Journalist Bhavita Bhatia was one of the nine local storytellers who joined Paul Salopek for segments of his walk across northern India. Here she surveys the holy city of Varanasi from a boat on the Ganges River. Photo by: Paul Salopek
After walking 17 months and more than 3,860 kilometres across the vast river plains of northern India—often through off-grid communities that had not seen an outsider since the nation’s independence from Britain in 1947—the Out of Eden Walk says goodbye to the largest (and most tumultuous) democracy in the world and steps over the jungle frontier into Myanmar.
At past border crossings, Paul Salopek has written a personal “goodbye to…” essay about the country he’s leaving. This time, to honour the partners who accompanied him across the subcontinent, and as part of a more inclusive strategy to highlight the voices of those who join him on the global walking trail, we feature a multimedia mosaic of work by his Indian co-walkers—essays, photos, audio, and even a “walking partners” map. Each partner walked away from the experience with unique stories and insights spawned by her or his sensibility and segment of the trail. Near the end of the journey, five of the nine India walkers rejoined Salopek for the last 100-kilometre stretch to the Myanmar border.
Here are their stories.
A desert journal
By Arati Kumar-Rao, photographer, writer, Nat Geo Explorer
I found a fat blue book yesterday—a diary from 1991—stuffed with letters, pressed flowers, found feathers, still fresh grasses, and loud whispers. To open it was to enter a different world, one that took me down a rabbit hole into a teenage girl’s secrets, fears, dreams, hopes, and insecurities. She seemed vaguely familiar to me, like someone whose name I knew but whose face I could not remember.
That diary was like a messy crime scene, full of forensic clues. Diaries are crafty, wily creatures like that. When you record moments and conversations, when you write to fathom how you feel, or why you feel the way you do, diaries can turn into potent storytellers, whisperers, shrinks even—showing you the way, wiping foggy windshields clean, kindling hope.
In front of me was a pile of other similar books—my diaries from various intervening years. I picked up another, more recent one.
February 27, 2018, Wagah border post, Punjab, India
I met Fouji Saheb while waiting at the passport control at Attari, on the Indian side of the Pakistan-India border in Punjab. I was squatting on a culvert when he came up to me.
“So who have you come to receive?” he asked.
“Just one guy?”
Fouji Saheb fished out his phone and made a call.
Minutes ticked on. I asked if there was a restroom in the passport control building. I was ushered in, in exchange for my income tax card. By the time I came back, Fouji Saheb pointed me to the curb with a satisfied smile. A reed thin white guy was shrugging off huge donkey bags and looking around.
What if I didn’t show? I asked Paul Salopek, coming upon him from behind.
“I’d just start walking,” he smiled.
We’d barely walked three miles when a traffic patrol jeep passed us, stopped, and backed up.
“Do you need any help?”
I explained that we were walking to Amritsar. They asked us to stay safe and beware of “smackers.” This was our first semaphore of the immense drug problem this region is facing.
March 17, Harike Pattan, Punjab
Paul was sick and in bed today. I had nothing better to do and decided to go looking for Indus River dolphins in the Beas river. I had no idea where to begin. Hiring a taxi, I asked the driver to drive to a point on the map that looked like it was by the river. My plan was to look for a boatman there.
Half an hour later, I found myself by the river. On the far side, I could see fishermen readying to set out. On the near side, a pesticide machine droned and emptied spray onto wheat. A long, low boat floated in, laden with grass. A turbaned man at the prow. He alighted, introduced himself as Amarjeet Singh, an ex-army soldier, and listened closely to my questions about any dolphin sighting. Incredibly, he pointed just down the river and said, “I saw two go that way, not 10 minutes ago.” I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d only dreamed of seeing Indus dolphins, not even knowing there were any extant in India.
Can you take me on your boat? Show me?
I clambered in, and we set off with a few more passengers. Suddenly, not a few yards away, the stubby dorsal fins of a mother and hert calf cleaved the smooth Beas and disappeared. I squealed in delight, my eyes welling up uncontrollably, irritatingly, making everything around me swim and shimmer.
Amarjeet Singh beamed and rowed gently upstream.
