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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