Thursday, October 23, 2014
A month in the capital of sand
From an aesthetics point of view, sincerely speaking, Khartoum is not the most attractive city in the world. In terms of architecture it is a city built half-way, in fact there is no single building that seems to be fully finished. The skyline reveals a mass of buildings with brick walls without finishes, unfinished concrete structures, walls without paint and rundown public buildings among hundreds of sharp minarets from the many mosques in town. The exceptions are, like it happens in many countries that are run by tyrants stuck in power, the monumental buildings of the military, the police, the government houses, embassy and a hotel here and there. In urban planning terms, the city is also definitely incomplete. Beyond the main paved arteries, it is all streets of sand and sidewalks are absent even right downtown.
Monday, September 22, 2014
Much more than the idyllic images of silhouettes of camel caravans walking at a slow pace along the undulating golden dunes at sunset, the Sahara is for many, the place to come to earn a living. In this vast ocean of sand, the abrasive heat, the harshness of the wind and the cruelty of the sun make it unthinkable that a place to work can be possibly found here. However, since the dawn of time, the Sahara has provided humanity with the metal it yearns for the most: gold. That golden glow that, from ancient Egypt to the China of the 21st century has blinded the world, leading millions of people to move in search of it wherever it may be found.
Wednesday, September 10, 2014
I perceived it from the very beginning in Wadi Halfa, while walking along its streets of sand in that very hot Saharan night. I looked around me and the hundreds of merchants that filled the whole place with life, coming and going in their immaculate gallabiyas, and they all seemed like brothers to me, acquaintances at least. Such a pleasant atmosphere, so familiar if you will, was hard to believe for a bordering town. It was only the beginning of two months of living every day with what probably is, (together with Tibetans of course!) the most wonderful people I have ever met.
Sunday, August 31, 2014
Thursday, August 28, 2014
A few months ago I was interviewed by Outdoor Exploration 户外探险 magazine, one of the biggest adventure magazines in China. The interview was finally published in their last edition and it deals with the first stage of this trip along 10 countries and 17.000 km across Asia. It also inquires about the reasons that lead me to choose the bicycle as means of transport to travel documenting the world. All photos have been taken by me. What it truly came as a surprise is that we would be in the front page and the interview would be the central article around which the whole edition revolves. A great and happy surprise! I am aware that maybe very few or none of the ones who visit this blog speak Chinese, but here are all the pages of the article.
Friday, July 18, 2014
Friday, July 11, 2014
After the epic journey across Mongolia from last year, my memories of the magnificent Gobi desert remained very present inside me. There, we spent days that were as hard as unforgettable. I left with images, sounds (or complete lack there of) and sensations that were recorded in my mind forever. Sublime moments that make the mere experience transcend and stick it into one's body. The kind of moments that I live for. It is for this reason that during the days we spent in Cairo I was filled with so much enthusiasm for the upcoming ride across the most famous of all deserts, the Sahara. Enthusiasm and nervousness, not only because the very idea of cycling across it intimidates, but also for being the way of immersion into this whole new continent, completely unknown to me until now. Far from scaring me though, this is the elixir that feeds my spirit, and perhaps very few things I enjoy as much as feeling that itching inside the guts that the uncertainty for the unknown generates.
Between traveling, working and living, I have spent little over 8 years of my life in Asia. Exploring and discovering this continent had always been my life's dream for as long as I can remember. After several years of living there and feeling it already like “my place” in the world, I can't still help but feeling a strong curiosity as to how I ended up being born in the exact opposite corner of the planet in such a different culture when at the same time I feel so strangely connected to another one. I guess they are the existential games of karma playing on us. The fact is that when you feel like fish swimming in the water, it ain't so easy to just jump to another pond. However, my thirst for adventure is insatiable and it is already telling me that it is time to give Africa the long journey it deserves, for it is the only continent where I have never ever been before. It is for this very reason that I finally decided to cut the umbilical cord and once and for all take the leap out of Asia. For months in advance I have been evaluating different alternatives to reach the continent exclusively by bicycle but the social situation in three key countries, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen has deteriorated so much that it is virtually impossible to reach the north of the continent without flying. Therefore, we had no other choice than flying and from Delhi we went straight to Cairo.
