Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.
When walking the world over a span of years, and across continents, one must default to rituals as old as the bedrock of time.
Living mostly outdoors, as did the first human pioneers who walked the Earth, I measure my existence by the sun: by its angle above the horizon, by its life-giving warmth, by its killing heat. I move according to seasons. Deserts I cross in winter. In mountains, I must wait for spring. Two universal waypoints remain important: water and people. As I retrace, on foot, the pathways of Stone Age ancestors’ first wanderings across the planet for the Out of Eden Walk storytelling project, it seems that even our bygone meetings with strange, new peoples—wary first contact—still have echoes today: a police stop.
From the very first steps of my trek out of Ethiopia in early 2013, I began geotagging my encounters with law enforcement officers along my route.
Police stops along the route
The reason: Mapping police stops on a global trek might help illuminate, even anecdotally, the complex meanings of otherness in our times—a golden age of migration, when more people than ever before are on the move, either voluntarily or by force. Where we travel, of course, is important. But where we are stopped, and why, are key elements of the human journey.
Our updated police stop map shows that—to date, more than six years into my global trail—I have been stopped by every conceivable type of security officer exactly 103 times. Logged over some 11,000 miles (17,600 kilometers) covered so far, this averages out to roughly one police stop every 100 miles. Not too bad. A century or two ago, before the advent of mass travel, an alien like me plodding through the local landscape would have drawn far more scrutiny. My path would likely have been blocked.
So, check out the latest waypoints on our interactive map, plotted by our partners at the Center for Geographic Analysis, at Harvard University.
The map’s colored icons represent friendly police stops, investigative stops, and detentions. Click on an icon, and a short description of that police encounter, and sometimes a photo, will pop up.
At my very first police stop, in the barren Rift Valley of Africa, Ethiopian officers impounded my two cargo camels, A'urta and Suma'atuli, inside a walled compound beside a jail. The lawmen were just doing their job: It was a rough frontier, and they believed the camels were stolen. The latest stop, in eastern India, meanwhile, highlighted the sad and inescapable power imbalance between pedestrians and cars across our motorized world today. An officer manning a roadside checkpoint demanded to see my documents. My Indian walking partners, Siddharth Agarwal and Priyanka Borpujari, challenged him. They noted that he wasn’t similarly checking passing drivers. The cop smiled. And waved us through.
In fact, rural India has been a pedestrian’s dream.
Perhaps because the vast country still enjoys a strong tradition of foot pilgrimages, and walkers by the millions inch along countless roads and highways, I fit in. My local partners and I have logged more than 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) across the nation on foot, yet we have been stopped by police only 10 times. The hot spot for police stops so far has been Uzbekistan (35). In Kazakhstan, there were none, but that was because I walked through wilderness—wild steppes. On those vast and lonesome horizons, a policeman would have been welcome.