Join our panelists for a discussion on Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Paul Salopek’s decade-long journey on foot around the world—from the Horn of Africa through the Middle East and Southeast Asia and finally to China—and his experiences traveling to and reporting in the Middle Kingdom.
FULCO: Good evening, everyone. My name’s Meaghan Fulco. I’m director of the Term Member Program here at the Council. And we’re delighted to have all of you here with us tonight. And I welcome all of you here in New York, in Washington, and virtually over Zoom. We have a really special program planned for this evening and we’ll get right to that in just a moment.
First, I just want to say a few words about the two groups that are here with us this evening. The first group is the Council’s term members. Term members are an accomplished and dynamic group of professionals drawn from diverse fields. Each class, we elect a new—or, each year we elect a new class between the ages of thirty and thirty-six, and they have a five-year term membership. They’re tomorrow’s leaders, and we invest a good deal of time and energy in developing their interest in U.S. foreign policy.
The second group joining us this evening is our young professionals group. Not yet old enough to apply for term membership, we host regular events, both virtual and in-person, to provide an opportunity for those early in their career to engage with the Council. I invite those attending in New York and Washington to join us afterward for a reception to mix and mingle a little bit.
For those of us joining by Zoom, we look forward to including you in the discussion with your questions during the Q&A session. To ask a virtual question, please click on the raise hand icon on your Zoom window. And when you’re called on to speak, accept the unmute now button, then proceed with your name, affiliation, and question. Your video will remain off, but your microphone will be unmuted. And if you’d like to view the roster of those registered for this meeting, a link will be sent through the Zoom chat function. For those attending in-person, just a reminder to silence your mobile devices. And if you’re called on during the Q&A, make sure to wait for the microphone and state your name and affiliation before asking your question. And a reminder that this discussion is on the record.
Before inviting our panelists to the stage, we’re just going to watch a quick, short video about the walk that you’ll be hearing more about this evening. You’ll find a map in your program documenting just how enormous this undertaking is. So you have those in the rooms, and then those should have just been chatted out to the Zoom audience. Thank you again to our young professionals and term members for joining us, and a big thank you to the Out of Eden team and our moderator, Maureen, for taking the time to be here this evening. With that, we’ll start the video.
(A video presentation begins.)
SALOPEK: People sometimes ask me why I’m doing this. Why am I walking across the world for year after year, for thousands of miles, across continents? Some of them think I’m insane. But what I remind them is that we’ve been doing this since day one. We’ve been learning and interacting with reality at about three miles an hour, the pace of a human walk. And that what I’m doing is very normal. And it feels good. It’s the modern world’s habit of sitting down that’s kind of crazy.
The walk has always been a doorway to the unknown or the formerly known world, especially now after walking through eighteen countries as I set out across 6,000 kilometers or 3,600 miles through the middle kingdom, when China is relatively closed for both geopolitical and pandemic reasons. In this way, the walk has become a rare, maybe even historic, opportunity to explore the hinterlands of this vast, diverse, and complicated country. And not only as a pathway to new discovery, but as a bridge to mutual understanding.
One of the great gifts of the walk is this opportunity is offered to slow down my life, and my thinking, and my feeling, my writing over the past nine years. It’s this opportunity to move in the opposite direction of an ever-faster spinning world. By taking in life at the human pace of my own footsteps, I’m rediscovering my home, my planet, close up, in meaningful detail, through my body’s own speed and rhythms. And it feels deeply good.
The ability to be patient, to listen, to be attentive, to be alert, to be empathetic—I think we’re losing these connections through our obsession with speed. We’ve become lonely with our machines. It’s not a solo journey. In fact, I can’t imagine doing it alone. People share everything they have with me—food, water, stories. When you’re on foot, your quest is one of belonging. And usually, it’s rewarded. Every single day of my walk, my real destination is people.
The growing community that surrounds the walk, that gets involved in the walk, is my growing family of walking partners. Their stories deepen and enrich this journey immeasurably. They’re extraordinary human beings who become my teachers, whether they’re camel shepherds in Ethiopia, or geophysicists in Kazakhstan, they add their voices to the walk. And in this way, the walk becomes like a song. It changes from a solo to a medley.
Whether we like it or not, we’re all walking together into a bottleneck new century. With the climate crisis upon us and with gigantic gaps in income, with rising tribalism across ideologies, we face a pretty difficult path ahead, a panorama of uncertainty. The walk teaches me this, that we stand a better chance of survival by walking together, by learning from each other, by listening to each other’s ideas, and by pulling each other up as we move forward. There is a very old, old joy in this approach.
Every new day on my trail, whether I wake up in a Buddhist temple or the hut of a Sichuan yak herder, the word that floats to mind always as I lace up my boots for another day is the same. It’s “yes.”
(Video presentation ends.)
TRANTHAM: Welcome, everyone, to today’s CFR meeting, “Walking Through the Middle Kingdom: A Journey Out of Eden with Dave Pond and Paul Salopek.” I’m Maureen Trantham, senior vice president and head of strategy for Sesame Workshop. And I’ll be presiding over today’s discussion. And am just truly honored to introduce tonight’s guests.