This is a separate post and it is not related to this trip. It has been inspired by a comment made by one reader and it seeks to explain my position on tourism, since I am fully aware that many of the comments I write ranting about it might be misunderstood and taken the wrong way.
There are several ways of traveling around the world. From the the most ephemeral, like a quick journey somewhere to visit only major tourist attractions, to the longest and most profound that leads to a high degree of penetration in a different culture. While they are all valid ways of traveling there is only one that is the best one, and that is the one that fits one's personal goals. Not everybody has to enjoy visiting the Statue of Liberty or spending days walking around the Louvre. Likewise, not everybody has to be willing to jump on a fully loaded bicycle and set off to ride across a desert or walk the world at 20 km a day. However, regardless of the way we choose to travel, I believe that we all have an important responsibility at the time of visiting a foreign country. Just like when we go for a visit to someone else's house and we generally adapt to its codes even putting them above our own, when we visit a foreign culture we should do something similar.
Along 18 years of traveling and 54 countries (and counting...) behind me, I have seen over and over again the negative effects that a determined type of tourists have on the local cultures. For many people, it might seem that traveling (or the very fact of being able to simply do it) is a mere symbol of social and/or financial status. There is neither profound interest whatsoever in what it is going to be seen nor there is knowledge of any kind about it, let alone interest of any kind in having a certain degree of genuine exchange with the local people. It is a very shallow type of tourist. It is the one that visits a country in order to be able to say that he/she has been there, or even worse, to say that just because he was there or saw some thing he is entitled to say that he knows that country. This type of tourist can be of any kind. It can be a “package tour” tourist, it can be a backpacker, it can be a cyclist. It is the tourist that shows no care, no commitment. They don't travel for the passion to learn, to discover, to enrich themselves from the experience but for the passion to show off and many times to take advantage of things that aren't available to them in their own countries. These are the kind of tourists that are likely to be found always along the famous tourist circuits and main landmarks of a country and never outside them, since it is highly unlikely that they will ever even think of coming out of them. Now, none of this would actually be a problem if it did not affect the local culture, but ignorance and negligence DO affect it and they have a huge impact in the behaviour of local people and their traditions. This is the kind of tourism to which I direct my rants.
It is the guy that locks himself inside a five stars resort in the third world and treats all the personnel like slaves. It is the guy that jumps on a luxurious bus to get to the Taj Mahal so he doesn't have to bump into the “poor” people on the way because he is ultimately scared of them. It is the guy that pays whatever ridiculous amount of money he is asked in countries where haggling is an intrinsic part of every day life in business. It is the rich “backpacker” of the 21st century that travels to South East Asia deluding himself into thinking he is an adventurer but he only goes there because it is much cheaper to get drunk and high every single day in some “full moon party” than in his home country. It is the kind of tourist that doesn't really care about anything, it is the one that uses money to pay others to sort out any inconvenience instead of working it out for himself. All this kind of behaviours have a tremendous impact in local traditions, they erode it and pervert it, especially in the third world. The examples I can give are more than I am even able to remember because sadly, I have see way too many, but I am going to cite a few ones:
The case of Kawah Ijen volcano. For those who don't know what this is, you can read this article I posted here last year. The crater of this active volcano itself is nothing short of spectacular. However, unlike mostly every other volcano in Indonesia, this one is first and foremost a working place for hundreds of people, who by the way, work in some of the most inhumane conditions. Unfortunately for them, it has become a major tourist destination in the country and thousands of tourists visit it every year. When I was there, I spotted a group of European tourists, mostly Swiss and French, visibly rich and old tourists. They were having themselves a ball taking photos of themselves (and stupidly risking their own lives) standing on the edge of the crater and blatantly standing on the way of the miners who were reaching the top of the crater exhausted, wearing flip-flops, carrying up to 90 kg of sulphur on their shoulders. I had to stand there in awe and disgust to see them patiently asking these assholes to stand out of their way so they could continue their work. Many times they even had to ask them more than twice and the tourists would reluctantly move mumbling words of disgust in French, as if they were the ones being disturbed.
