An Interview with Paul Salopek
When Paul Salopek was twenty-three, his motorcycle broke down on a lonely road in the sand near Roswell, New Mexico. He was on his way to find work at a fishery to eventually pay for a graduate degree in environmental biology; instead, he got a job at a local paper and became a journalist.
Salopek has always understood that journalism is a physical trade. He spent his late teens roving between manual labor jobs from Alaska to Australia: he was a farmhand, a commercial fisher, a gold miner. Reporting became its own kind of itinerant work. He often worked alongside his subjects—as a gas station clerk, for example, while writing a story for The Chicago Tribune that traced the US oil supply chain. While at the Tribune, he won two Pulitzer Prizes, the first for a series on the Human Genome Diversity Project and the second for his work as a foreign correspondent in Africa, in particular his coverage of Congo’s civil war. His body of work shows not a dedication to particular beats so much as the development of a long-view perspective through which one sees the percolating effects of global systems, the spooling and unraveling of power over time, and humanity’s shared history.
I first encountered Salopek in Chicago in 2012, when he was already done with foreign reporting. I had biked down from the neighborhood where I lived to Hyde Park to attend a talk he was giving at the University of Chicago. The auditorium was hot and the acoustics were poor, but Salopek’s words were captivating. He explained that he had become dissatisfied with the standard method of international reporting, for which correspondents helicoptered into countries with little notice, reported, filed, and helicoptered out. Storytelling, he said, requires the writer to come in at ground level with the subject. His solution to this problem was to walk. He indicated a world map projected on the wall behind him, with a route traced out in a squiggly line—it was a footpath. He would start in Herto Bouri, Ethiopia, and proceed twenty-four thousand miles to Tierra del Fuego, at the tip of South America. The project would be called the Out of Eden Walk, since the route followed the migratory path of our human ancestors, and Salopek would publish regular stories on the project through National Geographic.
A year later, I started working part-time for the Out of Eden Walk’s nonprofit team. I am still with them, which means I have closely followed almost all of Salopek’s journey. People on social media often describe the Out of Eden Walk as “inspiring” and “beautiful.” I think what they are responding to is the simplicity and clarity of the project’s most idealized narrative: a writer walking along the empty horizon, untethered by the distractions of modern life and free to think his thoughts. It is like the image of Wordsworth pacing out lines of poetry in the fields. At times, the Out of Eden Walk rubs elbows with the mindfulness trend, advocating for slowing down, being aware of one’s physical environment, unplugging. (Salopek uses a phone—his work would be impossible without it—but he has a visceral dislike of automobiles, and I have witnessed him deciding to be late to a meeting rather than enter a taxi.)
The reality of the project, though, is far messier—and far more impressive for that. Salopek does walk. He seeks shelter in villages. He eats whatever local fare is offered to him. At night, he writes on a MacBook Air. But he is not alone: he is always joined by at least one local walking partner, who might serve as interpreter, guide, and/or contributing journalist. And he is not unplugged: apart from writing, he emails his editor; he has conference calls with National Geographic; he responds to requests from the nonprofit’s partners; he is on Twitter; he is doing press for GQ India or PBS; he is fund-raising; he is preparing grants; he is planning the route ahead; he is trying to secure a visa to China.
In other words, Paul Salopek is not a solitary guru wandering the wilderness. He is a working journalist doing a media job, firmly planted in the turmoil of the present. And yet he has managed to maintain a clarity of purpose on his journey. He wants to write about the world he sees, and the Out of Eden Walk, with all of its hidden bureaucracy and back-end infrastructure, is a means to this end.
Since January 2013, when he started walking, Salopek has crossed parts of Ethiopia, Djibouti, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank, Israel, Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. His next border crossing will be into Myanmar; then he will travel north through China to Siberia, where he will traverse the Bering Strait into the Americas.
