Saleem Reshamwala Takes Us To Far Flung Places This hour, journalist Saleem Reshamwala gives us a tour of surprising people and places — Lima, Nairobi, and prehistoric New Jersey — to inspire new perspectives on travel and cultures.

Saleem Reshamwala Takes Us To Far Flung Places

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, ideas from far-flung places. I have done a lot less travel - basically no travel - over the past year. I'm guessing most of you can relate. But I have been enjoying TV shows and movies and podcasts that can transport me, even if it's just in my own head, to someplace new. And one of those is another podcast from TED - "Far Flung."


SALEEM RESHAMWALA: I'm Saleem Reshamwala, and from TED, this is "Far Flung." In each episode, we visit a different city...

ZOMORODI: "Far Flung" is hosted by journalist and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala.

RESHAMWALA: The initial description I saw was, if a city could give a TED Talk, what would it say?

ZOMORODI: Saleem takes his listeners all over the world, from Easter Island...

RESHAMWALA: What happens when you have an island completely based on travel that suddenly can no longer have visitors? Tourism on the island has stopped.

ZOMORODI: ...To southern Germany...

RESHAMWALA: We talked about the evolution of the oldest continually running passion play in Oberammergau, Germany, and how it's had to evolve because of its very challenging past.


RESHAMWALA: ...And a village defined by a 400-year-old tradition.

ZOMORODI: ...To Mexico City and a local who dresses up as a luchador...


JORGE CANEZ: (Singing in Spanish).

RESHAMWALA: ...And wanders around his city trying to keep people from committing traffic violations.

ZOMORODI: Clearly, I am a fan of the show.

RESHAMWALA: We're trying to recreate the experience that you might have if you traveled someplace you've never been and happened to bump into someone fascinating who told you about an idea. That's the experience of this show in a nutshell.


ZOMORODI: So I invited Saleem to join us for the hour to take us to some of his favorite destinations and introduce us to the people who live there, from Lima to Nairobi to New Jersey. We'll meet a few TED speakers along the way, rethink our ideas about travel and go way beyond what's on the map. First, though, a bit more about Saleem - his upbringing has a lot to do with how he sees the world.

RESHAMWALA: My dad was born in India. My mom was born in Japan. My mom's half-Japanese. I'm, obviously, because of that, all very mixed-culture myself. I grew up in the South here in the U.S. And as a kid, I felt like I was always looking for a way to fit in. And I was searching for that in other places. And I had a dad who was sending me on crazy, weird, low-budget educational adventures.

ZOMORODI: And you've gone around the world twice on a boat trip, is that right?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah, in trade for room and board. And so I just kind of got a reputation as a dude who could get by with just a backpack and a couch...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RESHAMWALA: ...And do international gigs in low-budget, unusual conditions. And so I've been doing a lot of that over the past 10 years.

ZOMORODI: All right. I am ready to get started. Are you?



LIBERATO KANI: (Rapping in Spanish and Quechua).

ZOMORODI: You have an episode that is called "Indigenous Mixtape From Lima, Peru."


ZOMORODI: Tell me about it.

RESHAMWALA: So I was documenting some - following some artists down there. And this Peruvian journalist who's living in the U.S., Oscar Durand, pitched us a story on this rapper, Liberato Kani.


KANI: (Rapping in Spanish and Quechua).

RESHAMWALA: That's Liberato Kani MCing at the National Theatre here in Lima this past February. He's rapping in a mix of Spanish and Quechua. If you haven't heard of Quechua, that's kind of the point. It's the most widely spoken indigenous language in Latin America. About 10 million people speak it. And Liberato's bringing it to people in a whole new way. His MC name, Liberato Kani, means I am a free man. And a call-and-response you hear throughout his concerts is...


KANI: (Rapping in Spanish and Quechua).

RESHAMWALA: Quechua is resistance.


ZOMORODI: So, Saleem, we just heard you say that up to 10 million people speak Quechua...


ZOMORODI: ...But that Spanish colonialism essentially made it go underground in some places, right?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, similar things, of course, happen in countries all over the world. You know, in the U.S., indigenous languages have been suppressed, whether it's formally, systematically or informally. And that was really happening in - with Quechua. You know, we talked to Oscar and this rapper, Liberato. Both of them talked about times in their life where they were unsure if Quechua or their indigenous roots were something that should kind of be quiet or hidden.

ZOMORODI: Well, because there was a stigma, right? Because it was seen as kind of for the poor, for low-class people. Is that right? Like, it sort of indicated that you come from somewhere that's not terribly sophisticated.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. And that's what Oscar was telling me he felt when he was really young. Quechua was this thing that, like, is so often seen as, like, something that's in a museum or something that's an object of history. You know, Quechua was not seen as something that was cool. Folks were feeling - still feeling embarrassed about the language in the same way that my grandmother, you know, didn't teach by mother Japanese because after the war, in the U.S., Japanese was not the coolest thing to have.


