Walking the World With Paul Salopek
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek is retracing—on foot—the global migration of our ancestors in a 21,000-mile, seven-year odyssey that began in Ethiopia and will end at the tip of South America.
Here’s a look at the world through Paul Salopek’s unique lens:
Kevin Kunitake: Where do you call home?
Paul Salopek: Out walking, I get asked this question almost every day, as you might imagine.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
I was born in the United States, raised in central Mexico, and spent most of my career moving around Africa. So it gets complicated.
The simplest and most honest answer is: “The square meter of Earth I’m standing on right now.”
Has the Out of Eden project challenged your notion of home?
My father was a painter and restless soul—a professional exile—so I never really had a hometown to take someone to. I crossed my first international border at age 6 and haven’t stopped since.
While I live in places—sometimes for years—I don’t identify with place. I connect the idea of “home” more with people: I travel to and from people. People are both my refuge and my destination. The towns where they live and where I happen to live at any given time aren’t that important.
That makes you a fairly unique human. How do you relate to people who have a deep connection with the place where they live when you’re traveling?
People who identify with place are often “house proud.” They genuinely wish you to like their city or village or neighborhood because they see place as an extension of themselves. As if you were being asked to judge their body, their personality, and not the local parks, sunsets, cuisine, or architecture.
I don’t understand it. But it is very human, and very moving because it displays vulnerability. This is a good thing.
Tell us more about the walk.
It’s a project about narrative.
Walking is almost incidental to the effort—a mechanical means to a higher end. In partnership with National Geographic and the Knight Foundation, I am trying to link the oldest form of storytelling—the wandering bard—with the latest digital technology in an effort to subvert the worst expectations of the web: that online media has to be shallow, trivial, banal.
By slowing down my storytelling, I’m hoping to slow readers down as well, and hopefully cultivate a vanishing resource called attention spans.
The world is growing complicated. To understand it, we don’t need more information, we need more meaning. A walked journey spanning four continents and seven years is just one way to try and tackle this challenge.
Does anyone come to visit you while you’re walking?
Yes. [When someone comes to visit me wherever I happen to be], I take them, preferably on foot, to eat with the people I know—to other congenial human beings with a story. We meet at a restaurant. A bar. My kitchen du jour.
Breaking bread is the universal bonding mechanism of humanity. At a table, over food, one has no enemies. At least not for the duration of that meal. Wars taught me this.
What’s the biggest misconception about the way you live?
That it’s lonely.
On the contrary, not having a home, a physical address, is liberating. It’s not solitary at all—it’s quite crowded. A vagabond’s house is large and airy. It accommodates multitudes, including the stranger met along the trail who waves you under her mulberry tree to drink chai.
How has constant travel changed you?
It has made me a light packer. I am forced to carry the essences of people with me—not their rich deep nuances, perhaps, gleaned from lifelong friendships, but their iron-nickel cores, the condensed elements of their individuality that are just as true and more portable.
Beyond this, it is hard to say. “A man’s at odds to know his mind cause his mind is aught he has to know it with. He can know his heart, but he don’t want to. Rightly so. Best not to look in there.” That’s Cormac McCarthy. I work this quote into every interview.
Tell us more about packing and how you get around.
I used to backpack a lot but finally couldn’t stand the loads—weight turns walking into torture.
Then I rode mules. That was a revelation. [When you’re in] a saddle, your eyes, freed from your feet (no need to scrutinize foot placement), can scan the world 10 feet above the ground: The tops of junipers float past like miniature bergs.
But being on horseback puts you above ordinary people, too, and that creates a barrier.
So I’m back to walking with little or no load. On this project I limit my pack to 10 kilos, and use cargo animals whenever possible.
Walking unburdened, you can look a woman or man in the eyes and play with kids who tag along. It’s the ultimate form of locomotion for gathering and telling stories.
You used to be a pilot. What drew you to flying?
A small plane is like a car that has wings, and that’s nice. I remember feathering a Piper Tomahawk a few feet above the empty roads that unspool over the hills of central California.
[I also] worked at sea for years as a commercial fisherman. There is a power in that rolling form of movement that stems from the knowledge that you are doing the oldest job in the world—the last hunting and gathering in the postindustrial world. But we stripped the seas.
In your opinion, what’s the world’s most underrated destination? Why?
Turkmenistan. Because we can’t get there to rate it.
Only about 6,000 outsiders per year are issued visas. I’m still waiting on mine.
What’s the most memorable souvenir you’ve taken away from a place?
Plasmodium vivax (malaria).
If you could only recommend one place in the world to visit, what would that be?
The port of Namibe, Angola, during the civil war, circa 2000. The mazy narrow lanes paved with beach cobbles. The old Portuguese houses leaning against each other like drunks. The virgin beaches. The sassy virgins. The Benguela current offshore.
There, facing the sea, you witness one of the great natural wonders of the Earth: bronze sunlight backlighting countless millions of mullets, kob, sardines, garrick, and elf that swim in the rollers like specimens trapped inside immense, translucent aquariums. Behind these glittering clouds of fish loom the silhouettes of monstrous sharks.
It’s gone, of course. It was gone the moment I turned, and walked back to the pension run by the diamond trader, to the dirt road north, to the war.
Like every genuine place that we visit, it’s gone the moment we leave.
Trying to recapture such footfalls is ridiculous. I am not talking about tourism, which is about recycling an experience and thus rendering it a facsimile of the thing.
We experience authentic places just as we have real emotions, knowing it’s all unreproducible. And that’s okay. Because that’s what keeps us moving forward.