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Dec. 6, 2012, 10 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How do you pack your bag for a seven-year, 22,000-mile international reporting assignment?

Pulitzer winning foreign correspondent Paul Salopek is preparing to walk from Africa to South America and document the whole journey.

Every reporter has a checklist of things to grab or arrange before heading out on an assignment. Paul Salopek’s is longer. Beyond a laptop and video camera, Salopek’s list includes a satellite phone, a GPS, and arranging for translators, guides, and camel transport. Also, really good shoes.

Next month, Salopek will begin a seven-year reporting assignment that will take him 22,000 miles (give or take) on foot, from Africa across Asia and the United States, ultimately ending up in Patagonia at the southern tip of South America. The route Salopek is following is the one anthropologists believe was the first path humans took out of Africa to populate the rest of the world. He’s calling it the Out of Eden, a narrative trek that will examine the current state of the cultures Salopek visits, while also writing about their history and connection to the greater world.

(He’ll will be will talking about his project here at Harvard tonight at 7 p.m., and you can follow along with a livestream of his presentation.)

Salopek is a two-time Pulitzer winner who has covered conflict from the Balkans and Somalia to Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2006, he, his interpreter, and his driver were detained for over a month in Sudan after officials charged him with being a spy. In this seven-year assignment Salopek will have to draw on all of his experience as a foreign correspondent. The assignment is ambitious and unforgivably long-term — by design. To see this assignment through he’ll need precise planning and a tool kit that is as diverse as it is lightweight.

So why’s he doing it? “I could go back and work for a newspaper as a foreign correspondent. I loved that,” Salopek told me. “But why not use those skills I’ve developed for the last 15 years or so on a project of my own? One that may attempt to add a layer of meaning to international news that is missing in our business, because media has become so fragmented.”

The plan is to embark from the Great Rift Valley in Ethiopia in January, tracing the horn of Africa into Israel in 2013. In 2014, he’ll head into central Asia, but not before dealing with one of his bigger obstacles: Iran. If you’re on foot, the best, most direct, route into Asia is through northern Iran on the edges of the Caspian Sea. That, of course, means actually getting through Iran safely. This will be one of the many times diplomatic relations will have a bearing on Salopek’s walk. Not going through Iran would be a big problem in Salopek’s plans — he’d have to head north around the Caspian Sea into Russia, “and that’s an awfully big detour.”

“Anything can happen between now and next year, let alone two years from now, he said. So I’m trying to maintain my flexibility.”

Though he’ll be traveling solo for most of the trip, Salopek has a wide network of support, from translators and guides in the field, to media partners and sponsors here in the U.S. For the first two years of his journey, Salopek’s work will appear in National Geographic, both in print and online. He’s also receiving support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and he spent time this spring here at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism as our first Visiting Fellow, using the time to work with people at Harvard and MIT to plan his expedition and to investigate new forms of digital storytelling he could use along the way.

One of the goals of the Out of Eden project is to make the pace of storytelling match the pace of human walking — which is a way of saying Salopek wants to be deliberate in his writing. “I want to see in the beginning whether going down and taking a more contemplative approach to newsgathering makes the newsgathering more meaningful,” he said. There will be countless topics to write about along the road; Salopek has a preliminary list of story ideas that includes the impact of western food aid on fighting famine, the effect of climate change in areas along the Red Sea, and what the economy of pastoral nomads looks like today. But Salopek is mindful of the fact that plans will inevitably be overtaken by events, and that the reality of the walk could be completely different from what he has planned.

“Here’s the thing: Anything can happen between now and next year, let alone two years from now,” he said. “So I’m trying to maintain my flexibility.”

Inside the backpack

No matter what the road may bring, it’ll be important to have the right gear. Salopek will be a solo traveler for most of the journey, so he’ll need to pull off the one-man band routine many journalists are now familiar with. But given the breadth of his journey, Salopek told me he wanted to have a kit that would open up new kinds of storytelling possibilities. “I’m looking at the walk as a journalist’s laboratory,” he told me.

In his backpack, Salopek will carry a MacBook Air, a satellite phone, a Sony HXR-NX7OU for video and stills, a GoPro camera, an audio recorder, and a personal GPS tracking device. The GPS will obviously play a role in keeping him on track, but Salopek said he’s also interested in trying to geocode stories along his path. Location-based information could play a role in the online component of the project, allowing Salopek and his media partners to give a deeper sense of place. A story about climate change, for instance, could be enhanced with temperature and geological data. Another idea would be to pull in tweets or updates from other social networks to sample the online conversation in a particular region, Salopek said. “The reason why it excites me is that this project by definition is a global project,” he said. “It goes across borders and languages and cultures. I want people to be able to follow along.”

“I think after all these months of prep, taking a hike in 120-degree heat with camel nomads is very appealing at this point.”

But what will likely make the journey more immersive is the multimedia component. Using his video and audio equipment, Salopek said he wants to create a kind of continuous portrait of the world at this point in time. “I’m calling it a narrative transect: Every 100 miles, I’ll methodically take a series of narrative readings that do not vary along the path of the walk,” he said. The plan, as he envisions it, is to stop to take six samples: Ambient sound, photos of the earth and sky, a panorama of his current location, a minute or so of video, and an interview, all in the same method in each location. He sees it as almost a scientific approach, one that can show the changes and similarities in terrain, but also culture and people. And while these transects will make for good multimedia, Salopek said their real value will be as an archive of what the world looked like from 2013 to 2019.

“By the end of seven years, I’ll have created an enduring portrait of a storytelling transect around the world at the end of the millennium,” he said.

At the moment, Salopek is finishing up planning of the logistics for Out of Eden. He’s partnering with Knight Foundation, which is supporting the online component of his trip. He’s looking for additional media partners and working with the Pulitzer Center to create an educational component of the project that can be used in classrooms. He’s been traveling back and forth between Africa doing “reconnaissance” on the route and the conditions on the ground. He’s set up guides and, yes, camel transport where needed. While plotting out the map, he’s also getting his visas in order so cross-border surprises are kept to a minimum. In all, Salopek says he has a pretty good picture of his next two years worth of work. But beyond that, it becomes tough to plan years 3-7. International relations may shift, borders may change. And journalism will likely continue to transform as well; just think of how planning for this sort of a journey would have been different if he’d started seven years ago — before smartphones, social media, and broadband had assumed the role they do now. There are a lot of unknown variables. But Salopek, who calls himself “just another hack,” says he’s ready to start chasing down stories.

“I think after all these months of prep, taking a hike in 120-degree heat with camel nomads is very appealing at this point,” he said.

Photo courtesy of Linda Lynch.

POSTED     Dec. 6, 2012, 10 a.m.
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