RESHAMWALA: Folks there were kind of self-suppressing, to some degree, and being externally suppressed. But for a variety of reasons, it was stigmatized. And they felt like it wasn't something they were encouraged to use or to express. And for some people, he was bringing an unsophisticated thing and trying to mash it up with something cool. And, you know, luckily, he was able to flip all that and get people to accept it.

ZOMORODI: And the story of how he decided to use Quechua and marry it to rap, essentially, is so fascinating because Liberato said that he experienced a lot of racism at school, right? But then you share a story where he says he hung out with a kid after school one day to work on music. And what happened kind of launched his career.


KANI: (Through interpreter) Come to my house, he said, and we'll work on it. And while I was there, he said, hey. Why don't you write a rap in Quechua, a chorus in Quechua? I swear, it had never occurred to me to write in Quechua till that day. But what should it be about? - I asked him. And he said, about what you experienced in the mountains, of course. And in that moment, I took a piece of paper, and I wrote a chorus. And that chorus became the song "Hip Hop Ruwachkani."


KANI: (Rapping in Quechua).

OSCAR DURAND: At first, when he wrote lyrics and Quechua, it was just about the rhymes and whether they sounded good or not.

KANI: (Through interpreter) The sounds of Quechua - for example, the ha (ph), the cha (ph), the e'ha (ph) - those apostrophes sound incredible. When - in Quechua, for example, it's said that...

(Rapping in Quechua).

DURAND: And the more he wrote, the more he thought about the message behind his lyrics.

KANI: (Through interpreter) When I rapped in Spanish, I didn't talk about any Andean themes. That is, there wasn't any historical context when I rapped in Spanish. But when I started to experiment with rapping in Quechua, that's when I started to research, to analyze history - the history of Peru, especially my roots and the experiences that I had in the Andes.


ZOMORODI: Oh, man. So his...


ZOMORODI: ...Experimentation with language is sort of a coming-of-age for him. He's a teenager. He's connecting with the history of his family, the history of his country. And it's like an awakening.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. And there's so much in that little piece of tape that I love. Like, one, I love anything that's remix culture. Two, I love when people find something that made them weird as a kid...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RESHAMWALA: ...And it becomes their superpower as an adult. You know what I'm saying? Like, this kid was being made fun of for his Indigenous roots by folks without Indigenous roots. And he figured a way to mash those worlds into something that people love him for now. And he started rapping on a bus. That was, like, his first public show - was on a bus. And I just love the fearlessness that he got from this one conversation with a kid that, you know, wasn't really expected to go anywhere.


KANI: (Rapping in Quechua).

RESHAMWALA: One of the cool things is Liberato is a Quechua teacher now.


RESHAMWALA: He actually gives classes on Quechua and has students who are, you know, learning Quechua with him. And when I'd see him meet other artists from this scene, they would speak a little bit of Quechua to each other, even if they weren't fluent in it. So you can start from that core that just among the artists, it's helping them feel pride and keep this alive. And then among listeners, you know, I think a lot of people who meet him feel better about themselves and feel confident expressing themselves.

KANI: (Through interpreter) Quechua is a language that's always having to put up a fight. It keeps on struggling, struggling, struggling. But if there's no support, if there's no work on the part of the state, the struggle is going to take longer because it would be great if they taught Quechua in Peru's high schools. It's as if they view Quechua as a language for tourism, a language for history teachers or anthropologists or whatever. That's what a lot of young people like me are trying to change, that Quechua is a language that's part of modernity, that's also a part of the current world.

ZOMORODI: As an outsider, I am guessing that a tourist who visits Lima would not learn much about this fascinating debate over a language and music and history and class. But they should, right? I mean, I think of how many times, like, I've visited a country and I've gone to a museum and learned about what happened hundreds of years ago, but don't really understand how that is affecting what is happening right now in that city or place for the people who are alive today.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, no one lives in a museum.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Yeah.

RESHAMWALA: Super-important. But it's not the same as what you find from talking to people who are actually just living life currently. And, yeah, when talking to them, they were like, we need this being taught in schools. It needs to be officialized. And people in rural areas need to be able to use this. You should be able to open a bank account using Quechua. So you don't need to learn that to come to Peru as a tourist, but learning it will make you see what you see in those museums in a different light. And that's kind of, you know - like, what I would love is for people who listen to the show to just to have that angle when they meet folks or when they see Peru in the news - you know, like, have this other lens to think about things.