The children. The so-called begging industry is a huge problem in countries like India. In the three opportunities I have been there, I have seen over and over again how tourists arrive in their tour buses to some famous places where they get off and immediately find themselves surrounded by swarms of kids who beg for their money. They proudly respond giving them money, pencils or whatever they have so they can make themselves feel like good Samaritans. In India, like in many other countries where this happens, I have talked about this issue with local people and ALL of them seem to agree that giving money to street children only increases the problem. It does not only contribute to keep children on the streets (many of them are sent by their own parents or they are exploited by local mafias) but it encourages many others to arrive every day to stay. For this kind of tourist it is way much easier and cheaper to throw some coins to a kid, feeling a philanthropist in doing so, telling his friends about it, instead of going back home, do some proper research about the local organizations who do work to take hundreds of these kids out of the streets every day, and donate them the money that they need urgently in order to keep doing it. There are many of them, but to collaborate with them, one has to be truly kind, from the heart.
Business. In most corners of the Asian continent, haggling is pretty much part of everybody's every day life. The business owner usually asks for a price that is much higher than what is fair, thus customers necessarily haggle it down until it is fair for both parties. You might like this way of doing business or not but it is what it is like it or not. It's somehow like a game. In places affected by mass tourism, tourists either don't know this aspect of a culture or even worse they simply ignore it and they just pay whatever they are asked (after all, whatever they pay in Thailand at an outrageous price will still be much cheaper than in their homeland). The problem is that this creates inflation in local communities and distorts the traditional values. The business men, sooner or later succumb to greed and simply stop playing the “game” of haggling. They stop lowering their inflated prices. Why would they do it after all if he knows that some stupid tourist will eventually show up and pay 10 times the regular price without complaining. In this way, local people connected to tourism lose their own values, they become more aggressive, they forget kindness and they end up like money hunting vultures. Dozens of places in South East Asia have suffered this destiny since the tourism boom there began. Mobs of taxis, rickshaws, tuk tuks, street sellers, hotel owners, shit guest houses, all setting insane prices that would never go down. The list goes on and on and on. People that want nothing but getting as much money as they can. Even if one chooses not to pay it doesn't matter because they know very well that another one will come next and will pay it anyway. Some of these people even stop selling their stuff or services to their own people because it isn't convenient for them anymore.
The way of dressing. The uttermost disregard that some tourists show for the local codes and traditions is sometimes extremely distressing. Funnily enough it happens more often with women than with men (but only perhaps because the latter enjoy relatively more “freedom” in conservative countries). Time and time again I have come across women wearing tang tops and shorts that easily let underwear be seen (if they actually even wear some) in countries that have strict conservative codes of dressing and strong reservations about exposing some areas of the body. This can be seen everywhere in for examples the temples of India, Nepal, Thailand, Laos, etc or the mosques of Egypt, Turkey, Indonesia and so many other places. One might agree or not with such restrictions, but what one cannot do is to blatantly ignore them expecting to impose one's own values when, to begin with, one is in the position of a guest as soon as leaving one's own country. This is not only a problem of absolute disrespect for the local people and their traditions but in many cases, a good example would be India among others, means putting oneself in situations of great danger.
