National Geographic : 2019 Aug
India. In China the figure approaches a quarter billion. In Brazil, Indonesia, Nigeria, Mexico, everywhere, the trend is the same. Three- quarters of the humans now stumbling across the planet are circulating within their own bor- ders. New middle classes are being born. Old political dynasties are tottering. Megacities are exploding—and imploding. Stunning innova- tions collide with colossal disappointments. Entire systems of knowledge (traditional farm- ing), accumulated over millennia, are being jettisoned. Urbanization is cracking apart old gender and religious norms. Environmental resources are in free fall. Chaos, longing, vio- lence, hope, tearing down, building up, experi- mentation, astonishing successes and defeats. Nothing can stand in the way of this unprece- dented force of yearning. By comparison, the hysteria in the global north over international migrants seems a pale sideshow. Walking India, I joined human torrents streaming along roads. I saw them jamming bus stands. Packed atop trains. The hardwork- ing poor ceaselessly coming and going. Sooner than later, the world must learn to harness the extraordinary energy behind such mass aspiration. The migrant steering the course of our species’ destiny this century saw me coming from afar. People always do. She couldn’t have been 18. This was in a village of stray cows in Bihar, one of India’s poorest states. I was bound for Myanmar. She strode up and boldly shook my hand. “ This place is very, very boring,” the Bihari girl declared within a minute. “My teachers are boring. What do I do?” I laughed. Ambition and intelligence shone in her eyes. Soon enough she would be shouldering her way into one of India’s metastasizing cities, testing her mettle against hundreds of millions of other dislocated villagers. There would be no wall high enough to contain her. Where will she end up? Where will we? Nobody knows. The important thing on this road we share is to keep walking. And not be afraid. The way ahead may be uphill. I suggest doing your homework. Her shoes were sturdy. j You cannot always choose your shoes on a long walk. The world’s refugees and migrants don’t demand our pity. They just ask for our attention. Me they pitied because I walked on. “MAY I PRACTICE my English?” It was the teenage boys and girls of Punjab. Last year. Mile 7,000 of my slow journey. The scalding back roads of India’s breadbasket. Five, 10, 20 youngsters a day emerged from their houses, jogging to catch up after I slogged past. Sweating, puffing, unused to exercise, they unlimbered their English vocabulary and syntax for a few hundred yards before peeling off. They were studying for the International English Language Testing System exams. High scores were essential to meet the English-proficiency standards required for visas to New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States. There was nothing lighthearted about these exchanges that were as old as the Stone Age—“Who are you?” “Where do you come from?” “Where are you going?”—because it was homework. Faridkot was a town marooned in a sea of wheatgrass. About 100 private English-language schools there were preparing tens of thousands of young Indians to abandon their homeland. The fields of Punjab were already taken. There was little future in farming. Successful students aimed to join the 150 million migrant laborers who vault frontiers to find work. Punjab was undergoing an evacuation. “The only ones who stay behind are those who can’t afford it,” said language-school owner Gulabi Singh, looking startled at his own infor- mation. The average cost of emigration: $14,000, or 23 times the annual median income in India. I had just arrived from Central Asia. A walk- ing partner in Uzbekistan slipped regularly into Kazakhstan to work without papers at construction sites. He carried scars from police encounters. In Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, I met migrants who flew to Moscow to punch cash reg- isters or inhale poisons at nightmare chemical plants. The Afghans along my route were eyeing every continent to flee the war. And so on. Yet here is the secret of this epic of human restlessness: It is probably the people who stay behind who will change the world. Internal migrations—rural-to-urban stam- pedes—sweep up 139 million citizens within Follow National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s walk around the world at outofedenwalk.org and natgeo.com. John Stanmeyer has been document- ing parts of Salopek’s journey for the magazine.