Out of Eden Postponed

Paul Salopek must be the world’s most patient man.

I was practicing my daily self-torture by reviewing the numbers out of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. I realized that as of the time of this writing, there have been more than 1,900,000 reported deaths worldwide. That’s an horrific number, made even worse by the fact that it’s probably on the low side.

Suddenly I sat up straight in my chair, thinking, “My god. Where is Paul Salopek?”

I’ve blogged about Mr. Salopek a few times before. He’s the guy being sponsored by National Geographic to do the Out of Eden walk, and write dispatches along the way for our reading pleasure. His path follows the migratory route of humanity, and started in January, 2013.

He began his walk in Ethiopia, where humans first evolved. From there he went to Djibouti and crossed the Red Sea. That took 5 months. From there he spent 14 months walking through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the West Bank, and Israel. It took him a further 20 months to make his way through Cyprus, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. From there he crossed the Caspian Sea and traveled along the Silk Road, through Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. That took him 22 months. From Pakistan he went to India, and into Myanmar. That was a further 23 months, and then (insert sound of record scratch) he was stopped cold by the pandemic in March, 2020.

He’s been in Myanmar ever since. I was glad to see that he’s alive and well. At the time I wrote this, his latest dispatch was only a few days old. He’s passing the time by writing a book.

Salopek must be the world’s most patient man. Personally, as much as I adore travel, after about 12 days, I want to go home. For him, it’s been nearly 8 years, and he still has a long way to go. The entire journey was only supposed to have taken him 7 years.

His plan, from here, is to go up through Asia, across to Alaska, down the west coast of the United States, into Mexico and Central America, and then all along the West coast of South America, ending in Tierra del Fuego. But first he has to wait out this pandemic.

What must it be like, being away from loved ones that long, and only having the friends you meet along the road as you’re passing through? What must it be like to live with only what you can carry on your back? What happens to your concept of stability and permanence and home?

That, and his feet must be killing him.

Just as with the rest of us, I’m sure this pandemic took Salopek by surprise. But he seems to be coping with it. In the meantime, he has a lot of fascinating stories to share. I highly recommend that you check out the Out of Eden website and enjoy his journey vicariously just as I have done.

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A Long Term Trek

What interests me most is how this trek has shaped the man.

Way back in January 1, 2015, I wrote a blog post about Paul Salopek. By then he’d been walking for two years, in the footsteps of our ancestors, from cradle of civilization in Africa with his ultimate goal being the tip of South America. He’s writing, filming, and photographing along the way. When I wrote about him in 2015, he was in Turkey. At the time of this writing, he is in Bodhgaya, India. He has a long way to go. I can’t even imagine the state of his feet, knees, and back.

But oh, how I envy his experiences. If you ever want to travel vicariously, check out the stories posted in the Out of Eden website. They’re mesmerizing. I wish I had the fortitude and the confidence to leave all traditional life behind and just walk for years on end, seeing the world. What an adventure.

I think the hardest part about a trek like that, for me, would be the loneliness. Granted, he usually has a companion, whether it be a journalist or translator or a guide, but no single person has joined him for the entire stretch. He’s in it alone. Oh, and currently he has a donkey. Sometimes he has a pack horse.

Either way, I wonder what he will do once he reaches his goal, if he does. Will he want to settle down and root himself in? Will he want to never go anywhere else again? Will he be over it all? Or, on the other hand, will he always be restless and never satisfied by staying put? These are questions I’d like to ask him if we ever crossed paths. (And it does look like he will be passing close to Seattle, someday, years from now.)

I wonder if the portion of his trek through the United States will be jarring and unpleasant after all that wandering through rural third world lands. Will he be anxious to get it over with, or thrilled to have constant access to Starbucks? These are the things that interest me most. Not the trek as much as how the trek has shaped him.

I need to backtrack and read all the posts of his journey and get a better sense of the man. I need to follow the Out of Eden Walk Facebook group. I need to see the progression, the evolution, of Paul Salopek. Because I can.

It’s a rare thing, when someone puts his or her entire life’s journey out there for the world to see. It’s like anthropology through an electron microscope. And what a unique opportunity that is for all of us.

Out of Eden Walk

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Why Can’t We Leave the Sentinelese Alone?

Why can’t we just let these people be?

There are very few unexplored places left on this planet, unless you count the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which is about 36,000 feet under the sea. But even in that unwelcoming environment, scientists keep trying to make inroads to find out what’s down there. We just can’t seem to stay way.

