Interview with uniterre.fr

Tumbledown house in Bosnia and Herzegovina What pushed you to travel as a freelance journalist?

I have been living in Egypt with my family for a year back in 1979/80, so traveling was a part of my life from very early on. I was involved with some type of journalism ever since I was 12.

After doing my A-levels, I was offered a job at a regional radio station here in Switzerland. There, I also took care of the weekly travel show; so I also developped a professional interest for travels and destinations.
In between jobs and before starting to study international relations here at the Graduate

Institute of International Studies in Geneva  (Institut de Hautes Etudes Internationales), I decided to set off for longer periods of time, usually three month in one place or region.

Initially, I didn’t have the idea to actually combine travelling and journalism.
Then I inquired with some newspapers and magazines, and since I was already involved in journalism, they liked the idea to publish something about areas where they are never invited to. So gradually the idea became reality: Traveling to less-known regions with few travelers and travel journalists around, and actually paying for the trip afterwards with hopefully lively reports and (also hopefully) good pictures.

So that’s how I started to go to places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cambodia, and Zambia.
But I have to emphasize that the main thing is not the report, but the trip. Even if I couldn’t publish anything, I would still travel. For me traveling to less developed or otherwise special places is a part of life that I would never give away. The fact that I can share it with others makes it even more worthwhile.

You seem particularly appealed by African, Asian and East European countries. Why those countries? Was it a personal choice or a random one?

Part of both. When I choose a destination, there are of course reasons of money and practicability that I have to take into account. But the main thing is that I would like to discover places less spoiled by tar roads and TV than others. My experience is that the worse the access, the more fresh and natural people (and nature) are.

To sit on a bamboo toilet in the tropical forest of Laos where the pigs are waiting to recycle your biological waste; to meet the Lozi people who clap their hands to great each other in Western Zambia; to talk to a fighter pilot of the former South Vietnamese Army; to be in a Buddhist monestary in Cambodia; or to sleep in a tent out in the wilderness of Botswana where you hear the Lions roaming at night…

Those are all wonderful, unique, undescribable experiences that are very different to have in places where Visa cards and air condition busses are already common.

So part of it is certainly a choice, a choice also, unfortunately, to go to these places before they are permanently destroyed by the arrival of the US $, the Euro, and the Yen.

Another part of it was “coincidence”, as they call it. I was never interested in the Mekong region (the former French Indochina) before my father started to work for the Swiss government as director of a develoipment program in Ho Chi Minh City. I quickly became fond of this fast-changing region, and I will always return to it to follow developments.

That may be another constant throughout the very different places I’ve been to: they are all changing.

I went through all of Eastern Europe just after it decided to use its new freedom to go for a market economy and a representative government. There was still enthousiasm in the air.

One year after the first democratic elections in South Africa, Sandra and me set foot on that wonderful country. Then, there was a lot of talk of the “New South Africa”, something we rarely heard two years later..

Cambodia

In Asia, Vietnam is on its way to become another Asian tiger with its 80 million inhabitants, Laos was almost completely closed to the outside world until 1989, and Cambodia went through a lot of troubles during my two visits there (1997, 1998) and is more stable now than at any time since 1970.

The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have seen war and destruction in Europe, and now find it harder to reconciliate than most.

To see these changes at close hand, to talk directly to the people, is a memorable experience.
At the same time it makes me sad to see how materialism is reaching the last ends of this world.

 Scuba diving in Lake Malawi After such outstanding travelling experiences, what do you think you’ve learned?

The most important things are those that I have learned about myself.

If you talk to a crying elderly man who has lost everything except his life in the war in Bosnia, if you are in an empty pharmacy in Zambia, or in a poor village in Mozambique, you put your own little problems in perspective.

I have learned how I react under extreme circumstances such as gunfire, disease, and being confronted to poverty. I also learned to enjoy moments.

And this may sound strange to some readers,but I have also become much more spiritual.

“God created a wonderful paradise right here on Earth”, I wrote in my diary when I sat alone at a huge waterfall in Bou Sra, Cambodia, in the middle of the jungle.

The second thing that I’ve learned is about others. The two most important lessons are probably: We are all different; and we are all the same.
While singing Karaoke with a generator-powered juke box, a Cambodian boy showed me that he was much happier than me despite his 30$/month salary and his much increased likelyhood to die of malaria.

In Africa, there is never need for a special occasion (or one is invented fast) to sing and to dance, and even in poverty-striven Mozambique, people can give you a more natural smile than they do in France and Switzerland.
Other than the many discussions I have had with locals, I also enjoyed meeting other (strange/interesting) travelers at the (strange/interesting) places I went to.

The third thing that I have learned are just the “facts”, the “sightseeings” – which are nice, but become ever less important for me.
Where there is nothing to see and nothing to do, that’s where I have seen and experienced most.

Which one of the countries you have visited it’s been the most significant for you and why?

That’s the most frequent question I have to answer and also the most difficult. People normally push me for an answer, and the names of the countries vary according to my mood and what comes to my mind. Right now, I probably have to answer: Cambodia.

When I first went there in 1997, it was still very dangerous to travel outside Phnom Penh, Siem Reap/Angkor, and Kompong Som/Sihanoukville.

I witnessed the first pre-coup fighting before the coup in 1997
and felt that I had to return the year after. Then, I had the chance to work as an international election observer, which made my three-month stay (just in Cambodia) even more interesting.

Trekking through the cambodian forest

After the elections, I traveled to a lot of provinces where guide books were only in the making. Imagine taking an airplane to a place called Mondulkiri somewhere in the forest where not even the provincial capital has electricity and you just don’t know what to expect.