April 5, leaving Harike
We took a road off-tarmac and onto a path that swung alongside the Indira Gandhi Canal. As we walked under ficus trees and acacias, past fields of sarkanda grass, past flocks of ibises and screeching lapwings, we saw a group of elderly Sikhs approaching us with folded hands.
“Sat sri akal,” we returned the greeting with folded hands. They smiled and asked us where we were from and where headed. Thanu Singh ji, who once was in the air force and stationed in Bengaluru, looked directly into my eyes.
They implored us to visit their village, their home, for some chai. We followed them. As we finished and got up to leave, they folded their hands again and pleaded with us to not walk along the canal but to stick to the road. There had been incidents of bad elements, under the influence of drugs, hiding in the grass, waylaying people. They were worried for us.
We respected their wishes and cut across to the highway, braving the tarmac.
April 24, near Hathiyawala, Rajasthan
We had crossed over the Punjab border into Rajasthan. We were also now at the mercy of the Indian summer.
It was our cargo donkey Raju’s first day with the new saddle—hand-fashioned by a Raj carpenter. While the saddle was good, the butt strap was too broad, and Raju was having trouble pooping. This slowed him down.
We stopped, and Paul sewed the strap in half. The poor baby could now fart and poop in peace while walking.
It was insanely hot today, and we made the mistake of walking through midday. It was nearly 2.30 p.m., and we’d put away 27 kilometres by the time we reached a temple. Just as we tethered Raju, kicked off our shoes, and walked up the warm marble temple steps, our farmer friends from just across the border sent forth a couple of youngsters bearing good tidings and large thermoses filled with lassi (buttermilk) and ice-cold water.
We sat on the chairs and chugged wordlessly, wishing upon our farmer friends many good wishes and the choicest blessings.
Not long after, the head priest of this temple—a six-foot-tall, lanky man with a voice like Marlon Brando in the Godfather, a head shaved save for a lock of hair, and eyes that held the look of one heavily stoned—emerged from what was likely a deep afternoon sleep in an alcove. He welcomed us and immediately asked my name and pronounced my caste based on it. He decided by some algorithm to allow us to spend the night there, but not before taking the names of some communities that he made sure to tell me were not welcome.
He opened up a room for us and installed a cooler that blew copious amounts of dust and khus, bits of grass, into our faces. But the coolness was welcome. In a dark bathroom, under one enthusiastic tap, I sloughed off the day’s weariness and put on fresh clothes.
Paul slept the night in the room—the night got really cold—and I fell asleep in the open courtyard in my sleeping bag, watching a bright moon sink behind the temple facade and keeping a wary eye on the priest who slept on a charpoy a few feet away.
2 a.m.: The priest was up and going about his ablutions and preparations of the deity. Someone came for an Arati, a fire offering, at about 3.45, and the bells started ringing, and someone beat a drum—dumdumdum, dum, dumdumdum, dum—I could see the lock of hair on the priest’s head bobbing, and the flames threw shadows and flares onto his face, his tilak, his eyes in the early morning dark.
Slowly, the sky began to take on an indigo hue—dawn—and the priest materialized with chai. He pressed for us to stay another day, but we had places to go. We packed, saddled up Raju, and set off on a brisk walk again.
May 23, 2018, in a dhani (roadside stop) somewhere near Bhojasar
Paul and I sat on a tarp, under a khejri tree. The mercury had reached 46 degree Celsius, and we were running low on water. We were about 16 kilometres into our day and probably had another 10 to go before we halted for the night.
As we rode out the hottest part of the day, a loo (hot summer wind) started up. A farmer walked across the fields and into the fields, spotted us, and sat down with us. He started talking, asking questions, offering information about himself.
Eventually, this man, Brijlal, asked what Paul was getting from walking. He asked if all Americans are Christians. He asked me to write a story on man.
“The one who made man made all men equal. But man is himself creating differences. Man declares himself of this religion or that religion. Man made religion, God did not. And caught in the wheel of religions, man clashes with man. Now one man looks upon another with hate and contempt.”
He suddenly looked at Paul and said, “If you were at my home, I’d make you chai.” When Paul said he appreciated Brijlal stopping by to chat, the old farmer says, “I also felt the love.”