ZOMORODI: I guess I just want to finally ask you, like, did this story surprise you at all, Saleem? Or do you kind of think, you know, this struggle between native and modern cultures and languages - it happens in countries all over the world, and Peru is, you know, just one example?

RESHAMWALA: I think it's definitely happening all over. It's - I don't think it's as easy as just splitting it into those two groups because the Indigenous culture of Peru is not excluded from any of those categories. So I do think there's a struggle between what might be called colonial culture and non-colonial culture or, you know, a culture that is indigenous to a place and cultures that are coming in from outside of that place. But I wouldn't exist without the free flow of people and ideas. Like, I literally would not be born, right? And I think that's everywhere.


ZOMORODI: On the show today, far-flung places. In a minute, we'll return with journalist and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala as he guides us to our next destination.

Afrobubblegum - it's the greatest word there is.

RESHAMWALA: It's a great word.

ZOMORODI: Right - so good.

RESHAMWALA: An amazing phrase.

ZOMORODI: I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, we are traveling virtually with journalist and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala. During the hour, he's guiding us to some of his favorite destinations and introducing us to guests - some of whom are TED speakers, too - from the podcast he hosts, "Far Flung."

OK, so, Saleem, we were just in Lima. Our next destination is Nairobi, Kenya. We are going to explore how art can challenge the narrative that is often spread throughout the world about Africa.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. So for this episode, we were calling and speaking with artists and creatives in Nairobi and particularly from this movement called afrobubblegum, which is an amazingly named movement. It's just...


RESHAMWALA: ...Such a fun word. And we were chatting with folks, primarily with a multidimensional artist named Wanuri who started this movement, afrobubblegum. And she's a firm believer in creating art for art's sake and that it doesn't matter where you're from. You should be able to just express pure joy, especially in her case, if you're from Africa.

ZOMORODI: And so in 2017, Wanuri Kahiu gave a TED talk that's called "Fun, Fierce And Fantastical African Art." Let's listen.


WANURI KAHIU: It's nothing incredibly important. It's just fun, fierce and frivolous, as frivolous as bubblegum - afrobubblegum. So I'm not saying that agenda art isn't important. I'm the chairperson of a charity that deals with films and theaters that write about HIV and radicalization and female genital mutilation. It's vital and important art, but it cannot be the only art that comes out of the continent. We have to tell more stories that are vibrant.

The danger of the single story is still being realized. And maybe it's because of the funding. A lot of art is still dependent on developmental aid, so art becomes a tool for agenda. Or maybe it's because we've only seen one image of ourselves for so long that that's all we know how to create. Whatever the reason, we need a new way. And afrobubblegum is one approach. It's the advocacy of art for art's sake. It's the advocacy of art that is not policy-driven or agenda-driven or based on education, just for the sake of imagination, afrobubblegum art.

And we can't all be afrobubblegumists. We have to judge our work for its potential poverty porn pitfalls. We have to have tests that are similar to the Bechdel test and ask questions like, are two or more Africans in this piece of fiction healthy? Are those same Africans financially stable and not in need of saving? Are they having fun and enjoying life? And if we can answer yes to two or more of these questions, then surely we're afrobubblegumists.

ZOMORODI: OK, I want to be an afrobubblegumist.


ZOMORODI: I love this idea of creating something that upends people's ideas about a place or a people. How do you think of afrobubblegum essentially making art that is joyful?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, one of the most fun things about chatting to Wanuri was she was game for anything. So when we started talking, I was like, how would we make this episode afrobubblegum? And she kind of gave me those rules about making it joyful, about, you know, not making a story of people who need saving. And while she's talking about her specific situation or specific environment around art creation, you know, clearly this applies to so many different people, right? Like, you know, speaking as someone growing up Muslim, you only saw, back in the day, certain images of Islam. And then even the response to those images was, Muslims are good people. But that's not, like, a story. Like, that's, like, a weird sentence, right?

So I love - you know, I joked in the episode that, like, I would love to have, like, Islamobubblegum (ph). And that's kind of starting - like, something like that. And, like, you could just put - I mean, the beauty of the word, the genius of what she's created is this name, afrobubblegum. You hear it, and you get it. You're not like, oh, like, is this going to be sad, or is this going to be, like, deeply painful and moving? No, it's going to be fun. It's going to be joyous.

And the thing that I love about this idea is that freedom, to me, is being able to express whatever you're feeling - right? - and not feeling like you have to fit your own feelings into a preexisting narrative. But it's something that I think a lot of people, whether it's via gender, sexual orientation, race, you know, being a Southerner as opposed to a Northerner, being, you know, from the U.S. versus not the U.S. - there's many, many different lenses. And I imagine in most places in the world that you can look at this idea that, oh, you're from this group that's not in the mainstream; you need to make this kind of art.