Coming to us live from China we have Paul Salopek. He is the founding executive director of the Out of Eden Walk Project. He is a journalist and writer, having reported globally for National Geographic Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, the New Yorker, Politico, Al Jazeera, BBC, PBS, and Foreign Policy. Paul is the recipient of several major print journalism awards, including two Pulitzer Prizes. Between 1996 and 2009, he reported for the Chicago Tribune, writing mostly about conflicts in Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. Prior to that, Paul worked on staff for National Geographic Magazine. In 2012, he won the Nieman Foundation fellowship from Harvard to study ancient human migration and human genetics. Paul has also taught international reporting at Princeton University, and he holds a degree in environmental biology from UC Santa Barbara, and an honorary Ph.D. from Colby College.
To my right, is Dave Pond. He is the chair of the board of directors and chief of the security team at the Out of Eden Walk Project. He retired from the U.S. Air Force as a colonel in 2014, following a twenty-nine-year career, during which he served as a pilot, Pentagon staff officer, military diplomat, and peacekeeping advisor. Dave was also a negotiator on the U.S. team for the Darfur-Sudan peace talks. Currently, he pilots a Boeing 787 for a major airline.
Paul, David, welcome to the Council this evening.
TRANTHAM: To our audience, throughout our conversation it may be helpful to refer to a map of Paul’s journey, which you should have in either your program or via digital copy, which I understand they’re sharing on Zoom. And with that, I’ll open our meeting with a question for Paul.
Paul, how did you plan this undertaking? And how much of your route was planned versus serendipity? And have there been any major course corrections or detours throughout the process?
SALOPEK: Hey, Maureen. Pleasure to be here. Thank you, everybody, for watching, listening in, attending.
Yeah, how do you plan a walk around the world? The short answer is you can’t. At least, I can’t. And it goes against the philosophy of the walk, which relies a lot on serendipity and chance. That’s the whole nature of the beast. The walk is premised on science. So the idea is that I’m not just walking randomly, but I’m following these corridors of dispersal from—dating back to the Pleistocene, the stone age, when all of our ancestors moved out of Africa in various pulses and waves. So I consult geneticists. I consult paleoanthropologists. And they help me decide which way to go—left, right, or continue ahead—based on fossil evidence, based on this young science called geneography, right, the molecular map that we all carry in our DNA.
So that’s the map. The idea came about—I’d been a foreign correspondent for many, many years, covering the world. The idea came about as kind of the evolution of a realization that as I was jetting around covering story A or story B, I was probably missing some pretty good stories in between. And as I was flying from story to story, whether it was an environmental story, or political story, or economic story, cultural story, looking out the plane window, I could just imagine the thousands of different stories that were passing beneath me that may be even more important than the story that I was flying to. But we just simply didn’t access it because we didn’t get off the main highway. We didn’t get off the train line. We didn’t get out of airports. We didn’t get out of motorized travel.
I’d been working in Africa for nine years before this project. A lot of my coverage, as Dave knows, certainly, is basically—it’s not kind of interviewing the president. That’s not what I do. I very much am interested in using kind of micro-stories to illuminate much more universal precepts. Basically, I turned my international bureau into a local bureau, and spent a lot of times in rural communities to illuminate issues that were under-covered in Africa. So this is an extension of these ideas. One day I decided, look, you know, how can I become a better writer, become a better communicator, understand the world better, in a day when we live in an information revolution where it’s just speeding up all the time?
I decided to get off that merry-go-round of twenty-four/seven news and go in the opposite direction. Basically, approach current events in a form of pilgrimage, if you will, to kind of walk through the big stories of our day. And by slowing down, hopefully come to a deeper understanding of how all these stories are connected. Connection is a really important part of this project.
TRANTHAM: I’ve heard you have some very specific rules for the walk. Can you talk about your process and foot travel. Why this specific approach to slow journalism?
SALOPEK: I have—you know, I’ve been a student of history. My background, as you mentioned, Maureen, was in science. I’m a biologist by education. I haven’t taken a single course in journalism in my life. And so through that and through my love of history and my love of literature, I became aware of this tradition of walking and storytelling that is almost universal across the human family.
Whether it’s griots in West Africa, or whether it’s the rahhalah (ph) in the Islamic world, or whether it’s—you know, the Greek bard who was strumming, you know, the lyre as he walked from village to village singing epic poetry, it is the combination of walking and storytelling is extraordinarily old. Think about even going back to prehistoric times, when people were gathering in a rock shelter, hunter-gatherers. What would you do? Gather at the end of the day around a hearth and say, what did you see today? What was on your circuit for today’s gathering episode?
And that—I think that genre—my process is to use that genre, which is kind of the genre of a journey story, right, to go out into the world and we come back with a harvest of stories, as the model for this project. Why walk? Why not take a take a taxi? Why not take a plane? For the reasons I just explained. I think there’s a tradeoff. Speed annihilates time, it annihilates space. It’s extremely useful. I like speed myself. I used to ride motorcycles a lot. But I think there’s a virtue in getting off motorized devices, because what it does is it doesn’t just remove you from this bubble of glass and steel, it puts you in direct contact with other human beings, right?