This interview is a composite of two conversations. In July 2018, I traveled to Jaipur, India, to convene with Salopek, his local partners, and other members of the Out of Eden Walk nonprofit. One evening we talked on the veranda of the hotel where I was staying, near the old city. He ordered a chocolate milkshake from the server and drank it with pleasure. “I don’t get them too often,” he said. As we spoke, dusky light filtered through a khejri tree, which rustled periodically; I looked up to realize that we were being watched by monkeys. Our interview concluded just as muezzin calls announced the sunset prayer.
One year later, in June 2019, I caught up with Salopek by phone. He was still in India, in the remote jungles of Assam, having crossed Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and West Bengal. He was having trouble getting a signal, and so in response to my questions, he sent me voice memos on WhatsApp that he had recorded from a roadside dhaba, or eatery, in a jungle village called Dihangi. In the background I could hear the voices of children playing, the laughter of women, the clucks of chickens, the bleats of sheep, and occasional passing traffic. Salopek’s voice was strained from fatigue, but his words—as they always do—came out strong and clear.
I. “THE EDGES SHOW YOU THE TRUE FACE OF A SOCIETY.”
THE BELIEVER: By my count, you’ve crossed sixteen national borders over the past six years, from Ethiopia to India. How does your work change when you cross a border? What changes occur in your mind?
PAUL SALOPEK: There have been quite a few borders along my path. I’ve lost track, but I think you’re right: sixteen. They’re often a point of anxiety, to be honest. They’re like the security line in an airport. They put you in a defensive mind frame because anything coming from the outside, anything alien, anyone who’s not of the place is automatically suspect in some way, so it kind of criminalizes migration or travel or movement. Coming to a border crossing, especially a land border—these are the only ones that I know, because I’ve given up flying for a few years—is often a source of anxiety and stress. I’m going to have my documents scrutinized, I’m going to have my backpack searched, I’m going to be questioned. It’s an experience that many millions of people go through every year who don’t have the luxury of traveling in the globalized, elite way, which is by air. These are the laboring masses, if you will. The ones who use legal border crossings often have to go through this ritual in their lives. That said, they’re also lines of great interest in terms of storytelling and narrative. Borders have always fascinated me. I crossed my first border when I was five and a half or six years old, when my parents moved from California to Mexico, where I grew up. So I’ve had a lifelong interest in borders and borderlands. This is my favorite quote on the subject, by Anne Fadiman, and sums up my own feelings:
I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet. I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.
You learn more about a country, about a society and a culture, at its edges than you do at its center. The edges show you the true face of a society in terms of how it looks at the other in everything from security to economics to culture to ethnicity, and also how it looks at itself, its own vision of who it is. Look at the soldiers, look at their uniforms, see whether they’re clean, whether they’re pressed, whether they’re slovenly. Scrutinize the professionalism of the immigration officers in the booths at land borders, and that tells you something about how that society is organized.
BLVR: How have national borderlines affected your original path and your movement over the years? Has the route had to change in ways you did not expect?
PS: These imaginary lines, called political borders, have had the biggest impact of all on my journey on foot across the world. More so than even the physical geography, more so than nature, more so than mountain ranges or rivers or deserts. More so than seasons, whether it’s a broiling summer or a freezing winter. Political boundaries have profoundly shaped the direction of my travel. I was denied visas from the outset, so there were countries that I simply could not set foot in and that I had to navigate around. The very first one, after I was in Ethiopia, was Eritrea. It would not let me through. Sudan did not grant me a visa, given my history of having been imprisoned there, in 2006. Yemen was hesitant to give me a visa, on security grounds. Turkmenistan did not give me a visa, because it is a closed police state. Iran did not give me a visa, because relations between the US and Iran are so poor. And all of these places that shut their doors determined the direction of the walk. So I had to literally walk around countries, including very large ones like Iran. That said, what I like to keep in mind so I’m not disappointed or frustrated is that all of these obstacles contribute to the learning process of the journey. This is a learning journey for me just as it was a learning journey for our ancestors who had to walk around obstacles like glaciers or oceans or what have you. You innovate your way, you pivot, you do something. You can’t just stand there in front of a closed door. So as a result of not being able to go through the African side of the Red Sea nor through Eritrea or Sudan to exit Africa, for example, I was obliged to walk through Arabia. I miraculously got permission to walk through Saudi Arabia. It was very rare to get permission to do that. So it turned out to be a win in terms of storytelling. The same goes for Iran. I was very disappointed not to go to Iran; it’s a very important country in the history of migration and the history of human civilization. But by not being permitted to come in, I was obliged to walk north through the Caucasus, a place I knew almost nothing about, and that wasn’t on my psychological map at all. And it turned out to be one of the most amazing places I’ve been to on my journey. I would not have experienced it had Iran allowed me to cross its border. So with every closed door, another window or crack or crevice opens somewhere else and leads to interesting tangents.