ZOMORODI: Wanuri mentions in her TED Talk the danger of a single story. And she's, I think, referring to another TED speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's talk from 2009, where she lays out this idea that people and places - they contain multitudes. And it is extremely dangerous if you limit those people and places, if you only see them from one angle. And honestly, like, what that reminds me of is, like, as a 12-year-old, how what I knew about Africa was the song "Feed The World." And it's like - it's shameful.


ZOMORODI: But that was the limitations of what we were taught at the time. And so I can't help but wonder, like, what if I had seen joyful art coming out of Africa?


ZOMORODI: Like, just going back to your podcast episode, you actually give an update on Wanuri since she gave her TED Talk. So tell us what you learned when you spoke to her.

RESHAMWALA: So, yes, since that TED Talk, Wanuri made a film called "Rafiki" that came out in 2018.


SHEILA MUNYIVA: (As Ziki) Let's make a pact that we will never be like any of them down there.

MUTHONI DRUMMER QUEEN: (Rapping) Sitting at the corner, me and Suzie Noma.

MUNYIVA: (As Ziki) Instead, we're going to be...

SAMANTHA MUGATSIA: (As Kena) Something real?

MUNYIVA: (As Ziki) Something real, yes.

RESHAMWALA: She made a film called "Rafiki," which basically violated a rule that is really unfair to LGBT art, these, like, 1897 Britain-imposed anti-sexuality laws. She made a joyous film that had same-sex love in it. And that work was perceived as breaking these laws around LGBT+ expression in media. So, you know, for her, whether she wanted to or not, she suddenly, in making this joyous art, had to go through this political action of trying to get her film seen and had this very strange experience of that film getting international acclaim and not being able to be shown in her own home country.


KAHIU: I wanted to make a love story. I think that we don't have enough love stories coming from this side of the world.


MUTHONI DRUMMER QUEEN: (Singing) On this I know. All this I know. All this I know.

RESHAMWALA: At first, the love story it tells couldn't be seen by Kenyans.


KAHIU: Which means it couldn't be broadcast, it couldn't be distributed, it couldn't be exhibited and it couldn't be possessed within the Republic of Kenya. The film was banned and remains banned to this day. I know we shouldn't have been surprised, but we were still incredibly disappointed because not only do we love our country, truly love our country, but we also believe in the mandate that was set out, which is our constitution. And our constitution allows us freedom of expression.

The Classification Board wanted me to change the ending of the film because they felt that the ending of the film was too hopeful, and they thought that the ending should be remorseful. And when I refused to change the ending of the film, they banned it. So they said by keeping the ending of the film as is, which is a joyful ending, which is in keeping with my ethos on afrobubblegum exploration of African life, it said that it normalized and glorified homosexual behavior.


ZOMORODI: Oh, Saleem, she sounds so different in that clip from your episode versus her TED Talk, kind of like her fierce idealism from a few years ago has been a bit dashed by the reality of law and politics in Kenya. And just - can you clarify for us? Like, it was banned because it was joyous? That sounds a little weird.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, there's a joy in that process of joyous art. There's joy in speaking about joyous art. But getting joyous art out into the world is not always fun or easy depending on who you are and what systems you're a part of.

Yeah, at the end of the film, it has a happy ending. And that's what the censorship board seemed to be responding to - was they were like, oh, you can show people in a same-sex relationship, but there has to be something in that movie that makes it seem like what they did was bad, which is super-depressing, right? Like, that you - that even just ending a movie happily could be against the rules for some people or for some subjects.

And I want to be super-clear that we're not singling out Kenya. That's where the story happens to take place. But all over the world, there's these kind of rules around textbooks and art. And, you know, these battles are being fought all over. And you can see how it makes bringing joy into the world harder.

ZOMORODI: I really appreciated that in the episode, you included a sort of statement from the person on the film board who banned it, Dr. Ezekiel Mutua.


EZEKIEL MUTUA: Kenya, for instance, does not allow homosexuality. While we know homosexuals exists and we know they have a right as human beings to be treated with dignity and their rights to be protected, if you're doing films about that subject, then you cannot glorify those kind of things against the law. I do not see any pride in pushing the boundaries of creativity if it's going against the law.

ZOMORODI: So, Saleem, that's what the board said. That was the official ruling. But Wanuri actually gets kind of a reprieve, right? Like, the story gets even more interesting. What happened to the film?

RESHAMWALA: Well, there's two separate challenges. One is, obviously, you make art. You want it to be famous, et cetera. But you also want the people who could most celebrate that art to be able to see it, right? Like, so if you make a movie about your hometown, you want...


