Why do we walk: notes from the Jordan Trail

Why do we walk, why do we hike? Why do we choose to move, one foot after another over the earth? To navigate the planet by foot?

I’m walking and I’m not sure why anymore, each leg feels heavy, my left foot one blister. But, there’s a rhythm to my pain, a rhythm that somehow keeps me going.

I wrote the words above near one end of the 650km Jordan Trail, towards Aqaba. I’d just walked from Dana – around 280km of the Trail (just under half) and I did not want my feet to be mine anymore.

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On the Jordan Trail nearing Iraq Al Amir

I’m writing now after a further 20 days spent walking another 290km of the Jordan Trail from Um Qais to Dana. I am walking as part of the Jordan Trail thru-hike -a 44 day hike from the north of Jordan to the south to complete its 8 sections in one continuous go. Joining the thru-hike are Jordanians, ex-pats, tourists – some for a day, others 2 days, 5 days, or for a few the whole thing. As I walk, we walk, each day, I find myself asking why I walk, we walk, they walk. In Jordan it is not only me asking these questions – walking is something of an anomaly – curious children on the street wonder what we are doing, farmers insist they could give us a lift to Aqaba, shopkeepers thrust sweets and biscuits in our hands.

We’re on something of a modern day pilgrimage, struggling each day to reach our destination and to get there with only the propelling of our bodies. We’re in the land of the pilgrims – we walk over a biblical landscape – we follow Moses’ journey to Mt Nebo and look over to the promised land as he would have done. We pass caves where Jesus is said to have slept. Sometimes at night we can see over to Jerusalem as we sit by our camp fire.

Or if not pilgrims we are traders, following Roman roads and Nabatean trade routes to transport our goods to the ports of the Mediterranean. Our paths are camel tracks, sheep and goat tracks. ‘If only goats were a little bigger’ we sigh as we totter over the rocky hillside in the footsteps of traders before us.

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Navigating the wadis using old goat paths

But on our modern day pilgrimage what are we walking for? Cars, railways, and planes have obliterated the need for trade by foot. It’s not a pilgrimage route anyway in the traditional sense. The Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca no longer takes place by foot anyway. In Jordan ‘we have cars now’ is a common response to prove the ill-need for the foot. Why do we need a Jordan Trail then? Why do we need to hike? The Jordan Trail has aims to connect the country but also to get Jordanians walking – to get people together to walk, to explore the country, to see other sides of Jordan. We all have our reasons: because ‘I can’, ‘to get away from everything’, ‘to see new places’, to ‘meet others’ or even for the ‘exercise’.

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Mohammad and Mohammad crossing Wadi Mujib

Take Mohammad and Mohammad (affectionately known as Mohammadein), two farmers/bedouins (depending on who tells the tale) from Wadi Hidan who by talking to guides passing through the area had heard of the Jordan Trail – one day they decided they were going to hike it. Two bedouins hiking the Jordan Trail – not your usual adventure heroes of 19th century Victorian literature. They visited Petra for the first time, a tourist site flocked to by tourists but one in which these Jordanians had never seen. On leaving Petra towards Wadi Rum they passed through the southern desert where there was no water for days, feeling some slight damp on the soil, they dug underneath, hitting upon an underground stream where water spurted out filling 2 water bottles. It’s the makings of a best selling novel but it also shows what walking can enable: new knowledge and alternative encounters with our landscape. Or else walking is culture itself. Writes Rebecca Solnit:

Walking has become one of the forces that has made the modern world – often by serving as a counter principle to economics. (Pg167)[1]

It is no longer a sortie from but an act of culture. Walking is as much an understanding of culture, and an act of culture as it is a movement of muscles, legs straining, tensing and moving. I’m also talking about the Middle East, about Jordan. A place where people ‘don’t walk’, where to walk is quite extraordinary. To walk then says something about a changing culture, and how a culture sees it landscape and evolves. Walking could then be as Rebecca Solnit sees it as an indicator species:

Perhaps walking is best termed as an ‘indicator species’, to use an ecologist’s term. An indicator species signifies the health of an ecosystem, and its endangerment or diminishment can be an early warning sign of systematic trouble. Walking is an indicator species for various kinds of freedoms and pleasures: free time, free and alluring space, and unhindered bodies. (Pg250)[2]

If this is the case then what does walking tell us something about the particular freedoms and pleasures of Jordan. Walking throughout history is often understood as a resistance to the mainstream, to the norm. Just a few km from parts of the Jordan Trail, is Palestine, a place in which walking is always political. To walk is to resist, the constant restrictions on movement, the matrix of land control, the settlement expansion. We are walking in Raja Shehadeh’s ‘vanishing landscape’[3]. Walking is something we do because we can and through that we are signifying our freedoms in that landscape. Particularly as a woman to walk unhindered through the landscape of the Middle East is too a freedom only recently granted to some and yet to be granted to many.

I have just done 290km of the Jordan Trail in 20 days. I walk to see something new, to meet new people, ask questions, learn new things. On the sixth day of walking we came upon two women making taboon bread- something most of us, even Jordanians had never seen. There it was happening organically, situated knowledge on the ground, an experience of culture. Yet I walk too because I can, because no one is telling me not too, because I can move unhindered through space with just the propelling of my own body. That in itself is a freedom.

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[1] Solnit, R. (2001) Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin: New York; London.

[2] Solnit, R. (2001) Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Penguin: New York; London.

[3] Shehadeh, R. (2008) Palestinian Walks: Forays into a Vanishing Landscape. Scribner: New York.

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