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Paul Salopek explores path of human migration

Shah Meer Baloch Interview
January 30, 2018

American journalist Paul Salopek is in the middle of his 21,000-mile odyssey on foot that retraces the path of human migration. DW spoke to him about his journey and how it changed his outlook on mankind.

Paul Salopek in Pakistan
Image: Paul Salopek

In 2013, two-time Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist and National Geographic fellow Paul Salopek began a 21,000-mile odyssey on foot, walking the pathways of the first humans who migrated out of Africa in the Stone Age and made the Earth ours. 

His project, the "Out of Eden Walk," is covering the major stories of our time - from climate change to technological innovation, from mass migration to cultural survival - by giving voice to the people who are affected by them every day.

Paul began his journey in Ethiopia and his end point will be in South America. He has so far traveled some 5,000 miles (8,046.72 kilometers). By the end of the journey, he will have created a global record of human life - combining the written word, photographs, video and audio - by including accounts of normal people he encountered along the route, such as farmers, traders, nomads and artists who rarely make the news.

Paul made it to Pakistan through the Wakhan Corridor, which runs through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. In an interview with DW, he spoke about what he noticed during his journey and how it has changed his perspective.

DW: What remarkable and disturbing things have you learned about Pakistan during your trip?

Paul Salopek: Pakistan's hospitality is remarkable, and the country will be included in my global mosaic. Pakistan is not an outlaw society. The isolation of Pakistanis from each other sort of surprises me. I know each region has its own culture and language, among other things.

In Sindh and Gilgit-Baltistan, people know very little about the people in Balochistan or in Punjab. Pakistan is almost a country made up of different countries.

And I often wonder what would happen if Pakistanis spoke to each other more or mingled more or visited each other more. I get the sense that people pretty much don't move around a lot within Pakistan unless one's job takes one elsewhere.

If someone from Balochistan were walking through Gilgit-Baltistan, that person would be a foreigner just the way I was when walking through the Chapursan Valley.

Infografik Karte Paul Salopek ENG

Has anyone walked this path before you?

Homo sapiens evolved in Africa from ancestors that were not human. And then we stayed in Africa for hundreds of thousands of years and did not leave. Scientists cannot explain the reasons why.

We had legs, brains, etc. We had everything that we have today, but we did not leave Africa. But then something happened almost sixty or seventy thousand years ago. We left the continent and spread out all over the world. After that we became a global species. We were pushed by climate change, famine and a number of other issues. People followed animals, and the birds that fled to Arabia and so on.

I would argue with no evidence that, because of curiosity, there were almost two percent of people who travelled just to know what lies beyond mountains. They left the comfort of their homes. Only seven to eight thousand years ago, the first human walked to the tip of South America and ran into the beach. Across the ocean was Antarctica. They did not know it but they had completed the discovery of the world. So I am following our ancestors.

Paul Salopek in Pakistan
Paul Salopek attends the wedding of Safina Shoyadarova, his Pamiri walking partner in TajikistanImage: Paul Salopek

Has this trip changed your outlook for mankind, and are you hopeful for our future?

The trip is still ongoing. It continues to reinforce my sense of hope. If a house in your village is burning, you are all going to talk about it, even though it may be only one of several hundred houses in the village. It is human nature, because talking about calm streets that are around you where children are playing… it is hard to make a story out of that. And we are saturated in a media environment that focuses on burning houses.

I knew that, as a journalist, it was my job to focus on the houses around the burning house, not on the burning house itself.

I have always been an optimist. I lived 11 years in Africa, a place that a lot of people think negatively of, but it is one of my favorite places in the world - for a lot of complicated reasons. Does it have problems? Of course it does. I wrote about them. But it definitely has enormous joys, wonderful people; lots of experiments are going on, including successful ones. The way walking from Ethiopia to Pakistan has changed me is to reinforce my positivity, my sense of hope.

Has this journey changed your perspective about a certain place or thing?

I almost had no exposure to Saudi Arabia. I was expecting that it would be a culturally flat area or country, where the Saudis would spend all their time in shopping malls or mosques. There would be no life outside, I thought. This is what the media portrays. When I walked among Saudis, not just in big cities but also in small towns and villages, what was revelatory to me was the complexity of Saudi society.

On a macro level, it is not one country. It is four, culturally. I have met rich Saudis, as well as poor Saudis who question their government and are troubled with miseries in finding jobs. I have met Saudi Bedouins. The advantage walking has to the story is that you understand the layers of complexities.

And another thing - when I talk about my journey with strangers at a dinner table or anywhere, they ask whether I am crazy or super-human. What I tell them is it is neither a crazy plan, nor is it difficult. Once you get over the initial adjustment period of two to three weeks, your mind and body adapts to this exercise. It not only becomes easy, but is also joyful and addictive. Walking is indeed addictive.

Paul Salopek in Pakistan
Paul Salopek in Pakistan - Crossing a suspension bridge in the village of Husseini, northern PakistanImage: Paul Salopek

You have not included Syria, Iran or a major portion of Afghanistan in your journey. Is this intentional?

I love my project very much, but I don't want to be murdered for it. I want to survive long enough to complete it, and walking into a war is not a good idea for survival. So I made a promise to my family that I would not be walking through war zones. As they say, "war is inescapable."

Walking through the southern edge of Turkey to the Syrian border, I felt the impacts of war. I was ambushed in Turkey twice. There were men who confused me and my walking partner with being militants/militia because we were walking on the edge of the country with a donkey and cargo. They shouted, "Who are these suspicious guys? They've got to be PKK." They jumped up and had their fingers on the triggers of their Kalashnikovs. The weapons were charged. I thought, one bad move and I am going to have a bullet in my head. I turned in a circle so that they could see I had no weapons, and then one asked me to lie down. I followed their orders, they searched us, and then they let us go.

What humanitarian aspects of your journey have inspired you, or do you consider important for others to know about?

It affected me a lot to be walking through the Syrian-refugee exodus because I was very aware that I was walking it, and I wanted to voluntarily join in. But on the other hand, everybody else was forced to walk for his or her life. Most of the refugees were women and children. It is hard to explain how terrible it was to see women sleeping on a scarf underneath trees with their babies. It is a story I covered a lot a couple of years ago. I wish I could have done a better job and I tried my best to capture it. But I still don't think that I quite captured the pathos of this enormous disaster.

At the other extreme, it has been an inspiring experience to walk with some amazing walking partners who accompanied me in different parts of the world, like Mohammed Banuna who walked with me in Saudi Arabia. He walked 400 kilometers without telling me that he had a hernia, with part of his intestines coming out of his body. I noticed it on an unusual morning in a desert camp, so I cancelled the walk and called in the medical team via satellite and rushed him to the hospital. The doctor said that this man should have died a week ago. It was a miracle that he was alive.

Paul Salopek is an American journalist and writer. In January 2013, Salopek embarked on the "Out of Eden Walk," a seven-year, 21,000-mile transcontinental journey on foot that retraces the path of human migration.  

The interview was conducted by Shah Meer Baloch in Lahore.

Paul Salopek in Pakistan
Paul Salopek in Pakistan - The Karakoram range in northern Pakistan, one of the mount barriers of the 'Out of Eden Walk'Image: Paul Salopek
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