“I guess my most important thought to leave you with is not to be afraid and to remember that with all of this trouble comes the chance for new beginnings. If you are paying attention, if you are alert, you can help shape those. And that is a really exciting time to be alive.” .
While walking from Ethiopia to Patagonia for his Out of Eden Walk, Paul Salopek passed Loka’s school in rural Bihar. His visit to this remote village along the Punpun river in January 2019 marked the beginning of a new friendship and an ongoing conversation between Loka’s students and the Pulitzer awarded Journalist and National Geographic Fellow. Through Paul, Loka’s senior students started to participate in Out of Eden Learn, an online platform for cultural exchange connected to his walk, thoughtfully designed by Project Zero (Harvard). Recently students who participate in this programme had an online conversation with Paul, now in Northern Myanmar (also known as Burma), about human migration, the lockdown and the world after the pandemic.
Sanatan: What thoughts come in your mind when you think about human migration?
Paul: The Out of Eden Walk is designed around human migration. All day my thoughts are about human migration. For me, as a writer and also as a scientist, migration is one of the fundamental definitions of being human. And in many ways I think it is our natural state, because before the invention of agriculture our ancestors moved all the time, which was only relatively recently in the story of human evolution. Evolutionary biologists and paleo anthropologists tell us that maybe more than 90% of our history humans have been on the move, on foot. And so, when I think of migration, I think of life. Migration is life for me. This migratory urge, this restlessness if you will, is deep in our bones and it is our natural state. Since we started planting seeds in the ground about 11 thousand years ago, we have become anchored to those seeds. In a sense we have also planted ourselves in place. And it is such a new phenomenon, even though around your village and in your communities it may seem like something that has been going on since the dawn of time, the truth is it hasn’t. It is very recent human behaviour and we are still adapting to not moving. I would like to think our minds or our souls are still moving even in our dreams and that we wake up in a bit of a surprise to find we are still in the same place. But I think in a strange way we have forgotten the importance of movement. A lot of issues have come up in our communities. People sometimes feel a bit down, and it’s normal, to feel like you’re not connected to your community or to the world or you’re frustrated. You might be angry sometimes for reasons you do not understand. My theory is that some of these negatives might be connected to the fact that we don’t move around so much.
Suman: Did you learn any new things during lockdown?
Paul: I have. You are students at Loka, I am a student too and have been using this time to learn as much as I can about China. Reading books and reading articles. Talking to experts on China. I have had kind of a China history and culture class using the internet, whenever it works. So I am very much in learning mode. And I have also been learning about my current community in Northern Burma, way up north near the Chinese borders. I can see the Himalayas from my window. And if you walk about 9 days north across the mountain frontiers you reach Tibet. It is a really interesting part of the world, a tropical rainforest, very warm. We are well into the monsoon. It is very green and rainy like it is in Bihar during the monsoon, but the difference is that here, when the clouds draw away like a curtain, you can see snow-capped peaks. It is very beautiful. Actually, as terrible as the lockdown is for many people, I have been trying to make the most of it. How about you? What have you been doing during lockdown?
Yashpal (from Sasaram): During lockdown, first I learned how to take care of a calf and I was involved in cooking and I learned how to make a bamboo hut.
Paul: Great, these are practical skills and very good to know. Well, I’d say that is time put to good use. Very well done. I also walked through Sasaram on the way to your school and very much liked the town.
Ankit: How do you think the world will look like after the lockdown, after this situation?
Paul: That’s a good question; it is one we are all asking. My thinking is that anybody who can tell you or claims can tell you what it will look like is probably wrong. The last time something like this happened to the world was more than 100 years ago, during the Spanish flu in 1918, and this event changed the world in very complicated ways. And most probably the current pandemic is going to change things in even more profound ways simply because we are much more connected to each other than we were a hundred years ago. Recently I wrote an article where I talked to experts, about what they thought was going to happen. They gave me their best estimates and their best guesses but it’s really unpredictable. I think the process that is allowing us to communicate right now across thousands of kilometres, this idea of a global community, is never going to go away. Once you cross that threshold, once I get to talk to my friends at Loka, I don’t want to give that up because it’s a beautiful thing. The world will not become less connected. But it may become connected in different ways. Some pretty smart people that I talked to – I will just share what they told me and I don’t know if it’s right or wrong – said there will be big political and economic changes and that the pandemic, this coronavirus disease, has revealed strengths and weaknesses in societies that you couldn’t see clearly before and it has made them very clear now. Several of these experts have come to the conclusion over the last few months that based on what has been exposed in the news around the world about how different parts of the world are coping with this vast problem, it suggests a direction the world might be heading into. They say it’s going to be a century where the centre of gravity for innovation, economic development, geopolitical power is moving into Asia even more than it already is. As a reporter I have covered big crises, countries that have been falling apart and countries that are trying to pull themselves back together. Crises are terrible because they cause a lot of pain and suffering but they also create possibilities for positive change. As awful as this is, and I know you and your parents might be suffering very severe repercussions economically in terms of access to jobs and the markets for your food products, but it will possibly accelerate good things too. And you are going to be the ones who make these good things happen. It is up to your generation. So keep studying, keep learning, look around you all the time. The difficulties in life, the bottle necks in life, is where we grow. I don’t know if it has been that way with you, but with me; it is all fine and good when everything is nice and rosy and everything is a level plane or going a little bit downhill. But when you are on a steep uphill in your life, that is when you are really forced to use your muscles – your psychic and your emotional muscles – and that’s where you really grow. So, use this time. Study, learn and help everybody innovate a new kind of world that is post-pandemic. A fairer and more just world that gives equal opportunities to everybody.
