Paul Salopek: snatches of writing

Reading Paul Salopek feels a bit like dreaming, a bit like remembering.

I first came across him in a beautiful piece he wrote for National Geographic, in which he outlines the whys and how of a planned 21,000-mile, seven-year walk across the world, “retracing the footsteps of our restless forbears”. He begins “To Walk the World” like so:

Walking is falling forward.

Each step we take is an arrested plunge, a collapse averted, a disaster braked. In this way, to walk becomes an act of faith. We perform it daily: a two-beat miracle—an iambic teetering, a holding on and letting go.

For the next seven years I will plummet across the world.

Here are a couple of other quotes.


I.

I am on a journey. I am in pursuit of an idea, a story, a chimera, perhaps a folly. I am chasing ghosts. Starting in humanity’s birthplace in the Great Rift Valley of East Africa, I am retracing, on foot, the pathways of the ancestors who first discovered the Earth at least 60,000 years ago.

This remains by far our greatest voyage. Not because it delivered us the planet. No. But because the early Homo sapiens who first roamed beyond the mother continent—these pioneer nomads numbered, in total, as few as a couple of hundred people—also bequeathed us the subtlest qualities we now associate with being fully human: complex language, abstract thinking, a compulsion to make art, a genius for technological innovation, and the continuum of today’s many races. We know so little about them. They straddled the strait called Bab el Mandeb—the “gate of grief” that cleaves Africa from Arabia—and then exploded, in just 2,500 generations, a geological heartbeat, to the remotest habitable fringe of the globe.

Millennia behind, I follow.

II.

If you ask, I will tell you that I have embarked on this project, which I’m calling the Out of Eden Walk, for many reasons: to relearn the contours of our planet at the human pace of three miles an hour. To slow down. To think. To write. To render current events as a form of pilgrimage. I hope to repair certain important connections burned through by artificial speed, by inattentiveness.

I walk, as everyone does, to see what lies ahead.

I walk to remember.

III.

Mohamed Elema Hessan—wiry and energetic, the ultimate go-to man, a charming rogue, my guide and protector through the blistering Afar Triangle—doubles over and laughs. He leads our micro-caravan: two skinny camels. I have listened to his guffaw many times already. This project is, to him, a punch line—a cosmic joke. To walk for seven years! Across three continents! Enduring hardship, loneliness, uncertainty, fear, exhaustion, confusion—all for a rucksack’s worth of ideas, palaver, scientific and literary conceits. He enjoys the absurdity of it. This is fitting.

Raised in a nomad culture feared for its tough warriors, Elema speaks three languages—Afar, Amharic, and a profane English patois gleaned from the Middle Awash scientists. He is a paleontologist in his own right. He exclaims “Wow” and “Crazy, man” and “Jeezus” while identifying the Rift’s key geological strata. (Me he calls, not without endearment, White Asshole; I return the compliment with equal fondness, dubbing him and his perennial rash, Burned Asshole.) He is the balabat, or traditional leader, of the Bouri-Modaitu clan of the Afar. His cell phone holds the numbers of Ethiopian grandees and French academics. Educated to the eighth grade in schools of the Emperor Haile Selassie, he bridges more cultures than a Malinowski. He holds more time warps inside his head than an Einstein. He is a phenomenon.

IV.

Footwear is a hallmark of modern identity. How best to glimpse an individual’s core values at the start of the 21st century? Look down at people’s feet—not into their eyes.

In the affluent “global north,” where fashion caters to every whim and vanity, shoes announce their wearer’s class, hipness, career choice, sexual availability, even politics (the clog versus the cowboy boot). It is disorienting, then, to be walking through a landscape where human beings—millions upon millions of women, men, and children—slip on identical-style footwear every morning: the cheap, democratic, versatile plastic sandal of Ethiopia.Poverty drives demand. The only brand is necessity.

V.

But the benefits of economic progress are rarely shared equally with all involved. There are winners and losers in every improvement scheme. Here, one of the losers is a bright young Afar woman—a girl, really, though her poise makes her seem old beyond her years. She is wrapped in a red dress. She stands by a new levee. She is collecting water from what used to be the Awash River.