Photography. As a photographer, this one touches me personally. Many tribal regions that have turned into tourist destinations, the constant flux of masses of people coming and going have made that the local people take photography as a business. In any small town or village disconnected from the tourist circuits, most of the time people feel grateful and honored for someone wanting to have their photo taken. They are very happy to pose and truly enjoy an experience that is so foreign to them, especially these days of the digital age, that they take it with a lot of fun. On the other hand, when it comes to villages that are regularly hit by tourists, villagers demand for money for having their photo taken, many times even aggressively. If there's no money, there's no photo, only contempt. There are plenty of cases of locals who will actually wear a costume to pass as tribal people in order to profit from it. This doesn't happen out of thin air, but from the constant irresponsible behavior of tourists (and aspiring photographers with little principles) that in order to have a photo to show later in some online gallery, they agree to give money in exchange of a photo. It only takes a handful of people doing this for a while to distort the traditions of a whole village and found greed in places where otherwise they wouldn't know of it.
I could go on and on, because the list is virtually infinite and it keeps growing day by day in these days of cheap traveling. Not for nothing, many organizations already consider mass tourism as another form of pollution. From an individual standpoint, my path as a traveler diverts more and more from famous tourist circuits and attractions every day, because in them I find it increasingly difficult if not impossible sometimes, to find either genuine local people who are willing to truly have an exchange with me that doesn't involve money or other travelers who are committed to travel responsibly and in search of a truly enriching and self-fulfilling experience. Above all, I believe that it is essential to try to reduce the impact that we have in local cultures, respecting them, informing us beforehand, moving around respectfully. With that as a base, everything is valid.
Finally, when it comes to my own aims, a tourist attraction though interesting, be it a museum, a monument, a beach, a building,etc doesn't even reflect a fraction of what a country truly has to offer. In them, you don't get to know a country, you just get to know the country's landmarks which is a totally different thing. I am personally interested in knowing the countries from the inside, their people, their idiosyncrasies, their different ways of conceiving existence and dealing with it. In my case, the bicycle is the mean of transport that allows me to discover the world in this very profound way. It is my way of traveling and it is the best because it is the one that fits perfectly for myself and my goals when I'm on the road. It doesn't have to be the ultimate reality for everybody. It certainly isn't it, luckily! When it comes to others, I really hope they enjoy as they wish however they choose to travel, as long as they take respect and a minimum knowledge as a base and always keep in mind to minimize their possible impact when visiting foreign cultures.
It is time for visits once again and this time we have received my mom. As I already mentioned before with the visit of my dad, our parents are to a great degree responsible of who we are, and my mom is as responsible as my dad for the adventurer that I have inside and for having given me the wings that lead me to believe that there are no limits at the time of letting yourself take the leap and fly. Needless to say, she didn't doubt for a second when I asked her to come and visit us in India. So for two weeks we left our bicycles with our lovely Indian family to temporarily travel again using public transport. For me, it meant visiting for the second time some of the places that I had already been to back in 2001, with the caveat that this time having much more experience and a much richer perspective, especially as a photographer, I have been able to experience this trip in a different way. On the other hand, it meant having fun walking my mom through the huge cultural shock that involves every first visit to India, and making her travel on my low budget, teaching her how to eat with her hands Indian-style in the popular eateries and have her travel in the famous 2nd Class Sleeper of Indian trains. Some might tell me: “How can you do all that to your own mother???” to which I proudly reply: “well, it just that my mom is like a 4x4, she can do anything”.
This is going to be more of a visual walk with updated personnal comments and appreciations, since there is not much more that haven't written before about the following places of India. (sorry my fellow English readers, as all of what I have written before is only in Spanish)
The old side of Delhi
Monday, May 19, 2014
Sunday, May 18, 2014
Leaving the Himalayas for the lowlands of the Terai was the beginning of the immersion in the Nepalese rural life. Away from the hordes of tourists that come and go to the high Himalayas, Pokhara, Kathmandu and the eastern Terai, you have this small country pretty much for yourself. Traveling through simple villages of friendly and modest people, not obsessed with the money that supposedly all foreigners have was a true relief.