Eight Questions with Daniel Baylis

We caught up with writer and adventurer Daniel Baylis just after he had spent two weeks this spring hiking the Abraham Path in the West Bank, known locally as the Masar Ibrahim. As one of the first walkers to take on the challenge of independently hiking a large section of the Masar Ibrahim, we were excited to hear about his experiences and give him an opportunity to share any advice or wisdom to others who might follow in his footsteps. Also be sure to check out the pictures from his adventures in the slideshow below. 

The time he spent walking on the Abraham Path was part of a larger project to experience the region by walking 917 kilometers on the Masar Ibrahim and the Israel National Trail. He is currently working on a book that will tell the tale of his experiences, so be sure to follow his adventures at danielbaylis.ca and @daniel_baylis, and be the first to snag a copy when it’s ready! His first book, The Traveller: Notes From an Imperfect Journey Around the World, documents a yearlong international quest to be helpful.

What attracted you to undertake a long-distance hiking trail, and what led you to choose the Masar Ibrahim?

I had wanted to embark upon a long-distance walking journey for a few years. Multiple factors steered me toward the Middle East, but the primary reason was the opportunity to learn more about a corner of the world that often makes news headlines yet remained unclear (to me). On a previous visit to Israel, I had learned about its national path system: the Israel National Trail. I decide that if I tackled the INT, to have a more comprehensive experience I would also need to visit Palestine. This catalyzed a search for further hiking options, which led to Stefan Szepesi’s book (Walking Palestine) and then to the discovery of the Masar Ibrahim.

Do you have any previous experience hiking long-distance trails? 

I don’t — this was my first attempt at a long-distance trail. Like many other Westerners, I feel drawn to the act of long-form walking, specifically as an antidote to the urban lifestyles we’ve created. Of course, hiking a few hundred kilometers is not always sunshine and lollipops, but there is something to be said about the contemplative opportunities that walking provides.

What sort of expectations did you have going into this project/experience?

One of my primary expectations was to learn more about the day-to-day lives of Israelis and Palestinians. I also anticipated a certain amount of fatigue. Both expectations were met. I received a “101” lesson in both local geography and local politics. And yes, by the end of each day I was tuckered out.

How easy was it to communicate with the locals along the path?

Because I have limited Arabic language skills, communication varied greatly. Walking with my guide Mohammed was very helpful, as he handled accommodation arrangements and often acted as a translator. But there were instances (specifically in the evenings) when he would return to his home, and I would be staying with a host family who spoke very little English. I found the situations to be quite charming: the families were gracious and welcoming, and through a game of charades we were able to communicate just fine. On another occasion, I was in Nablus by myself, searching for a hostel. I approached people and requested they point me in the right direction. Every person I asked for assistance was more than eager to assist me.

How did walking between communities give you insights into others’ daily lives? 

Walking is slow travel. I saw the farmer harvesting his field of cauliflower, the shepherd guiding his herd of goats, and the construction worker hauling cinder blocks. I also was able to smell the land — the good aromas (wildflowers) and the not-so-good aromas (rotting donkey carcass). These are the types of experiences missed in tour buses and taxis.

What was your favorite experience along the trail?

Staying with host families. During my time in the homestays I was able to establish deeper connections, bear witness to the more mundane day-to-day activities (which are arguably the most authentic) and sample traditional Palestinian dishes. For instance, when I was in the northern village of Arraba, I stayed with the Mardawi family. The men took me to their local barber for a shave, while the mom showed me how to serve a steamy chicken and rice dish called maqluba. These are always my preferred experiences.

Any advice for others who want to journey solo?

At this stage, I think it’s important to walk with a guide. Even an experienced hiker who is able to navigate GPS will benefit from the social component that a guide is able to offer. The villages throughout the West Bank are not necessarily accustomed to seeing visibly foreign hikers roaming around. For the next few years, guides will play a very crucial role in connecting hikers and locals. Plus, you’re directly assisting the local economy — which can be even more effective then international aid programs.

Anything else you’d like to add/ most important thing people should know?  

I had an incredible experience in the West Bank. For economic reasons and educational opportunities, I wish more people would go.