When you’re driving in a car, or on a train, or a plane, you can put your earbuds in and ignore the person sitting next to you. The landscape—the human landscape becomes a smear, a kaleidoscopic, you know, smear of two-dimensional space. When you’re walking, you can’t do that. When you’re walking, you have to be like a hunter, right? You have to be alert. You can’t just blow people off. You say hello to people. Those of you who, you know, commute to work on foot still, if you live close enough to your work, you realize it’s a daily ritual where you greet other human beings. In the process you discover these stories, right, that you couldn’t if you’re driving by at 160 kilometers an hour.
So the process is not use motorized travel as much as possible. Only in emergency situations. And move through the human landscape at five kilometers an hour. Which does two things. One, it slows you down enough that you have to stay with families. You have to spend days in villages or towns or, you know, cities. It allows you to kind of absorb the nuance of kind of the superficial, cellophane-thin layer of news that kind of coats the world. And, number two, you’re still moving, right? You know, you don’t get—you don’t get jaded by staying in one place for so long. You know, the scales that come over your eyes when you live in a place for so long you stop seeing novelties that are popping up every day, right? This is kind of usual. So I think this walking pace is the ideal pace in my kind of theoretical universe for storytelling.
TRANTHAM: Dave, you and Paul have a really long history together, and important origin story. How did you meet? How did this kind of partnership come to be?
POND: Well, it ended up being an interview, when you interviewed me, Paul, over the course of six weeks, I think. But I was in Sudan in 2006, as a peacekeeping advisor. And Paul was on assignment for National Geographic. And he went missing. And so the U.S. chargé d'affaires, Cameron Hume, called me and said: There’s a journalist named Paul Salopek wandering around somewhere in Darfur. Go find him. And with the help of some very good friends out there, we were able to find Paul. I didn’t even know what you looked like at the time. I just had your name. And I said—I said Paul’s name, he looked up. I said, that must be my guy.
And so after—it took a while, and some work, to get Paul and a traveling translator out of Sudan. But we did. And in the process, as Paul has done every day of this walk for, it’ll be ten years in January, he made friends. He found family. And through that, Paul and I are brothers because of that.
TRANTHAM: What does your partnership look like today? Have you been able to join him on the road at all?
POND: Last time I was with Paul, was in Tbilisi, Georgia. And I picked a very, very good time to visit Paul. He was researching the history of wine in society in Georgia. (Laughter.) And so I was—I was your very willing partner as we just made some fascinating journeys around Georgia. And I look forward to seeing him again soon when we can, once the—once the world opens up a bit more. But for now, the way I’m looking at Paul right now is how we’ve seen each other for quite a while. We’re lucky to have a good connection tonight. It's good to see you.
TRANTHAM: You mentioned the—oh, go ahead, sorry.
SALOPEK: No, go ahead.
TRANTHAM: You mentioned the world opening up. And, Paul, you know, you’ve crossed a number of international borders that are either really fluid, or contested, or just not exactly friendly to Americans. Have you had any issues crossing borders? Have you faced hostility?
SALOPEK: Hmm, yeah. I mean, I’m moving across these polities—these 21st century polities in the old-fashioned way, which is by land, right? Most of us encounter borders at the airport. And that’s a long—that’s an episode of my distant past now. Crossing borders the way, I would say, a lot of people do. I don’t know figures, but certainly hundreds of millions of people probably today still cross borders by land. You know, just local migrations across borders, you know, coming and going. And just as in the past, with the people who I’m following here, our hunter-gatherer ancestors from Africa, they confronted borders. They confronted glaciers, right? They confronted big deserts. They confronted oceans, large predators, disease, hungers, famine. Those were their obstacles. For me today, it’s these imaginary lines which are, sometimes, as impassible, Maureen, as a mile-high glacier.
I was trying at one point to walk through Iran. Iran is an extremely important country for human diasporas, for human movement. Incredibly culturally rich country. But simply could not get permission to go in at that time. So I basically walked around Iran. Now, Iran’s a big country. (Laughter.) So that meant—you know, that meant a rather large deviation north through the Caucasus and Central Asia. But the philosophy that I take is, so what? You know, so what? I’m in a very privileged position. Number one, I’m among the estimate one billion people who are living and working outside their countries of birth today. You know, today we’re living in an age of migration.
And I’m switching now from diasporas to migration. I’m being very careful with that because paleoanthropologists will tell you that we did not migrate out of Africa in the stone age. It was not an intentional movement. You know, destinations didn’t exist. They hadn’t been invented yet. Today they are, of course. And the push and pull factors for the estimated one billion people, 700 million to one billion people who are kind of moving around the Earth today, are mostly negative, right? It’s escaping turmoil, you know, violence, you know, economic difficulties in their home country, and moving towards opportunity or safety.
I’m an enormously privileged migrant among this vast ocean of people, right? I’m white. I’m male. I have money. And I try not to forget that, and I try to remind myself and my readers of that all the time. But what I do is I basically, as much as it’s possible given my phenotype and my situation, merge in with these tides of humanity. So that’s how I cross borders, right? And, you know, standing at a border between Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for example, required a call to the provincial governor for me to walk across, because that border did not allow pedestrians. It just allowed rail and truck traffic. I mean, you don’t think about these things, right, when you live in a flying world.