He turned back to me, “We are like guests on this land—like the night traveller stops at an inn to rest, we are like that. Our time to move on will also come. There were people on the Earth before us, and there will be people after us. The world will keep on turning, like this.”
Finding that Out of Eden Walk diary was like walking back through Punjab and Rajasthan
Flipping pages, I met once again Haji Sayeed, the owner of the dhaba (roadside eatery) who adopted us and warned us of dangerous villages ahead where dacoity (banditry) was a profession; and Narender Singh, who with his stentorian voice roused villages far away and summoned huge aluminum cans of buttermilk for us; and the cop who asked me what my caste was and, when I said Indian, rechristened me Bharati; and the sarpanch (village decision-maker) who opened his house for us just as a sandstorm blotted the sun out of the skies.
And Brijlal and the priest and Thanu Singhji and Amarjeet Singhji and Fouji Saheb…. All of them reaffirmed for me what my India is.
She is wild, and free, and messy, and noisy. She is complicated, and simple, and old, and new. She is hopeful, and hesitant, and inclusive, and reserved. She is more than the sum of her parts, and refuses to be defined in any one way, summed up in any one frame.
Above all, she is ever ready to tell you stories.
Hearts as wide as the land
By Prem Panicker, writer, editor, and teacher
It was the tea that finally made me tear up.
We walked along National Highway 17, out of Hanumangarh, Rajasthan. Which is to say, Paul Salopek and Nat Geo Explorer Arati Kumar-Rao walked, shepherding Raju, our donkey, and his handler, Virender, while I limped along in their wake, struggling with a swollen ankle and the sizzling heat of the desert summer.
At a point some 24 kilometres down the road, Paul, likely tired of having to wait for me to catch up, bundled me onto a passing tractor and sent me ahead to sort out accommodation for the night at a guesthouse that had shown up on a Google search.
When I got to the pinned location, there was no there there.
No guesthouse, no sign of human habitation, just a blip in an otherwise featureless road—half a dozen shuttered shops and a tiny outlet selling cigarettes and snacks and ice-cold sodas out of a cooler.
An elderly gent watched me guzzle a cola. “Pareshan kyon lag rahe ho?” he asked. “Are you in some trouble?” I explained—about the Out of Eden Walk, about our need for shelter for the night, about how Google had sworn on a stack of bibles that there was a guesthouse hereabouts. You wait here, he said, and wobbled off on an antique bicycle.
A tractor rolled up half an hour later with the elderly gent, who, I learned later, was the patriarch of the extended Tandi family of farmers who comprised pretty much the population of the village—accompanied by three others. One of them walked me over to a shop bearing the name Tandi Flour Mill, a cavernous building with sacks of wheat and mountains of flour taking up most of the space. The door at the back opened into a space of sun-baked earth surrounded by a high wall.
“Will this do?”
There is space, and more, for us to pitch our tents, I told him. He smiled and ordered up another ice-cold cola for me. “Drink,” he said. “You look like you need it.”
A few minutes later a truck rolled up. Half a dozen young men hopped down and carted four cots into that space. From the interior of the truck came sheets, blankets, pillows, and four industrial-size desert coolers, which they connected to a jerry-rigged powerline drawn from inside the flour mill.
A welcoming committee of Tandi brothers, sons, cousins, and assorted others—all men—plied Paul and the others with cold drinks and warm words. The patriarch told stories—of the bloodbath that was the partition of India, of life in a small Hindu village abutting the line Sir Cyril Radcliffe had drawn to arbitrarily divide one land into two, of how the men from the seven Muslim villages surrounding his had come one day to assure the Hindus that no harm would come to them.
The food arrived while we were chatting, in a brass plate so enormous two people carried it in. Rice, rotis, ghee, dal, two different kinds of vegetable dishes. An earthen pot full of thick, creamy curd—with sugar and salt in little bowls on the side “because we didn’t know if you like curd sweet or salted.” A large brass bowl of delicious rice pudding, kheer in the vernacular.