BLVR: What has been your most difficult border crossing?
PS: There are a few borders that have been a bit of a challenge. The first probably was Djibouti, a small country on the tip of the horn of Africa that faces the Gulf of Aden. I arrived there on foot from the Great Rift Valley of Ethiopia just when the Somali piracy crisis was at its peak, and it was extremely difficult to find a ship to go across the Bab el-Mandeb Strait to get to Saudi Arabia, which was the only country that had granted me a visa. So I sat in Djibouti City, the capital, for six weeks, waiting for a ship. Ships were not taking on civilian passengers, because they didn’t want the insurance risk if they were attacked by pirates. So I finally managed, with some help from local shipping agents and a variety of other sources and friends, to get a berth on a boat carrying thousands of camels and goats and sheep to Saudi Arabia. That was a challenging border.
Another challenging one was getting into Israel—the occupied West Bank—from Jordan. That security, of course, was incredible. I was not allowed to walk across the border. I had to get on a little shuttle, which was a break in the walk, and be bussed across the Jordan River. It was all of two hundred meters.
Another challenging border was walking into Pakistan. Even though I had a visa and the approval and the knowledge of the foreign ministry of Pakistan, I guess the Pakistani government had not spread the word to the security agencies, so upon coming down the high mountains of the Hindu Kush into Pakistan, my walking partners and I were immediately arrested by the ISI [the Inter-Services Intelligence agency] and held in a political safe house before essentially being deported. I don’t think we were officially deported, but we were practically deported, if not legally. We were put on the first plane out of Islamabad, which happened to be going to Abu Dhabi. That was a rather dramatic transition, from high alpine peaks at sixteen thousand feet to a broiling Arabian city down at sea level. I was still wearing my snow pants when I arrived at the Abu Dhabi airport.
II. “A GOLDEN AGE OF MIGRATION”
BLVR: Stories, whether about climate change or migration or culture, don’t often begin and end neatly at borderlines. Has the existence of certain borders created challenges for you in reporting a global or regional story across them?
PS: You know, it’s the opposite. It’s not so much that imaginary political boundaries make it hard to report on trans-boundary issues. And, of course, trans-boundary issues are really the only real issues—the physical world, climate, water crises, human migration, et cetera, don’t stop at borders. So it’s just the opposite. I point out to my readers that borders are irrelevant to most of the pressing issues of our century, the ones that we’re all going to be facing as we walk together into the twenty-first century, and it helps me point out the paradox and the irony of these lines: how hard they are, on one hand—they do stop people. They stop me; they stop millions of other migrants. But on the other hand, borders don’t stop weather patterns, they don’t stop flowing rivers, they don’t stop disease or violence. Violence spills over these imaginary lines. So it’s this tension between what is stopped and what isn’t that’s always in flux. That’s again what makes these boundaries so fascinating. They aren’t so much walls, or as much as we would like them to be—some of us, anyway. This return to tribalism, this advocacy for building the Great Wall of China again using Iron Age technology for twenty-first-century problems—that’s not going to work. It didn’t work even back in the Iron Age. Just ask the Chinese. But these boundaries are instead more porous. They’re like membranes, like living tissue. They allow certain molecules in and out, and that’s just the nature of nature. There’s been no boundary that’s stopped anything forever.
