Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s
Out of Eden Walk is on a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.
You walk until your feet disappear. Until all waypoints flatten.
The sky becomes the seamless sky. The horizon is just a horizon. The ticking of your wristwatch slows. Plant 10 million footsteps across this Earth, and your heart pendulums to rest even as your shadow keeps moving. Look around. This is sacramental time.
The trail hews generally east: toward sunrise.
At hot midday, you steer by the slant of watery blue tree shadows. You slog through 50,000 years of rain. In your dirt-caked palms you hold the dented tin dippers that hang at the eternal wells. The planet creaks underfoot, a gigantic cog, hurling you forward through Cartesian space at 950 miles an hour. You notice, as you walk, how sweat drips steadily from each of your fingertips. This leaves dark asterisks in the dust in your wake.
You begin to see your dead. The river appears while you are singing to yourself a half-remembered song.
The river is your road.
The Brahmaputra is an 1,800-mile-long question mark. At its crown: sacred Kailash, the Crystal Mountain, in Tibet. At its feet: the Bay of Bengal. The son of four-headed Brahma and a mortal woman, who begat a water being, it is among the few male rivers in India.
The riverbank trails at Jogighopa are sand. Men and women a thousand years old trod them. These people carry baskets of rice. Past beached canoes. Past flooded paddy fields shining hazily in the sun like old mirrors with their silver backing peeled off. Past a mile-wide, slow-sliding, horizontal conveyor of a billion invisible fish that cascades over the curve of the world.
A toll keeper collects five rupees for the privilege of accessing a dream called the Khelaupara bridge.
Three hundred yards long. Thirty feet high. Roped together, by hand, by eye, by the metrics of the human body, from thousands of bamboo stalks. The spidery masterpiece, more a drawing than a sculpture, spans a tributary of the Brahmaputra. It is carefully assembled after—and disassembled before—every annual monsoon flood. (Read: Clean water is a scarce resource for many in India.)
The monsoons sprint, panting, up the Brahmaputra in the month of Bohag.
Now you really move: You must dance with Bordoisila.
Every spring Bordoisila runs away from her worthless husband.
She gusts, howling, back to the refuge of her mother’s hou