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.
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.