So there are these kind of logistics about moving across the contemporary world through these imaginary boundaries that make it fascinating. Yes, they can be a pain the butt sometimes. They can send me off zigzagging. But I love borders. Borders—I mean, if you want to really understand the soul of a country, you don’t go to its capital, which is all polished up and, you know, sheeted in white marble. You go to its borders. That’s where you see the true nature of a society.
POND: And Paul brings up a very important point, that we’re on nineteenth country, I think, at this point. And originally, when Paul came to us friends many years ago and proposed this worldwide walk, the original plan was seven years, Paul, 21,000 miles?
SALOPEK: That’s right.
POND: And in January we celebrate our tenth year on the road. And we are just a little over halfway around the world with the journey. And so a seven-year walk really has become a generational exercise. And but that is the story, the detours that you’ve made, touching every country with a -stan in the name. That was never part of our plan.
POND: It is the journey that is the story.
SALOPEK: You know, readers often ask us, you know, when are you coming into, you know, Shanghai? Or when you are coming into Istanbul, or what have you? And I don’t know where I’m laying my head tomorrow evening, much less next Tuesday, much less, you know, six months from now. (Laughs.) It very much is a seat of the pants. And with intention.
TRANTHAM: You’re currently in China, which has one of the world’s strictest zero-COVID policies. And you’ve been there since 2021. What’s been your experience, just kind of given kind of the current state of affairs in China?
SALOPEK: That’s a really good question. And it is really complicated. I’ll try to give a short answer. It’s complicated by geography because, again, I think—number one, let me put a caveat with anything about China. I am not a Sinologist, right? I’ve never been to China before. This is my first time. If anything, I could be, you know, lay some weak claim to being an Africanist, because I spent a decade living there. China’s completely new to me. It’s a new world. So I’m just still learning it. I’ve walked about 2,700 kilometers through China, coming up from the south, through Myanmar, through Yunnan, through Sichuan, and now I’m in Shanxi province in Xi’an. Ancient, you know, silk road gateway.
And the situation with COVID has evolved through time and space. Down in Yunnan, when I started, for reasons of internal migration, Yunnanese don’t leave Yunnan. It’s such a wonderful, beautiful place. (Laughs.) The joke with Yunnanese is that they don’t go migrate to the cities. They live in paradise, you know, who needs to leave? So COVID issues were not one of the obstacles. But as I’ve moved kind of more into the heartland, they certainly are. It’s another one of these invisible borders.
What makes it complicated is that these borders, the COVID boundaries, are both invisible, and they shift. And they shift on a daily basis. So we have to use apps, my Chinese walking partners and I. And I’d like to spend just a minute about walking partners when I finish. Is we have to use our apps to kind of know what is the next county’s COVID risk factor? I mean, if it goes from, you know, green to yellow, we’re in trouble because we can’t get in a car and drive through it. We have to walk through it. And if you stay more than four hours in a risk zone, as designated by local health authorities, your COVID turns yellow. And then you get either slapped into quarantine or you can’t leave. So it’s been very complicated.
And we have, in fact, done what I did on a micro level here what I did on a macro level with Iran, walking around. I’ve had to kind of walk around some counties because they were hot, right? So that situation, I’m told, in the last, you know, forty-eight hours is changing dramatically. There’s been some talk about these rules opening up, which would be fantastic for us walkers.
And on that note, I’ll just say that what I’d like to emphasize about the walk, which was mentioned in the video, is that it is absolutely not a solo walk. I’m not, you know, walking the Earth alone. I would not—number one, I wouldn’t be sitting here alive tonight with you if I tried. And, number two, that is completely—the purpose of the walk is to walk with other people. I use my walking partners, who are—who are coequal, who are coequal even in storytelling. We invite them to produce stories about their own walked experience through their own homes.
Which actually, Maureen, when you come to think of it, is even more interesting than my takes, because I have been doing this professionally for years, and years, and years. And I’m kind of discovering new things all the time. But imagine if you take somebody from wherever all of you are sitting, whatever you call home, and you ask them to walk through their home landscape. They think they know what home is until they start walking it. And when they start walking it, they rediscover this amazing fact that is universal across the world, is that I don’t really know what home is until I get out of these vehicles and start exploring it on food. And I meet new people that I never would brush up against, new landscapes, new situations.
So their revelations are even more powerful than mine. We’re weaving them together into this kind of braid of voices and storytelling, which will be, I think and hope, the legacy of the walk. Not so much my storytelling, which is important to me, but the storytelling of this still-growing community of walking bards that stretches across the world in the pathways of the first human discovery of the world.
TRANTHAM: How do you select these compatriots? Do they kind of select you? Or is there a kind of—what’s the process on that? Because it’s a pretty intimate partnership.
SALOPEK: It’s interesting. It is. And walking for those of you who do walk, you know, go backpacking or hiking, walking really does break down barriers very quickly. You get to know somebody really well when you go on a long walk with someone. They do become brothers and sisters. It’s a complicated mix. It’s to some degree self-selecting. The project is well enough known now that when I’m approaching, say, you know, whatever Pakistan or Myanmar, people contact me and say: Hey, you’re going to—are you coming through my kind of area of northern Myanmar? Can I walk with you? So there’s that.
