These Converse Were Made for Walking
By: Tara Maloney
October 24, 2019
Dodging cars, cats, and shards of broken glass on a short walk from my home to a café, it is easy to understand why few local Jordanians walk anywhere in their capital city. There are many barriers to walking in Amman, both physical and cultural. The city is very spread apart: There are eight main circles that divide Amman with mostly residential areas in between them. The sidewalks are useless. Most are torn up and in disrepair, and even those that are still intact have poorly placed trees planted in the middle whose lower branches require walkers to either duck down or hop into the street to walk around. But mostly, walking is just weird here. All the locals drive or take taxis to get around, so the sight of me walking around often elicits confused stares and concerned inquiries as to whether I am lost.
I love to walk, as a mode of transportation or even just as a form of leisure. Walking allows me to get to know a city best, serves as an important form of stress relief for me, and makes me feel independent. At Georgetown, I can walk ten or more miles some days just running errands. One of the most difficult adjustments during this semester has been having to take taxis to get everywhere. I had mostly adjusted to it, resigned myself to running on a treadmill to stretch my legs, and swallowing the taxi fare to get from my home to the more interesting parts of the city. It’s just for a few months, after all. And then I went to Beirut.
Beirut is everything that Amman is not—a pedestrian’s paradise. I spent a full week there for my fall break and did not set foot in a taxi once. My friend and I explored the city on foot, making big loops through the different districts and walking at least 13 miles each day. Beirut feels far more Western and energetic. It is small enough and crowded enough that every area has something to explore, the sidewalks are functional, and best of all, pedestrians are normal and expected. I spent just seven days in Beirut, yet I know my way around it better than I do most parts of Amman. The freedom to get anywhere under my own power was exhilarating, as was the ability to blend into the crowds of people, as opposed to sticking out.
I returned to Jordan full of renewed conviction to impose my Beiruti ambulation on Amman. I convinced myself, in classic American fashion, that I could fix the situation for myself with some energy and dedication. I could create my own little walkable zone around my house or my school to give myself that same sense of freedom. The day before classes restarted, I walked just a mile from my house to get to an internet café. It was an easy walk and I arrived without trouble. Success, right?
Not really. Because while I can find places close enough to overcome the sprawl of Amman and can be creative enough to manage the sidewalk situation, what I cannot change is that walking is not normal here. People still stared and whispered as I passed, cars honked, and taxis pulled up beside me every few yards to offer their services. I can do my best to ignore it all, of course, but the experience is still not the same. Rather than being able to slip into my own thoughts, I have to constantly monitor the environment around me. Walking in Amman will never be an escape and an outlet the way that it is in Beirut or Washington, DC. It’s disappointing, but it’s also the reality of study abroad. Every new environment requires some amount of compromise, and it is my choice how I deal with that. I can lean into the walking and take the attention and discomfort that it brings, or I can conform to local norms despite my personal preferences.
I am honestly not sure what I will do yet. It will probably depend on how I feel on any given day, whether I have the emotional energy to make the physical expenditure worthwhile. At least I know that I can return to smooth sidewalks in DC.