Paul Salopek: ‘Walking turns the planet new again’

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Paul Salopek is retracing on foot the route our ancestors took out of Africa. Nandini Nair meets up with the adventurist of slow journalism

Paul Salopek is walking. He’s been walking since 2013.

And will continue to do so till 2020, give or take some. He will cover 21,000 miles by foot as ‘an experiment in slow journalism’, walking roughly the path of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age. Salopek—a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Explorer—set out from Ethiopia in January 2013 and will conclude his odyssey at the tip of South America. On May 18th, he was on day 1,874, having covered 5,400 miles. His Out of Eden project is not a lone man’s mad adventure; instead, it is an attempt to map the most important stories of our time, across the face of our earth, one step at a time.

As he walks, Salopek tries to imagine the journey of our ancestors. He questions our modern trappings and ruminates how our understanding of time and space, movement and rest have changed. His words have the clarity of a math equation and the elegance of a haiku. Lost in the deserts of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in 2013, he wrote, ‘The world’s first walkers had no maps. I try to imagine this. Our original journeys across the world featured no preplanned routes, no shortcuts, no destinations. The very concept of ‘destination’ had yet to be invented. Each virgin horizon unfolded with an open-ended question: Where next? Having no preconceived places to go, the Stone Age pioneers were, by definition, never lost. We might be able to remember this feeling, but we cannot have it again.’

Unlike much of today’s ‘reality adventure shows’, Salopek is not followed by a jamboree of technicians. He has a rough route in mind, but at the start of the day doesn’t know where he will spend the night. His only criterion is how far his feet can take him. He estimates how much he will walk that day and then asks people along the way where there might be a place to stay at night. If there were a motto of his walk, it would be ‘To be comfortable with uncertainty’. For the 56-year-old explorer, this journey is a balance between agency and serendipity. He will make plans for the day, but he is all too aware that they might be blown asunder, and he must make peace with that.

As a seasoned journalist who has reported for over two decades, Salopek knows that the best stories take time. In 1998, he won the Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting for articles on the Human Genome Diversity Project. In 2001, he won the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his work in Africa. By tracing the path of our forebears on foot, he brings together the three— mind, body and world—in a profound and elemental way. His slow journalism, his step-by-step reportage allows him to unpack some of the biggest issues of the 21st century, whether these are migration and borders, climate change and resource allocation, or war and natural disasters.

When we meet, Salopek has just come through Pakistan and the Wagah border and into India’s Punjab. He is right now on his ‘fifth chapter’ ‘Riverlands’, the previous ones being 1) Out of Africa 2) Holy Lands 3) Autumn Wars 4) The Silk Roads.

Our meeting ground is a high-rise hotel in central Delhi, where steel and concrete seem to annul the very possibility of sky and trees. This is not the setting that he is accustomed to; he rolls his eyes at it, but doesn’t allow it to dampen his good humour. As a peripatetic Salopek exudes brio and warmth; walking 10-40 km a day for the last five years (he is on his seventh pair of shoes, a question he’s often asked), he has the build of a Sherpa, and the charm of a Paul Newman. Since he relies on his feet, and not vehicles, he pays heed to people, whether it is a camel herder in the Great Rift Valley, his Saudi guide in the deserts of Arabia, or Syrian refugees in Turkey.

For him, walking is “an act of faith” and he speaks of it with a fervour of the faithful and not the severity of a proselytiser. He says, “I am playing with that idea a bit tongue in cheek. Because we are falling down on our faces every step we take (he slaps his palms together), we just forget that. It is a reminder of the wonder of life, what seems so ordinary to us is miraculous. It is just an iteration of the miraculous over and over again. If you slow down enough, you begin to appreciate it, you are inhabiting a miracle, and the fragility of that miracle… So if you slow down enough, and pause and look around, you’ll realise we are living in a dreamscape. Walking does that. We miss it when we move quickly. I do it too. I had to jump into a taxi for seven hours to come here, my head is still spinning. Two things, speed and noise. The modern world is incredibly loud, and am not used to it.”

‘One of the things I am getting used to is how big India is, and how the weight of history is so incredible here’

Salopek’s ruminations echo Rebecca Solnit in Wanderlust: A History of Walking. Walking for Salopek and Solnit is a way to explore the world, and understand the mind. It allows one to surrender to the place and to make the place a part of you. Every port is an arrival, and every experience a memory; no other human activity integrates the inside and the outside as completely. Solnit writes, ‘[The] subject of walking is, in some sense, about how we invest universal acts, with particular meanings. Like eating or breathing, it can be invested with wildly different cultural meaning, from the erotic to the spiritual, from the revolutionary to the artistic.’

For Salopek and Solnit, walking is also a rebuke to our mechanised world, which has led us to forget our bodies and overlook that it is a tool for physical work. To become industrialised is to neglect the adequacy and power of our own feet.

