting wasn’t so culturally serious, it would be laughable. And I’m ashamed to say, that if I hadn’t had this experience, if I hadn’t ever decided to visit here, me and my bubble would have been infected a little by the news around me and I would have been more ignorant and inherently racist as a result.

So now, for the few people we reach, may this walk serve as a non-biased news service. No agenda, no motive, just the truth as we see it. 

We can’t foster understanding by staying still and letting the world revolve around us, dictating what we think and hear and therefore believe. It takes a little oomph and slight discomfort to prise oneself away from the usual and go create a new normality. And even if that new normal is temporary in time, the experience will stay forever, and not just for us as individuals but for everyone we come into contact with on our journey of choice.

Dave


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Sugar with tea - a week in the hills of Jericho

The Jordan Valley and the hills of Jericho

The Jordan Valley and the hills of Jericho

On our first night in Jerusalem, Dave and I join friends for a thanksgiving feast. At some point in-between turkey and pumpkin pie we slip away from the main party and into a side room with someone who has ten years of hiking experience in the Middle East. They bring out Israeli-made topographical maps so we can scout out some of our planned route. “It might be worth your while taking half an hour to learn to read Hebrew before you go,” they tell us. This is the sort of thing people say when they speak fluent Hebrew and Arabic and have lived in Jerusalem for a decade.

They point at various lines and shapes on the map, all alien to us. “This section is cool,” we’re told. “The wadi here is beautiful. I think this is one of the firing zones actually.” Dave and I look at each other. “A firing zone?” asks Dave. “As in, where there might be live fire?”

“Yes,” come the reply. “You just have to be a little careful. The best time to hike there is the weekend, because the military won’t be there.” Our friend laughs, and we both join in. I don’t know why.

I think back to this conversation now as I walk over the lunar landscape of the dry beige hills to the east of Jerusalem. We have left the city well behind. It’s been raining most of the morning, and my view so far has been restricted to the borders of my raincoat hood. The major landmarks of the day – the Old City, the Mount of Olives, the Separation Barrier – have passed by without much fanfare. What I’ve learned is that on the first day of a 1000 mile walk, the only thing that’s going to make a lasting impression is the shoulder straps of a poorly adjusted pack.

The rain eases in the afternoon, and dark bulbous clouds add shape to the rounded hills. Somewhere farther to the west (but crucially, not that far) there is gunfire.  I walk faster to catch up with our guide for the day, Ahmad. He is a Palestinian Bedouin, and has agreed to walk us from just outside the small town of Al-Eizareya to the tents of the Hamedin Community near to sea level (his home.) It’s worth pointing out the obvious - Bedouin these days are rarely dressed in flowing white gowns with camels in tow (at least, not here.) A modern day Bedouin like Ahmad arrives with denim jeans, a leather jacket and a Bachelors degree in Biology.

He wears a kuffiyeh- the black and white scarf that has become synonymous with Palestine, but he has it draped over his shoulders rather than on his head (“I live two lives sometimes,” he tells me,“ and the kuffiyeh is a perfect indicator – “at university I keep it round my neck like the other students, and back with my family I have it over my head like the rest of the Bedouin.”) When I ask about the gunfire he laughs. Part of me wishes that people in the Middle East would stop laughing when I ask them about firing zones, but once again I join in against my better judgement. He tells me not to worry – they’re nowhere near us. We walk on.

At the top of the next hill, Ahmad again shows his expert straddling of two worlds – with little fuss he lights a fire and rests a blackened teapot on top, all while chatting rapidly into his smartphone. We drink the sweet tea and Ahmad chats with a man on a donkey who appears out of nowhere. This will become, though we don’t know it yet, a regular and endearing feature of our journey – there are few places in the countryside here where one can spend more than a few minutes without seeing a man on a donkey.

That night, after a longer walk than planned, Dave and I ease ourselves onto the floor of a Bedouin tent, surrounded by members of the Hamedin family. They smile politely as we remove toxic socks and recline. The tent large, perhaps ten metres long by four wide, and reserved just for visitors. The centre is kept mostly clear, save for a few weight-bearing wooden struts, and the edges lined with thick rugs to sit on. Every metre or so there is a nest of cushions for one to lay elbows on, encouraging the rest of the body to stretch out to the side. It feel extravagantly comfortable after a day’s hiking – just one step away from being fed grapes and lulled to sleep by lute music.*
(*Sadly I don’t think this happens anywhere any more – not since Roman times…)

Ahmad, reclining in the Bedouin fashion...

Ahmad, reclining in the Bedouin fashion...

Bones rested and feet taped up, we walk up and into Wadi Qelt the next morning– the original natural highway from Jericho to Jerusalem. Inside the walls of the canyon we sweat in humid heat. We’re below sea level – an odd notion to me, still - so even in December the wadi feels much more summery than even the best August weather in Britain. 

A crumbling Roman aqueduct crosses our path on entry, and a few hours later the monastery of St. George, clinging improbably to the cliff, signals that we’re nearly at the oldest and lowest city in the world – Jericho. Everywhere we turn there is something ludicrously ancient or holy and, best of all, there’s no Israeli firing zones in sight.

