‘ The precariousness of life amplifies the importance of the past’
FOUR YEARS AGO, Pulitzer- WINNING JOURNALIST Paul Salopek BEGAN A Trek, ON FOOT, FROM THE Oldest I NHABITED REGION KNOWN TO MANKIND TO OUR MOST Recent conquest. AS He SOUGHT TO TRACE THE likely PATH OF HUMAN MIGRATION, HE’S LEARNT A LOT ABOUT HIMSELF ALON
s it possible to rediscover the world? In 2013, journalist Paul Salopek, winner of Pulitzer Prizes for both his reporting on the Human Genome Project and his war dispatches from Africa, took his first step toward the answer. Taking advantage of genetic research that posits a likely path of human migration across the planet 60,000- plus years ago, the National Geographic Fellow launched the ‘ Out of Eden’ project, a 21,000- mile walk from the Rift Valley in Ethiopia, north to the Middle East, east to Siberia, and south from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America. As he’s talked to people along the way, he says, he’s discovered the “banal epiphany” that “whether we’re on the 40th floor in Manhattan or in a foxhole in Nagorno- Karabakh, there are 7 billion people in the world and 95 per cent of the time we talk about the same thing — love or the lack of love, a better world for our children, worries about the boss. What is mind- boggling is that every story that each of us tells is utterly unique.”
What are the major obstacles you’ve met? The challenges our ancestors faced moving across landscapes are very different from the ones that I face. I am not rubbing sticks together or trying to hunt birds with a bow and arrow; I am stopping at the local teahouse and having some biscuits. It’s a golden era of movement; it has never been easier to get from point A to point B. And the obstacles are largely imaginary things like politics, borders and
ideologies, but those have actually blown me sideways.
In what way? I was supposed to walk through Iran, but after eight months of waiting for a visa, I had to give up and pivot north through much colder climates. I do my homework, interview people and study the landscapes and the political environments ahead, but even that doesn’t hold up. This journey requires being comfortable with uncertainty, something that we’ve come to forget after 10,000 years of sedentism. Uncertainty, in fact, has become our enemy, not our friend.
How have you befriended uncertainty? About a year and a half ago, I was trying to make my way across a swampy environment i n Anatolia. I wasn’t equipped: I was wearing sneakers, my feet were wet, it was muddy and I was picking my way, literally step by step, across this bog to get to an inhabited area. And it occurred to me as I hopscotched across these rivulets of teacoloured water: why is this so pleasurable? I t was because every f oot represented an advance in my life achieved not with my body but with my mind, by solving one small problem at a time. When you do that, it’s impossible to get bored, because you’re mentally engaged and it becomes fun.
Some of us have visions of people in other parts of the world still living as they did centuries ago, but you’ve found that’s not the case. The irony is that I end up training many of my guides in the technology of their grandparents. I had to teach my Saudi walking partner how to ride a camel: he drives a late- model SUV. I’m walking the fabled Silk Roads right now, but over the horizon are modern gas- compression stations, concrete highways, and casinos. I stay away from highways because they are unpleasant: they’re not made for walking, they’re made for machines. And so it’s a strange out- ofbody experience when I walk into a gas station to get water and the people almost drop what they have in their hands because here is this guy, covered in dust, coming out of the desert with some donkey, while they are modern global citizens.
As you’ve walked in places like the Middle East and Armenia, have you seen how history weighs on people? The landscape of time has its own human topography. Where the world is most globalised, where ideas flow at high speed, I think the past recedes into almost a folkloric element in people’s lives. But if you’re on the front lines of a conflict, the precariousness of life amplifies the importance of the past. Not to do a cheap psychoanalysis of society, but when the present sucks, you hang on to what has been, either to stoke your anger or to give you heart. The Caucasus, for example, has been the stomping ground of invaders for centuries. So if you’re Georgian, your perception of the past is much more tangible than if you’re somebody in Arizona whose genetic memory there is three generations.
The walk will take at least seven years. How do you stay in touch with friends and family? It wasn’t like I was working in a small town in the same office for 20 years, and decided one day to get up and walk away. This is a continuation of my life. The people I choose to get involved with, the people I love, are self- selecting up to a point, as much as love is. Anyone who’s gotten involved with me, from when I was a teenager, knows that I am a rambler. They put up with it, or tolerate it, or enjoy it. My family is also very peripatetic: I’ve got four brothers and sisters, and they’ve lived all over the world. We stay in touch and get together as often as we can.
How do you connect with the new people you meet along the way? Foreign correspondents can make friends quickly — and leave them behind as quickly. You haul into a port, you drop anchor, and then you’re in the bars, you’re in people’s homes, and you’re having almost familial conversations in a day or two. It’s an emotional survival muscle that you develop, because we all need it. You’re travelling alone, but your walk requires a lot of support… My two poor feet are being held up by tonnes of people. I’m completely dependent on my local translators and guides, and that’s okay; it’s better than okay, because it forces me to see what I’m seeing through their eyes. And the vast majority of them don’t want to stop when we reach the borders of their country, because they have taken this experience and made it theirs. My pipe dream is to gather all 300 or 400 of these amazing storytellers at the finish line in Chile.
— Psychology Today ( Follow National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk in real time at outofedenwalk. org.)
The landscape of time has its own human topography. Where the world is most globalised, where ideas flow at high speed, the past recedes into a folkloric element”