The other day, I took a walk. Not a walk-for-exercise walk, not a stroll-along-the-beach walk, just a walk around a neighbourhood I’d never seen before.
I’d arrived early for a doctor’s appointment and thought about trying to find a cup of coffee but then decided on a stroll. It had already been a long week (although it was only Tuesday) and I decided that moving around a bit would be better for my mood than sitting hunched in a coffee shop.
The act of walking just to walk instead of walking to get somewhere has a meditative quality. You have to pay attention when you cycle (especially in Abu Dhabi), but when you walk, your mind is free to wander, especially if you find yourself, as I did, in the winding streets behind a super block. Being off the main streets meant no life-threatening pedestrian crossings or jumping out of the way so that a motorist taking the corner at the last second won’t turn you into a hood ornament.
One of the things I miss most about living in New York is walking everywhere. Friends who came to visit told me that my definition of “a short walk” had no basis in reality. “Forty-five minutes is not a short walk,” one friend told me. “It’s a cab ride.” The little neighborhood tucked in behind Delma Street, where I found myself the other morning, wasn’t big enough to sustain a long walk but it nonetheless reminded me that Abu Dhabi is in fact a city, not just a series of hive-like compounds.
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I exchanged long and meaningful looks with a cat who was guarding the neighbourhood from the top of a small rusty swing-set. After the cat leapt away to chase an errant plastic bag, I meandered down a narrow walkway between two garden walls. At the end of the path, bougainvillea spilled over the wall in a rush of scarlet light, and an old gentleman sitting in a little balcony above the flowers smiled at me, lifting his coffee cup in a silent toast to the morning.
Two men clearly late for work rushed past, leaving a wash of cologne in their wake. They were walking so fast they didn't see what I did when I swerved to avoid their cologne zone: graffiti in Arabic and English that said "too busy."
I rounded another corner and almost bumped into a woman sweeping the front walk of a still-shuttered villa. We exchanged “good mornings,” and then I added “nice day, isn’t it?” I think that means I’m a bona fide Abu Dhabian, because it was 35C at 7:45AM, and so humid that my glasses had steamed over when I got out of the car, but there I was, happily oblivious to the heat and to the thin trickle of sweat between my shoulder blades.
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When is the last time you went walking without a purpose or even with a purpose, other than to get from your car to a building? We live in a city built to some degree on the world’s need for gas and oil, so I guess it makes sense that cars have pride of place here, but do we all have to give in so readily to our automotive masters? At the end of my walk, the step-counter app on my phone suggested that I’d burned off barely the calories of a tiny muffin, but my stroll hadn’t been for the calories. It had been for the flowers, the cat, the “good mornings,” the graffiti. It had been to remind myself that I can’t know the city if I only see it from the inside of a car.
But of course, the opportunity to burn a few extra calories can't be ignored, not if you are, as I am, in your late mid-40s (which is how I define being 53). Besides, I remember once reading a tongue-in-cheek solution that someone proposed as a solution for both the obesity epidemic and the energy crisis: "Eat less. Walk more."
The weather is improving, people. Get out of the car.
Deborah Lindsay Williams is a professor of literature at NYU Abu Dhabi
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