Dinesh: In India, many people are migrating from the cities and moving back to the villages. Many people now realise that we should move to the village because we can do something there and sustain our own livelihoods.
Paul: That is interesting. I have been reading about that big migration, back to villages, in India. Do you think the authorities are doing a good job controlling this disease?
Dinesh: It is good in some cases, but not in all cases. The lockdown is for everybody. And due to this lockdown, those people who are totally dependent on daily work and buying food are now unable to work and it has a worse effect on these people.
Paul: That sounds very much like the situation here in Myanmar. The people here are also farmers, their main crop is rice. I know that you grow rice around Loka as well. If they can’t get out and do their work, then they go hungry. But the feeling is very much the same here in Burma as it is in India. At least the people in the villages can go out and work, because if you farm you are not in close contact with somebody, you maintain that distance. It is the poor people in the cities, and I am sure it is the same in India, that are most severely affected. Do you students think that the pandemic effect will change the way people will migrate in the future or now?
Devwart: I think those who during lockdown walked lots of kilometres without food to reach back to their villages, will not migrate back to the cities. Now they have seen the situation of cities and have lived in very bad conditions. In the village they can work and live a better life.
Dinesh: And I think now everybody will try to develop their own communities in their local surroundings. If they will not migrate to another place, then they will have to do some work to earn their livelihoods so they will create their work in their own surroundings also in rural areas. So instead of going elsewhere for work, people will stay in their villages and improve life there.
Paul: That would be a nice outcome, wouldn’t it? That would be one of these futures that’s positive. And students, even things like wages could be affected. I am thinking back to the histories of these pandemics back in the middle ages. At that time in Europe, there was a very different kind of pandemic with much worse consequences where many more people died than they have now. It fundamentally changed things like the economies because then suddenly, when your world is disrupted and you try to rebuild it, it can’t be the same. You can’t pay people the same. You can’t pay them nothing. So it started the beginning of a small middle class because people demanded better pay. They did not want to go back to the same jobs in the cities that paid nothing, in fact they were more like slaves. So these pandemics have very unknown outcomes. This one in Europe 700 years ago essentially broke the back of feudalism and helped inaugurate a new age called the enlightenment. It is very complicated; it’s economics, it’s politics, it’s society, even religion comes into it. And so, who knows, your questions are really important ones to ask. I certainly don’t know what is going to happen, I don’t know if anybody does. I guess my most important thought to leave you with is not to be afraid and to remember that with all of this trouble comes the chance for new beginnings. If you are paying attention, if you are alert, you can help shape those. And that is a really exciting time to be alive. Much better than if we were kind of going along and nothing was happening, and the old system was still sitting on top of our heads and we were carrying it. So here is an opportunity that nature has thrown our way. Along with the tragedy comes something possibly positive. It would be an interesting project, to use the village as a mental laboratory; do a thought experiment. You could assign different groups of students certain themes: economy, culture, technology, education, health, what have you, and try to re-imagine what the village could look like with the changes that are happening now. The big ones that you already pointed out are people coming back to the village, bringing their energy, bringing their muscles, bringing their hearts back and also their experience in the city, which is very valuable. Because they are bringing back ideas too. How would the village look in 10 years? You could design a new village with your school being the real centre of this community of change.
Dinesh: Sir, we want to say that thank you very much. We learned many things from you.
Paul: Well, it goes both ways.
Dinesh: We are very lucky that you are with us.
Paul: Likewise. This is like an ongoing conversation, right. So we can keep on talking for as long as you wish. And, you know, I’ll be moving slowly into China and we can then talk about comparing what I am seeing in rural China with what is going on around your homes. So, let’s keep these up. These are walking classrooms; a walking academy. And we are all learners and we are all teachers. I wish you all the best. It has been great seeing you. I am sorry the connection was a little unstable on my end. But it was good to hear you and good questions.
This Conversation was first published in LilaLoka Magazine issue 01 | Monsoon 2020.