You step out of the plane onto the dirt road and wonder if there is a place to stay. You don’t order a specific type of food, you just order “food” there, because all depends what’s in the market today. You hire an elephant and treck through the forest. After the elephant has walked through two or three rivers, the guide asks you to give a sacrifice for the spirits of the jungle. Of course you also get this in Thailand, but here it’s real.

The special thing about my “90 Days in Cambodia” was probably that I went to many places which have only become accessible a very short time before I went there. That even includes the Khmer Rouge semi-autonomous province of Pailin, where you can play roulette with former Communist guerillas who have AK 47s on their backs.

Today, everything is already written down and more travelers are streaming into Cambodia. But for me, it had a bit of an exploration – both outside and inside me.

Who’s the most amazing person you have met ever since you’re travelling?

There were hundreds, including the personal secretary of Pol Pot and the Prime Minister of Barotseland (Western Zambia), but two people stand out:

One is a man I have met in the most distant corner of Cambodia. He was imprisoned by the Vietnamese-friendly regime that had toppled the Khmer Rouge. For eight years, he suffered from malnutrition and maltreatment on a daily basis. In general, there is a lot of xenophobia in Cambodia against the Vietnamese.

This man probably had even more reason to be xenophobic because of his prison experience. But after this humilation, he decided to dedicate his work to human rights.

He now works in a distant province – away from his family, which he sees very rarely – to educate people about their rights, independently of their nationalty. An American human rights organization pays his 150$/month salary.

Asked if he never thought of revenge against the Vietnamese, he said no, that is the past, we have to let it go. If it has something to do with him being Buddhist, I don’t know. And I don’t care.
Because this man is a hero for me no matter what his religion is. He inspired me and brought tears in my eyes when he described his sufferings.

With a bunch of friends in Vietnam

Another person I have met will stay in my mind because he drove the only other car up to the Livingstonia Mission in Malawi, at 2000 m altitude.
His Landrover was equipped like a car on an expedition.

Our VW Beetle from 1974 followed him on the dangerous curves up to the mission. In the evening, I asked the 50-year old British if he was a tourist. He was first reluctant to give an answer and reflected for a few seconds about the question. “I am definately not a tourist”, he said, “I would say, I live in this landrover”.

He has been traveling for the last five or six years all over Africa, without getting once malaria and without getting once killed in Algeria’s or Liberia’s civil wars. The money keeps flowing from the 50% of his company in Britain; his son owns the other 50%…

He wanted to get away from it all, and if you think that I have a lot of experience, think again, this guy has more true exciting stories to tell you than any other person I have met. At the same time, he didn’t get “backpackedized” but remained a “normal”, clean, friendly human being.

Children in Johannesburg
Which is your best and worst experience while travelling?

This shows why I wanted to become a journalist: It’s much easier to pose questions than to answer them 🙂
So here I go, with the same reservations that I’ve made above.

Best experience: Driving a VW Beetle through the potholes and sands of Africa.
Being observed by hundrets of children and adults everywhere you pass.
Digging the sand out and overtaking a Landrover stuck in the sand.
Listening to Kenny Rodgers “The Gambler” over and over again.

Talking to a car that you become to love because it takes you 11’598 km through Southern Africa.

Worst experience
: Talking to war veterans in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Almost every man who was not a refugee is one. I got very tired of these hero’s stories everyone likes to tell.
What is a hero’s story for one person is a horror story for another.
Guess what: Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the few places in the Western world where women don’t like men with uniform.
What kind of advice would you give to anyone wishing to make his/her way to a rather politically unstable country?

First of all, if you would like to go for the thrill of danger, go somewhere else. The US has a lot of theme parks. A bullet in your head is extremely bad for your health.
I met a German traveler who went with his motorbike through Zaire in November 1996, when government and rebel troups were approaching from both sides. He already knew about the danger when he entered the country, and was only saved through an air evacuation – and with a lot of luck.

So my first advice is: Don’t try to be “cool” or a hero. An American tourist who had just arrived in Phnom Penh was stunned about all the military presence on the streets – he has not heard about the elections…

Second advice: Don’t go if you don’t know anything about it. Read a lot of historical, political, and cultural books about the place. Follow the news. Go through reliable internet sources and directly write to people inside the country to ask them about the current situation.

And my third advice is to keep your eyes open when you are there and follow the advice of other foreigners. Last, but not least: There are many misconceptions about security. First, relatively safe places are considered unsafe just because of their name, i.e. Mozambique; and vice-versa, i.e. parts of the United States of America. Secondly, both in “safe” and “unsafe” countries, the real dangers are often ignored.
The event leading to your death in a developing country is most likely a traffic accident or an HIV infection, not a landmine or bad food.
..

  At a shooting range in Cambodia
What are you planning to do next year once you get your degree on International Relations?

I am open for any offer 🙂
Responsible journalism is what I am trying to get ready for (and trying to do, as far as possible), for example as a foreign correspondent or a freelance writer for a major organization.


But I said at a certain point in my life that I would like to be a positive factor for other people’s lives.

Journalism has some limits when it comes to ethic considerations. I have been very fortunate in my life so far, even no I went through a lot of crisis.

The fact of the matter remains that I am part of the priviledged minority of this planet. So development programs or NGO work would be another option.
But I will see what destiny (God?) has in mind for me. So far, I was guided in my choices by my inner voice.

I am convinced that a person with good will will approach me at the right time.

What I hope is that whatever I will do has a real meaning for other people and me, and that I will be able to live out my creativity.

A little boy in Mostar
You have mentioned before the spiritual aspect of your travels. Do you have something like a motto, a conclusion?

Memento mori – it’s a latin expression difficult to translate. Consider death, see everything in the light of death.
For me it also means: See everything you do from the point of view of your last minute. Some things become more important, others less.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s