In 2013, US journalist and two-time Pulitzer-prize winner Paul Salopek embarked on a 21,000-mile odyssey — on foot. He took his first step in Ethiopia, determined to take his last in South America. So far, he has walked some 5,000 miles.
Salopek is retracing the steps and reliving the memories of the first homosapiens who came out of Africa. His walking project, “Out of Eden Walk”, sponsored by National Geographic, is covering contemporary stories of our time – such as climate change, technological innovation and the global refugee crisis – by giving voice to unheard people from around the world. He aims to come up with a "global mosaic" consisting of the written word, photography and video/audio recordings from his entire journey.
Paul entered Pakistan through the Wakhan corridor that runs through Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Herald caught up with him in Lahore as he was preparing to walk towards his next destination: New Delhi.
Shah Meer Baloch. What were your perceptions about Pakistan before you came? Have they changed now that you have seen the country and met some of its people?
Paul Salopek. The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that I have met new kinds of people – meaning new sub-cultures, like in Gilgit-Baltistan, which was not on my psychic map. [Gilgit-Baltisan] was neither like Central Asia, nor South Asia. [It] is a kind of crossroads where you have elements of both. It is a place which has been Buddhist and Zoroastrian for a very long time. Islam came relatively recently to the region because it is a tough place to get into. I found its cultural underpinnings to be new to me – the fact that in some places, like in Nagar Valley, they practice Shamanism, or that there is architecture that has Austrian elements, and still living in people's houses, not public buildings. In some remote corners, they still make wine. Who knew those surprises! On the other hand, it was not like I was [completely] shocked because I am not a tourist who [grew up] in a small town.
It struck me particularly … just how little people know about their fellow Pakistanis. For instance, someone living in Sindh has very little information about someone living in Gilgit, and vice versa. Pakistan is a combination of countries. The isolation of Pakistanis from [each other] surprises me a lot. Someone from Balochistan walking through Gilgit-Baltistan would be like a foreigner, as I was.
Baloch. How have you laid out your map? Was the common belief that mankind began in Ethiopia a driving force?
Salopek. If you study the science of [our] human origins, most scientists will tell you that Africa is the cradle of our species, anthropologically speaking. But actually, scientists have also found new discoveries and they are older than [those in] Ethiopia. One was found in Morocco, which dates back to hundreds of thousands of years.
I am using Ethiopia as a symbolic starting line. In 2013, a fossil site [there] held the oldest Homo sapiens bones in the world. Science is a living thing that changes — if it didn’t, then it would become an ideology. My project will acknowledge such change. Science is providing the map for my personal migration.
Baloch. Is it your love for walking which enabled you to take such an adventurous trip?
Salopek. Of course not. If I did not have storytelling propelling me, I would have stopped my project thousands of kilometers ago because walking in itself is not enough to keep me going. What is interesting to me is storytelling. The panorama of stories changes endlessly from day to day. The purpose [behind the walking] is very important.
Baloch. Have you witnessed anything similar in different parts of the world?
Salopek: Almost everything — I think the easier thing is to ask what doesn't separate us. I am a scientist by training. If you look at our DNA, we are 50 times closer to one another than chimpanzees are to each other. We are cousins. We spread out of Africa only 60,000 or 70,000 years ago, which sounds like a long time but actually isn’t [when using] a biological time frame.
People are concerned with the stories that they tell, and you often hear the same story over and over again. Whether you are a chubhan (shepherd) in Turkey, whether you are a politician in Lahore treating someone to chai, if you spend enough time with [people], they will all [tell] the same story. So it is like we are 99 per cent the same, but that little difference [of one per cent] is what makes us unique. For 99 per cent, your story is mine, but your one per cent of uniqueness is where storytelling happens. That's what you have got to find.
Baloch. Of all the places you have visited, are there any that you would especially like to return to?
Salopek. I would go back to Georgia because they have delicious kuchapuri and have good castles. But I want to go there because the people are great. The same goes for Pakistan, where people are very hospitable. I want to live in a place where people are good, because for me, people are more important than anything else.
Baloch. How do you think that mass migration affects the host, particularly in the context of culture?
Salopek. It is not easy to answer because it varies from case to case. But mass migration has serious implications on culture and they can be both negative and positive. It changes the society from the very beginning. I think we should create a "migration beat" in every magazine — not to point only to negative things, but to point to how migration can also bring change in unexpected ways, both good and bad.
Syrians who were forced to migrate to Turkey are now more than one million. Turkey was extremely generous to them. She opened up her borders and built for them the best high-tech camps in the world. Turkey provided enormous support to them, but now they are working hard to integrate them within Turkey. And the [ethnic] Turks in Turkey are debating [this issue] and fearing that the migrants might outnumber them like the Chinese in Balochistan or Pakistan. And they fear that they can't be Turks anymore.
Migrants also bring amazing energy with themselves because they have nothing else. This sort of energy can be positive, but it is also scary. There is no question to it. I don't blame [the native] people because they see their villages and cities changing. That's happening in North America and Europe.
Historically, most of the time when migration is for [peaceful purposes], and the motive is not to occupy the [new] country or use Changez Khan's invader model, then it is a positive [thing] because migrants come with new ideas.
As Pakistanis live on the new and old ‘Silk Road', they know that if the Chinese had not invented paper, and paper had not spread to the world through the ancient Silk Road, Europeans would have still been writing on animal skins. There are always winners and losers. But we have to be smart and try to make the most of the winners.
Baloch. You have only walked a small length of Pakistan. How will you use this part of your journey to give a holistic view of Pakistan?
Salopek. I sometimes have to tell readers that I do not have enough time [to tell the whole story]. Ten years might seem like a long time, but in reality it is not. If I happen to go to West Karachi or Sindh, then I have to double my time in Pakistan, maybe more. But I have discussed with my walking partner, Naveed Khan, that we should do a biking trip to the nearby places that were part of the Indus Valley civilisation, before I walk to New Delhi.
Baloch. What would you suggest to those who want to follow your footsteps?
Salopek. I am not an activist. I really don't have any intentions to be a guru. I am not doing [this [project] to set an example for people because the odds are it won’t help anybody else. I am a journalist and a storyteller and I am doing it for stories. If a young one says, "How can I do what you do?” I would say, “Don't do what I do. Go and do something different. What moves you? What is that? Is it art or philanthropy?” Be original and come up with your own ideas. Do what moves you. I think it would be foolish to follow my footsteps.
The writer is a former visiting fellow at the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.