And then there’s other—there’s this other lovely artifact of the walk, is that my walking partners might have a cousin across the border, or in the next city, or in the next state, or the next province. And I’m passed like a baton from hand to hand, people who know each other. And that really is powerful in terms of this notion of connectedness. Of connecting not just stories, not just an environmental story with an education story with a climate story, because they are connected. If you pull hard enough on any story and you’ll find it’s connected to every other story across the horizon. But journalists forget this because we like to put stories in little boxes. But it’s connected through human beings, through people. And it is just—it adds a real, tangible, structure to a humanist concept of relatedness, interrelatedness. I’m walking among family all the time.
POND: Where you had serendipity before, with Paul’s walking partners if you think about it, again, for ten years come January, you have never had to stop the walk, Paul, because you didn’t have someone to join you for part of the walk. You have had this constant relay team of people who don’t know each other. I mean, occasionally a cousin up the road, but there’s folks who otherwise had no connection with one another have become this team that have kept you moving and continue to keep you moving today.
SALOPEK: And we still stay in touch. So we’ve got very lively and lively social media chat rooms, and whatnot. And because the walk has been so long, that I’ve got to see—we all grow up together. You know, new baby pictures appear. There are wedding photos, and new books, and photo projects. And so it’s been great.
TRANTHAM: You know, beyond the storytelling exercise itself and kind of the community that has been developed through the walk, this Out of Eden Project has become really an online learning journey as well for over 30,000 students in sixty countries, through a partnership that you have through the Harvard Graduate School of Education. How did that collaboration come about? And, you know, one of the things that strikes me is particularly as areas of the world have become more insular during COVID and there’s a rise of nationalism globally, what are your goals for students through this program?
SALOPEK: Yeah. I mean, Dave can speak to this as well as I can. But yeah, it came about, no surprise, by serendipity again. Basically, I was doing this fellowship at Harvard. And I contacted the Project Zero team, who were very innovative at learning about learning. It’s a research organization that's researching learning. And they came up with this platform—this amazing platform that connects learners across geographies, landscapes, and languages through kind of joint journeys that they take in their homes simultaneously. So they're, like, walking together in Uganda and in Canada, and sharing their discoveries with each other.
And you're absolutely right, Maureen, during the recent years of lockdown, this has become a lifeline for many educators who could not, you know, do this, you know, in the real world. So it’s been—it’s been humbling. I can take no credit for it. You know, the geniuses at Project Zero put this together. (Laughs.) I occasionally appear, you know, and there’s a candle in the background or might be, you know, a snowy mountain. But it’s their baby. It’s astonishing to me.
POND: And that’s been—that’s been one of the unexpected gifts from the walk. When we first started, really didn’t know what it would look like. We knew we were beginning a journey, but the educational component, that really has gone worldwide, has just become the crown jewel. And it will—it will be the legacy of the walk long after Paul reaches Tierra del Fuego and I’m now retired and out to pasture. This will continue on because of this beautiful gift. And Paul is modest that, yes, there’s wonderful, great folks at Harvard that have done this, but they do this because of Paul.
TRANTHAM: Do you have plans to connect with any of the students that have kind of exchanged messages throughout the journey, the journey that you have to go?
SALOPEK: Yeah, we’ve done this already. And, you know, it’s—here is one kind of real-world, concrete limitation of the walk is, like, if there’s a city in India where there’s a school that’s involved, but it’s only 250 kilometers away, right? That would be a couple hours’ drive, that’s several weeks walking for me. (Laughter.) So I do kind of—you know, if I do want to, you know, get to Tierra del Fuego before I turn into a nonagenarian, I do have to kind of keep going ahead. So I can’t—I can’t accommodate all the schools.
TRANTHAM: Understood. I just have a few lightning-round questions for you, Paul, before we open it up to the audience both, you know, here, D.C., and online for questions. So just if you allow me three. So the first question is, exactly how many pairs of shoes have you gone through in this process? (Laughter.)
SALOPEK: I’ve lost track, to be honest. I use the shoes that are available. I live on the market economies that walk through. So, you know, when shoes wear out, I go to the local bazaar or to the local, you know, mall and get what’s available. I think it’s probably a couple dozen by now? I don’t know. Dave, you might even know. I have no idea. You occasionally send me shoes.
POND: I have—(inaudible). I have my phone-a-friend here in New York, Paul. Our executive director, Julia Payne, is in the audience. And a shoutout to Julia. None of this would happen without Julia. Julia—you know, I come from a military background where we have sophisticated technology and command centers. Julia is our command center. And has just been fantastic. So expert answer, phone a friend. Best guess on how many pair of shoes?
PAYNE: I can’t tell you how many pairs of shoes. I just remember being in Kyrgyzstan—(comes on mic)— I can’t tell you exactly how many pairs of shoes. I do remember being in Kyrgyzstan on a, you know, rare visit to Paul, and watching in horror as Paul, you and Sergei (sp), began to do your walk over these, God, probably 14,000-foot mountain ranges in these plastic boots that you bought. (Laughter.)
