Special Report

Edge of the World

For one journalist embarking on a seven-year journey to retrace the footsteps of early humans, the biggest obstacles are man-made.

Previous: Matthieu Aikins on traveling the Pakistan-Afghanistan border by truck.

Early this year, in the company of camel nomads from Ethiopia's desolate Afar region, I'm planning to walk out of Africa. This dusty jaunt will be the first leg of a seven-year journey -- north into the Levant, east to Asia and Siberia, and down the length of the Americas to Patagonia -- to retrace by foot the first global human diaspora out of our mother continent some 50,000 to 70,000 years ago. It's a long-wave experiment in ambulatory journalism that I'm calling "Out of Eden." Although my ramble will feature few of the hurdles faced by our wandering ancestors -- predators bigger than Volkswagens, for instance, or ice sheets covering Alberta -- it won't lack for obstacles.

Maddeningly, the toughest will be largely imaginary: political borders. I'll bump into at least three dozen along my route. Some will be impassable. In Africa, for example, I'll steer clear of the frontiers of volatile Somalia. On the Arabian Peninsula, the margins of simmering Yemen are out of bounds. And in the Middle East, there's Iran. It straddles our primordial trail into Central Asia. I just hope bilateral relations improve by the time I hit the Zagros Mountains in, say, the summer of 2015. Iran's a big place to plod around.

"Ironical, isn't it?" commiserated Meave Leakey, the famous paleoanthropologist and one of my project's many informal advisors. "Getting out of Africa is as hard today as it was the first time we left."

Borders are perversely enduring artifacts in our globalized era. Remember how, after the Cold War, many pundits declared them passé? A cooperative New World Order was supposedly dawning -- albeit one conveniently supervised by Washington -- where grim frontier no man's lands would be recycled into jogging paths. (Indeed, as far back as 1940, one giddy U.S. general went so far as to announce the death of the "popular fetishism of sovereignty." Ah, innocent times.)

True enough, most of Europe is navigable today after just one passport check. And a shared monoculture of cheap consumer goods now engulfs the habitable planet courtesy of powerful and stateless corporations. (I've sipped Nescafé instant coffee brewed by Pygmy hunter-gatherers in the rain forest of Congo.) The information superhighway, meanwhile, mocks almost any conceivable barrier an isolationist government can hope to throw up to block it, whether Hesco containers, concertina wire, minefields, or censoring technology. There's just no corralling the web's border-hopping ones and zeros.

Yet borders aren't fading away. Quite the opposite. Even before the 9/11 attacks exposed the existential threat of global terrorism -- never mind the borderless dangers of narcotics trafficking, the illicit weapons trade, cyberwarfare, and people smuggling -- most countries were already hardening their edges. At the same time, strange new metaborders have also appeared, multiplying at crazy angles. Instead of new maps showing a globalized world, we navigate a jigsaw mosaic of competing interests. The Berlin Wall has been replaced by an emerging politico-economic front line between Beijing and Washington that zigzags murkily through the South China Sea. Journalist Eliza Griswold has drawn a depressing new theological divide between Islam and Christianity along the Earth's northern 10th parallel. To that invisible line I would add the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn: divides that cleave hundreds of millions of temperate-zone haves from the migratory aspirations of billions of subtropical have-nots. Humanity has been boxing itself into a warren of proliferating cliques -- tribes, languages, nations -- ever since we hit our prehistoric land's end in Tierra del Fuego. We have a limbic weakness for borders.

The only consolation amid all this fractiousness is that old-fashioned borders provide an honest picture, at least, of the countries that rub edges with each other. They are unforgiving mirrors. Want to understand a government's true nature? Gambling on a nation's rise or fall? Don't visit capital cities. The grassy malls and marble colonnades you find there are by definition symbolic -- an idealized facade. Make your way instead to the unseen and unsightly back alleys where the grittier business of statehood is transacted. Go to the borders. You learn a lot among the grabby touts and squinting money-changers at charmless frontiers. Which side of the international boundary deploys more idle soldiers? Which way do they face? Where does the net flow of goods surge, and how many of them are taxed? Which country's immigration office has the longest -- and most patient -- entry queues?

"I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet," says the writer Anne Fadiman. "I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders. There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one."

MY FAVORITE BORDER has always been the world's oddest perimeter. It's the threshold of home: the United States-Mexico line. I hardly recognize it anymore.

Not long ago, while out feeding horses in a corral in West Texas, on a parched ranch close to the Rio Grande, I heard an unplaceable sound. It was strange yet familiar, like a lawn mower in the desert. Squinting finally up into the chrome-bright sky, I spotted a Predator drone. It was my first one since Iraq.