“The company moved us off our land,” she tells us, waving her arm at the sheets of cane. “We get a little work, we Afars, but it is always the lowest work. Watchmen. Shovel work.”

A typical sugar plantation salary: $20 a month. The girl says police came to expel the Afar diehards who refused to move. Shots were exchanged. Blood flowed on both sides.

How old is this story? It is one of the oldest stories in the world.

What are the individual names of the Sioux forced from the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory by gold miners? Who remembers this anymore? Who are the millions of people who surrender their livelihoods today—Irish farmers in the European Union, Mexican ranchers shunted aside by highways—for some abstract common cause? It is impossible to keep track. Humanity remakes the world in an accelerating cycle of change that strips away our stories as well as the topsoil. Our era’s breathtaking changes flatten collective memory, blur precedence, sever lines of responsibility.

(What disconcerts us about suburbia? Not just its sameness, but its absence of time. We crave a past in our landscapes.)

Milan Kundera, the Czech novelist, once wrote that the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

The Afar girl’s name is Dahara. She is 15.

VI.

What is it like to walk through the world?

It is mornings like these: Opening your eyes to nothing but seamless sky for day after day; a pale, numinous void that for one fleeting instant, when you first awake, seems to suck you upward, out of your body, out of yourself.

It is the clarity of hunger, a transparency that seems blown through by the wind, the way a hollow pipe is blown to make it whistle. (We trekked 18 miles yesterday on short rations, on a single bowl of noodles and a handful of biscuits each. My wedding ring, once tight, jiggles loosely along my finger.)

It is learning to read landscape with your whole body, your skin, not merely your eyes—sensing camel fodder in a thorn scratch, the coming dust in the smell of the wind, and of course, precious water in the fold of the land: a limbic memory of great power.

It is watching the eternity of Africa slip by at a walking pace, and coming to realize dimly that, even at three miles an hour, you are still moving too fast.

It is the journey shared.

Mohamed Aidahis: a powerful ant-stomping gait. Kader Yarri: the marionette looseness of a skinny man’s step. Mohamed Elema: the spring-loaded step of a square dancer. On our best days we four ramblers recognize our immense good luck. We ricochet down steep mountain trails, almost running, with the desert of Ethiopia shining at our feet. We bounce our voices off the walls of black-rock canyons in whooping contests. Then we catch each other’s eye, three Afars and a man from the opposite longitude of the Earth, and grin like children. The cameleers catch the spark, and sing.

What is it like to walk through the world?

It is like this. It is like serious play. I will miss these men.

VII.

The dead appear on the 42nd day of the walk.

There are five, six, seven of them—women and men sprawled faceup, facedown, on the black lava plain as if dropped from the sky. Most are naked. They have stripped off their clothes in a final spasm of madness. Sandals, trousers, brassieres, cheap nylon backpacks—their belongings lie scattered, faded, washed out, bleached by the sun to the pale gray of undersea things. The skin of the dead is parched a deep burned yellow. The little wild dogs that come in the night have taken their hands, taken their feet. They might have been Ethiopians. Or Somalis. A few, probably, were Eritreans. They were walking east. This is what unites them now in the mineral silences of the desert: They were making for the Gulf of Aden—for the open boats of the Yemenis who smuggle destitute Africans to peons’ jobs in the Middle East. How many such migrants die in the Afar Triangle? Nobody knows. At least 100,000 attempt the crossing to the Arabian Peninsula each year, according to the UN. Police chase them. They become lost. Thirst kills them.

“A crime!” Houssain Mohamed Houssain shouts back at me. “A disgrace!”

Houssain is my guide in Djibouti. He is a decent man. He is angry and perhaps ashamed. He strides far ahead, shaking his walking stick at the stone white sky.

I lag behind. I wipe the sweat from my eye sockets and study the dead.


Here’s his piece on Hejaz: “The Wells of Memory”.


I.

Three articulate Hejazi women refill the cup endlessly. They take turns talking, wishing to correct misperceptions about Saudi Arabia: that the kingdom is a homogenized society, a culture flattened by its famously austere brand of Islam, a nation rendered dull by escapist consumerism and by petrodollars. No.

