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Guest Thinkers

Why “Global Pedestrian”?

I’m bursting with things I want to share here today. But we’ve got a new look and new blog names, so I want to start by explaining what to expect from a blog called Global Pedestrian.

I’ve been lucky to walk my way through a handful of the world’s great places. When I was nine, my family spent a year in France. The dollar-to-franc exchange rate was impoverishing and the public transit was amazing, so I don’t think my parents ever even considered shelling out for a car. We walked. Lots. Much of who I am and how I see the world is a product of leaving my American cul-de-sac behind and spending a year immersed in the chatter and klaxons of Parisian boulevards. Since then, the most vivid travel experiences of my life have involved walking: a wide-eyed, late-night prowl through neon Tokyo, a deliberately random wander through tourist-filled Venice until I got lost enough to find pure stillness and solitude along the canals.

But counterintuitively enough, Global Pedestrian is not a travelogue chronicling my actual travels as I actually walk from place to place around the actual globe. There’s no budget for that. Even if there were, I’d be very late picking my kids up from school this afternoon if I followed my immediate curiosity and set out walking across Africa’s Bakassi Penisula to meet the fishermen displaced by a land deal cut by Nigeria and Cameroon. (More on those fishermen in my next post.)

Global Pedestrian will be my immobile, imperfect attempt to seek out the sort of details, insights, acquaintances, and empathy that come when you forsake the automobile and move through an unfamiliar place at a human speed.

In setting out to do this, my greatest inspiration is Rory Stewart, an authentic global pedestrian, who literally walked across Afghanistan after the American invasion. His book about that experience, The Places In Between, has shaped my views on Afghanistan more than any other single work. Once you read about the crucial cultural, political, and religious differences Stewart sometimes found between villages just a day’s walk apart, you can’t really have much faith in any stateside think-tanker who makes sweeping pronouncements about “what Afghans want.”

Lest Rory Stewart’s long walk and my shoddy virtual imitation of it seem divorced from the sort of reality that matters in the world, divorced from the sort of reality that, say, determines the outcome of wars, I offer a quote from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s August 30, 2009 report to President Obama. America’s top commander in Afghanistan lamented that the military effort he’s been asked to salvage has “not sufficiently studied Afghanistan’s peoples, whose needs, identities and grievances vary from province to province and from valley to valley.”

More than at any time in history, it is possible for a curious person to learn something of the varied “needs, identities and grievances” of people all over the world. Thanks to the Internet, we can always find some anecdote somewhere in the world that will seem to corroborate any preconceived ideology we might worship. But I hope we won’t do that. I hope that this blog — as well as the many other means of learning about those “places in between” that Stewart walked through and wrote about — will fortify you with a bit of healthy skepticism about any one-size-fits-all prescriptions for faraway peoples and about any with-us-or-against-us doctrines you might be asked to swallow.

OK. Let’s walk.


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