The Current·Q&A

How the pandemic changed Paul Salopek's quest to travel the world on foot

Many plans have been put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. For journalist Paul Salopek, that meant putting his quest to walk from Ethiopia to Argentina on pause.

Salopek has put his trek from Ethiopia to Argentina on pause because of COVID-19

Paul Salopek, pictured here on the Ganges River in India, set out on foot in Ethiopia in 2013. He's currently in Myanmar, after putting a pause on his trek in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (John Stanmeyer/NatGeo Creative)

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Many people's plans have been put on hold thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. For journalist Paul Salopek, that meant putting his quest to walk from Ethiopia to Argentina on pause.

Salopek began his 34,000-kilometre trek in 2013. His goal is to retrace the steps of human migration to learn about humanity and our shared history along the way.

The Current has checked in with Salopek several times since he began the journey. Guest host Catherine Cullen reached him Friday in Myanmar. Here's part of their conversation.

How has it been after being on the move for so long to suddenly find yourself stuck in one place?

Well, you know, it's not that bad, actually. I've got to step back and remind you and remind my readers and listeners that I've paused before for periods of time, never this long. But I paused for several months in Israel. I paused for, gosh, eight or nine months, in the Caucasus. In Central Asia, I paused for the winter.

And generally it's climate or weather — you know, walking through winter snows is a time to stop, or time to wait for visas to clear. This is the first kind of health reason for stopping. And it's not that bad. It's allowed me to catch up on a lot of backed-up work.

Remind us what you're hoping to learn from this project.

The Out of Eden Walk is a slow storytelling, a slow journalism project. So I'm interested in seeing the world at a much slower pace than most of my colleagues who are in the media.

I decided about almost eight years now — gosh, it's a while — to kind of step off the accelerating cycle of digital news and go in the opposite direction. Slow down my storytelling, slow down the pace of my own life, to kind of see if I can extract a bit more meaning from my reporting process.

Salopek with some walking partners at the India-Myanmar border. (Submitted by Paul Salopek)

Given that quest for perspective, let's talk a little bit about the perspective from where you are right now in rural Myanmar. Tell us what the pandemic looks like from there.

You know, it's been interesting. The COVID-19 crisis initially didn't have much of an impact in Southeast Asia. It wasn't registering the infection rates that you were seeing in like Europe or North America. And it was a source of puzzlement to public health officials and scientists about why that is.

But now this winter, it has gone up again. So, you know, there are many thousands of people infected. The mortality rates, the number of deaths is quite a bit lower than Europe or the Americas. And there are still some questions about why that is.

Salopek crosses the Irrawaddy River in Myanmar with walking partner Japha 'Jay' Se. (Submitted by Paul Salopek)

Do you have any insight at this point?

Well, the experts I've talked to have a bunch of theories about why this is happening. It could be everything from some cultural factors — the fact that some societies in Asia don't shake hands. They don't make physical contact as a lot of other cultures do. It could be something to do with the weather, the climate. The novel coronavirus doesn't appear to do as well in kind of tropical, hot, steamy environments.

But one of the most intriguing hypotheses that I'm picking up on is that there might be some genetic herd immunity, to some level. These are human populations that have been exposed to coronaviruses, the kind of the family of viruses that the current pandemic is causing, for many, many years. For centuries, millennia, in fact. I read one scientific paper hypothesizing even 25,000 years.

They may not have total immunity or total resistance to this particular bug, [but] they might have caught similar flus in the past that gave them a little bit of an advantage. And this is still being investigated.

That's really interesting. I'm also curious about how the pandemic has changed the way that you reflect on your own trip so far, the path you've already walked from Ethiopia to Myanmar.

Just to be clear, I paused the walk already, just slightly before the pandemic struck. So I was settled down to finish a book.

What's happened since, though … [is] it's brought to mind sort of how, as humans have moved across the earth for tens of thousands of years.

The ancestors that I'm following left Africa anywhere between 60 to 120,000 years ago. We brought disease with us and were exposed to environments where there were these spill-over effects where we picked up bugs from the natural environment due to close contact.

For the last three and a half or so years, I've been walking the Silk Roads through Central Asia, eastward from Turkey. And we know that a lot of goods travelled on those thousand-year-old trade routes, but so did disease. Right? You know, the bubonic plague moved into Western Europe. And so this is a recurring theme.

And as I did some homework, I was pretty amazed to discover that something like contagious tuberculosis has been found hitching a ride in human lungs for almost half a million years. Or pre-human lungs, in that case. So this is part of the old human story.

You are supposed to head to China next. How have those plants been affected by the pandemic?

Well, it's been difficult to inch forward at five kilometres an hour because of the pandemic. I'm, of course, limited to land borders. I don't fly.

So I have had to kind of wait until … humankind in general gathers enough scientific and medical knowledge about this particular virus to know how it can be treated and how it can be controlled. And that's taken months and months.

So right now … my hope is, say, by March, April to resume the walk towards Yunan, towards southern China for what's going to be a very long traverse of China. [That will take] about a year and a half.

We can hear your passion and your enthusiasm for this project. But I do wonder, given the length of the delay, did you think about giving up on the walk at any point?

That's a natural question to ask. No, not yet. I've told my readers that … if the walk stops being interesting, if it stops being kind of a challenge to the imagination, I reserved the right to pause and permanently and stop and walk off the trail.

But so far, one of the great joys and one of the kind of humbling privileges of doing this project is that I've not reached that stage yet, despite all the obstacles, you know, whether they're landscape or weather or closed borders.

I have this great advantage of waking up every day when I'm on the move to some new challenge that is not like the one from yesterday or the day before. It's just this continuing problem-solving learning process. I mean, the best way I can describe it [is], it's like an adult education course that goes on from horizon to horizon.

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Lindsay Rempel. Q&A edited for length and clarity.