And I know, because I lost my luggage on that trip, it went to Ulaanbaatar, my suitcase did, so I was borrowing shoes and clothing from other partners who were visiting and, you know, proper hiking books. And I still fell as we did a really tiny mountain hike across the ice. And I was just looking at you and your walking partner and thinking, you know, you guys are made of something different, because you’re about to do this walk in sort of plastic combat boots that were just from a local stand. And you have lived to tell the tale with both feet intact. So probably seven or nine pairs of U.S.-made shoes, and God knows how many other forms of footwear Paul has made it through on this journey wearing.
POND: OK, let’s not knock Soviet plastic boots. (Laughter.)
TRANTHAM: So speaking of being made of something different, location of your worst bout of food poisoning, and what was the food?
SALOPEK: I have not gotten food poisoning, believe it or not, on this whole trip.
TRANTHAM: Truly out of something different.
SALOPEK: And I don’t know—it’s not that I—you know, I live off local economies. So I think I probably have a pretty robust flora, let me to put that way.
TRANTHAM: Got it. Some of us are jealous, based on previous experiences.
POND: That’s an entire scientific story in and of itself.
TRANTHAM: Exactly. You know, the last lightning round question is: What discovery along your journey has most surprised you?
SALOPEK: Yeah. I mean, there’s, like, so many layers to that. But the one that I share as often as possible, because I think it’s my small contribution to any kind of dialogue about getting out into the world in any capacity, whether, you know, if you want to be a diplomat, or if you want to be an educator, or just go on an adventure, is how easy it is. I realize that I am walking with certain unearned advantages, I mentioned earlier. But what I tell young people, students—it’s interesting. American students in particular, the top three questions I get at the beginning are: Isn’t it dangerous? And that seems a very American question to me. Is that the world in fact, folks, is—it’s a very difficult place. It’s a hard road to travel.
But it is not as dangerous as you’re led to believe. If you walk through a village, guess what the local news will show? It’s the one house that may be on fire, where in other houses they’re having breakfast and they’re talking to each other. And I think I am in the communication business. And the media world loves disaster. You know, if it bleeds, it leads. At a global level, it’s enhanced stratospherically with the digital revolution. We get an awful lot of bad news here through our devices. I can tell you that after I don’t know how many thousands of days and nights of walking, times when I was in physical danger, I can probably count them—that I’m aware of—on the fingers of one hand.
So my—you know, I was fifty when I started, Maureen. It’s not like I have—(inaudible)—in my background. I also describe this project as an arrival and not a departure. I didn’t have a midlife crisis and was it—you know, is it the red Porsche or is to go walk the world? (Laughter.) I’ve been doing this pretty much since I was six, right? I crossed my first border. I was raised in Mexico. So this is a continuation of a methodology and a refinement of a methodology of—it’s not that dangerous. It’s not that—it’s not that usual. What we’re doing now, which is sitting down, is really dangerous and unusually, both psychically and physiologically for us, right? So that’s my bon mot.
TRANTHAM: So at this time I would invite the participants in New York, and Washington, D.C., and on Zoom to join our conversation with their questions. And just as a reminder to everyone, this meeting is on the record. And so in New York, you know, folks can raise their hand. And remember as, you know, the Council, please state your name and kind of your organization.
I think Sonya, in the front row.
Q: Thank you, Sonya Stokes, Mount Sinai.
Thank you to Paul, Dave, and to Maureen. I want to look at the onset of the pandemic and set aside the logistical challenges as well as the safety protocols. With your walking partners, Paul, have you noticed a change in the way that people are interacting with you? More or less desire to interact? Or anything that has specifically surprised you of a change, if we look at January 2020, before and after, what have been the things that have changed or, maybe, surprisingly, haven’t changed? And then, secondarily for Dave, what you can disclose to us, a specific security incident that has happened in January 2020 that has also surprised you, again, that you can disclose on the record.
SALOPEK: Yeah, it’s a good question. And I’ve got to remind folks that my experience of the pandemic was—I was in northern Myanmar, waiting in Mandalay to get permission to cross the border, when the pandemic broke out. And since then, it’s been pretty much limited to China. And so China is its own world when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, right? To novel coronavirus pandemic. And even within China, which has, you know, one of the most strict protocols in the world, there’s been great variation in the way it’s affected my walking partners’ interactions, with the people I’m walking with.
Some communities are very relaxed, and two kilometers away a community that may visually look very similar is very uptight about it. And I’ve spoken to anthropologists who worked in this part of China about this. And the best we can sus out is that it’s basically, you know, the leadership of these local communities sets the tone. So if you have a—if you have a village leader who is kind of relaxed and easygoing about it, you’re going to have no problems and will be allowed to kind of walk through, and you’ll be welcomed, and you can sit on the corner and have a chana. If that leader is over controlling or has an agenda, you will be asked to walk around the community—which has, in fact, happened.