I discovered through discreet questioning that the various families in the village had pitched in to prepare the feast, each household taking responsibility for one item, and the clan matriarch in charge of putting it all together.
We ate. Or more accurately, we were force-fed by the women who clustered around clucking about how we needed to eat well if we were foolish enough to walk in the desert in peak summer.
“Tomorrow morning, breakfast is in our home,” the matriarch, who had been directing the flow of food, said. We explained that we start walking at five in the morning to get a few kilometres in before the heat became overwhelming. It didn’t go down too well. “You say you are walking so you can meet local people, then what is the point of coming just for one night?”
They finally left us to our rest, deputising two of the younger sons to stay with us “in case you need something at night.”
We woke, as usual, at four the next morning to hit the loo, change into our walking clothes, pack, and load up Raju. That’s when the side gate creaked open and women trooped in—the matriarch, her daughters, daughters-in-law, their school- and college-going female children.
They came from homes a mile or so away. They came dressed in their best, they came to see off their chance-met guests. They came bearing flasks of steaming hot tea sweetened with jaggery.
On our walk, we had encountered on a daily, even hourly, basis the ineffable kindness of strangers. The many men and women who gave us food and shelter, took our numbers and who, a year and a half later, still call to check on us. The gent who decided to walk a couple of kilometres with us out of solidarity. The two cops who followed us stealthily, at a distance, to make sure we were safe on a stretch of road that took us through an unsavoury neighborhood. The poor farmer living with his family in a one-room hut in Khuiyan, a hamlet further down the highway, who got his cousin to vacate his home so the “lady”—Arati—would not have to sleep in the open.
Instances too numerous to enumerate, coalescing into an impression of a country, a people, with hearts as wide and as giving as the land itself.
But it was that cup of steaming tea—the only instance I can recall when we got such sustenance before setting out in the pre-dawn hours—that brought the tears to my eyes, which made me instinctively bend down and touch the matriarch’s feet in respect, and gratitude.
As I write this, headlines in the global press speak of India’s vertiginous descent into a hell of its own making. They speak of the total shutdown of two entire states with a population in excess of that of the United States, of an increasingly manifest authoritarianism, of a targeted assault on the Muslim community, of a state law enforcement machinery tasked to assault, to maim, to kill; of a police force that stormed unprovoked into a library where students were studying for exams and fired teargas shells into their midst, blinding one student, maiming another; of cops destroying CCTV cameras so their targeted murders would not be recorded.
It is true, all of it, and each successive story brings a deepening anger, and despair. Hate, even, for the sociopaths ripping the country’s social fabric apart in pursuit of a power they are ill-equipped to use for good.
On a freezing-cold night in the last week of December 2019, I, along with two good friends, walk over to Shaheen Bagh, an old-world hamlet a stone’s throw from New Delhi’s Jamia Milia Islamia University, one of the staging points of unhinged brutality by the police.
Women and children of the area are camped out smack in the middle of an arterial highway. They’re there—the protest is then into its 16th day, the coldest day of the coldest winter Delhi has known in more than four decades—to protest the imposition of a draconian legislation that puts the onus on India’s 1.3 billion people to prove they are citizens.
They’re there “for as long as it takes,” to make the area safe for their children. For, as a local told me, his words forming frost sculptures in the biting chill: “If the police can enter a library and harm our children, then what guarantees that they will be safe even here?”
So they camp there, the women of Shaheen Bagh. They sit, surrounded by decent men and women from all walks of life who show up and spend time with them in solidarity. They sit on thin sheets manifestly unequal to the task of insulating them from the cold. They sit with the implacable intent of the truly desperate. They sit there 24/7 “because if we leave at night, the police will move in.” They sit there occupying space because that is what this fight has boiled down to—a fight for the right to slivers of space where each one of us can live and love and work and play as free citizens of a free country.
The cold finally hints us homewards. On the way to the station, a small tea shop beckons. Abdussalaam serves us tea—over-sweet, with a heavy-handed dose of ginger—in little earthen khullars (cups). He hands them to us with a quip and a laugh. We chat as if we’ve been friends forever, and then we leave, declining his invitation to share a meal.
That tea, which warmed us inside and out, took me back in time to that other cup of tea when I was walking with Paul a year and a half ago.
