Walking shoes, global trade, Santa and more: Paul Salopek responds to young people’s questions

In December, some members of the Out of Eden Learn (OOEL) team visited Paul Salopek in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where he will spend the winter before resuming the Out of Eden Walk in the spring, heading east towards China. We took the opportunity to organize a Google+ hangout chat between Paul and OOEL participating schools.

Scheduling our chat for midday in the Central Asia time zones allowed students and teachers from Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, and Tanzania to participate. We were also joined by a few ’night owl’ teachers from Canada and the US who had collected questions from their students in advance. We also were able to include questions sent to us by email from students in Greece, Spain, and the US. Students asked a range of questions from the lighthearted to the logistical to weightier questions about cultural difference, human conflict, and other pressing global issues.

Here, I share selected highlights from the conversation. I invite you to watch and listen to the full conversation here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uuSLnrgmSkA screen-shot-2016-12-20-at-10-13-44-am

Young people are ever curious about the day-to-day, practical aspects of Paul’s walk. Greek kindergartners wanted to know “How often are your shoes worn out?” Answer: So far, each pair of Paul’s hiking boots have lasted approximately 1500 km or nearly 1,000 miles!  In other words, in 4 years, Paul has only worn out 4 pairs of his favorite boots. Middle school students from California, US asked about the longest distance Paul has walked in a single day so far. Paul responded immediately that it was a “very memorable” day in the Hejaz desert of Western Saudi Arabia when he and his guides miscalculated the distance to the next water source and ended up walking around 54k or 32 miles to reach it. In the next stage of the walk, Paul and his guides will face the vast Taklamakan Desert and again the challenge of finding water sources.

Questions from students in Indonesia, Hong Kong, and the US led Paul to discuss the human challenges confronted in his journey. He described tense moments in walking through conflict zones where soldiers or police misconstrued Paul and his guides as a threat. In response to a direct question about the impact of stereotypes on human interactions, Paul replied, “stereotyping happens all the time. It’s almost inescapable. And it’s our task to try to penetrate, to get through these surface impressions to the real person underneath.” In turn, he talked about listening carefully to others and moving slowly as strategies or “safety valves” to diffuse conflicts. Further, Paul indicated that the larger purpose of the writing he produces on this walk is to “build bridges of understanding” between people.

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Several questions from students in India focused on the ancient Silk Road that Paul and his guides have been walking and what it looks like today. Paul described today’s Silk Road as just as busy and dynamic as it was in the past. New transportation infrastructure projects in Eurasia (he cited China’s “One World, One Belt” project) support the flow of goods ranging from oil piles to iPhones. In these ways, the Silk Road is a “miniature snapshot of globalization.”

A related question from students in Chennai: How do people retain their own cultures in our globally interconnected world? Paul explained that he has observed efforts by governments, schools, and individuals to retain their own cultural traditions even while engaging with ideas, cultural forms, and artifacts from afar. He cited government-supported art festivals and exhibitions and musicians who memorize thousands of lines of poetry to keep an art form alive. Similarly, students from Vancouver asked how Paul feels about following an ancient pathway of migration and movement while using modern technologies to document his journey. His reply, “It’s lovely to dip into the deep past … and then use modern technology to communicate that. It’s a cool time to be alive to think about old things but share them in a new way.”

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The pressing global issue of climate change was raised by a student from Hawaii in the US: “Is climate change something that you find that people are talking about as an issue as you travel?” Paul replied that he’s finding talk of climate change everywhere. “Since I’ve been walking through rural areas where people live directly off the land, their livelihoods depend on the climate. If you are a farmer and you depend on rain, your existence is threatened by climate change…. It truly is a sobering time to be moving through world where there’s this unknowable, fundamental change in our planet.” Paul shares further insights on this topic in a recently published article for WBEZ Chicago on walking through climate change.

Another urgent topic, migration, surfaced when Paul responded to a question about the emotional tenor of his stories he’s written on the walk to date. Kindergarten students from Greece asked, “If you were to write a story about the people and places you have visited so far, would it be a sad or happy story and why?” Paul pointed to mass refugee movements as one of the most heart-wrenching stories he has documented. Yet, he went on to say that happy stories – especially stories of quiet happiness – have been far more prevalent on his journey, even in refugee camps. As Paul said, “we must not dismiss people in difficult circumstances as only having one dimension, of tragedy.”

Related to this, when a year three student from Hong Kong asked, “What is the most amazing discovery you have made on your journey?,” Paul responded that he’s been taken by how much goodness exists in the world and how much people help each other out. When a student from Tanzania asked, “Who supports you in your journey?,” Paul gave a shout-out to his media and education partners, and to all the students following his walk. “Just talking to you boosts my morale. You guys are part of the walking posse. I’m supported by you.”

We closed our conversation with a final – and rather time-sensitive – question from our Greek kindergarten students. They wanted to know, “If you continue walking at Christmas are you worried that Santa won’t find you?”  Paul agreed that this was a great question and said that he has indeed been worried about it. “My request to all of you guys is that, in your communication with Santa, could you just mention me? If you need GPS coordinates, I’d be happy to provide them. Put a good word in for me and let him know where I am.”

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Paul, along with all of us on the Out of Eden Learn team, appreciated the opportunity to explore these great questions from students. We look forward to further conversations down the road.

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