So it is very diverse and very unpredictable. And it’s been my—it’s been my kind of pandemic existence, walking through southeast and western China has been very diverse. And we don’t—and that’s part of the challenge, is we just don’t know till we get there. Because even if you—you have a digital badge or pass, you know, saying if it’s green you can go through, the arrows are the same way, local input trumps that all the time. And that’s something worth keeping in mind about these kind of oversimplifications about the centralization of authority. It’s not true.
So yeah, Dave, I’ll let you jump in.
POND: And interestingly enough, of course, Paul’s viewpoint of walking through COVID has been through China. But in Myanmar, where you sat COVID out till you could move, but what you encountered in China from community to community, I would challenge you, you could find that from state to state here in the United States, as far as individual communities’ reactions to COVID. Now, granted, you’re walking and not driving or traveling by other conveyance.
And to answer your question, as Paul mentioned, he was in Myanmar when COVID began. And we tried desperately to keep Paul moving ahead of Asia closing down. And it was—it was a tragic comedy of watching dominos fall as countries would close off to us, and close off to us. And we thought he’d be able to move into one country, no. That was shut down that day. If it wasn’t real life, it would have been comical. And so you ended up in a village up in the mountains of northern Myanmar, and actually probably, serendipitously, was probably one of the most secure places you could be, Paul, to sit out COVID until you could move.
SALOPEK: That’s right. I mean—
POND: I mean, I don’t want to say it was a nonevent for you, but you were perfectly find where you were.
SALOPEK: Yeah. That’s true. And I’ve written about this. You know, my main concern going into this pandemic was that there would be this, you know, stepping back from people who were worried about infection. And I was having these kind of ideas about what it would have been like to walk through Europe, right, in the fourteenth century. And we’ve read stories about what it was like. Entire villages were burned, right? So fortunately, that has not been—that has not been the case, yeah.
TRANTHAM: Other questions? Middle of the second row, in New York.
Q: Hi. My name is Nolan. I’m a founder of a startup, also called Eden, actually.
So the question to Paul is, have you actually thought about, like, livestreaming your whole journey in China? Actually, what you’re doing is quite popular on some of the Chinese livestreaming platforms. Like, so it would be—it would just be, like, streaming nonstop, like, for tens of—ten hours straight. And it’s quite, like—(inaudible). So I think you’re going to go viral if you do this. (Laughter.)
SALOPEK: Yeah, Nolan, thanks. Yeah, we—you know, we have thought about doing variations of that. And we are. I mean, there’s a documentary being made, right, about this. And it’s—granted, what you’re talking about is more real time, and the grittiness and the immediacy. I’m going to betray myself as an old fogey. I can tolerate that for a little while, but I would never sustain it because I’m old. I’m so old form that I’m now kind of cutting edge. It’s like, I don’t—when it comes to center, I do not want to be the center of this project.
Philosophically, again, what I tell students or readers, audiences, is that it’s not Paul’s journey. You know, I’m kind of symbolically the one carrying it out, but it’s everybody’s journey. If you go back far enough back in everybody’s family tree, sitting this room that you’re sitting in, some ancestor of yours owns a piece of this trail. Some ancestor of yours had walked some distance on another continent, right? We’re all Africans. So it’s your story as well. And I’m not—I’m not discounting the power of what you’re saying about, like, taking people along for the walk. And we’re trying to do that, and we’re trying to be innovative about it. But the notion of kind of livestreaming it repeatedly, where I’m kind of, like, looking over my shoulder to see if the audience is coming along, would basically be counter to the philosophy of this project.
POND: And, Paul, I’m glad you said old instead of me, because it was in my head. But you do have me by a year, thank goodness. But we do—you know, we’re not—we do have—Paul has just some beautiful and a growing collection of video rolls. You’ve become quite the videographer over time. Paul has become a self-taught photographer, videographer, and moviemaker. And those are all on our websites and on social media. And the videos that you and your walking partners have made, some of them are just stunning. And while it’s not livestreaming, it tells the story and tells it beautifully.
SALOPEK: We are—you know, Nolan, we are inviting Chinese artists along on this walk. And there’ll be an exhibition in Shanghai at the end of the walk to China through the eyes of the Chinese walking partners. And there have been, like, seventeen already. And by the time we reach the Siberian border, there’ll be probably forty at this rate. And some of them have—you know, are using these technologies and these ideas of streaming. And that is entirely appropriate, because they’re comfortable with that. And I welcome it, yeah.
TRANTHAM: I believe we have a question in D.C.
Q: Hi, there. So my name is Nick DeMassi. I’m with the U.S. Treasury Department, and also a student at American University.
So the question that I want to ask you, Paul, is similar to what you just spoke to, but to be more specific. You’re obviously in the communications business and a journalist. And there are lots of different ways that you can tell stories, whether that’s in written form or whether that’s talking out loud, either prepared or unprepared remarks, videos, photographs. So how do you choose the means of communication? Is that something that you think about deliberately? And are there situations in which you would prefer to just take a video, or situations where actually you feel like that’s not appropriate, you’d rather just write it down? Because I find that that might be an interesting thing to hear about.