The world looks at us askance; the U.S. Congress asks questions; human rights organisations condemn; heads of states cancel scheduled visits; countries advise its citizens to avoid travelling to this part of the world.
No. Let them come—for if there is one thing the India leg of Out of Eden Walk taught those of us who were fortunate to be part of it, it is this: India is not its bigoted politicians and thuggish constabulary and compromised propagandists.
Come for the other India. The one that despite the best efforts of the bigoted, lives on with a welcoming smile. In the proffer of a cup of tea that will warm you inside and out.
Mapping rivers and stories
By Siddharth Agarwal, storyteller, conservationist, walker
Rivers contain in them the essences of every detail of their watersheds.
I’ve been walking rivers in India, from their mouth to their source, for the past four years, identifying these essences and collecting stories of the rivers and the riparian communities along them.
On the Out of Eden Walk route, I navigated my way across river basins that made me cross some of my old walking trails. The west-to-east journey in India, traversing many smaller river basins—usually sub-basins of the larger Ganga-Brahmaputra system—followed a ridge-valley-ridge-valley pattern, cutting perpendicularly through my usual transects that follow a north-to-south or source-to-mouth trajectory. It made the watershed come alive for me in a different form, a tapestry. The map above shows the major river basins of India and the Out of Eden Walk trail through India. It is a visualisation of this experience. Though different in form, the walk is a collection of tributaries, full of essences from the ideas the walking partners brought with them.
‘Fools on foot’
By Ujjawal Chauhan, traveller, technologist, social justice advocate
During my walk with Paul and his friendly donkey, Raju, through a sweltering summer in Rajasthan, it wasn’t unusual to become the centre of attention of crowds in bazaars. We were always either “clever movie-makers” or “fools on foot”—not the same as everyone else—either respected as if put on a pedestal or leered at from the corner of the eye. Both reactions served equally to maintain a firm yet also insecure distance. Strong and insecure: That’s what our culture truly is.
Homer meets Bollywood
By Priyanka Borpujari, journalist, dancer, peace studies scholar
Day 27 of my walk, after what was supposed to have been a two-day break to wash muddied clothes, to rest on a comfortable bed, and for Paul to meet a deadline. But it’s been nine days of watching another episode of Friends on the hotel TV, eating fries for lunch in bed. During these days, Paul and I meet for brunch and dinner. We talk about everything except when we’re likely to start walking again. The hotel manager (who’s also the waiter) has given up asking our checkout date. He’s perfected cold coffees, making them at least twice daily during our meals together. But I know there are many more empty cold coffee glasses in Paul’s room.
“Tomorrow we will walk again. It’s final.”
“Are you sure Paul?”
“Yes. I’ll be done with the story in few hours. I’ve begun to upload and send a big batch of photos and videos. We will start at 6 a.m. tomorrow.”
Paul informs the manager, asking him to have the bill ready in the morning. The manager’s face drops. “But you can stay longer, Sir—we have no problem.”
But we’re leaving tomorrow.
I’m sleepy, but I’m dressed. My phone lights up. It’s 6.05. A message from Paul: “Did you sleep well? I need to send one quick mail. I’ll see you in the lobby at 6.45.”
Not untying my shoelaces, I lie on the bed, scrolling through my phone. I may not have connectivity in the next few days.
Another notification: “I’m sorry; this is taking longer. I’ll be downstairs at 7:30. Let’s have breakfast and leave at 8. Could you please tell him to include today’s breakfast in the final bill? Don’t worry, it’s cloudy today, so we can power through the afternoon.”
At 7.40, I get to the hotel’s tiny restaurant, where the TV is already blaring Bollywood songs. I order breakfast for us. Paul rushes in with his backpack, laptop open in his hand, the back of his T-shirt soaking. His smile is an apology, but I don’t need it: I’m just happy that I get to be part of this journey, that we’re finally on the road again.
“Did you sleep well?” Paul checks in on his walking partners before considering his own comfort. Excited by the prospect of walking again, of course I slept well.
“Did you sleep well, Paul? Did you send the article?”
“I sent it at 5.30.”