BLVR: You’ve written that the Syrian refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian event of our time, one that will have repercussions for lifetimes to come. You witnessed Syrian Kurds attempting to cross into Turkey at Kobani in 2014. What did you see there?
PS: Yeah, walking near the Turkish-Syrian border in the summer of 2014 was the most dramatic and heartbreaking synergy between my voluntary project, which is kind of an intellectual exercise and an intellectual journey across borders, and a very real trans-border crisis involving refugees fleeing mass violence. I happened to be on that border of Turkey and Syria just as a major city was about to be overtaken by ISIS, and tens of thousands of civilian Kurds—mostly women and children, because the men had stayed behind to fight—were stampeding to the Turkish border. They were begging the Turkish military to let them in because ISIS was nipping at their heels—you could see smoke columns coming from the city where there had been artillery strikes, and you could hear gunfire. To the Turks’ credit, the commander of the Turkish unit at that location pulled his men away from the border and the people fleeing basically pushed down these barbed wire fences with their bodies, the weight of their bodies. They toppled over into Turkey and went stampeding across fallow melon fields. It was a heartbreaking scene to see, and very sobering. It’s one of these scenes of human tragedy and chaos that I’ll take with me to the end of my days.
BLVR: Political borders are only one constraint of the human right to freedom of movement. There are also checkpoints, physical walls, and police control of public spaces. Where have you seen people most affected by such state controls?
PS: I think this is probably the most fascinating question of all about borders and boundaries. We have the physical ones—barbed wire, razor wire coils, chain link, concrete barriers between countries—but probably equally powerful in restricting our lives are the internal borders that we’ve allowed to be drawn in our minds, the ones that are planted there by governments, by ideology, by religions, by our own personal biases. Because those boundaries that reside in the corrugations of our brains are the hardest to overcome. You can’t have a political summit and tear down those walls—you have to do the work yourself to tear down these internal divisions between yourself and other people.
Just one example of this would be in Uzbekistan. It’s a very big country and it took six months to go across, and I was arrested frequently. At the time it was an Orwellian police state run by a dictator who had a massive security organ supporting his regime. And although I’d gotten permission to walk across Uzbekistan, I was stopped constantly. But it wasn’t the police who were stopping me. It was ordinary people. It was farmers; it was passersby who were calling the police on us because we looked alien, we looked foreign, and they had been imbibing this ideology of paranoia and fear about terrorists in their country since kindergarten. They had been taught from a very early age that if you see anyone who looks different from you, who looks unusual, you report it to the security forces. It was actually very disheartening. It was even more demoralizing than, say, if we’d been stopped all the time by military checkpoints. Because basically what it meant was that the border between me and the Uzbeks resided in the minds of every single Uzbek who had bought into this ideology of otherness. It was spooky and exhausting. There’s even a word for it in Central Asia, mankurt, which means “zombie.” My Uzbek walking partners were using this insult on the ordinary people who were siccing the police on us every day.
BLVR: To what extent has your own status as an American passport holder affected your ability to walk and report?
PS: I have no illusions. I try to make it crystal clear to my readers that I’m a very privileged walker. I’m one particle of humanity moving against a giant ocean of migration. We’re living in a golden age of migration right now: The UN says that more than a billion people are on foot, moving mostly within countries, a vast tide of people moving from rural to urban areas. Also between countries—hundreds of millions of people seeking out better lives but also fleeing mass violence, war, crushing poverty, persecution. I’m a very privileged particle moving among these folks. I’m perhaps able to relate to them better because I am moving on their plane, on foot, and not in a fancy rented car with the windows rolled up, as many foreign correspondents do after they land in an airport to cover a story. But despite that kind of leveling, I’m still not like them. I’m different from them. Because I’m privileged, I’m white, I’m a man, and I carry this passport that gets me into many countries that some people can’t get into. I’m very aware of that. That said, this passport is good only up to a point, and it also carries a big ideological burden. I think the fact that I am carrying an American passport sealed my fate in not being able to walk across Iran, for example. Had I been carrying an Irish or an Australian passport, I think I probably would have been given permission. What’s great, though, about moving today across borders in our increasingly multipolar world is that both the upside and the downside of carrying a US passport are starting to fade. It’s not the same kind of monolithic document that it was during the Cold War. It’s becoming one passport among many.