Our adventure legs kick in, slowly but effectively – back muscles strengthen, hamstrings loosen, shoulder skin toughens. Each new morning bring less groaning, although it’s still normally a few hours before much conversation worthy of note is to be had. Days become a pastiche of the memorable, the heart-warming and the bizarre; sleeping in a guesthouse run by the Women’s Society at a refugee camp outside Jericho, then accepting an invite to a traditional Palestinian dance class. Walking along roads were Jesus once tread (so we’re told), then listening to a farmer tell us about his prize aubergines. Waving to, talking to and having to graciously decline offers of a lift from almost every driver that passes (although one almost got us with, “But you must come with me…I have aubergine!”) 

Kids run alongside us for a few hundred metres at a time debating the eternal and unanswerable question – Ronaldo, or Messi? The adults we pass talk less, in general, but even the most reserved all mutter greetings and put their hands to their heart – Merhaba, ahlan wa sahlan, ahlan wa sahlan! … Hello, welcome, welcome!

With a few days under our belt we are ready to welcome another walker in to the fold – this time it is Anwar, a local guide from the village of Duma just to the north. He is small and stocky with a well-trimmed beard and too many layers of clothing for the heat of the wadis (at least according to my internal thermometer – he maintains that it is Dave and I who are underdressed.) He walks with one stick and a small backpack which is filled mostly with sugar, wafers and a teapot. We have asked him to join us so that we may learn a little more about the land than otherwise might happen if we bumbled through this entire region on our own haphazard way.

It quickly becomes apparent that Anwar is two things – 1) very amusing, and 2) perhaps the first true Palestinian walker that we’ve met on this trip. Many Palestinians hike for one reason or another, and recreational rambling is growing. Anwar, though, is a real walker, by which I mean he seems only ever truly at home when wandering in the hills of his homeland. He is the only person we’ve met so far who does not, at the beginning or end of a day, suggest that we get in a car to get to/from the starting point of the day’s walk. He understands the desire to connect events and places on foot, rather than simply using hiking as a one-time experience that is bookended by motorised transport. He is also the first person we’ve met who will happily make (what should be) a 4-hour hike last all day long, by virtue of endless stops to inspect a plant, tell a story or make tea. All are very enjoyable. “This is all mine!” he chuckles regularly when we stand with a vista overlooking the Jordan valley, but he’s only joking. Anwar is much more a part of the landscape than an owner – he blends in seamlessly, at once on and in the environment.

He is full of short, sharp pieces of ‘wisdom.’ I use the quotation marks, because I can’t verify the accuracy of all of them. “If you want to kill a Bedouin,” he tells us, “put him in a palace for just one week.” Then, shortly after, “It gets very cold at night here now. If it gets any worse then all the people in the towns should move down to the caves.” 

He points at herbs and pick them for us to taste. “Za’atar,” he says, after we’ve chewed. “Good, no?” It is. Later, trust established, he picks something else for us and we quickly chomp down. Waiting until we’ve done so, he says, “this one won’t taste very nice.” A little smile spreads across his face and he wanders on with a chuckle.

Anwar, readying another story for his ever-willing audience (us)

Anwar, readying another story for his ever-willing audience (us)

Anwar knows absolutely everyone – it is perhaps his second most defining feature, after his love of hiking. In a one-street village, for example (the type where you can see every both ends of the main road and every house in it without having to turn your head), we first meet someone chipping away at a granite block – “my neighbour!” cries Anwar. Fifteen minutes later a man with a crutch is sat in the shade by the mosque. “One of my best friends!” is how he is introduced to us. Before we make it past the village limits (bear in mind this is not New York City) we stop again to speak to some men building a house. “This is one of my old students from when I was a teacher!” Anwar tells us. More thick, black viscous coffee is poured and, with so much caffeine in our bloodstreams that it can’t possibly be healthy, we are back into countryside.

Throughout the length and breath of the hills Anwar seems to have little stock piles of wood, just waiting for him to arrive with his teapot and build a fire. “I prefer sugar with tea, rather than tea with sugar. Please don’t tell anyone,” he confides as he forgoes a spoon and pours a steady stream of it into the pot. We sit looking out at the view, each comfortable in the silence of the other. “Rest before you’re tired, move on before you rest too much,” is his way of telling us it’s time to go. “Yalla!” – “Let’s go!”

There is never a dull moment in Anwar’s company, and after three days we are sad to leave him behind – I will miss the stories of his favourite barrel, or his tales of hunting for honey and losing his trousers. I’ll miss ambling along up hills (often in a circuitously long route) listening to him gently sing Bedouin songs in Arabic. Mostly, though, I’ll miss his love for the land – it’s infectious, and Dave and I are now feel thoroughly connected with the ground upon which we’re walking. 

Our journey is just a week old (although our bodies might feel otherwise) and already we have memories that will stick with us and tales that will be a long time in the telling. We are on the masar, and increasing feeling a part of it. Little of what we do seems to be in our control, and that’s just fine. As long as we wake each day with the sun and lace up our boots, we know it’s going to be a good day. Long may that continue.

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

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. 

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...

Dave
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The Beginning

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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Our Gear: a rundown

Here is a simple rundown of the gear we’re carrying on our Walk the Masar expedition. Squeezing camping, cooking, clothing and camera gear into one pack isn’t the easiest job, especially when we have three months of walking ahead, and although there is always a pruning process once a trip like this gets underway, this is the gear we’re starting with.

If you have any further questions about the gear we’re carrying and how it’s being used, fire away in the comments section.

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People versus Politics

In just over a week, I will set off out of Jerusalem to walk the masar (Arabic for 'Path') - 1000 miles on foot through the Heart of the Middle East. 

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.

We set off on 1st December! Follow our journey:
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