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Paul Salopek: reporting the world at a walking pace

“It’s either that or find another war”. From a note from Paul Salopek to his editor at National Geographic, proposing a 5 year walk around the world, retracing the steps of human migration from Ethiopia to Patagonia.

Paul’s walk is now planned to take at least seven years. Speaking to a packed room at Harvard at the launch of his project, Out of Eden, Paul shows us a thin, red line that meanders across a blue globe from Ethiopia, through the Middle East, India, China, Russia, down the length of North America and down through Chile and into Patagonia. It’s a retracing of the journey we made as a species, between 50,000 and 75,000 years ago. It’s a journey that made us fully human as we overcame predators, droughts, famine and learned how to work together and survive. It’s “the long walk into our becoming.”

Paul Salopek brings a lifetime of wandering and writing to his project. A celebrated journalist, he is a two-time Pulitzer winner, who was arrested and imprisoned in Sudan for his reporting on Darfur. His stories take a longer view of global events than those of many journalists, and his award-winning stories have been on stories as vast as the human genome project and as timely as conflicts in Central Africa.

I had the pleasure of getting to know Paul during his stay last spring in Cambridge. He was a gracious and generous participant in my class on Participatory News, and introduced a breakthrough concept in quantifying international relief aid, the Jolie, work I built upon to theorize and study the Kardashian. In other words, I’m a big fan of the guy, and hope to be working with him to document and share his trip with the world.

As he describes his trip, Paul paces, slowly. When he tells people about the project, he’s inevitably asked “Why not hail a cab, take a matatu, cash in those frequent flyer miles? Why walk?” Paul takes eight steps, saying, “AB AB AB AB. If I had a bigger room to pace in, I’d have iambic pentameter. Walking is the beat of good storytelling.”

There’s a great deal of variation in how much the “average” American walks. In some Southern California car cultures, it can be as little as 40 meters a day. Active Americans – walkers, joggers – average about 2-3 miles a day, 1200 miles a year. Hunter gatherers, in cultures all over the world, walk similar amounts per day. Men walk 9-10 miles a day hunting prey, while women average 6 miles a day in the process of gathering. They average 3500 miles a year. So Paul’s project is neither extreme or extraordinary – our practice of sitting hours a day is far more extreme in terms of human evolution.

Why take on this project? It’s slow journalism. Like slow food, Paul believes he’ll create a different flavor of journalism, telling the stories he was missing when he flew over them or drove past them. He hopes to document the globalization that is knitting us together, willingly or unwillingly, articulating “the poetry of connection – hidden connections that I missed because I was too busy to get from story A to story B.” He expects this practice will change over time. “I am hoping the walk improves my work in a way I can’t even imagine yet. What will walking, what will the pace of my heartbeat do to my sentences?”

By moving this slowly, Paul hopes to spend enough time in a place that he’s admitted through the door, but not long enough to be jaded, as indigenous reporters sometimes are. “Everything about us designed to accept information at that 5km an hour pace.” And for some parts of the world, this will be a long time, indeed – it will take 14 months to walk his planned path through China.

Paul plans to tell long-form stories, in National Geographic and on his website. Some will focus on big issues, like struggles over natural resources and unfolding conflicts between groups and nations. Others bring focus to places that rarely get attention, like Somaliland, or the broader narrative of economic growth in Africa. And Paul promises “narrative core samples” each 100 miles, where he will record a snippet of ambient sound, photograph panoramas, the sky and the ground where he stands.

In these narrative snippets, Paul will interview the next person he comes upon. He shows us the photo of a man he interviewed in Djbouti – Paul asked who he was, where he was from, and where he was going. The man responded, “Who’s asking?”

That’s a valid question for Paul’s entire effort. He shows us a photo taken of him by an Afar nomad in Ethiopia when Paul raised his camera to take a portrait. Who gets to tell these stories, Paul wonders, the international correspondent or the Afar man with a mobile phone? Paul is working with a team of technologists – including friends at Global Voices and at Center for Civic Media – to look for ways to feature the stories and conversations taking place near the path he’s walking. This might involve a roaming Twitter conversation, featuring people tweeting within a hundred miles of where Paul is walking, or Global Voices bloggers from the countries Paul passes through featured on his site.

Paul fields a series of questions from his host (and former editor) Ann Marie Lipinski and a host of admirers. The questions are practical: Will you be safe? How will you stay healthy? Can you report on on countries when you’re not up to date on the news that’s unfolding locally and globally? Paul’s answers are both pragmatic and poetic. He’s been in the most danger when he’s acted quickly, and the slowness of his pace will force him to be careful and appropriately trusting. The stories he wants to tell are not always ones that require knowledge of the latest global events – knowing what he sees and hears is often enough. Responding to a question about homesickness, Paul explains that the journey is organized around “oases” where he will stay for months, write and recharge. His wife, a visual artist, will pick a city – first Jerusalem or Amman – set up a studio, and wait while Paul walks to her. She shapes the trip, picking his destination, and he is always walking home to her.

I am struck by Paul’s contention that humans are wired to experience the world at a walking pace. (Bruce Chatwin makes a similar argument in The Songlines, his meditation on aboriginal worldviews, mythos and motion.) I find the idea that Paul will be able to see the world through a different lens by slowing to the walking pace a compelling and persuasive one.

I wonder whether there’s a way to think of different types of writing in terms of the speed of their authors. Broad, sweeping analyses of geopolitics are written by authors moving at airline speeds – Thomas Friedman probably has an annualized mean speed of over 200 kilometers per hour, and his writing reads that way. Most writing that unfolds at a walking pace is literary and contemplative. I’m intrigued to see how international reportage unfolds at five kilometers an hour, one step at a time.

Please see my colleague Nathan Matias’s excellent coverage of Paul’s talk as well.

8 thoughts on “Paul Salopek: reporting the world at a walking pace”

  1. Ethan I love this too. I am inspired and look forward to the writings. Walking is good for the soul, the spirit and the body – “keep it real”.

  2. >>His wife, a visual artist, will pick a city – first Jerusalem or Amman – set up a studio, and wait while Paul walks to her. She shapes the trip, picking his destination, and he is always walking home to her.>>

    Oh, that is beautiful.

    This whole project is beautiful. I’m so glad to have read this post this morning. What a remarkable thing this is. I can’t wait to read the reports from the road.

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  4. What a beautiful and inspiring project! This reminds me of Michael Wood’s “In the footsteps of Alexander the Great,” except far grander in its spatial, cultural and temporal scope. In addition to introducing us to the modern people along the way, and their concerns, I hope that he finds a way to introduce us to the archaeological record as well: an overview of what we know about the lives of the people that made the migration, and what we don’t know or can’t agree upon about them. But ost of all, I hope that he publishes in installments (even if he publishes a capstone edition later), so that I don’t have to wait so long to begin to know our neighbors more intimately.

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  6. “Why walk?” !? Are they kidding? Have these people never walked the same road they’ve driven on and noticed that it’s a whole ‘nother world out there?

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