III. THE NEW DIVIDES
BLVR: Our world is also defined by borders that are not geopolitical: the divide between rural and urban, developed and developing economies, the onset of the Anthropocene. What border divide do you see as the most significant for humans today?
PS: I would agree that the conventional definitions of what borders are and what they do and how they have divided our planet during the last century need to be reconfigured. It used to be, in my parents’ generation, that the East-West border, the Berlin Wall, the border between communism and capitalism, between the free market and centralized markets, divided the world. But today I would say there are two other divides. Two other borders are more important now, and have eclipsed the Cold War divides. One is the divide between the Global North and the Global South. It’s the border between the developed world and the developing world. As the divide between income grows and grows and resources become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, we’re seeing the North-South paradigm not just globally but even within societies such as the United States. South Chicago versus North Chicago. The American South versus the American North. That kind of economic divide is within our communities; it now runs through our streets and our neighborhoods in ways that are much more immediate and visceral and painful than the abstraction of the East-West divide a generation ago. It’s become much more universal and unfair.
The second divide is gender. One thing this walk across the world has cemented in my mind is that the gender divide between men and women remains unjust and unaddressed. I think a lot of lip service has been given to it. I think the #MeToo movement and those kinds of developments in the Global North are wonderful. But they don’t really have many repercussions in, say, the village in Assam where I’m sitting right now, in northeastern India. That border, that frontier, is vast. The wall there is sky-high. It remains almost impassable.
BLVR: Has your understanding of borders and their effects on people changed over the course of the past six years?
PS: Not really. I’ve been confronting these issues about the inner-ness and outer-ness of borders for decades. In fact, it’s my biography. I live on borders. Since I was young, I’ve had borders running through me. I’m a white guy who would pass as [part of] a majority demographic walking down the streets of New York or Chicago, but I’ve got this identity running inside me that’s invisible because I was raised in a Mexican village. I’ve got the insider-outsider border running through me on multiple levels. The Rio Grande runs through me, if you will. Having grown up being the only Anglo-American kid in my Mexican school for years has made me acutely aware, I think, of the power of these borders and especially of the internal ones, which are the more interesting ones to me. Both in terms of storytelling but also in terms of just being true. These external borders, the ones that are made of concrete and steel and wire, are actually the simplest ones to overcome. It’s the internal ones that are the biggest challenge; those are the ones that we as writers and storytellers come back to again and again. They are not the border. They, in fact, are at the heart of the matter of being human.
IV. “THE WORLD IS WONDROUS IF YOU CHOOSE TO SLOW DOWN AND LOOK AT IT.”
BLVR: Each story you publish is a stand-alone piece, but it’s always connected to a single larger narrative provided by the Out of Eden Walk. Given the project’s geographical and chronological breadth—twenty-four thousand miles to be covered over ten years or more—how do you maintain continuity between stories and keep a larger clarity in the storytelling?
PS: From walking, from the forward thrust of the narrative. I’m not starting from zero every time. When I was a global journalist, I’d be writing about music in Soweto one week, and the next I was in Saudi Arabia covering 9/11. What helps my narrative process now is this continuation of through lines that most readers don’t see. I’ve written about migration many, many times on this project—which is about migration—so I have a kit bag of experience I can draw on and it’s never repetitive. I’ve written about forced migration because of the Syrian war, I’ve written about economic migration in Central Asia, and middle-class or farming kids in India wanting to go to Hollywood or Toronto. The narrative through line. Think of it this way: It’s a rope. It’s a braid. The thread of that braid surfaces and then disappears. It’s still connected to something behind it. By walking it, by literally stitching the surface of the continents with my feet, it’s a richer and more rewarding writing experience than if I were doing a story on migration, then flying to somewhere else. It would be harder to make these connections, because I’m connecting them somatically, through my body. It sounds a little bit like hocus-pocus, but I think the body does have wisdom.
