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From Eden to the End of the World: Reporter’s Seven-Year Journey Traces Humanity

December 12, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Starting in January 2013, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek will set out from Africa's Great Rift Valley on a seven-year, 21,000-mile journey, tracing the believed path of ancient human migration. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Salopek about his assignment, one he will spend travelling by foot as much as possible.

TRANSCRIPT

HARI SREENIVASAN: Paul Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who has immersed himself in his reporting. From riding a mule across Mexico to canoeing down the Congo, he’s been a committed foreign correspondent.

But beginning next month, Salopek will embark on a 21,000-mile walk from Africa to Patagonia, tracing the ancient path of human migration. The journey, sponsored in part by “The National Geographic,” will take an estimated seven years to complete.

Paul Salopek, thanks for joining us.

PAUL SALOPEK, National Geographic fellow: Good to be here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, the first question most people ask is, why?

PAUL SALOPEK: Storytelling. That’s the bottom line of this walk. It’s not an athletic event. It’s not an endurance feat. It’s all about communicating in the 21st century, slowing people down.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so why that slow journalism? Is it something — is it a reaction to what you have seen and the speed of Twitter and Facebook and everything else?

PAUL SALOPEK: I’m not against Twitter or Facebook. I think they’re wonderful ways of getting information around.

But I’m interested in long-form journalism, long-form storytelling. And I worry about finding a space for them in today’s world, stories with beginnings, middles and end. So if I slow down stories to three miles an hour, let’s see if people follow along.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what kind of updates are we going to see from you? I know there’s one big National Geographic story per year, but in between, what kind of — how are you going to be updating us?

PAUL SALOPEK: We have a joint Web portal between all of my partners, outofedenwalk.com, where there will be episodic reports. There will be reports that come up as the human topography merits it.

If it’s a great story, the story will surface. But what I won’t be doing — at least I don’t contemplate doing it — is micro-blogging the Johnny. I think that would get boring very fast. I will save the good stuff, gather the string, and then spring it on people.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what are the topics that you are interested in covering?

PAUL SALOPEK: Stories that I have covered in the past, climate change, conflict, economic development, local innovations. I’m interested in finding local solutions to big problems, stories that don’t get told because we’re moving too fast to see them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And so this is, as we mentioned, a seven-year trip. And when we take a look at that route, you’re leaving Africa, going through Central Asia, up around China, across the Bering Strait — I’m assuming you’re taking a boat there — and then down through the Americas.

PAUL SALOPEK: Yes.

HARI SREENIVASAN: One of those, as I’m noticing, the straight line goes right through Iran. How are you going to get through that?

PAUL SALOPEK: I think that, Iran, straddles an ancient migration path into Central Asia. And, ideally, it would be wonderful to set off on foot across Iran.

I’m going to see what relations are like in late 2015. Hopefully, they’re well enough, good enough, to allow me to go through Iran.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And if there’s a necessary detour, how long does that take to get around?

PAUL SALOPEK: It’s a big place to walk around.

Part of the beauty, I think, of this long project is that there are going to be obstacles that I don’t know answers to about how to get around them until I get there. And we will see.

Serendipity is a big part of this project.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what are the types of steps you have been taking? You have been planning this for the last couple of years. So, what are we talking about, visas, immunizations? What else?

PAUL SALOPEK: There’s a lot of logistical planning that’s gone into getting mainly governments comfortable with somebody walking through their territories. It’s an unusual request, as you might imagine.

But a lot of it also is just finding the stories en route, pre-reporting them, and, frankly, leaving some of it open. Don’t overplan it, because when our ancestors dispersed out of Africa, they didn’t have a map. They didn’t have a plan. And so we’re kind of matching that spirit.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you’re doing something interesting. I read that you are going to be doing these transects every hundred miles. Explain what those are.

We have got a couple videos of them, but what are we seeing?

PAUL SALOPEK: Basically, as well as the long-form literary writing that I hope to do episodically, every 100 miles along this 21,000-mile route, I will be stopping to take a set of narrative readings, whether it’s a 360-degree panorama of the Earth’s surface, a recording of the ambient sound of the Earth’s surface, a photograph of the sky, a photograph of the surface of the Earth, to create these shards in a larger mosaic that will give basically a picture, a slice of life on the surface of the Earth at the turn of the millennium.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And you’re carrying everything. There’s not a huge SAG wagon, so to speak, in ultra-marathon race terms. Everything you have got is going to be on your backpack and you’re just hiking.

PAUL SALOPEK: That’s correct.

The idea is to go light, to — and the trend in technological miniaturization is going in my direction. Things are getting smaller. The kind of communications gear I will be carrying now will be obsolete by the time I’m halfway through, and that’s part of the story, too.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes.

And I think that some folks are going to be concerned about your physical safety from other humans, but I’m also as concerned about your biological safety. What are you going to be taking with you? Antibiotics? Any other precautions? You’re eating and drinking whatever is available out there.

PAUL SALOPEK: That’s right.

The idea is to live close to the ground, to eat what local people are eating. All I can say is that I have sort of — I have had a background, 15 years of living around the world, where I have got a pretty good immune system. I have got a pretty good stomach. I will be taking a small med kit with the usual antibiotics, et cetera.

Preventive medicine is going to be the key here, because I cannot carry a pharmacy on my back.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And what about — what about safety the old-fashioned way? Who’s looking out for you? Who’s got your back in case you do run into a sticky situation?

PAUL SALOPEK: I have got a collection of friends and supporters back here, not just National Geographic but The Knight Foundation, the Nieman Foundation at Harvard, the Pulitzer Center, who will be helping me basically navigate these trouble spots, if there are new ones along the way that I’m not aware of.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, we’re raising your awareness. There are other people around the world that are.

What is the danger here in potentially becoming a celebrity? I call it the Forrest Gump effect. There you are running along. You just start to pick up more people along the way. How are you going to deal with that?

PAUL SALOPEK: It’s a really important — it’s a conundrum, because my reporting method is observational, quietly watching the world unfold around me, getting into people’s lives.

And for them to admit me in their lives, I have to be quiet. I have to listen. If this becomes too much of a spectacle, I can’t work. And so I’m still figuring this out. In today’s wired world, how anonymous can I be? I am on TV, after all.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right.

(LAUGHTER)

HARI SREENIVASAN: That’s right.

We are going to continue this conversation online with more of your questions.

Paul Salopek, thanks so much for joining us.

PAUL SALOPEK: It’s a pleasure to be here.