Pulitzer Center Update

Joining Paul Salopek on the Trail, Two Exemplary Scouts Put Slow Journalism Into Practice

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Soaking up the craft: Miciah Thacker, left, and Chris Sherman with Paul Salopek in northern India. Image by Mark Schulte. India, 2018.

Soaking up the craft: Miciah Thacker, left, and Chris Sherman with Paul Salopek in northern India. Image by Mark Schulte. India, 2018.

This article originally appeared on the National Geographic website. You can find it at this link.

Editor's Note: Through a slow journalism competition run by the Pulitzer Center and the Boy Scouts of America at the Philmont Scout Ranch and the National Jamboree in the summer of 2017, two scouts were chosen to join Paul Salopek on the Out of Eden Walk in northern India in April 2018. Miciah Thacker, 16, of Cincinnati, Ohio, was selected from the scouts at the National Jamboree, and Christopher Sherman, 17, of Washington, D.C., was selected from the scouts at the Philmont Scout Ranch. Christopher, Miciah, and their chaperones spent two days walking with Paul and his guides among the wheat fields of the border region between the states of Punjab and Rajasthan. Read some of their reporting from the trip below.

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Precious resource: By mid-summer there won't be any puddles in this canal. Image by Miciah Thacker. India, 2018.

Precious resource: By mid-summer there won't be any puddles in this canal. Image by Miciah Thacker. India, 2018. 

Setting Aside Preconceptions in the Punjab, by Christopher Sherman

When I found out I’d be joining Paul Salopek on his Out of Eden Walk, I didn’t fully appreciate how far I’d have to go just to meet up with him. After flying from Washington, D.C., through Dubai to Delhi, staying there overnight and then flying on to Amritsar, our small group from Boy Scouts of America and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting still had a four-hour drive ahead of us. The distance accentuated the feeling of being in a truly foreign land, one I’d never seen, or really imagined, before.

My ticket to trek with Paul was an essay I’d written last summer about my time on the trail in New Mexico at the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. It was about observing the world closely, slowly, without my phone pinging me every 10 seconds. Now I was coming to experience “slow journalism” with the master. What this meant, I wasn’t entirely sure—I was there to learn. But I understood that it involved observing and interacting with people and places intentionally, setting aside to the best of my ability my preconceived ideas, fears, and desires to keep my mind as well as my eyes open to genuine discovery. It proved easier said than done.

The plan before joining Paul was to experience daily worship at the fabled Golden Temple in Amritsar. The Golden Temple is the main sacred shrine of India’s Sikh sect. Approaching it along a road of well-kept storefronts, we reached a large courtyard where Sikh pilgrims, awaiting entry, lay sleeping on the smooth stones. Immaculately clean and brightly lit, the temple stood in sharp contrast to the grittiness and darkness of pre-dawn Amritsar.

Visiting the temple was not the same as touring a Christian cathedral. It was a far more participatory experience. We even had to dress the part. Custom required covered heads, so for the first time in my life, I wore a turban. Of course I was clueless about tying it, and fortunately a temple attendant kindly came to my rescue. As he prepared me for pilgrimage, meticulously wrapping my head, I felt myself easing into the ritual.

Inside, we joined in the ceremony, following the actions of the Sikh worshipers. We bowed down and brushed our hands along the doorsteps of the various prayer rooms and genuflected before the shrines. We sank to the ground among the sea of people as prayers were broadcast across the space. Overlooking the chaos and confusion of the foreign environment, we became immersed in the rite, touched by the serenity. Anticipating merely a walk-through of an ornate temple, we instead took a deep dive into a very active place of worship. It proved a fitting prelude to the days ahead, filled with cultural difference and surprises we’d be invited to witness and absorb.

After our time at the Golden Temple, Miciah Thacker, my essay-writing counterpart, and I went to meet Paul on the trail. Raju, our driver, spoke no English, and we spoke no Hindi. When journeying into another culture, many barriers keep you from accurately perceiving the world around you. The most obvious is language.  

Although I couldn’t communicate with Raju, I instinctively relied on him as my guide in a strange and unfamiliar world. I knew he couldn’t understand us, yet I couldn’t resist asking questions, to which he’d invariably nod his head. I guess nodding is always more polite than shaking your head: “No.” And when things got desperate, Raju would pick up his phone and call Arati, Paul's walking partner, who spoke Hindi, and she would bridge the linguistic divide.

I trusted Raju to know the way things worked, and with time I found myself letting go of my Western expectations and following his lead. People in India drive very differently from us in the U.S. They may approach oncoming cars head-on at high speed, swerving out of the way at the very last moment. Raju drove in this manner without the least appearance of tension or anxiety, and his calm reassured me.

We met Paul in time to walk 12 miles with him to the campsite he’d chosen for us—one of the last remaining strips of scrub desert in the region. I woke up in the night to the wind ripping across the barren strip where we perched, my weight the only thing keeping the tent from being hurled into nearby thorn bushes.

In the morning Paul led us to the house of Sudhir Kukna, a friend of his and source of much hospitality and knowledge. From there we drove to interview the leaders of another religious sect, the Bishnoi, whose followers show deep respect for nature and wildlife. I met Himanshu, a 20-year-old Bishnoi. It was a perfect opportunity for me to engage with him, but that meant getting past the language barrier. Unfortunately I held back, assuming Himanshu’s broken English would get in the way. I didn’t throw myself into the conversation and thus missed a potentially meaningful interaction with him. It was a learning moment.