BLVR: How do the writing and walking become synchronous?
PS: In Turkey, we’d find walking paths created by a million dead and forgotten wanderers who literally wore a line in solid rock. It was the same when we crossed the mountains of Saudi Arabia in the Hejaz desert. The way you accelerate and decelerate on these pathways that have been hewn by muscle and sinew and not by machine—they fit your body perfectly. They have been built for your body; they were not built for wheels; they were not built for motor vehicles. There are parts of those trails that have chords in them, like paths or lines of a minor chord and major chord in music. They last a hundred meters, and then the chord changes and continues another twenty. It is a musical line and your body is like a string that is being plucked as you’re moving through. You get into this state that is familiar to athletes, and there are many, many days—I’ve lost count of how many—when I feel like I could walk to the edge of the earth and never stop. It’s not just me; it’s my walking partners. We will look at one another.
BLVR: As you said, the story continues behind you: it starts sixty thousand years in the past, with the start of human migration. So how do you contend with this enormity of temporal scale and also spatial scale when you’re deciding how to tell a story? Does it feel overwhelming?
PS: It makes everything seem puny by comparison. The deep history aspect of the project is really important as a kind of general narrative template, a narrative bedrock, but not every story is connected to it, at least not obviously. I like to think that in subtle ways it is. It’s fun and hopefully illuminating to make these connections to the past. Sometimes they’re fairly new connections—I talk about nuclear waste dumps under the Soviet regime in some of my dispatches from Central Asia, and then I talk about the apparition of stone monuments and patterns that extend for miles on the steppes of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that can be seen by satellite but not from the ground. They turned out to be animal traps. Those are really cool stories. It becomes, then, walking not just spatially through longitude and latitude, but walking through time. There’s this idea that I’m contending with as a writer that when I write about things like globalization, economics, culture, war, whatever, I’m now more aware of how to use my body to move through stories, and that there’s a topography of time that’s chronologically continuous. When I’m coming through remote valleys in the mountains of Afghanistan, time is pooled, and it’s been pooled. And then when I come down onto a big highway that’s now a route to China, time is a river; it’s whizzing and sped-up. In a single day I can be moving through the Pleistocene, then through the twenty-first century. It’s head-spinning and wonderful. That’s maybe the thing that keeps me going with walking and writing—that it makes the world wondrous again. The world is wondrous if you choose to slow down and look at it.
BLVR: Yes, there’s a great beauty to the walk that I think imbues it with optimism. But one of the big themes of the walk is also the Anthropocene. We’ve entered an era when we’ve fundamentally altered the conditions of the planet to a point where there’s no return.
PS: Yes. Moving across eighteen thousand or maybe nineteen thousand kilometers of the planet on foot, it’s been very rare to find a piece of the planet that is unscathed by our presence. We’ve radically altered the planet.
BLVR: Were you surprised by that?
PS: Yes. I thought that in these really remote deserts, I’d find some sort of untouched corner, but even there, we’re there. There was blown trash, roads, pipelines.
BLVR: Do you have a sense of doom when you pass through some of these areas?
PS: So on the one hand that’s depressing and sobering, but instead of making me gloomy or even fatalistic, the weird thing about a literary project that’s premised on slowing down your life to a walking pace and then using the past as a mirror is that you quickly circle back from depression to a kind of informed equanimity. It’s not that you don’t care, that you’re not sorrowed, that you don’t want to effect change or try to share wisdom or gain wisdom, but there’s an equanimity that comes that’s very monkish and very pilgrim-like. One day, in a geological heartbeat, glaciers will come across the desert and they will sweep all of this stuff into a giant moraine full of junk, concrete, rebar, bronze, statues. All of it. Elon Musk’s electric cars and his rocket ships, all of it into a moraine and that will be one heartbeat. And then it will start over again.