The Current

Anna Maria Tremonti's most memorable interviews: Paul Salopek the pilgrim

As her time on The Current comes to a close, Anna Maria Tremonti revisits her most memorable conversations from over the years. This time, she follows up with a guest who’s been one of the most “fascinating and inspiring” people she’s spoken to: Paul Salopek, who’s been travelling the world on foot since 2013.

In 2013, the National Geographic fellow set out on a quest to travel the world on foot

Paul Salopek set out on foot in Ethiopia in 2013. He's been walking ever since, as part of National Geographic's Out of Eden walk. He's currently in India, pictured here on a boat along the sacred Ganges River in Varanasi. (John Stanmeyer/NatGeo Creative)
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It's been almost seven years since Paul Salopek laced up and headed out for a hike across the globe.

Salopek, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist and fellow with National Geographic, has been on an epic walking journey as the principal pilgrim of the Out of Eden walk, to trace the history of humans' migration out of Africa and across the globe.

He started in Ethiopia in 2013, and plans to eventually finish his trip at the southern-most tip of South America. By the time he reaches his destination, Salopek will have travelled almost 34,000 kilometres on foot.

In the years since Salopek's expedition began, The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti has regularly checked in with him to hear about the people he's seen and the stories he's encountered.

Tremonti calls him one of the most "fascinating and inspiring" people she's spoken to on the show.

This week, during her final days as host, she touched base with the hiker, currently in northeast India, one last time.

Here is part of their conversation.

An illustration of Salopek’s planned map for his Out of Eden Walk. ( Ryan Morris/National Geographic)

What kind of memories are stirred up as you listen to our conversations from the past?

It's been a long conversation going on for more than six years now.

It's been a long way. There are lots and lots of stories since I left Ethiopia all those years ago. Certain themes keep coming back and they are themes that honestly keep me going.

I never expected that the project would take this long. When I first talked to you I was projecting this project to last seven years and I'd be reaching the finish line down in tip of South America.

Here it's coming on seven years and I'm just barely scraping halfway. So there's a long way to go.

You've written some powerful posts about the women you have met. What are you learning about women's lives in the rural communities that you're walking through?

I haven't had always the best opportunity that I would have wished to mingle among the women of the cultures that I'm walking through. Rural cultures tend to be conservative, generally. There's gender segregation. The first few years of my walk was through the Islamic world where there is another layer of gender divide to get through. But India has been wonderful in the sense that I've been able to access that half of the human experience much more than I have in the past.

Inequality between genders ... has emerged now, almost seven years in, as the most consistent form of human injustice along the trail.- Paul Salopek

I've had more walking partners who are women in India than in any other of the 17 countries that I've walked through so far, and it's been delightful. It's just added a whole new dimension onto my reporting.

It's made it a much more organic experience for storytelling, and it's opened my eyes … about what I'm seeing at boot level, being kind of the most widespread, the most universal injustice in the world today as we move into the 21st century.

It's not the ethnic or racial divides that are often flaring in the news. It's not the politics or the extreme ideologies that are throwing sparks in the headlines. It's kind of the universal and more subtle and often overlooked inequality between genders. I think almost in every place I've been, women get the short end of the stick — economically, politically, in sense of family power, in sense of things like land ownership.

That has emerged now, almost seven years in, as the most consistent form of human injustice along the trail of the ancestors so long ago.

Racing the heat in the early morning hours, Salopek walked 400 km across the remote Kyzyl Kum desert of Uzbekistan en route to China. (John Stanmeyer/National Geographic)

I'm wondering how, as you report on these things, you think about how you used to report ... when you think about the difference in the conversations that you're having now on these big issues.

In the past when I was a conventional foreign correspondent flying in … I would kind of write tidy little boundaries around each story. That's the way the media works, even today: you have a tidy beginning and a middle and an end because the technology forces you to do that. You go there, you only have a few days, you do the best you can on the knowledge that you can gather during those days, and then your program or your story is one among millions that appear that day.

But what walking has emphasized to me as a continuum of storytelling is that all these boundaries that you and I and our colleagues in the media put around these stories, whether it's water issues in a state in India, or whether it's gender rights in Afghanistan, those boundaries are more or less arbitrary, because if you just tug hard enough on any story in the world, no matter whether it's in Manhattan or in Toronto or in a village in Ethiopia, it's connected to another story that is itself connected to another story.

Salopek makes his way through the Daliz Pass in Afghanistan on his way to set up camp in the village of Shaur as he crosses the 'Roof of the World' in the Pamir and Hindukush mountains. (Matthieu Paley/National Geographic)

How many kilometres have you walked now?

I don't know exactly … Total travelled, I think, is 17,000. I think it's somewhere around that.  

Something that just kind of happened organically on this project is that there's this nice rhythm where I walk for two or three or four days, I'm gathering string on stories … And then just as my body is getting tired, I'm saying, "You know what Paul, I've walked 100 kilometres, 120. Let's stop and think, relax for a couple of days, let the body build itself back up."

That's when I start processing these loose strings of narrative in my head and knotting them together into stories.

My body's rested and then I'm ready to go again. There's a recharge. And off I go. It's that kind of an organic cycle.

Click 'listen' near the top of this page to hear the full conversation.


Written by Émilie Quesnel. Produced by Donya Ziaee and John Chipman.

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