Walking from an anthropological perspective
Walking is part of everyday life. But although many people suffer from limited mobility, it is still considered as a ‘banal’ activity, which does not deserve further consideration. More than that, it is often denigrated as the last mean of transportation, which should be used only when no other mean is available. When people walk for particular reasons, the term is usually replaced by other verbs (jogging, trekking, strolling, etc) or simply eluded, stressing that it is not an end in itself. In some instances, people go walking with the intention to pass time, relax, do exercise, but once more walking merely appears to be a break between more important activities. However, when taken seriously, walking becomes a powerful element in contemporary societies. In a time when all our movements are dictated by man-made vehicles and our daily schedule organized to fit the pressing realities of modern life, walking represents the ultimate act of resistance and the path to freedom. It should not be forgotten that it is one of the essential characteristics of human beings and the only natural gift that can be performed without the support of any technological input. One can even walk barefoot and without wearing any clothes… When it becomes an activity in itself, walking also carries many opportunities which are not available otherwise. It is firstly a unique manner to keep in contact with the earth, which is never as close to human beings as when those ones are moving on foot. The perception of time and space is true only to the walker, since other sorts of mobility disrupt reality. At the extreme opposite of the ladder lies the plane which has the potential to transport people from one part of the planet to the other in a matter of a few hours. While walking, each square centimetre of earth can be observed and felt. Each second makes sense and can be received by the individual with the same intensity as a heart beat. Walking also brings about unique experiences as far as awareness of life and death is concerned. The walker engaging him/herself on long distances will face hunger, thirst, muscle-ache, tiredness while becoming detached from material things which are neither needed nor available anymore. The consumption of goods belongs to those who stand still. In other words, walking is relying on essentials. On a metaphysical level, it opens many doors, from the elevation of the spirit to philosophical thoughts to self-reflection. Walking also develops a sense of humility and invites the individual to gratify every moment of life. This is followed by a greater respect for the environment and all living beings. Last but not least, walking allows some of the best social interactions and intercultural experiences. Being a universal act, it is understood by everyone and every people, and its rhythm accommodates time for dialogue and mutual sharing. In other words, it is the antonym of aggressivity, it is an act of peace, and it incorporates all the elements required for a sustainable world.
The profile of three famous long-distance walkers will be presented to highlight the creative potential as well as the potential risks/limits inherent to such an activity:
1. Charles Doughty: in his book published in 1888, Travels in Arabia Deserta, Doughty introduces himself as a walker who has gone round the world: “a sâiehh”. Trained as a geologist, he was also an ethnographer, an archaeologist, an epigraphist and a linguist. His book mixes the view point of a scientist and a traveller who let his subjectivity emerge into anthropological writing.
2. Frank Cole: In 1989, following the death of his grandfather, Cole set out to cross the Sahara. Over the course of a year-long journey, he recorded in meticulous detail the adventure that would earn him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records. The journey would also earn him a unique position in the world of film. Life without Death, the 90-minute documentary that Cole created over the ensuing 10 years, is a haunting, brilliant and bittersweet homage to the pursuit of eternity.
3. Bernard Ollivier: for the past ten years, Bernard Ollivier has become a reference in France among travellers. His three books relating his long walk to Beijing have been sold by more than 300,000 copies. This success is certainly due to the quality of his creative writing but also reflects a trend towards a ‘banalisation’ of long distance walking and a impoverishment of related creative work (with the multiplication of publication, photographic works, amateurs films, etc).