I get that desire to discover, to learn, to broaden one’s horizons against all odds, to answer those unanswered questions. I really do. And in most instances, I say go for it. Curiosity is one of my favorite human qualities. However, I make one exception: I genuinely believe that uncontacted people should be left alone, unless, of course, they make the first move.

The people from North Sentinel Island, way out in the Indian Ocean, have been left to their own devices for at least 60,000 years. They have not developed past the stone age, and have rebuffed all attempts to contact them. They shoot arrows at approaching boats and planes. They turn their backs. They shout aggressively. More than once, they have killed those who have deigned to trespass. As far as I’m concerned, that’s pretty much all we need to know. These people want to be left alone. So let’s leave them alone.

Fortunately, the government of India currently agrees with this philosophy. It is illegal to get within 3 miles of this island. This has not always been the case, but it is now. Why isn’t that good enough? Why can’t we just let these people be?

Most recently, just last month, an American missionary, John Allen Chau, decided that these people need to be converted to Christianity. The arrogance. The nerve. How dare any of us think that we know what’s best for an entire group of people who have never asked for our opinion? How dare we launch what amounts to a religious missile into their midst, knowing full well it would change their entire culture forever?

Not only is it foolhardy to approach an isolated group that has no immunity to our diseases, but it’s criminal to barge uninvited into a land that they’ve occupied for thousands upon thousands of years. Have we learned absolutely nothing from history?

Chau was promptly killed by the Sentinelese, as he stood there spewing his scripture at them in a language they did not understand and do not care to know. His body will never be recovered. Its mere presence there, with its unknown disease vectors, may cause the death of the last uncontacted people on earth.

In the past 130 years, this island has been invaded by the outside world at least a half dozen times. One time, by a group from the National Geographic. Whether their intentions were good or not, these contacts have never ended well. Not once.

We know virtually nothing about these people. We’re not even sure if they number 15 or 500. No one knows their language. There’s even strong debate as to whether they are capable of making fire. But one thing is clear: They want no part of us. So let’s leave them in peace. Our curiosity does not trump their right to live their lives as they see fit.


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It’s All So Fragile

I just read something very exciting on the National Geographic website. It seems that the Mayan city of Tikal and its environs in Guatemala were much, much, MUCH larger than we previously thought. All this time, we were thinking the area was home to about 5 million people during the Maya classic period between 250 and 900 AD, when in fact it was more likely that this civilization’s population was about 10-15 million. That’s much more densely populated than medieval England was.

How did we reach this conclusion? Scholars used LiDAR, which is a sort of penetrating radar that can look through the vegetation to see previously undiscovered structures. (Check out the photos in that NatGeo article. They’re really quite fascinating.) They were able to find the ruins of more than 60,000 houses, palaces, and elevated highways.

Holy cow, talk about a booming metropolis. To put that in context, cities about that size today include Bangkok, Thailand; Los Angeles, USA; Cairo, Egypt; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. Clearly there was a lot more going on in the Tikal area than we previously imagined.

And how exciting for archeologists! It will take decades to sort through all this LiDAR data, and even longer to clear the growth off the buildings of interest. This is quite a breakthrough. We have so much more to learn about this ancient culture! There are some pyramids in there that are 7 stories high that you can’t see even when you are standing right in front of them. Now, they just look like jungle-y hills, lost in the underbrush.

That, to me, is mind-blowing. Imagine. If we abandoned Los Angeles for a thousand years, it would be so overgrown that no one would even know it was there!

That’s sobering. I mean, we walk around thinking that we are living in the realm of permanence, that we’ve made our mark and staked our claim on the earth, that our skyscrapers will last forever. In fact, from a cosmic perspective, all this stuff is fleeting. It’s here, but not for long. Not really. Someday it will be unrecognizable. The dry cleaner’s across the street will not even be there in 50 years, let alone 500 years. This moment in time won’t  be remembered, eventually.

It’s all so fragile. That makes the now seem all the more precious. I don’t know about you, but it has me looking at things with fresh eyes. Who wants to go to Tikal with me?


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Things Get Cloudier

The following sentence makes me feel really old: Things were a whole lot simpler when I was a child. I remember running home to proudly tell my mother that I now knew the names of all the clouds. Cirrus. Cumulus. Stratus. Nimbus. And the various combinations thereof, such as cumulostratus and cirronimbus.  I took a great deal of comfort from the fact that now I’d be able to look skyward and always have a name for what I saw.