Saudi Arabia, they say, is a rich human mosaic. It enfolds many distinctive regions and cultures: a Shiite east, a Yemeni south, a Levantine north, and a tribal Bedouin stronghold in the center—the puritanical redoubt of the Najdis, home of the ruling dynasty, the House of Saud. The women insist, moreover, that no region in Saudi Arabia remains more independent, more proud, than the realm that has guarded the holy cities of Mecca and Medina since the tenth century—the vanished kingdom of the Hejaz. Fully independent by the end of World War I, the Hejaz was annexed by the Al Saud dynasty only in 1925. It remains a place of contradictions, of complexity, of tensions between religion and geography. On the one hand: a sacred landscape, its holy cities long forbidden to nonbelievers. On the other: the most cosmopolitan and liberal corner of Saudi Arabia, a melting pot, an entrepôt and nexus of migration, brightly checkered with influences from Asia, Africa, the Levant, and a hundred other places—the California of Saudi Arabia.

Laila Abduljawad, a cultural preservationist: “The Hejaz has attracted pilgrims from every corner of the Islamic world. How could this not rub off? Our main dish is Bukhari rice from Central Asia! Our folk textiles are Indian! Our accents are Egyptian! We are more open to the world than the people from the center.”

Salma Alireza, a traditional embroiderer: “The traditional dress for women in the Hejaz was not the abaya”—the severe black robe imposed by the ruling Najdis. “Women here used to wear bright red and blue dresses in public. That was traditional. But life changed in the 1960s. The oil money poured in. We modernized too fast. We lost so much in 50 years!”

Rabya Alfadl, a young marketing consultant: “Is the Hejaz still different? Take a look around.”

And it’s true. The women sit at the table unveiled. They wear casual Western clothing: blouses and trousers. (Such a meeting would be difficult to arrange in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, where gender segregation and tribal ways remain so strict that a man will not utter his mother’s name in public.) The house where we chat is sleekly designed, chic, minimalist, global in decor. And outside, in Jeddah’s streets, there are art galleries, cafés, promenades, museums—the cultural hub of Saudi Arabia.

II.

Built of necessity, the wells in the old Hejaz have faded, softened, eroded into objects of beauty and contemplation.

The earliest of these watering stations were established, precisely one day’s walk apart, by the Caliph Umar in A.D. 638. “A traveler is the person worthiest of receiving protection,” he declared, before pioneering the most sophisticated rest-stop system in the ancient world: waypoints on the pilgrims’ trails to Mecca serviced by forts, cisterns, guesthouses, date groves, hospitals, canals, even distance markers.

We trudge the same trails—ribbons of desert burnished by countless shuffling camels, by numberless sandaled feet. Scholars from Timbuktu drank from these wells. So did merchants from Spain seeking frankincense. So did sun-boiled 19th-century European explorers who rambled the Hejaz disguised as pilgrims. One who didn’t pose was a blustery Englishman named Charles M. Doughty. He announced himself to everyone as a Christian, an infidel, and walked with a knife up his sleeve. (Of one caravan swollen with 10,000 animals and 6,000 people, he wrote: “The length of the slow-footed multitude of men and cattle is near two miles, and the width some hundred yards in the open plains.”)

North of the city of Al Wajh we unpack our two camels at a well, utterly ignored by the speeding traffic of a superhighway. This well, called Al Antar, was rendered obsolete a century ago by steamships. It is made absurd today by the pilgrims hurtling overhead in Boeing 777s. I bend over the well’s lip. A damp air breathes up from its darkness, cooling my cheeks. I hear from somewhere far below the calls of startled songbirds. I think: Arabia is like the American West. It is a landscape of terrible absences.

III.

If the Hejaz still inspires romance in the non-Muslim world, it is due to its long caravan of foreign chroniclers.