RESHAMWALA: ...It shown in your hometown. So that was a challenge. She couldn't show it in her hometown because of this ruling. There was this second level, which was that she couldn't be eligible for certain international prizes unless the film was shown in the home country - in this case, Kenya. So she was able to sue the board and basically say, hey; I've got a movie up for - maybe eligible for an Oscar but not eligible because I can't show it at home. And that's what made them make this kind of, like, surreal ruling that they could show the movie for seven days in the country, the bare minimum that you could show something to have it qualify, right? And so even though that's a crazy restriction to have to have - like, your movie can only show for seven days - it went amazingly.


KAHIU: It was a glorious moment when that happened. The film was screened in Kenya, which is a beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful moment to have people be able to watch the images that we so longed for them to watch on their screens. We managed to sell out almost every single screening. People flocked to it.

ZOMORODI: Sort of had a happy ending, sort of joyful (laughter).

RESHAMWALA: Yeah, in a way, in a way, right? Like, it's not the happiest ending, but it's not the worst possible ending, right? So she was able to kind of pull it off.

ZOMORODI: You're a filmmaker, Saleem. Like, so what was going on through your mind as you heard Wanuri's story about her film? Like, censorship, I would assume, is a filmmaker's, like, worst nightmare, right (laughter)?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah, especially - you know, you imagine that you've made this thing, and it's not just you alone making this thing that's now not able to be shown because it's a film, and film is mad collaborative. So it's, you know, everybody who worked on the film, everybody who helped promote the film, you know, the actors, the relatives of...


RESHAMWALA: ...The actors - like, all these other people are affected when a film can't be shown. You know, it's brutal.

ZOMORODI: Yeah, it's, again - and it reminds me of what you were talking about in the Lima episode where we first started in the show - this idea that art tells the history of a nation. Not only does creativity build nations, but it unearths what has come before.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. And in some ways, a nation is just a mutual hallucination. Like...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RESHAMWALA: ...We all just decide that this country exists. And there's this line on a map here, and lots of times you can't see anything on the border between countries. Like, if it wasn't some arbitrary decision, you could just walk across this piece of the desert, and it wouldn't - you wouldn't have, like, a checkpoint or you wouldn't have this, that or the other. So nations are built in a nonphysical sense as well. And a lot of that comes from art and the ideas that art gives you about yourself and the ideas about what arts are valued and how that's tied to what people are valued. There's this expression I love. It's - an expert is someone from out of town.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RESHAMWALA: And I always think of that when I think about, like, how, in some places, especially in places with a colonial history, when you have someone from out of town or art from another place, that's viewed as, like, sophisticated. And how flipping things so that people are allowed to put their own country's art or their own culture's art on the same highest level as art from other places, I think that does so much for making people feel good about themselves.

ZOMORODI: You know, what you said about nations being mutual hallucinations - that really struck a chord with me because I am not really a person who identifies with a nation myself despite being Iranian and Swiss German. I think that's why I love New York City so much 'cause it's just one big swirl, one big mixtape of different places. And that's reflected in the art you see here, too.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, and so - OK. That actually really relates to something, which is - I think of New York and part of the reason that New York is the birth of hip-hop and the - you know, the birth of so many things is New York is a mash-up city.


RESHAMWALA: And there's, to me, a real reason why a - you could reject this term if you don't accept it - but, like, I consider folks like you and me mashed-up people. And there's a reason that...

ZOMORODI: Oh, yeah, definitely.

RESHAMWALA: There's a reason that New York is a comforting place. And...


RESHAMWALA: ...You know, there's a reason that a lot of things get - hip-hop, you know, I think of myself as, like, a guest in hip-hop. I'm very grateful for - to have been able to be around a lot of international hip-hop. And one thing you keep seeing is that many other cultures' music gets integrated into something tied to hip-hop. And that comes from, you know, hip-hop's roots in being something that samples and recreates all kinds of elements of culture. And, you know, if I can speak to my own personal story for a moment.


RESHAMWALA: I remember hearing, like, Liberato talks about how people respond to Quechua. I remember being, like, a college-age person and hearing Missy Elliott using that, like - (singing) dah, dah, dah, nah, nah, nah.


RESHAMWALA: Recognizing an Indian sample in a Missy Elliott song or...

ZOMORODI: Oh, yeah.

RESHAMWALA: ...Panjabi MC came out with that track. It was like mixing Bhangra with the "Knight Rider" theme song from my youth.


JAY-Z: Pharrell in the house.

RESHAMWALA: And then Jay-Z got on it.


PANJABI MC: (Singing in Punjabi).

