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Walkers of the world, unite!



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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December 27, 2006

LONDON - After the downs of 2006 surely 2007 can only be up? Don’t be so sure but there is one thing we can all do to save the planet from mankind’s excess - a little more walking. In the days when the International Herald Tribune was on the Rue de Berri, off the Champs Elysees, I would often walk there from my pension in the Marais, three or so miles down the Seine. It is quite remarkable that one can conveniently traverse the length of one of the world’s major cities without having to leave a towpath or back alley, except for the last 500-yard dash up from the river.

The same is true in London. Setting off from the hotel on the edge of Kensington Gardens where the guerrilla chiefs of the patriotic Front stayed during the London constitutional conference on Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, it was possible to walk, without touching a main road, through three of London’s great parks, one after another, before reaching the Foreign Office. It is a good three miles and gave me an hour to digest the “terrorists’” propaganda before I took in similar spoonfuls from Her Majesty’s ministers.

Moscow in Soviet days, after nine in the evening, was a good walking town too. There were no bars, few restaurants and little socialising by car. The city used to go uncannily quiet and I could walk for miles in the older, more tranquil, neighborhoods, working of the heavy food and the even heavier conversations.

Dar es Salaam used to be quiet at any time of day. And no one, bar perhaps the president, cared if you arrived late. But, like Moscow, all is changed- capitalism, the rush of life and the motorcar have taken over. Still, last month when I was there I could find plenty of peaceful little lanes shaded by the trees the German colonisers planted a hundred years ago and work myself down to the gloriously empty sea front to watch the fisherman gutting their catch and the dhows flitting in the light Indian ocean breeze. The recently retired president, Benjamin Mkapa, told me he’d vetoed a plan to erect big hotels and offices along that seafront, wanting it to remain open to the people of the city who, even if they lived in one of the poorer slums, could wander down in half an hour and gaze at paradise.

American big cities usually defeat me. I try to walk the first day or two. But in the end the sheer volume of traffic and the lack of back lanes and green shortcuts neutralise the compulsion. New York is an exception- there is a way out of Harlem into the verdant villages of New York state by an overgrown, abandoned, railroad, bordered with brambles, which when I did it one fall, were rich with unpicked blackberries. One of my most favourite walks of all is to cross the Washington bridge out of Manhattan, drop down to the banks of the Hudson and then follow the almost deserted and barely known, old, unpaved, coach road way up river. On a hot day a lazy swim, musing on the nineteenth century masters who painted the tranquillity of this extraordinary, unappreciated river makes for a perfect rest stop.

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I concede I am something of a zealot in these walking matters. I am about as far from Max Beerbohm- “It is a fact that not once in my life have I gone out for a walk”- as a foreign correspondent can be.

Put me down in the Alps, the Rockies, the Andes, the Himalayas, or just the English Lake District and I’m off. I confess too that my motivation is not always exercise but thought. I’m one of those wedded to Bertrand Russell’s dictum: “Unhappy men would increase their happiness more by walking six miles every day than by any conceivable change in philosophy.”

Coming down to earth, and my memories aside, the fact is that necessity alone compels us to walk though this century not drive. No one I know has calculated how much energy we would save, or how much lower our medical expenses would be, if we all decided to make just one of our daily journeys on foot or by bike, rather than by car. Yesterday, I traversed the city of Copenhagen. All I met in my one-hour walk were other walkers and hundreds of cyclists. The city is laced with cycle paths and footpaths. This is how it should be.

Walkers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your gasoline prices and the wars they too often ignite.


Copyright © 2006 Jonathan Power


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40th Anniversary of Amnesty International

"Like Water on Stone - The Story of Amnesty International"



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