There is the 19th-century Swiss polymath Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who traveled to the religious core of Islam as a pauper—a “reduced Egyptian gentleman”—and never made it home. (He died of dysentery and was buried with Muslim rites in Cairo.) There is the brilliant and pompous Englishman Richard Francis Burton, who, if he can be believed, actually touched the Kaaba, the holiest of holies—a massive cube of volcanic stone in Mecca toward which all Muslims must pray. These Europeans witnessed a world locked in time. They found Red Sea towns built of shining white coral blocks, their arched doors and window shutters painted sea green and dazzling nomad blue. They passed through walled cities whose tall gates creaked shut at dusk. They galloped camels between fortified oases with wild-haired men, the Bedouin, whom they found harshly admirable. (Burton: “We had another fight before we got to Mecca, and a splendid camel in front of me was shot through the heart.”) This literary Hejaz, if it ever truly existed, has long since disappeared under American-style suburbs and strip malls.

IV.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, more famous as Lawrence of Arabia, is one of our first postmodern heroes: a compromised superman. The young British intelligence officer and Oxford medievalist yearned, subversively, to bring liberty to an Arab world that was then staggering under the corrupt yoke of the Ottoman Turks. Yet he was tormented by the knowledge that the Hejazis who fought alongside him would be betrayed by the European colonial powers that carved up the Middle East after World War I.

“They were a people of spasms, of upheavals, of ideas, the race of the individual genius,” Lawrence wrote of his comrades in the Hejaz. “The desert Arab found no joy like the joy of voluntarily holding back. He found luxury in abnegation, renunciation, self restraint. He made nakedness of the mind as sensuous as nakedness of the body. He saved his own soul, perhaps, and without danger, but in a hard selfishness.”

This is what happens when you peer down wells in the Hejaz. You glimpse your own reflection. Lawrence, an ascetic of empire, was describing himself.

V.

Almutlaq is an earnest, friendly man. He scrambles ahead of me in his white thobe through the walled ghost town located south of Madain Salih. He vaults broken archways and pokes through covered medieval streets. He shows me courtyards where traders hawked incense, lapis, and silk for eight centuries. Kerosene lanterns manufactured in Germany rust on the floors of the empty homes. The legendary Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta passed through in the 14th century, praising the honesty of Al Ula’s populace: Pilgrims stored their luggage here en route to Mecca. Almutlaq takes pride in this fact. He lived and worked in Al Ula as a youth. The site’s residents were trucked, en masse, to modern apartments in the 1970s.

“I remember,” he says, smiling. And he talks of traveling merchants loading bales of Egyptian textiles. Of farmers stalking in at dusk from the fields. Of women talking to each other from windows latticed for modesty.

Twin wells of memory: Almutlaq’s glasses, flashing excitedly amid the dim archaeology of his childhood.


Here’s Salopek’s piece on cars, written as part of his grand seven-year global trek to follow the footsteps of our forbears (saw an opportunity to alliterate and pounced on it like a whiskered demon).


I.

At the walk’s start in the Horn of Africa, one of the last habitable places on earth where automobiles remain scarce — according to the World Bank, Ethiopia musters perhaps two or three motor vehicles per 1,000 people — walking was a near-universal activity. The Rift Valley desert and people’s relationship to it are still shaped by the human foot. Trails unspool everywhere. Everyone functions as a competent walking guide — even small children.

But once I crossed the Red Sea on a camel boat to the Middle East, where car ownership explodes to 300 or more vehicles per 1,000 citizens (the figure in the United States balloons to about 800), I’d entered a region subjugated utterly by the vulcanized rubber tire.

In Saudi Arabia, I had trouble simply communicating with motorists who have lost the ability to imagine unconstrained movement to any point on the horizon. Asking directions is often pointless. Like drivers everywhere, their frame of reference is rectilinear and limited to narrow ribbons of space, axle-wide, that rocket blindly across the land.

“Why did you leave the road?” one Saudi friend asked me, puzzled, when I improvised an obvious shortcut across a mountain range. “The highway is always straighter.”