Salopek, a trained pilot, has often written about the perils of automation, calling drivers ‘car brained’ and automobiles ‘spatial morons’. He elaborates, “Every time a person steps behind a wheel of a car, their IQ goes down by a factor, an order of magnitude. It has something to do with speed. I have a pilot licence too. I am not casting aspersions. But it idiotises you. You become an idiot. You forget that the power at the foot, your ankle muscle which lets you go from zero to 110, you have not earned it. It is not yours. And it makes you kinda dumb. Never ask for directions from a motorist—they are the last person who know their home. Their own neighbourhood, they do not know. Go to the Dalit, who is out collecting trash, who has to walk every inch of those streets, that is the person who knows the streets, not the person driving by.” For Salopek, to not walk, and to sail, or drive, or fly is to be ‘glutted with unearned distances’ and ‘overdosed with speed’.

Having covered Africa as a journalist for years, he knows walking is a crucial part of reportage. Born in California and raised in Mexico, he also worked as a commercial fisherman in Massachusetts in the 90s. He finds the work he did at sea as a younger man helped prepare him for Out of Eden. Working on a ship allowed him entry into people’s lives. “Ships are microcosms, small villages, and working alongside someone will tell you more about that person, the only closer way is to marry them,” he says.

Growing up in Mexico endowed him with “strange 19th-century skills”. He knows how to shoe a horse and work a plough. These aren’t useful skills in a city, but on his journey it allows him to talk about animal husbandry and livestock care with those in rural areas and across the world.

Salopek crossed the Wagah border into Amritsar. When we meet, he is still getting used to India. He believes that to find answers about the country, he will probably have to turn to literature and poetry, and not to journalism. It is in his writing that his thoughts will find cohesion. But for now, he says, “One of the things I am just getting used to is how big India is, and how the weight of history is so incredible here. One day you walk off this globalised corridor the Grand Trunk road, this super highway, and I walk into communities where they haven’t seen people like me ever ever. You talk to a really really old person, and they will be like, ‘Oh yeah, an angrez walked through here in 49 or 46 to take a census.’ And this is literally a day’s walk off the globalised world. So this atomisation of village life is something I am just getting my head around.” He adds, “There is both the weight, this sense of things don’t move because of class and caste issues, etcetera—the eternal woman sweeping the eternal dust off her stoop—but there is also this overlay of digital penetration. I am astonished. There is pretty good signal everywhere, compared to the countries I have walked through. People are looking down at their phones even as they plough their fields. But this atomisation of villages—I have seen nothing like this before.”

In India, his first ‘walking partner’ was Arati Kumar Rao, an environmental photographer and writer. From country to country Salopek walks with a companion through whose eyes he sees his surroundings. They aren’t merely his local guides rather they are ‘co-owners’ of Out of Eden. In all his accounts, they play a pivotal, often protagonist’s, role. He says, “They truly take possession of the walk. I almost cede the walk to them, and I am along for the ride. And I am tagging along. Most of my walking partners often continue to walk even at the end of the stretch; they walk into the next country. Which is a fantastic. And this is testament not to me or the project, but the power of storytelling. And discovering your own home through your feet, it really changes the way you look at it. Walking turns the planet new again.”

His written account from India (Cracked River, June 19th) recounts his experiences in Punjab and his search for endangered Indus river dolphins (only five to 11 are said to be left in India). He hears accounts of farmers whose grandfathers used to talk to each other across the India-Pakistan border.

As borders tighten and refugees are disowned, Salopek has found himself thinking more and more about these lines in the sand, as it were. Boundaries have come in his way. He couldn’t enter Iran; he had to walk around it. But for him, boundaries have come to mean “the space you can calibre by your legs”, nothing more. He turns again to marginal people, “those who are still using donkey carts, picking up trash, refugees, migrant workers, those working in fields”; “If you really want to know the landscape, you will talk to them.”

Under the scorching sun, he walks through wheat fields and wonders why Punjabis like to blare music from their tractors and into the skies. He marvels at the success of the Green Revolution, but also worries about the depleting water resources. Luck smiles on him and Arati—they catch a fleeting glimpse of a dolphin cow and her calf.

His stories from India are trickling in and I find myself getting impatient to read the next. But the wait is also part of the story, just as silence is essential to conversation. He is not vomiting a blog a day; instead he sculpts a meditation on the page. In the age of Twitter his seven-year foot journey is also an attempt to reconfigure our understanding of the practice and art of journalism. He writes, ‘By slowing down to walking speed, I hope to rediscover the physical world as the first wandering humans had, one step at a time, exploring it through their skins. The walk’s journalism is a hybrid. It embraces the latest technology. (The laptop, the GPS, the satellite phone.) But its frame of reference hasn’t changed since the days of the wandering bard. This project intends to render current events as a form of pilgrimage, as the story of a quest, perhaps the oldest genre in history. The trail demands patience.’

He asks patience of his readers and followers too. Quiet. Fortitude. Stillness. His walk is teaching him that and he asks his readers for the same.

(Follow Paul Salopek’s journey on projects/out-of-eden-walk/#section-0)