SALOPEK: Yeah, Nick, that’s a great question. And you’re right. And it’s a question whose answer has evolved partly with technology, right? I began this walk out of my time, kind of, you know, luddite when it comes to using, you know, social media in the daily moment. Because, again, it went against—I’m trying to do slow storytelling, right? But more and more, I think the use of things like video has just exploded, because it—I’ve discovered myself the magic of it, of that in the moment quality that allows people to access emotions. So the line for video is going up, up, up, and up. But the line for writing is staying more or less the same because writing is just, for me, much more laborious. There’s only so much I can do per, you know, week or two. Photography I think has gone a bit down, being replaced by video.
And as the use of these—the use of a phone, right, an iPhone or whatever, this whole—I started with a professional-quality cinematic-quality video camera, which was like a brick. And it weighed a lot, took up space in my rucksack, had battery, you know, issues. I’ve gone completely—this is a phone-recorded journey across the world now. You sacrifice some quality with that, certain things. But they’re getting so close, so good, that it’s not that big of a difference.
Intimacy is an important part of this project. Not just, like, driving through a village and doing some one-off interviews with a farmer about, you know, the famine, or the drought, or climate change, what have you, and then saying goodbye, getting I the car. But staying with that farmer and, indeed, working alongside the farmer. I find physical work, which I’ve done a lot of in my life—in my very checkered c.v.—is a really powerful and immediate way to access people’s interiority, to get inside their inner landscape. So I’ve work alongside people when I can. And I grew up in rural Mexico. So, you know, I struggle now a little bit, but I still know how to shoe a mule, can plow using mules, and stuff like that. I had a nineteenth century upbringing.
So that’s a long answer to your question, is it really depends on that moment, that question of intimacy. I mean, in some ways a powerful grabbed moment might lend itself to a short video, joyful spontaneity. But if you want to get deeper into people’s lives, then I put away the cameras, put away the phone, and sit and just talk with them, and listen, and listen. It’s a listening tour. It’s a 34,000-kilometer listening tour.
TRANTHAM: I think we have one more question in D.C. Or virtual, excuse me. Please go ahead.
OPERATOR: We will have a virtual question from Matthew Majsak.
Q: Hello. First, I’m going to say thank you so much for speaking. I sort of just discovered your work through this webinar, and now I’m excited to sort of go back and read it from the beginning.
My question is you sort of talk about ingratiating yourself into the lives of the people you’re walking with. And I’m curious, as you balance your journey walking sort of—in this sort of walking in the steps of your ancestors, and also as a documentarian, how do you decide what moments you’re going to document, what moments you’re going to keep to yourself, particularly as you sort of navigate cultural boundaries or cultural norms, but also sort of as your internal motivations?
SALOPEK: That is the classic storyteller’s dilemma isn’t it, Matthew? You know, I wish I had some kind of thought-through process to share. But for me, it really is in the moment. And it’s—you know, I’m human. And I’m affected by my mood that day, or that week, or that month. And that plays a factor subconsciously into what I decide to delve into and share with an audience, with leaders. You know, the—I’m still an analog guy. I record, I use a lot of digital technology, but my love is sitting down with long conversations over a chana or, you know, a meal, or working with somebody, and taking notes. I have notebooks. I still take hand notes. And the trick, the real trick, is, you know, the power of your stories isn’t how many pages you manage to fill up in dozens and dozens of notebooks. The real challenge is what one paragraph do we use from that notebook, right? The 0.001 percent.
And it’s mysterious even to me. I’ve got to say, and I’m not trying to make it like alchemy and kind of exalted as a pursuit. It’s like good taxi driving, or good farming, or, you know, good fisherperson. Over time you get to read—like you read can read the room, you read the forest, or you read the waters. And you see this—there’s something here. And it’s often out of the corner of your eye, because I’ve often found when I’m focused on what I think is a great story and I’m, like, pursuing it, you know, in hunter mode, if I don’t glance to the sides, I miss out on even better stories. So my advice to storytellers is to kind of scan the horizons, you know, the way a San hunter would in southern Africa. You’ve got to be hyperalert at all times.
The walking element of this is what’s changed in my career, right? Because I’ve always been pretty good at identifying what makes a pretty good story in a village, or a city, or a country. But the walking part has added an element of meditativeness. The best way I can describe the process, I do some of my best writing when I’m walking, right? I have a notebook always around—on a string around my neck, or it’s in a pocket, and I take notes about an idea. But it’s this combination of being hyperalert, hyper-awake, you can’t sleepwalk your way through the world if you want good storytelling.
But also, there’s this movie that’s playing inside of your head all the time. Often, it’s autobiographical. It’s what you’re going through. It’s a movie unspooling about the past. And it’s this strange balance between wakefulness and daydreaming. Long-range walking puts you in this—in this zone, in this state, where I think good ideas come to you for what stories you select.
TRANTHAM: Thank you. I think that’s all the time we have for questions this evening. And so apologies if we didn’t get to you. But thank you so much for joining today’s conversation, and a very, very special thank you to Paul and Dave for joining us today at the Council. For those of you who are attending in New York and D.C., please stick around for a networking reception happening just outside these doors. And please note that the video and transcript of today’s session will be posted on the CFR website.
Thank you so much and have a fabulous evening.
POND: Thank you, Maureen. (Applause.)