RESHAMWALA: Like, those mash-ups, like, made me feel alive. And so that's something that I'm always looking for and constantly finding when we're looking at stories in other places.


ZOMORODI: In just a minute, we continue the conversation with Saleem Reshamwala, our travel guide for the hour. On the show today, far-flung places. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. We'll be right back.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, we are spending the hour with Saleem Reshamwala. He is a journalist, filmmaker and host of "Far Flung," a TED podcast that's about unusual ideas that he's discovered while traveling the world.

All right, you ready to get back on the road?

RESHAMWALA: Let's do it.

ZOMORODI: OK, so so far, you have introduced us to a rapper in Lima, a filmmaker in Nairobi. But now we're coming home to the U.S. to kind of an extraordinary story that takes place in my home state of New Jersey.

RESHAMWALA: Let's go to New Jersey.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Woot (ph). And it is the story of a paleontologist named Ken Lacovara. And I have to ask - Saleem, are you a person who often interviews paleontologists? I'm guessing not.

RESHAMWALA: No, no. He was my first paleontologist.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) OK, so why would you hang out with a paleontologist for a show that is ostensibly about travel?

RESHAMWALA: I love the idea that every single place is fascinating if we look at it in the right way, right? So a paleontologist is, by nature of what he does, someone who can help us see a place in a totally different way. And I love the idea of amazing things happening in New Jersey.

ZOMORODI: And we should say, Ken is a rather famous paleontologist because he has unearthed some of the largest dinosaurs to ever walk our planet, including the super-massive Dreadnoughtus. I think I'm saying that right.

RESHAMWALA: Dreadnoughtus - it's such a great name.

ZOMORODI: Gosh, what a name. And it weighs, like, 65 tons. It weighs more than, like, seven T. rexes.

RESHAMWALA: Seven T. rexes.


ZOMORODI: And so, as you would, I guess, kind of assume with someone who is discovering and naming new kinds of dinosaurs, Ken is not your usual traveler. He is really doing more sort of time travel, I guess you could say.

RESHAMWALA: Really, really deep time travel, long time travel.

ZOMORODI: Yes. And so Ken was another one of your guests who happened to give a TED talk, and that talk is called "Hunting For Dinosaurs Showed Me Our Place In The Universe." He gave this talk back in 2016, before you ever met him.


KENNETH LACOVARA: The annals of Earth history are written in rocks, one chapter upon the next, such that the oldest pages are on bottom and the youngest on top. Now, were it quite that easy, geologists would rejoice. It's not. The library of Earth is an old one. It has no librarian to impose order. Most pages are destroyed soon after being written. Some pages are overwritten, creating difficult-to-decipher palimpsests of long-gone landscapes. Pages that do find sanctuary under the advancing sands of time are never truly safe. Unlike the moon - our dead, rocky companion - the Earth is alive, pulsing with creative and destructive forces that power its geological metabolism.

RESHAMWALA: I love those phrases - geological metabolism, the Earth alive, pulsing, creative, destructive forces. It's just - it's absolutely invisible if you're walking around looking at it right now, but it's there.

ZOMORODI: And Ken, as a paleontologist, he really wants to answer, you know, the big question that no one really has a complete answer to, which is - how did the dinosaurs go extinct? What happened after that infamous asteroid hit? And Ken believes that there might be some answers inside a massive dirt hole, which - OK, wait for it - happens to be behind a Lowe's parking lot in New Jersey that is about to be turned into an apartment complex.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah, he's looking for something that is so hard to find. Basically, if an asteroid is what killed the dinosaurs, there are certain signs that it would have left. And one of them is there would be a very thin layer detectable in the rock that told you that it was when the asteroid was hitting. And if you find no dinosaur fossils above that layer, but you do find them below that layer, it hints that possibly something happened to dinosaurs that's related to that one very thin layer.


RESHAMWALA: New Jersey has certain conditions that make it a great place to find fossils of dinosaur bones. There's a reason that these discoveries were happening there. Some of it has to do with the kinds of marshes. Some of it has to do with land movements that were happening in the area. So it's a good spot to be. And he started getting these signs - like, oh, maybe this spot's really super-important. And then he went to work to preserve it.

ZOMORODI: And that is what you lay out in your episode. Let's take a listen.


RESHAMWALA: One way of looking at this question - how did the dinosaurs die? - is thinking of it as a really old murder mystery.

LACOVARA: We have the theory of the crime, right? That's that an asteroid killed them. Now we have the smoking gun.

RESHAMWALA: That's that huge asteroid crater.

LACOVARA: You can't really take that case to trial 'cause you're still missing something. You're missing the body - right? - or the bodies in this case.

