‘ The pre­car­i­ous­ness of life am­pli­fies the im­por­tance of the past’


WKND - - Interview Mapping History - By GARY drevitch

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”

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