There is one question I always get when I'm out with family or friends in the Emirates: "Why are you running?"
I am not running. I just like to get to where I am going.
I suppose this is my New York state of mind. Whenever I leave my house it is because I have somewhere specific I have to be at a certain time. Even when I tell myself that I am going for a leisurely stroll, I find myself rushing through the park, missing the whole point of a relaxing walk. Or I find myself resisting the urge to push barricades of tourists off of the sidewalk as they slow down my rapid window-shopping experience. When I'm back in the Emirates, despite the less stressful pace of life, I can't help but find it jarring to walk slowly and take my time.
It's not only walking slowly that drives me insane, but also driving. I love nothing more than to leave my apartment building and have the option to walk to my destination, to flag down a cab or to take the subway. I love not having to need a car.
Interestingly enough, most recent data about health in cities versus health in suburban areas have demonstrated that contrary to popular belief, people in cities are healthier. Some of this is attributed to the fact that people in cities walk more. Even if you don't particularly make an effort to exercise, there often is enough walking involved in your everyday commerce to get your recommended daily dosage of physical activity.
More importantly, having the option to walk is always good, from getting to know your neighborhood better to saving money on transportation to simply being away from a computer or a television screen and to breathe some fresh air.
I never really notice how much of a blessing it is to be able to go for a walk until I'm somewhere where the very concept is rare. While there has been a trend in the Emirates to encourage walking and a more active lifestyle, for the most part, walking is still associated with leisure rather than a mode of transportation. In Abu Dhabi, the Corniche has been expanded, more and more beaches have been cleaned up and parks are everywhere, but people still tend to rely mostly on cars for transportation. This is, of course, partly because of all the new residential areas opening up away from downtown Abu Dhabi, but also because somehow the culture has evolved in a way in which it isn't normal to just walk somewhere, especially for Emiratis.
You don't walk in order to run your errands or to commute. You walk for leisure. When people go for a walk it's more to see and be seen. Walking around is also a break from the stresses of everyday life. So, people walk slowly. They take their time.
In the same way that long meals and conversation are the norm in the Emirates, taking a nice, relaxed stroll is cultural. I am all for long meals and sitting with friends and family for hours just enjoying some banter. I find it gets stressful to be constantly compartmentalising people into hour blocks for coffee dates or lunch dates when I am in New York. But ask me to mosey through the mall at snail's pace and I'll tell you that I have better ways to spend my time.
Perhaps I am slightly bitter that I still have to get my driver's licence, though being in New York means my lack of it doesn't make me feel disadvantaged. But until I can turn my scenic Mario Kart drives into reality, I will continue to vouch for walking – and walking fast, for that matter – as the best way to get anywhere.
Fatima Al Shamsi is an Emirati studying for her master's in global affairs at NYU in New York.