This growing militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border has an elegiac quality about it that transcends nostalgia for a time when this 2,000-mile-wide doorway between two sister republics was congenially open. Ultimately, the slow but steady closing of the United States' vast southern frontier says less about Juárez's narco-violence or the jobless rate in Phoenix than it does about the end of an era of exceptionalism in the United States. The fences of I-beams rolling across the desert now seem almost provisional, an artifact of hindsight, a theatrical gesture against demographic and cultural reality.

With Mexican cowboys in the Sierra Madre tucking Sam's Club cards into their wallets and U.S. politicians struggling through slogans in Spanish, it would be impossible for author Graham Greene to marvel, as he did nearly 75 years ago in Laredo, Texas, at the otherness of la frontera: "The atmosphere of the border -- it is like starting over again; there is something about it like a good confession: poised for a few happy moments between sin and sin." Not anymore.

As for the borders interrupting my long walk, I'll be supple and patient. Some will be merely a line of rocks across a salt plain. Others will be triple-fenced minefields. Most, like X-ray body scanners at ports of entry, will peel away my skin. This is what borders do. Denied passage, I'll simply pivot and trudge in another direction, much as our roving ancestors must have done 2,000 generations ago. Scientists have their pet theories about this, of course.

The prevailing hypothesis holds that we unwittingly conquered the Earth by walking along the margins of the seas, lured onward by a bifurcated horizon. Erik Trinkaus, an ancient-migration expert at Washington University in St. Louis, doesn't truck with this shoreline idea. We spread inland across virgin continents, he believes, shrewdly exploiting the places where major ecosystems met. "The transition zones between mountains and plains, wet and dry regions, that's where the greatest diversity of foods was," says Trinkaus. "That's what offered us the greatest fallback on resources."

Either way, it seems from the very beginning, we sought, found, and hewed to borders.

Next: Peter Chilson on waiting out the coup in Mali.

JOSE CENDON/AFP/Getty Images

Special Report

Rebel Country

Waiting out the coup in Mali.

Previous: Paul Salopek on his seven-year journey to retrace the footsteps of early humans.

Bamako, a great sprawl of 2 million people on the Niger River, was in the grip of a gun battle. Soldiers of Mali's new ruling junta, who wore the green berets of the regular army, had been in power all of five weeks when I arrived there late last April. Now they were fighting a countercoup attempt from the former presidential guard, an elite parachute regiment loyal to President Amadou Toumani Touré, the democratically elected leader who was deposed by junior army officers last March, when he had been weeks from retirement and elections to replace him. But by the time his guard -- distinguished from other army units by its members' bright red berets -- made a move, he'd exiled himself to Senegal. They fought on without him.

I spent the evening of May 1 and the early hours of May 2 at my hotel, listening to the popping of small arms and the drone of heavy machine guns. I've been to a dozen African countries over the last two and a half decades, but this was my first coup. Machine guns filled the night with sickening low staccato groans, like the devil clearing his throat. I thought of young men torn apart. Sleep was impossible.

I was planning to travel to Mali's suddenly overwhelmed north, where al Qaeda-allied jihadists and Tuareg rebels had the country's beleaguered military on the run, abandoning the famed city of Timbuktu and large swaths of territory. But first my old friend Isaac and I would have to figure out how to get out of Bamako. When I flew in to meet him right before the countercoup, he looked sad and tired. "We have never known this kind of thing in Mali," he said. "We are not the Congo."

Around 1 a.m. on May 2, I called Isaac on his cell phone to ask whether he thought our trip was still possible. He, too, was awake, though he lived on the south side of the Niger River, much farther from the fighting, near the permanent checkpoint on National Highway 6, the main north road we would have to take. His family had an apartment on the ground floor of an unfinished three-story building where he worked as caretaker in exchange for rent. That night he'd staked out the checkpoint and had confirmed the army was letting buses and cars leave the city after being searched. But he was cautious. Fighting still raged around the state television station and the airport. "The soldiers won't care about me," Isaac said, "but they'll wonder about your motives for traveling north. Right now, anything can happen."

We decided to wait.

Through those early-morning hours the grit of a Saharan dust storm, a fine light-brown talcum, shrouded the lights of Bamako. From my window I could see little, though the sound of gunfire was unmistakable. I heard two explosions like soft crunches, probably mortar rounds. At 2 a.m. I went outside to see whether I could find someone to talk to. The streets were empty. A Toyota pickup full of soldiers in green berets, men defending the new military junta, passed by slowly and quietly, their guns pointed at the sky. I nodded, and a couple of soldiers sitting in the truck bed, faces shiny with sweat, nodded back. I returned to my room and switched on the television to check the state broadcasting station for news. They were showing a French documentary about the biology of earthworms. I went to bed.

