|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.
| 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.
| 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..
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.
|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.
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.
| 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.
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.