Around The World In ... A Lot Of Steps
Paul Salopek has discovered that the best way to take in information, to be a journalist and a storyteller, is not flying around the world with the latest technology. It's by walking.
"There's something about moving across the surface of the earth at 3 miles per hour that feels really good," he tells NPR's Steve Inskeep.
Salopek plans to walk 21,000 miles total — from Africa to the Middle East, across Asia, down through Alaska and all the way to Tierra del Fuego. He calls it the "Out of Eden Walk" because the idea is to follow the path of human migration.
Along the way, he's documenting the journey for National Geographic magazine. In fact, his journey is the cover story in this month's issue, with photos by John Stanmeyer.
Salopek is currently 10 months into the voyage, and just crossed the border into Jordan from Saudi Arabia. He has faced numerous obstacles, he says, like extreme temperatures and dust devils. As well as manmade obstacles that are vastly different from what early Homo sapiens might have encountered.
"When I began planning this journey almost two years ago," he says, "Syria was at peace."
Now he is re-routing around war-torn Syria and Iraq because, while he is used to reporting in dangerous zones, it's not nearly as feasible without modern transportation.
Salopek travels with camels because he can't carry the water himself. He keeps in touch with his family every day via satellite phone. And in walking great distances, he's learned a few things — both about the world and about himself:
"It really builds confidence in your body," he says. "By and large, after about 10 months of walking, it's about the most natural thing in the world to get up at dawn ... There's a sense of empowerment in being able to do that."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's check in again with Paul Salopek, the man who's walking across four continents. We've been talking from time to time with this National Geographic writer, who is following the ancient path of human migration - from Africa across Asia to the Americas, all on foot, and along the way, writing stories or recording diary entries; like this one he recorded near Djibouti, in East Africa.
PAUL SALOPEK: A wind blows through the dune palm fronds. If you listen hard enough, it sounds almost like rain.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
SALOPEK: It hasn't rained here, though, for a year.
(SOUNDBITE OF WIND)
INSKEEP: After recording that, Paul Salopek caught a boat carrying camels and sheep across the Red Sea, and we find him now - well, Paul, where are you?
SALOPEK: I just crossed the border into Jordan, from Saudi Arabia. The Arabian Peninsula has taken me about seven months.
INSKEEP: Going through what kind of landscape? We say desert, and we imagine sand. We imagine dunes. But what's it like, as you're traveling on foot?
SALOPEK: It's been mainly through a region of Saudi Arabia called the Hejaz, which is the northwestern segment of that country. Sand dunes, indeed, lots of sand, but also a coastline, because I've been hugging the Red Sea coast as I move north. So a very stark landscape of white land meeting ink-blue waters.
INSKEEP: Paul, when you say the Hejaz, the reason that phrase is familiar to me is because of books about Lawrence of Arabia. Is that the very landscape you're working through?
SALOPEK: It is, indeed. It's kind of a fabled corner of the world. And as far as I can tell, I might be the first outsider to actually walk along this coastline, through this arena of war and the sacred landscape, in many, many years; possibly since the Arab revolt itself, in 1918.
INSKEEP: What's it like to walk for months through the desert?
SALOPEK: It stretches your sense of time. It stretches your sense of space. I mean, it's been a spatial adjustment, going from travel times that we measure in hours - say, in a car - to thinking that walking for 10 days to the next town is quite normal.
INSKEEP: You know, I'm thinking about the fact that you're trying to do 20 miles a day but also that in the desert, if you're on a relatively high place, you may have a view of many, many miles. Have there been days when you've woken up and looked out across the desert and by the end of the day, you haven't even made it out of that original field of view; you haven't even made it to the original morning's horizon?
SALOPEK: The sense of distance is really distorted in this minimal landscape. It is like being on a gigantic stage. And there have absolutely been times when I thought I'm walking to a little clump of thorn trees maybe a mile away, to take a little shade; when in fact, it turns out to be a shrub that's only 200 yards away, and it's 1 foot high. The sense of depth perception really changes, and gets distorted, when you have no scale to measure anything by.