Those days are gone. According to this article on the Nat Geo site, for the first time in 30 years, the International Cloud Atlas has named 11 new cloud types. Eleven. That’s a lot. I wonder if I’ve seen them all. Among this pantheon are cool names such as asperitas, fluctus and cavum.

The article goes on to say that these new designations came about mainly because so many of us have cell phone cameras these days, and odd cloud photos kept popping up that did not fit neatly into the 4 cloud system of yore. That’s the cool thing about science. The more you observe, the more you have to describe, and the more you learn.

And I have no doubt that I could add these 11 new cloud types to my knowledge base if I took the time. But will I? Probably not. I already feel pretty overwhelmed as a general rule.

That leaves me with very mixed emotions about this new development. I really liked it when the sky made sense to me. Oh, it’s still wondrous and beautiful, but now it’s… dare I say it? Over my head.

Fluctus clouds. Nope. I definitely haven’t seen these yet.

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Racing Extinction

In my timeworn tradition of being years behind trends, I just saw an amazing documentary from 2015 on Hulu. It’s called Racing Extinction, and it’s both beautiful and horrifying. It has forever changed the way I look at the world.

The cinematography is stunning. Many of the people involved in this documentary also worked for National Geographic. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about this film’s quality.

It moved me to tears more than once. The first time was when they played the recording of the very last O’o bird singing a mating song that would never, ever be answered. Then there were the views of hundreds of thousands of shark fins on a roof in Hong Kong, and footage of sharks with their fins chopped off, struggling to swim to get air through their gills, only to eventually suffocate. And the sight of majestic manta rays fighting for their lives in hour-long battles with fishermen made me want to scream.

At this point I’ve probably convinced you not to see this documentary, but I urge you to change your mind. It will open your eyes. It shows you incontrovertible evidence of the methane we release into the atmosphere every day. It shows how this methane is making the oceans more acidic, and how this acid dissolves seashells. It demonstrates how this is killing the phytoplankton that produces more than half the oxygen we breathe. As the film says, “Your life depends on the oceans breathing.”

It also says that “if every American skipped meat and cheese just one day a week for a year, it would be like taking 7.6 million cars off the road.” (I’m managing to be meat-free 3 to 4 days a week, but that doesn’t let you off the hook.)

But more than anything, it shows the gorgeous way they are educating all of us about this crisis. Check out their website to see the videos they have displayed on the side of the Empire State Building, for example. Absolutely stunning. The website also suggests ways you can help slow down this man-made mass extinction that is happening all around you, even as you read this. Please help.

Copyright Jon Brumbaug

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The Plight of the Pangolin

I remember distinctly the first time I saw a picture of a pangolin. I was browsing a coffee table book on Africa at a friend’s house. I thought it was some sort of a joke. They look like the love child of an artichoke and an aardvark. But the situation got even more strange when I went to show my friend the picture, and I couldn’t find it in the book, even after an exhaustive search. My friend asked if someone had slipped me some magic mushrooms.

I didn’t see another one of these strange creatures until decades later, in a Youtube video. Finally! Vindication! But by that time me and my friend had gone our separate ways.

So I was really amazed to see this article in National Geographic that states that the pangolin is the world’s most trafficked mammal. That’s really ironic because I’m fairly certain that if you surveyed a random sampling of Americans, 99 percent of them wouldn’t even know the pangolin existed. In essence, an animal is endangered that few people are aware of in the first place.

They are apparently found throughout sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, and they’re prized by the people of China and Viet Nam for their medicinal properties, some of which, of course, they believe enhance virility. (And of course there is absolutely NO medical evidence that this is the case. I would love to know why these people seem to be so dissatisfied with their virility in the first place, but who am I to judge, when every third advertisement in this country is for Viagra?)

To make things worse for these little critters, they are extremely easy to hunt, because they’re toothless and their main defense move is to curl up into a ball. And the females only give birth to one baby, once a year, so they’re having a lot of trouble keeping up with the pace of human predation.

The good news, according to National Geographic, is that the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species just voted to shut down sales of pangolins, in whole or in part, across borders. Don’t you just love it when people get together to do the right thing? (Of course, this will make pangolin stuff harder to come by, which will in turn make it more highly prized. But still. It’s a start.)

If you love pangolins, or heck, if you’re even partial to artichokes or aardvarks, please support these little guys by sacrificing your pursuit of virility, gentlemen. If you ask me, it’s not very manly to kill off an entire species, especially one this cute. It certainly doesn’t make you attractive in my eyes.


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What’s Your Water Mark?