It’s now 9, and we’re walking again.
I’m happy. Paul is happy. The sun isn’t out, so we can walk through the afternoon and definitely do the nearly 32 kilometres to the village where we hope to get a place for the night. Back at the hotel, during one of the meals, we had mapped probable night stops for the next 100 kilometres.
But I need to pause every hour. My back hurts. I need a few minutes of rest from Big Red—my ill-fitting, slouchy, bulky backpack with its red rain cover. I need a sip of water, need to take a few deep sighs under a tree shade. Paul and I are walking about 600 feet apart—I am usually huffing and panting behind.
There are days, like this one, when Paul has had just an hour’s sleep but would rather fire up his boots and keep walking. I feel terrible about asking to pause every hour. But I remind myself of his own words: His limbs have muscle memory from years of walking. I’ve been going just a few weeks.
The promise of a cloudy day doesn’t last long. It’s noon, and the sun is burning my head. We need to cover a good stretch of rude asphalt before we pivot to quieter leafy lanes. My backpack’s straps and my bra straps compete to kill me. Paul is walking farther ahead, and faster. He has the pedometer, but I have my wristwatch. The one-hour mark for a pause was 10 minutes ago. I’m angry.
Why did I sign up for this? Why couldn’t I keep that job so that I could wear purple heels in an office overlooking the sea? Why didn’t I study engineering? Why did I eat all those soggy fries every day at the hotel, leaving my body bloated? I need a tree, I need a god, I need Paul to turn and look at me, so that I can make the “T” sign with my hands, for a pause.
“Paula, Pausa! Paula, Pausa!” I mutter to myself. Will invoking the feminine in Paul get him to turn around and see that I’m drowning in my sweat?
Five minutes of that silent chanting and hallelujah! Paul turns around, almost as if taking a break from his moving mental studio where he crafts his sentences. Early on, my Indian Woman’s Guilt would push me to run and catch up with him—he’s already behind schedule on his walk, so I shouldn’t make him wait. By day 27, **** that guilt. I need a tree.
Paul wrings out his own sweat-soaked gamusa, an Assamese scarf. “Take your time,” he says. I have stopped thanking him for this generosity.
Day 41: We’ve walked another 193 kilometres into northeastern India, but it’s beginning to resemble day 27. More long, tiring asphalt days with deafening car horns. More talking about Homer. Homer is Paul’s ambrosia. I should read him, he says. In turn, I’ve tried for months to convince him to watch Sholay, a cinematic masterpiece of Bollywood narrative, set in the lawless ravines of central India. Paul’s determination to not watch the three-and-a-half-hour-long movie without subtitles is as strong as his determination to walk on to Tierra del Fuego. Yet no subtitles really can do Sholay justice. The star Gabbar Singh’s shout of “Suwar ke bacchon!” simply cannot be captured by the bland, “Goddamn swines!”
I cannot get myself to read Homer.
It’s a day of inevitable asphalt. We’d planned to start out early. But here we are at 1 p.m., hoping to pause at the intended halfway mark. Matchbox-size shops have dotted the route so far, selling matchboxes and biscuits—but neither Maaza or Mangola jucies to quench my thirst, nor Pepsi or Coke for Paul.
Up ahead, the road doesn’t bend, but there is a clearing with a sign painted in red. And two parked trucks. It’s a dhaba, the sanctuary of highway pilgrims. The owner greets us with a smile. There’s been a power cut, and the generator’s battery has also run out of juice. The owner doesn’t bother us with questions about where we’re coming from or where we’re headed. We feel welcomed. He brings us lemonade made with cool water and freshly squeezed Assam lemon, its scent cooling our innards even before the first sip.
“Let’s sit here until the sun lowers a bit.” Paul and I say this to each other at exactly the same moment as we finish the drink in a single gulp.
A few hours later, I awake from a nap. My neck hurts from my having fallen asleep on a plastic chair, saliva dripping on my T-shirt. Paul is snoring on a nearby chair, neck dangerously bent. The sun still blazes.
The electricity is back, the whirring fan cools off my sweat, leaving a gummy layer on my skin. My phone is almost fully charged, and Paul is typing away on his laptop. Since the dhaba is near a small town, we’re wired to the rest of the world.