INSKEEP: Paul Salopek, would you remind people why on earth you're doing this?
SALOPEK: Yeah. It's basically - it's a project about storytelling. What I'm hoping to do is draw on my past experience as an international correspondent to string together all the stories that I've encountered - and new ones - into one, long, narrative storyline. And by connecting the past to contemporary events, I hope that my reporting has a little more depth and has some context - not just like, at a national level but through time, through deep history.
INSKEEP: Well, having done a good chunk of Africa and now, having begun the vastness of Asia, do you feel like you're learning anything about that?
SALOPEK: You know, I am. I'm learning, of course, about individual stories that I would never have encountered when I was back being an industrial foreign correspondent, as it were, using cars or airplanes. And interesting connections, too; what's wonderful is, they're unexpected. One example is the issue of women driving in Saudi, a perennial social justice issue, a concern of human rights activists in the West for many, many years. But what I didn't realize is that there are actually thousands of women who are driving in Saudi Arabia, but they all happen to be deep in the desert with these vestigial pastoral communities - because they're driving out of necessity. And I saw them driving pickup trucks, hauling alfalfa for their camels. They're like women truckers in Texas.
INSKEEP: Any of them pull over and ask you if you needed a ride?
SALOPEK: On the contrary. One of them pulled a knife and basically, was careful to keep me away from her daughter, who was driving. Strange men appearing with camels, especially somebody who looks as strange as I do, probably frightened her.
INSKEEP: Can I just mention, Paul Salopek, that you are now heading into a war-torn part of the world? Jordan, the country where you now are, has - of course - received refugees from, and is on the border of, both Syria and Iraq. How do you think that's going to affect your next steps?
SALOPEK: In a very concrete way. When I began planning this journey almost two years ago, Syria was still at peace. And I've had every intention of walking through Syria. Now, it effectively blocks my way. Iraq, also - the news out of there is very bad. So I'm facing the conundrum of what to do next. But if I come up against human-made obstacles - conflict zones, regions of turmoil - I'm going to have to decide in real time how to get around them very much in the way that our ancestors had to when they were moving across the surface of the Earth, you know, 60,000 years ago; when they ran into glaciers, when they ran into big bodies of water or climatic barriers.
INSKEEP: What does it do to your body to walk for 20 miles a day; day after day after day after day? How does it change you?
SALOPEK: I think on a psychic level, it really builds confidence in your body. By and large, after 10 months of walking, it's about the most natural thing in the world to get up at dawn, have a cup of chai, have whatever is available to eat in the saddlebags - generally, some local food - and then plot a course to the next well 20 to 25 miles away. There's something, Steve, about moving across the surface of the Earth at 3 miles an hour that feels really good. It feels normal. And the landscape kind of sliding by your shoulders as you turn your head left and right, there must be something limbic about it. It must not even be cerebral. It's in our backbones. It just feels like the right pace to be absorbing a landscape and information. So, it's been a joy, most days.
INSKEEP: How's your family handling your time away?
SALOPEK: So far, it's been OK. Even though I'm using the trip to harken back to this primeval movement of humans across the Earth, I have the great advantage of modern technology, which I'm fully using. So, I keep in touch on a daily basis with my family, by satellite phone.
INSKEEP: And they haven't declared you crazy yet and told you to come home?
SALOPEK: Oh, they declared me crazy a long time ago. Yes.
INSKEEP: But they're sticking with you.
SALOPEK: My wife knew who she was marrying.
INSKEEP: Paul Salopek's walk is the cover story of the December issue of National Geographic magazine. He's a National Geographic Fellow. Thanks very much for talking with us once again.
SALOPEK: Steve, it's great to chat again. Thanks for having me on.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
INSKEEP: Photos of Paul Salopek's journey are at NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.