As it turned out, two of the books I bought were going to influence my life tremendously. One, called Bøj dig for Shiva (’Bow to Shiva’), is written by a Dane, Sten Kjærulff Nielsen, who describes a long journey he made 1960-1961 to the Middle East, India, and Southeast Asia. Nielsen’s trip was very cheap indeed, as he hitch-hiked most of the way, living as simple as possible. In his foreword, the following passage appealed very much to me: ”If you don’t ask anything of your life, but keep to the bottom, you’ll always manage, and be happy, too. Not so many people are happy. The Indians have something they call ’the sacred indifference’: What is all this nonsense to me. It’s just Maya, just bluff and smoke. Future career, your place in The Machine, and all that.”
After giving up studying anthropology – where I had the impression that foreign peoples were made into simple study objects – I felt exactly like Nielsen. Instead of grouping peoples into academic systems of society and kinship, or describing their way of life in a dry and scientific form, I would much rather go out there to meet them at their own level, without any thoughts of a future academic career, or of publishing peer-reviewed papers.
The other book, which inspired me a great deal, was The Marsh Arabs, by British explorer Wilfred Thesiger. In this book, he describes a huge marsh area in southern Iraq, between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. In these marshes lived the Madan, a people of mixed heritage, their way of life completely adapted to the wet habitat. They moved about in canoes, built their reed houses on islets, and made a living by hunting and fishing, growing rice, and raising water buffaloes. Thesiger’s stay in Iraq ended abruptly in 1958, when a revolution took place in the country. The Iraqi royal family was murdered, and all British citizens were told to leave immediately. Iraq was declared a socialist republic, its new government being on friendly terms with the Soviet Union. After a number of chaotic years, Iraq became a relatively stable and safe place, where tourists were, if not exactly made welcome, then at least accepted.
I felt that here was an area within my economic possibilities. What if I found a fellow traveller, and we bought a second-hand car, maybe we could drive to Iraq? However, before this could take place, I had to do 16 months of civil work for the government (instead of military service). In a work camp I met Arne Koch Christoffersen, who, like me, was interested in nature, and – very coveniently – was a mechanic by profession. Together, we made plans for our trip. In 1972, we bought a second-hand Volkswagen van, constructed sleeping berths in the back, bought a gas stove, put clothes and several books into a few old wooden beer crates – and off we went. We were very young and very inexperienced travellers, ignorant of red tape. Just before leaving, we learned that we would need a carnet de passage – a document which ensures that when you bring a foreign car into a country you also export it again, unless you want to pay import duty.
This trip was the beginning of a nomadic life for me, which has lasted ever since. Virtually every year since then, I have made a longer journey to some remote part of the world – by car, bus, train, or plane, by oxcart or on camel, on foot or hitch-hiking. I made money for the trips by working on and off and by writing articles for magazines about my travels. For many years, I worked as a bird watcher and botanist in different Danish scientific nature reserves. In 1981, I joined a Danish picture agency, Biofoto, through which I sold a lot of photographs during the next twenty years. In 1985, in Indonesia, I met another travelling Dane, Søren Lauridsen, and since 1991 we have written several travel guide books together for a Danish publishing agency.
Quite consciously, I have often gone to far-away places to meet tribal peoples, some of which have preserved a part of their traditional way of life, and have not yet been transformed into humble servants for the tourism industry – a transition that takes place these years with an alarming speed. My interest in nature has also often guided me to areas, where very few tourists come.
Especially during the first years, between 1972 and 1989, I hardly made any trip without experiencing one or several exceptional, strange, or even grotesque events – many of them caused by differences in the mentality of the Westerner, with his logical way of thinking and his need to explain everything, and of the Oriental or the African, who stoically accepts events that cannot be avoided or explained. My experiences with shamanism in Borneo and the Philippines show that nature religion still thrives in some areas and can perform healings, which we Westerners cannot understand or explain.
At first, many of the exceptional events on my trips often caused irritation or anger. But, in many cases, the strange thing happened that these events, after a shorter or longer period of time, turned into something comical, and – even more remarkable – they became some of the most important events on the whole trip, overshadowing the original purpose of it. Numerous times, my fellow travellers and I have discussed these events – causing us to have yet another hearty laughter.
Other events were not so funny. The episode with robbers in Pakistan shows that you can run into hostile people when you least expect it.
On this website, a number of episodes from my travels are presented. While reading them, you must bear in mind that many of the described areas have changed tremendously since then. The events in Iraq took place, before Saddam Hussein came into power in Baghdad and began his destruction of the marshland in southern Iraq. (It has now been partially restored). I was in Iran, before the ayatollas usurped Shah Muhammed Riza Pahlevi and his followers. Our trip through Turkey took place, before the Turkish air force bombed Kurdish villages, and the PKK as a retaliation placed bombs in tourist areas around Izmir. In Syria, a civil war, and later the IS (Islamic State) offensive, has made travel impossible for several years now.
The rainforest on Borneo now only covers a fraction of its former distribution, and the free way of life of the Dayaks as hunters and fishermen has vanished forever. For a long period of time, the civil war in Sri Lanka made travelling in the eastern and northern parts of the country a very risky affair. The Veddas have since long been engulfed by modern life, as their jungles are today full of dams and hydro-electric power plants, and numerous settlers have occupied their former land (see Travel episodes – Sri Lanka 1974: Among the Veddas, and Sri Lanka 1983: Jungle trip with Ranjan). In 1987, shortly after my trip to Tibet, Chinese authorities closed this land to individual travellers, and today there are still quite a few restrictions on travel there.
On the positive side, I would like to mention India and Nepal. The Hindu religion causes Indians and Nepalis to stay some of the most conservative peoples in the World, and, despite nuclear bomb tests in the Thar Desert, computer industry, and the insane traffic in the cities, much is still the same in these countries. In India I get tired and dusty, and I am irritated by foolish questions from students, who want to practice their English on me – but then I am overjoyed by a sunrise in the Himalaya, adding a pinkish glow to the snowy peaks; or a group of Hindu pilgrims, gathered in puja in a temple, dedicated to one of their numerous gods; or a herd of camels, peacefully chewing their cud on a misty morning in the desert of Rajasthan.
On the positive side is also Taiwan, where I have spent long periods in my later years. On this island, a colourful and unspoilt religion exists, a strange blend of Buddhism and Daoism, mixed with many elements from animism, which dates back to pre-Buddhist times. I am also very fond of the American Southwest, with its superb landscapes and an extremely rich wildlife.
In my later years, I have been much engaged in taking pictures of mountain flora, especially in the Himalaya, where more than 10,000 species of seed plants are found. The same issue has brought me to other mountains: The Alps, the Pyrenees, Norway, Kyrgyzstan, Taiwan, Chile, the Appalachians, and several areas in the Pacific States of America.
A suitable motto for me could be the last three lines of The Road Not Taken, by American poet Robert Frost:
In his book Zajagan, from 1935, Danish explorer Henning Haslund-Christensen describes, how a high lama tells his fortune by throwing three vertebrate bones on a piece of cloth, whereupon he predicts, ”Your road heads west like the life-giving sun. I see your tracks. A great hutuktu is awating you, and your meeting is the will of the gods. Now go, Zajagan is before you.” A young Mongolian informs him, ”Zajagan is great fortune – travel fortune.”
Since those days, the World has changed tremendously. But despite Modern Man’s effort to destroy himself through his insatiable greed, it is still possible to find remote and exotic places on the planet, which afford exciting challenges. I hereby wish my readers Zajagan!