I’ve updated myself with the latest news from around the world. I’ve not missed anything; I’d connected with my family back in the hotel. I’d rather walk now, than make my thumbs walk miles on the phone. The sky gets an orange tinge; birds begin their noisy commute home. If we want to make it to the village up in the hills before it gets dark, we should start walking. It’s still 14 kilometres away, and the path isn’t visible on Google Maps.
“How are you feeling?” Paul asks.
“I feel great.” I’m thinking I will wash my face once more before we start walking.
“This place is not visible from the highway. It’s quiet.”
“Yeah, I think truck drivers rest the night here,” I say, noticing the curtains for three cubicles near the kitchen.
“Here’s what I am thinking…”
A gentle breeze caresses us.
“Say no more, Paul. I will speak to the owner.”
Unexpected necessary pauses: That’s the way of this walk—and maybe all Homeric walks—of thousands of miles.
By Loveleen Mann, attorney, former Indian army officer, Out of Eden Walk legal advisor
The Out of Eden Walk gave me an opportunity to see India from a different perspective—how its people are warmhearted and helpful, and how captivating the diverse terrain is, especially seeing it from boot level, be it Rajasthan or Manipur. It’s been a unique experience for me. The walk served to clear my mind, stripping away the trivialities of life. It also highlighted the benefits of minimalism by demonstrating how simply we all can live. Finally, walking with Raju, the cargo donkey, made a childhood dream come true: I have always wanted a pet donkey.
A walk on the wild side
By Bhavita Bhatia, journalist, clothes designer, social activist
“A personal invitation by Dr. Death.”
And, my own funeral awaited me—“once my remains returned from the expedition.”
Such were the unhappy notes I began receiving from my big-city friends once they found out I was going to be walking across two of northern India’s most conservative, rural states—Uttar Pradesh and Bihar—with the Out of Eden Walk.
To be honest, I was a bit frightened too.
The vast band of economically disadvantaged villages that stretched for hundreds of miles along the path of the walk did have a terrible reputation, at least among India’s urbanites, as a harsh and unforgiving human landscape. This “cow belt” region was constantly in the news for being unsafe, especially for women. Rapes. Domestic violence. Indentured labor. Child marriage. Even the remnants of a violent Maoist revolt.
All these stories were daunting, particularly because I’d been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder a few months before, from having been exposed for years, through my work as a journalist, to women survivors of acid attacks, human trafficking, and young girls who have suffered verbal, physical, sexual abuse, often within their own families.
I can’t believe I’m about to do this, I told myself, as I set out on a dry, wintry morning on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges River), through what seemed to me like a lost-in-time countryside, beginning a cycle of hushed days and weeks where the first light touched faraway fields, and the last rays of the sun brushed against the horizon.
We walked into a winter landscape where the days were short, and the nights long. We walked past country folk living on the meandering river banks of the Mother River, through tiny hamlets still whispering murmurs of the Buddha’s legacy, and on into the small towns hustling their tough livelihoods far off the highways of India. I took off my sandals and sank my toes in the soft, silvery silt banks that stretched on for miles along the Ganga.
Pedal yatra (foot pilgrimage), we would mutter as we walked past bemused or puzzled onlookers in deepest, remotest India. Walking about 965 kilometres, starting from the holy Hindu pilgrim city of Varanasi and heading eastward across the Ganga trail, we followed country roads, dirt roads, cliffs, hills, rock quarries, marching through mud and rain, sometimes even walking along the river.
What did I find?
It wasn’t the images, seared into my brain from my reporting and editing work, of young girls being raped and later hung from trees in patriarchal, “backward” villages.
Much to my surprise, the farmers of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar greeted me graciously, respectfully, and with utmost kindness.
“Oh, you have come from far away to see our land!” said a good-natured man in Bihar, even while riding past on his bicycle. “Do let us know how we can help you? You are welcome. Please, come and see our village.”
Young girls giggled and played in the fields, often joining us on the walk, expressing their desire to walk across India like me.
