While reminiscing about past travels I thought a lot about the people I’ve met, animals I was fortunate enough to have seen in person and experiences I made. It made me realise that, the world is not a big, scary place, but a big place with all sorts of miraculous beauty, hiding behind our own anxiety and preconceptions we learned through media or general assumptions by the majority of people.
I figured, that some of my travel experiences played an important part in what I am today. It influenced me in so many ways, that it is difficult to describe them all. But I tried to put words to my thoughts and tell you about some of my most important travel experiences, that changed my perspective on life.
Visiting critically endangered Gorillas in Central African Rainforests
Kongo, Uganda and Rwanda are the only three places in the world, where you are able to visit these majestic creatures. There are about 800 of them left, which is a shockingly small number. It can be quite a process to obtain the obligatory permit, but after you provide all necessary documents and pay 500 USD, you get it quickly.
At first, I thought this might be an insane rip off and those high amounts are only used to operate a well functioning business. But, after I spend one hour with a family of about 10 gorillas in the thick, lush and wet rainforest in southern Uganda I can honestly say, that I didn’t care anymore about the money and the 500 USD were worth every single penny.
Despite looking gigantic and scary, gorillas are actually quite fragile. Their environment narrowed down dreadful, due to constant deconstruction of forests. Plus, poachers always have an eye on gorillas as well. Furthermore, several thousands of gorillas have died due to the ebola virus. Therefore the gorillas are enlisted as critically endangered.
I remember sitting in the wet grass, wearing three packs of thick socks to protect myself from red ants, and just staring quietly. In complete awe. You are told, that nobody should move any closer than 7 meters to the gorillas, but it happened more than once, that they were literally in touching distance.
You have to stay calm, mustn’t make any sudden movements and don’t dare to touch them. Watching the baby gorillas fool around, the Blackbacks strolling peacefully besides them and the leader, the majestic silverback, looking after them, made me realise, that these animals are a bunch of only a few left in this world and we should do everything in our power to make sure they won’t extinct.
I can vividly see this incredible creatures in front of me to this day and I am extremely grateful to have seen them with my own eyes. I hope, that I will take my kids one day (only when they are old enough of course) to this rainforest and let them experience, how amazing it is to see, wildlife in their natural habitat.
It also made me think about all the other critically endangered animals. There are a few, that could be extinct in the next few years, like the white rhino in Southern Africa. It would be an incredible loss. While there is little to nothing I can do for now than raise a bit of awareness, I know this trip to the Mountain Gorillas opened my eyes and made me appreciate how beautiful and unique our planet is. I truly hope many more eyes will be opened.
You can find more pictures here.
During my quest to travel to all countries in the world I have visited and will visit some of world’s most notorious countries and places that had civil wars in the past, from whom they are still recovering and places that will always be conceived as dangerous. In my opinion we believe this, because we are told that way. It might be true for one or another, but I learned, it doesn’t necessary need to be a risky or dangerous country to go and there is a good chance, that you will love visiting places only few dare to go.
My trip to Palestine and my recent overland trip from Ethiopia to Somaliland/Somalia were the trips I was kind of nervous about. Somalia has had an ongoing civil war for the last decades and there are no signs it will get any better soon. The northern part of Somalia, Somaliland, is relatively safe though. They have their own currency, army & government, but are not recognised by the UN or any other state. Therefore it is still regarded as Somalia.
The Palestine conflict is more complicated and I won’t start discuss this issue or my opinion right here. But it is a very fragile place, where nobody would go for usual sightseeing. I met some of the friendliest people there and I cherish my trip to Palestine a lot.
I had some serious thoughts about going there as well. All of the worries and negative thoughts faded away though while being there. Locals would cross the streets just to say to hi to us, drivers would stop their cars just to wave at us and we didn’t see other tourists while strolling around the city. The same situation occurred in Somalia even stronger. It had an awesome explorer kind of feeling and I am very happy we made the effort to take the overland route there, realising it may not be a touristy country you’d go for a vacation, but an interesting place with friendly people, that suffer under their bad international reputation.
In the future if I plan trips to unstable or risky countries, I’ll always do my homework and make sure I don’t put my travel companions or me in any danger, but I will question common media reports and misconceptions, because I don’t want to lose out on an amazing experience. I won’t question my common sense though and will always trust my gut.
In 2011 I moved temporarily to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to work with an incredible organization called PIO (People Improvement Organisation). I found them on the internet and learned about Phymean Noun, the founder. She is an amazing, ambitious woman, who has changed the lives of thousands of children in Cambodia. Through PIO a lot of slum schools were built in rural and urban Phnom Penh to provide basic education and vocational training to under privileged kids. She was honoured in the CNN Heroes foundation.
The slum school I volunteered in is located in the outskirts of Phnom Penh. At first it took me forever to find the school, but found it eventually in a tiny, dirty side street. The kids were extremely eager to learn and gather as much informations as possible. I was amazed and didn’t expect that. It was a bit difficult to communicate though, because their english knowledge was very limited. The few hours I spend with them every day were filled with reading, learning vocabularies and basic grammar, like past tense, present tense etc. I remember spending hours on the internet in the afternoon searching for various teaching material, because I wasn’t provided with anything.
The school itself was more or less a shelter with very old wooden benches and a board to write on. Most kids didn’t even have a pen or paper to write on. This was the moment I realised, I probably won’t have an huge impact on their lives, since I was only here for half a year and it needs years of hard work and absolute commitment to create a space, where kids are able to receive an education. Nonetheless, I tried my best, showed the kids a good time and I even learned a bit of Khmer language to communicate with them.
The huge impact I hoped I would have on the kids, had the kids on me. Their strive, eagerness and willingness to learn amazes to this day and it is something I learned from them to use in my life. I was even more astonished, when I learned about ‘Choice Cambodia’, an organization founded by some expats gone locals guys. They provide poor farmers with basic necessities, food and supplies. They founded small schools in the middle of nowhere as well, to give all the farmers kids a possibility to receive education. We’ve went to rural Cambodia and have seen the incredible work they do.
I’m forever grateful for my time in Phnom Penh and learned that if you have an idea or an urge to do something, just start and do it. You can make an impact. Phymean Noun and the Choice guys started with an idea and just went to work. Now they provide thousands of people with hope for a future. Wow.
One of my biggest beliefs is ‘Real life experiences are more important than material possessions’. I don’t care about stuff I have, because it is about the things you see, the people you meet and the moments that take your breath away. That’s the stuff your life is built-on.
I’m always eager to hear about travel experiences, that changed your perspective on life. Let me know in the comments.