19,000 kilometres and counting: why this man is walking from Ethiopia to Argentina

'It's an experiment in slowing the storytelling narrative down to a human level,' says journalist Paul Salopek

Paul Salopek walking 400 kilometres across the remote Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan en route to China. Courtesy John Stanmeyer / National Geographic  
Paul Salopek walking 400 kilometres across the remote Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan en route to China. Courtesy John Stanmeyer / National Geographic  

“Walking across the Hindu Kush, from Afghanistan into Pakistan … there was no border, just a wild mountain pass and snowy peaks stretching as far as the eye could see, under metallic light. A primordial vista. You can recall your emotions at such moments, but you can’t really have them again,” says Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow, Paul Salopek, who is documenting the world, using his feet, in his Out of Eden Walk.

Starting in January 2013, he has been walking from Africa along the ancient path of human migration, which started about 60,000 years ago. Starting at Herto Bouri, Ethiopia – the oldest dated Homo sapien site in the world – his walk was supposed to take seven years and cover more than 33,000 kilometres. He has so far walked about 19,000km, and is currently stuck in Myanmar as borders have closed due to the pandemic.

This intrepid experiment in slow and immersive journalism will extend from Ethiopia to Argentina, passing through west Asia, the Silk Road, India, China, Siberia, and the west coast of North and South America, ending at Tierra del Fuego.

Salopek was born in California and spent his childhood in Mexico. With a degree in environmental biology, he has had a peripatetic life – from working on a shrimp boat in Western Australia and a cattle ranch in Texas, to being a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and living in Africa for 11 years. His walk is backed by National Geographic, the journalism non-profit Knight Foundation and the Pulitzer Centre.

Salopek believes that human beings are hard-wired to walk long distances. After all, our ancestors were hunter-gatherers who covered considerable distances in a single day. “There is no possible way to train for walking across the world. You just do it,” he says.

The walk is an experiment in slowing the storytelling narrative down to a human level, and seeing connections others miss, because they’re moving too fast

Paul Salopek

So what inspired this ambitious journey? “The paradox of the Information Revolution is that in many cases, the public isn’t better informed,” he says. “Media pours out of our devices at a speed that nobody can absorb. What passes for news is often shallow. The walk is an experiment in slowing the storytelling narrative down to a human level, and seeing connections others miss, because they’re moving too fast.

The walk is more about meaning than information. The stories of the people Salopek meets and the places he visits appear as weekly dispatches on National Geographic’s Out of Eden Walk site. From the story of a pizza maker in Bihar, India, who worked in a Pizza Hut on a US military base in Afghanistan, to a mystic healer in Kazakhstan, the narratives are fascinating.

Salopek treads lightly, only carrying the tools of his trade – a laptop and some electronics. He sleeps wherever sundown catches him. In every country he goes to, he has co-walkers – locals, from journalists to environmental activists, who can help him navigate the native language and draw his attention to local issues.

In India, where Salopek spent 18 months walking along the country’s great rivers, such as the Ganges and Brahmaputra, he was accompanied by Rotary Peace Fellow and journalist Priyanka Borpujari, environmental photographer Arati Kumar Rao and Indian river expert Siddharth Agarwal, among others. From their walk in India, the group has drawn attention to issues such as the country’s dire water crisis.

“The walk wouldn’t be possible, or at minimum it would be much diminished, without the people who walk along with me,” Salopek says. “My walking partners rediscover their homes on foot. And in that sense, I get to experience their amplified sense of wonderment, and I’m just along for the ride.”

Borpujari, who covers human rights issues, walked 1,200km in two segments with Salopek, and was interested most by the human geography of the experience. Her Instagram feed is filled with images from the walk – of women carrying bricks on their heads, boat crossings and rest breaks in little tea shops.

“Walking is a multilayered experience and though older Indians we met along the way understood our walk, younger Indians were baffled as to why someone would walk so much,” Borpujari says. “It was a learning experience in many ways, from staying at all kinds of places, including a temple and a mosque, and an old animal shed, sharing the homes and food of strangers, and completely living in the moment.”

Salopek has had to cope with the physical strain of his journey. He has fallen sick a few times, developing pneumonia in Palestine and dysentery in Pakistan.

“But a fringe benefit of walking is that it keeps you healthy, physically and mentally. So I’m probably healthier now than if I’d led a sedentary life,” he quips.

The walk is essentially about people and the issues they face. In Ethiopia, Salopek saw pastoral groups involved in a resource war over grass and watering holes, which were vanishing partly due to repeated droughts. In the valleys of the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan, farmers were enjoying a bonanza of fresh water – more river and creek run-off than they’d ever seen. But it was a terminal gift, coming from rapidly melting glaciers. “Everyone is talking and worrying about the changing climate,” Salopek says.

And, of course, there have been moments of danger. Salopek stumbled into violence in the West Bank, and mingled with Syrian refugees along the Turkish border. “Being on foot was an advantage in both cases because, in dangerous situations, being on foot can be less threatening,” he says.

Paul Salopek in the remote Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan. Courtesy John Stanmeyer / National Geographic
Paul Salopek in the remote Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan. Courtesy John Stanmeyer / National Geographic

In any case, the walk has been a vital exercise in countering stereotypes, he says. “When you relate to people individually instead of by national stereotypes, as you must, when you meet citizens on foot and spend time with them, you learn that stereotypes of any sort are of limited use,” he says.

I ask Salopek what he ultimately hopes to achieve. “To become a better writer. If I can encourage readers to slow down a bit themselves, and maybe get out and explore their worlds on foot, all the better,” he says. “The vast majority of the world is a peaceful place. We focus on wars because they are dramatic.”

At the current rate, it could be six or seven more years before Salopek reaches Tierra del Fuego. And what comes after that? He smiles. “I don’t know. One world at a time.”

To follow Paul Salopek’s journey, visit outofedenwalknonprofit.org

Published: September 3, 2020 08:36 AM


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