RESHAMWALA: The bodies in this case are not just any dinosaur fossils. We need bodies from close to the moment of the asteroid hitting. But paleontologists have been looking for these specific fossils from that moment for decades. Ken's wondering, what if this densely packed layer of fossils that he's seen in the mine - what if that's close to that specific time, that Thursday or that Friday? That would be of global significance. And basically, shutting down any place that even might have an answer to how the dinosaurs died feels crazy. And the whole site's on the verge of becoming an apartment complex.

ZOMORODI: So, Saleem, Ken thinks that this massive hole in a parking lot in Mantua Township, N.J., has, like, real answers to these big questions. But the fate of this site is hanging by a thread. And that is where you come into the story, right?

RESHAMWALA: Yes. So me and a couple of producers rolled to New Jersey to a parking lot. You know, it's like, oh, I can see the Starbucks. Oh, I can see the Lowe's. Like, we actually went in the Lowe's just to kind of catch a vibe. It's just the most standard Lowe's imaginable.


ZOMORODI: So you could be anywhere in America, basically, but you're in New Jersey visiting a parking lot, and you go to meet Ken there.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah (laughter). I love that. And we hop in the car with him, and it's not like, here we go. Like, it's not like the scene from "Jurassic World" where you're, like, riding a Jeep into this exciting place.



RESHAMWALA: I can't convey the degree to which this really is us just rolling up to a parking lot. It's like, you literally turn around the corner, and there is a sign that looks like a clip-art dinosaur and an arrow.


RESHAMWALA: And you just follow that arrow next to the clip-art dinosaur, and you just start walking down into a super-deep pit. And that's where we talked to Ken about the spot. And we also got to meet this person who was basically his unlikely partner in crime, this woman Michelle Bruner, who works at the town hall in Mantua (laughter). And for her, a paleontologist wanting to do a lot of specific paleontology things was not a normal town hall request. But they kind of tag-teamed it in, like, this '80s way of, like, trying to save the dig. It was kind of "Goonies"-ish, you know?


MICHELLE BRUNER: The first time he came in, I'll never forget - he walked in. He was in his, like, paleontology garb. And...

RESHAMWALA: What's paleontology garb look like?

BRUNER: Where it's the waterproof pants, and he had his tan hat. He had his tan little summer - you know, the winterized shirt. And then he had his boots on, and he walked in, and he just started to talk to me about the site.

LACOVARA: And said, you know, do you know what you have behind the Lowe's here? You have this amazing treasure. I think the next thing that happened is she wanted to jump in her car and see it herself.

ZOMORODI: So Ken has drafted Michelle to save the site, to keep it from being an apartment complex, to turn it into the historic dig that he believes it's meant to be. And what I found so fascinating in your episode is that Michelle goes through this transformation of a person, you know, caring about, you know, day-to-day sort of stuff, and she becomes, like, a bit of a time philosopher herself.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah, yeah.


BRUNER: I remember the moment that I looked at the different sand elements up on the bank of the quarry as you're walking down, and every step you're taking, you're going farther and farther, millions and millions of years into time. I literally felt that. I guess I was taught things in school. I don't remember any of it. And this was as if it was my first experience being attached to my earth that's been around me for how many years I've been in Mantua. And it just started to become this wonderful excitement - OK, let's take care of business. Let's try.

ZOMORODI: So, Saleem, you went down into the pit as well, as you mentioned. Did you - did mud give you that same sense of wonder? Did you see any fossils?

RESHAMWALA: When I went into that pit, if I had not had someone telling me things about the pit at first, I would not have known the wonder of the pit. But when you have someone who's telling you, you know, every X number of steps is a millions of years of history that you're walking down, you start feeling this gravitas, right? You're looking around. There was this moment where he's like, hey; check out this line. That's where Jersey was born. I was like, whoa. Like, the very place where I was born, like, Newark Hospital would not have a rock to stand on if it wasn't for that little geologic line, you know?

And we did find fossils. We went down in the pit. And I'm like - I'm seeing - it looks like a fossil pit from a movie - right? - except for the fact there's no giant bones sticking out. But it's got, like, you know, little sticks in the ground with orange tape here and there, like, marking it off. And I am like, oh, I have this really cool idea. I'm going take out my stopwatch. And I'm going to be like, hey, Ken; try to find a fossil. How long is it going to take? And I take out my stopwatch, and before I've hit the button - and, mind you, I'm seeing nothing in this pit - the dude's like, here's a fossil, before I push start on the button (laughter).


RESHAMWALA: And it was a tiny, tiny sponge that I brought home to my son, who was super, super-excited. But, yeah, it was a little fossil of a sponge, and they were all over. And I couldn't see anything.