To him, the earth’s surface beyond the pavement was simply a moving tableau — a gauzy, unreal backdrop for his high-speed travel. He was spatially crippled. The writer Rebecca Solnit nails this mind-set perfectly in her book “Wanderlust: A History of Walking”: “In a sense the car has become a prosthetic, and though prosthetics are usually for injured or missing limbs, the auto-prosthetic is for a conceptually impaired body or a body impaired by the creation of a world that is no longer human in scale.”

I just call it Car Brain.

II.

Cocooned inside a bubble of loud noise and a tonnage of steel, members of the internal combustion tribe tend to adopt ownership of all consumable space. They roar too close. They squint with curiosity out of the privacy of their cars as if they themselves were invisible. In Saudi Arabia, this sometimes meant a total loss of privacy as Bedouins in pickups, soldiers in S.U.V.’s and curiosity seekers in sedans circled my desert camps as if visiting an open-air zoo, gaping at the novelty of a man on foot with two cargo camels. Other motorists steered next to my elbow for hundreds of yards, interrogating me through a rolled-down car window. (Not to pick on Saudi Arabia, which is no worse than any other Car Brain society, but exactly one driver in 700 miles of walking in the kingdom bothered to park and stroll along for a while.)

III.

More striking than a Car Brain’s impaired road etiquette, though, are the slow pleasures it misses in life.

The Car Brain will never know the ceremony of authentic departures and arrivals. Towns and villages that were mere smears of speed along busy superhighways were celebratory events savored by my Saudi walking partners and me. Our step lightened with anticipation as we wandered into the outskirts. We laughed. We felt good: flushed with accomplishment. Similarly, packing our camel bags and walking out of a town was a special moment — an embarkation that signaled a tangible advance through space and time, and not the commuter’s inconvenience of simply “getting there.”

Car Brains have lost all knowledge of human interactions on foot. People stiffen when they see a pedestrian approaching from a distance. But they relax and smile as they hear your voice, see your empty (unarmed) hands.

In Africa and in the remnant pastoral communities of Arabia you must stand dozens of yards away from huts and homes, waiting politely to be noticed, before exchanging greetings. A lovely courtliness marks these bipedal encounters.

IV.

And then there is simply the act of traveling through the world at three miles per hour — the speed at which we were biologically designed to move. There is something mesmerizing about this pace that I still can’t adequately describe. While roaming the old pilgrim roads in Saudi Arabia, I came to understand how the journey to Mecca — the hajj — in the pre-airline days was perhaps as important as reaching Islam’s holiest city. Watching the Red Sea slide by my left shoulder as I walked north, seeing the white desert coast dance with ink-blue waters as one bay after another scalloped by, put me in a meditative trance that must be primordial.

These are natural, limbic connections that reach back to the basement of time — ones that Car Brains rarely experience. I must continually remind motorists that what I am doing is not extreme. Anthropologists have strapped G.P.S. devices to the Hadza people of Tanzania, among the last hunter-gatherers left on earth, and discovered that the men walk on average seven miles a day in pursuit of game. (Women a little less.) This adds up to 2,500 miles annually, or tramping from New York to Los Angeles every year.

Given that this ancient economy is one that dominated 95 percent of human history, walking that distance is our norm. Sitting down is what’s radical.

V.

I have nothing personal against motorized travel. Cars build middle classes. They grant us undreamed-of freedom. And I suspect that I’ll be driving away from my walk’s end point in Chile in 2020.

But it’s probably inevitable that, as I plod through the Middle East, Asia and the Americas over the next six years, I’ll become increasingly alienated from the growing bulk of humanity afflicted by Car Brain. The internal combustion engine has affected more drastic changes on human culture — flattening it through the annihilation of time and space — than the web revolution.

Indeed, the century-old automotive revolution prepared the way for the rise of the Internet, by eroding the capacity for attention, for patience, by fomenting a cult of speed.

VI.

It can be lonely out here among the Car Brains.

Sometimes, out walking, I feel like a ghost. Already, I have to seek out society’s marginal people to find my way across the planet. Settled nomads. The ambulatory poor.The very ancient, whose mode of transport is still a donkey or maybe a cart, elders who haven’t forgotten about earned distances.

They point to referents beyond the aphasia of paved roads. I take my compass bearings off their paupers’ hands.

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