I came across some disturbing statistics on the National Geographic website just now. It takes 37 gallons of water to produce the average cup of coffee. Think of that next time, and every time, you drink one. If we each drank a cup of coffee each morning, it would use up 32 trillion gallons of water a year.

Even scarier, 1 pound of beef requires 1,799 gallons of water. One cup of wine takes up 63.4 gallons of water. And lest you think that eating healthier gives you a free pass, 1 pound of soybeans takes 216 gallons of water. And (God forgive me) 1 pound of chocolate requires 3,170 gallons of water.

I’m feeling slightly sick to my stomach, thinking of all that water usage as I walk down the aisles of my grocery store. And there are so many stores, and so many of us. Water is not the infinite resource that we first-worlders would like to think that it is.

I feel really helpless when I look at the world’s environmental problems. The only thing I can really do is my part, plus spread the word to encourage others to do theirs.

One really eye-opening web page is the homewaterworks calculator. Go there, answer some basic questions about your water usage, and it comes up with a nifty spreadsheet for you that gives you an estimate of how much water you use per day and per year and in what parts of the house, how much energy you use to heat your water, and how you compare to other households in your geographic area.

I was actually kind of thrilled to discover that I use a little less than the typical water-wise house. But then I realized that that probably has less to do with my overall efficiency than it does with the fact that I live alone.

It also gives you recommendations on how to decrease your water usage. For example, replace old toilets and use more efficient appliances. Sadly I’m a renter, and am kind of stuck with using what they give me, but if and when I ever own a home again, all my appliances will be much more eco-friendly.

It is really important that we all educate ourselves about water usage. It’s even more important that we alter our behaviors. Our window of opportunity to get this right is rapidly closing.


Epic Journey

If you read no other blog besides this one (I’m so freakin’ modest), you absolutely must check out that of Paul Salopek on the National Geographic website. He is the man who is taking the Out of Eden Walk, a seven year, 21,000 mile journey from the cradle of civilization in Ethiopia to the tip of South America. Currently he’s walking through Anatolia in Turkey, and his blog entry makes you feel as though you’re experiencing the tastes and sights firsthand.

A seven year commitment to anything in this era of twitter and divorce and all things instant is to be commended, but to do it on foot, all year round, in the harshest of weather… I can’t even be bothered to walk across the street to the mailbox when it’s raining out. I can’t imagine offering myself up for being footsore, tired, exposed, lonely, and vulnerable for seven weeks, let alone seven years. And this is a Pulitzer prize winning writer. It’s not as if he were desperate for work. Amazing. I want to meet this guy!

Following his journey will teach you much about culture, geography, hunger, climate change, politics, history, and war. It will cause you to think globally. I can’t imagine a more epic way to start the new year.


[Image credit: NationalGeographic.com]

The Wisdom of Maruge


This is Kimani Ng’ang’a Maruge. He spent most of his life fighting for the independence of Kenya. For his troubles he saw his wife and two children slaughtered before his very eyes by the British Imperialists. He also spent 8 years in prison where he was tortured. They whipped him, they cut off his toes. They split open his skull. God save the queen, right?

Needless to say with all that going on, he didn’t have the opportunity to get an education. Even if he had had the time, education was not available for black Kenyans when he was a child. But when Kenya became independent and offered a free primary education for all, he was the first in line to sign up. Unfortunately he was 84 at the time. He only wanted to learn to read. Didn’t his country owe him that after all his sacrifices?

After much controversy, Maruge was indeed allowed to attend school, and he did so for several years until his death in 2009. Because of this he was allowed to speak in front of the United Nations about the importance of education and he is in the Guiness Book of World Records. National Geographic even made a delightful movie about him called The First Grader, which is how I learned about this amazing man.

We Americans tend to take education for granted, but for many in the world, especially girls, it is but a distant dream. Some are prevented because they must support their families or the school is too far away or education is not emphasized in their culture. Sometimes it’s a tiny yet formidable roadblock of not being able to afford a school uniform. But the lower your education, the higher your risk of violence, HIV, poverty, and using aggression to solve your problems. The terrorists of this world tend not to be well educated, nor do cult members. Educated people build stronger families, stronger communities and stronger economies. It is in everyone’s best interest that the world be an educated place.

Today is National Call-In Day to urge your Representative to support a US pledge to support universal access to education. It will only take a minute of your time but it could help bring about a more peaceful and prosperous world. Won’t you help? If so, visit the Campaign for Education USA.org and find out how to participate. It’s the right thing to do.