ZOMORODI: But to him, it's, like, teeming with life.

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. It's like he could read the book, and I didn't even know there were words on the page.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter). So spoiler alert - they do save the site, but you have to listen to the episode to get all the details. And I will say that I did not expect, by the end of the episode, that you and your teammate (ph), Saleem, to want to visit Mantua. Like, you really want to go there.

RESHAMWALA: Let's go. New Jersey homecoming, Manoush - let's go to Mantua someday.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. I really want to go, in part because, like, you know, there's this moment where you go and, like, get lunch. And the people of Mantua are seeing their hometown in a different way thanks to Ken's discovery, right?

RESHAMWALA: The very fact that you've never thought about going to Mantua before is a sign that they don't have an easy job selling Mantua as a destination, right?


RESHAMWALA: But they're building a park park here. Like, when Ken talks about it, he's like - he mentions Disney World. Like, he's thinking big. And so all the rest of the town is trying to figure out, hey; how do we fit into this thing? And part of Michelle's job is chatting with people and prepping them. You know, we sit down at this diner, and it just turns into a group brainstorm, where folks in the restaurant are like, wait. Maybe we can have dino burgers. Maybe once this thing opens, we can have a big-dig chicken salad and, like...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

RESHAMWALA: ...Hide something in the bottom of the chicken salad, which is a great, weird idea. So I just love that the spinout out of all this is going to be a town changing.

ZOMORODI: Yeah. And I have to say, like, everyone's so excited about what's about to happen, and of course, Ken - in your episode - brings it all back to millennia before any of this happened.


LACOVARA: I don't really think of the current manifestation of a place as being the definition of that place - right? - and so - happens to look like this here now. But that's not all this place has ever been. And I think over 99% of species that have ever existed are extinct. So if you were to just study animals that happen to be alive today, you'd be missing out on almost all of biology. And if you were to look at a place as it just happens to exist today, you're missing out on almost the entire history of that place.

Place is a funny thing in that these are cultural attributes that we ascribe to areas of the earth. There was no New Jersey in the Cretaceous, right? There was no Mantua Township in the Cretaceous. And amazing things have happened on our planet. And today some of those amazing things just happen to be in a spot now that we call New Jersey, that we call Mantua Township. And, you know, I think you can never really look at a place and think that there's nothing extraordinary about it because I know as a geologist that something amazing happened there. I might not know what it is, but I'm sure that something did. I'm sure it was amazing, and that happens everywhere.

ZOMORODI: Saleem, how did spending time with Ken change your perspective of being a visitor to places?

RESHAMWALA: Yeah. You know, how we perceive a place outside of the exact moment we're in it - right? - is completely dependent on when we're thinking about that place. So where I'm standing now - right now I'm in a closet next to a chicken coop. And when I think, what's happening around me? It's like, oh, there's some chickens moving. This is a place where I record interviews and reach out and feed chickens a few feet away. But, like, that's a pretty arbitrary time in which to think about that place. That might be the place where a gigantic dinosaur battled with an epic other dinosaur, and that might be, at least visually, the coolest thing that ever happened. And we don't even know about it. So I have no idea what things have appeared or disappeared in the space where I am now.

There's this book by this Italian physicist, Carlo Rovelli, and he talks about how, as a physicist, which is kind of similar to a paleontologist as far as scale of time, it's more useful to think of objects as events. So a rock just, like, flashed into existence if you look at time on a large enough scale. And so we think of a kiss between two people not as an object but as an event. It just happened, and then it didn't happen. It was there, and then it wasn't there. But if you think on the right time scale, a rock is like a kiss; it just appears, and it disappears. In thinking of the map of the globe, you know, we think in X and Y coordinates, but if you think of adding a coordinate for time, if you think, like, not just where you are but also when you're thinking about, that just shifts everything.

ZOMORODI: A rock is like a kiss, depending on your time frame. I think that one's going to stick with me for a while. I like that a lot.


ZOMORODI: Saleem, thank you so much for taking us on this trip from hip-hop in Lima to film and afrobubblegum in Nairobi to paleontology in Mantua Township, N.J. I really enjoyed this.


ZOMORODI: Thank you for listening to the show this week with Saleem Reshamwala of the podcast "Far Flung." "Far Flung" is part of the TED Audio Collective. And we want to thank the whole "Far Flung" team for helping make our episode this week happen. You can hear Season 1 of "Far Flung" wherever you get your podcasts, and the show will be back next year with all new episodes.

This episode was produced by Diba Mohtasham and Fiona Geiran. And it was edited by James Delahoussaye. Our TED Radio production staff also includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Matthew Cloutier, and our audio engineer is Daniel Shukhin. Our intern is Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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