“I really want to get out of this little village and go work, find a life in the big city,” said a teenage girl we met at a roadside eatery. “It’s really boring out here!”
Women living on the edge of Ganga expressed their reverence for the river, talking with us while they toiled in the farmlands. They opened up their bamboo kitchens to us and spoke about their personal stories, their struggles, their relationship with tradition and culture, their dreams, their hopes.
As the days reeled slowly by, and I didn’t get groped or attacked, something new was growing inside me: It was liberating to walk across the countryside on my own. (Oftentimes I would walk alone, lagging behind, because Paul’s pace was insanely swift.) Given that I started out almost trembling with fear to walk these notorious states, it was a shot in the arm, a boost of confidence. I got so accustomed, so into the groove of the walk, that now I felt I could just pick up my bag and walk alone almost anywhere.
That isn’t to deny the fact that violence against women is a reality across this region. I recall one incident, that of a foreign friend, who was groped in Varanasi, at a crowded religious festival packed with unruly men.
I felt for her. And I’m not being naive or overlooking the prospective dangers that might lurk around the corner for any woman anywhere. But walking long distances alters your perceptions about things like fear and danger. It wakes you up. It makes you clearer-eyed about the good and bad intermixed in this world.
On the Out of Eden Walk, I wandered into communities and villages that have suffered gang wars, into tiny hamlets that have seen political violence and murder. But as with many places around the world that have experienced deep trauma, the people in those regions were resilient, and all the homes we entered were warm and welcoming.
In this way, for more than three months, I made my home and refuge on the road in rock shelters and caves, under peepul and banyan trees, in farmers’ huts, mountain temples, and the dwellings of saints and priestesses (devis) by rivers, lakes, and arid mountaintops. For a quarter of a year, I lived among adivasis, the tribal peoples scattered across the ignored and unvisited interior.
Walking gave me all that, and more: a sense of intimacy with my surroundings, with the birds, the plants, the sand under my feet, the smell in the air. It gave me a sense of kinship with the families and the communities I encountered, with the smiles that brushed past me. I remember walking into the heart of India with an emotional hurt from absorbing the stories of a brutal, violent, and intensely unsafe world, especially for women. I recall all of this pain fading away into the winter morning mist of the countryside.
My India walk ended in northern Bihar. My “remains” didn’t need to be returned back to the city! They never will. Because a part of me will always still be out there, walking.
A listening journey
By Hormazd “Homi” Mehta, cultural interpreter, journalist
I am now realising how much of the walk is about listening. Just listening. To people. To each other. To oneself. To the cicadas and the tree frogs. To water.
Stepping into the past
By Mordecai Panmei, Photographer, rainforest activist
It is physically challenging and painful to walk long distances.
Your body and your mind cry out for rest constantly. They do not want to come out of their comfort zone. And to even think of documenting or taking photos of such long walks is a nightmare. But that’s what I did last summer when I walked about 100 kilometres through the forests of Manipur, in northeastern India, on the Out of Eden Walk.
That experience—walking from the hill town of Tamenglong to the state capital of Imphal—changed my perspective of life.
We miss or ignore far too many things due to our fast ways of life. Taking it slow, walking through and interacting with remote communities, helped me understand my home better and more clearly. Rural villages open up more when you arrive by walking. People connect to you because you’re like them, on foot.
For example, I walked the old Tamenglong-Kangchup road, a jungle trail built by the colonial British that is little used now. These were pony paths used for trading. It opened up my understanding of the landscape and the forest environment, and how my people in the past coped with their problems, like moving basic supplies. One old man told me, “You covered the same road your forefathers did back then when they went to the Imphal Valley to buy food, especially cooking salt and a dried fish called ngari.” I had heard stories about my ancestors walking almost every month to carry such loads. My own journey made me appreciate how hard that must have been.
Working in conservation does not only mean addressing issues like overhunting or planting trees. It is about exploring new ways of staying healthy yourself, and of minimising your carbon footprint, and of demonstrating to others how this can be done. Walking does all of this. Yes, walking takes time. It is exhausting. But the rewards are there for those who are willing to sweat and seek to improve the quality of our lives. This includes knowing a place and its people. And understanding the past.