Around dawn a powerful thunderstorm woke me. Deafening thunderclaps and flashes of lightning rolled across the city as if to scold the bickering soldiers. Hours later, working at my desk, I heard a sharp bang outside my window. Then came two more loud sounds. I rose from my chair and crept along the wall to the window, where I peered out. There, just off the street about a hundred feet away, a young man using a rope to hang from a densely branched mango tree was knocking fruit loose with a metal pole. Mangoes fell -- bang, bang, bang -- on the corrugated iron roof of a shed. Humbled, I realized I needed to get hold of myself.

Of all the countries on that struggling continent, Mali is one I thought would never fall victim to an African cliché -- the military coup. I have been a visitor to Mali for the last decade, writing about West Africa's colonial borders and focusing on a country whose history I believed immunized it from becoming a Congo or Somalia, crisscrossed as they are by ethnic and religious violence. Since March, however, it had become a study in tragic collapse, caught between the ruins of Mali's democracy in the south and a rogue jihadi state in the north that threatens the stability of West Africa and the security of Europe.

For days, Isaac and I waited. By May 3, I could still hear gun battles from my hotel. There had been no announcements. State television was playing a numbing roll of documentaries, from Jacques Cousteau to a rock biography of Paul McCartney.

I still heard the occasional crackle of small arms. The heavier guns and mortars were silent. Except for a zone blocked off around the television station downtown and the airport, I traveled freely around Bamako, one of the world's fastest-growing cities and one where I have never felt unsafe in any neighborhood. During the week of the countercoup, I walked Bamako for miles. I bought bananas in crowded street markets and drank hot tea at roadside tables; at one, a man told me the U.S. Army could drop paratroopers on the north and solve Mali's problem in a few days. I hired taxis to take me across every bridge over the Niger (there are three), which splits Bamako north from south, and to important nearby towns, like Kati, which has one of the Sahel's largest cattle markets, as well as to the main army base.

On the street one morning, hearing the distant snapping of small arms, I realized that while the rebels were consolidating their hold on a newly acquired rogue state in the north, the Malian army was eating itself in the south, engaged in a bloody fratricidal grudge match. I thought about a contact I had in the presidential guard, a captain who'd been involved in monitoring conflicts along Mali's border with Guinea. I had met him the previous October in a cafe, where he told me about his work settling land disputes between Malian and Guinean farmers. "But we Malians," he had said to me, "we do not argue amongst ourselves. Our solidarity is our strength." When I tried him on the phone this time, he did not answer my calls.

According to Human Rights Watch, in that first week of May, while I was trying to find a way out of Bamako, 20 red-beret paratroopers were forcibly disappeared, and unconfirmed reports said they were executed and buried in a mass grave outside the city. Almost immediately after putting down the countercoup, regular army soldiers began a torture campaign against dozens of surviving red-beret soldiers, including mock executions, severe beatings, stabbings, and forced anal sex with fellow prisoners. Using sticks, guards stuffed rags in the prisoners' mouths to muffle their screams.

Yet what amazed me most about those days in Bamako was that the army was seldom seen, maybe because it couldn't spare the extra soldiers to patrol the city. There was no curfew, no random checkpoints. Life in the streets went on as if people didn't need the government.

Early in the fighting, the evening of April 30, a boyish-looking lieutenant speaking for the army junta had appeared on state television and declared that the countercoup had been crushed. As he spoke, the camera panned to the exhausted faces of other officers around him in green berets and a group of presidential guardsmen in handcuffs. The camera focused on apparently captured weaponry: a couple of mortars, some machine guns, and crates of hand grenades. Despite the lieutenant's claims, the fighting went on for three more days, at times intensely. On May 3, as the gunfire began to abate, the army chief of staff appeared on television to declare again that the countercoup had been put down. By the end of the following day the fighting was over.

I called Isaac, and we agreed this was our chance. The next morning, we bought new tickets and boarded an AfriqueTourTrans bus to the north. After the police checked our identity papers, we took our seats.

Once we were on the bus, a soldier sat in front of me with his automatic rifle between his knees. At every checkpoint on the road, he stepped off the bus to confirm for his colleagues that there were no suspicious passengers -- in other words, no light-skinned young men who might be Tuareg rebels. As for me, no one even asked to see my passport.

I mentioned this to Isaac later. "You're just another foolish tourist who didn't have enough sense to read the newspapers before getting on a plane," he said. "That's your new identity."

Next: Graeme Wood on the tiny peninsula that's still reeling from the Iran-Iraq war.

ISSOUF SANOGO/AFP/Getty Images