I watched as Paul approached each personal encounter with the conscious intention of remaining open. Inevitably, we see others through the lens of our own experience and expectations, and it takes effort to listen without any filter. Barriers of language and culture seem to form little obstruction to Paul in his determination to connect, to focus on shared human experience, and to learn from others. I later reflected on my encounter with Himanshu and wished I had been so aware.

Sudhir Kukna, our Punjabi host, told us about his family history, how back in the 1800s the ancestors of his tribe, the Jāt, fled oppression by the Rajputs and the local government in Rajasthan. The Rajputs routinely stole their crops and demanded unjust taxes, and Sudhir’s ancestors chose to flee when their failure to capitulate led to reprisals. Sudhir showed us family heirlooms: a rifle, a shotgun, a fine sword, a walking stick that doubles as a tomahawk, and some binoculars. He explained the role of each object, expressing pride in his family heritage and asserting his duty to uphold the family honor. As I sought to connect with Sudhir, I saw that in some ways his story echoed that of my own ancestors, who fled religious oppression in England. The challenge is to recognize our commonality despite our differences—something I felt throughout my brief time in India.

When we walked into one village, a family, who had beautifully restored their home’s Islamic architecture, welcomed us in. Their 25-year-old daughter showed us around the house, walking across the cobblestone floors in five-inch heels. It was a lovingly restored property, a sign of the family’s prominent place in the village. And yet the daughter wished to leave. Her longtime dream, she told us, was to go to America and work for UPS. I was pleased at the thought that she might come to my country, but I worried that the reality might not match her expectations. 

Our sojourn with Paul ended late on the second day. Raju arrived to take us back to Amritsar. Around midnight he suddenly stopped at a small roadside restaurant on the outskirts of the city. The menu was inscrutable. Raju, aware of our confusion, disappeared into the back and soon emerged with a scrap of paper on which had been  scribbled a rough translation of the offerings. Such small gestures of generosity and care help break down cultural barriers. I came to know Raju through his constant efforts to ease my way despite our cultural differences and my inability to converse with him.

I found these moments of casual interaction in the Punjab compelling, as they gave me genuine glimpses into the local culture. People were remarkably open, and they challenged me to approach every interaction in a similar way, with intentionality. My experience, brief though it was, bore out, as I imagine Paul’s life on the trail does every day, the commonality among us all. It reminded me how important it is to set preconceptions aside.

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Hard-won crop: a wheat field along the trail near Abohar. Image by Miciah Thacker. India, 2018.

Hard-won crop: a wheat field along the trail near Abohar. Image by Miciah Thacker. India, 2018. 

‘Listening’ to the Land Saves Water in India’s Parched Thar Desert, by Miciah Thacker

The Punjab-Rajasthan border in northwestern India, where Chris Sherman and I joined the Out of Eden Walk, marks a shift from the farmland of the Punjab to the Thar Desert dunes. In this area rain can be incredibly scarce. Rainfall in the southern Punjab averages nearly 20 inches a year, but deep in the Thar Desert, it’s no more than three inches. This paltry gift comes during the monsoon months, from July through September, and may all fall in a single day.

How do people in these areas cope with so little water throughout the year?

Many farmers rely on canals that channel water from the Himalayas down through the Punjab and Rajasthan to nourish their fields of wheat and mustard during the winter and spring months.

Walking in the southern Punjab with Paul, we came across one of these canals, but on that hot summer day it held only a few puddles of the precious liquid. According to Paul’s walking partner, Arati Kumar-Rao, who’s an expert on water conservation in the Thar Desert, the canals become less effective the farther south they go.

“Either they’re rivers of sand, or they’re choked with hyacinth or thick with algae or putrid with the carcasses of animals that have fallen in,” Arati says. What water does get through is often so smelly and contaminated that people refuse to use it for anything. By the hottest months of the year, the canals have dried up, the water having evaporated before it reaches the people who need it most. In the heart of the parched Thar Desert, canals are useless.

So how do people there survive?

“They spend all summer preparing for the rain,” Arati says. “They collect acacia bushes, line a man-made depression with them, and wait for nature to do her thing. Because what’s coming are sandstorms.” When sand blows against the bushes, it falls to the ground, building up a dhora, or wall, around the depression. When the sandstorms stop, shepherds fortify the dhora, and then they wait.

When that one day of heavy monsoon rain comes, the water rushes into the depression, orkhadeen, and gradually, over perhaps two months, it seeps into the ground. When it’s all been absorbed, and the soil is saturated, the local people plant their crops of bajra (pearl millet), chana (chickpeas), and guar beans. This form of rainwater harvesting is ancient—some khadeens in use today are more than 700 years old.

A similar method is used to create large community lakes, with stone pillars in the middle marking them as sacred places of water. Within about eight months of the rains, usually in the height of summer, the water in these lakes evaporates. Shallow wells are then dug to collect water trapped by a gypsum layer below the surface—in places no deeper than six inches below the top layer of sand.

In Rajasthan these wells are used only in emergency situations, but in the Punjab, where water is less scarce, many families rely on them every day.

“This is our well. It gives us all our water,” an 18-year-old girl named Sonya told me as she gave us a tour of her home near the village of Rajawali. “Without it, we would not have water. We would die without it.”

Many places around the world get much more rain than the middle of the Thar Desert, yet they may experience severe water shortages.

One way to solve this, Arati says, is to conserve life-giving water by “listening to the land.” The villagers in Rajasthan live this way, painstakingly building their natural retaining walls in the summer and choosing crops suited to the amount and timing of the rains. Wherever we are, we can make better use of water by making decisions based on closely observing the natural world.