Life has been good to me. I was born in Bogotá 50 years ago to a highly cultured, traditionalist family of Ashkenazi Jews (my mom is a Holocaust survivor) and grew up inside the bubble of our very small community. At the time, Colombia was still very parochial, underdeveloped, and starting to suffer from what has become now decades of guerrilla and mafia wars. Living on the edge made it easy to grow up aware of politics, rivalries of the Cold War, plenty of adrenaline, and strong identities.
Travel came natural because my maternal grandparents remained in Budapest, so while my peers in school would spend their summer holidays in Cartagena or Miami, we would enjoy two months behind the Iron Curtain and then a couple of weeks visiting a new country in Western Europe. Hungarian became my first foreign language (even before Hebrew and English), Red Army military parades were the norm and news coverage about the ongoing wars in Angola or Vietnam from Soviet lenses were equally as common as were those coming from Voice of America. It became easy to see the world in shades of gray and not in black and white. I enjoyed watching documentaries and reading National Geographic more so than watching or reading cartoons. I was a nerd with a critical eye.
Since I was four, I could recite the capitals of most countries and started ruining with markers all the maps in our family ́s Encyclopedia Britannica, drawing up roads already traveled or planning desired itineraries, and redrawing political maps to allow every country to have access to the ocean. By the time I turned 15 I had been to 15 countries and realized my pace was too slow to cover the world. That ́s when I started to step on the gas.
Travel was a passion for us all, so issues only arose when what was left for me to visit were rather “bizarre” destinations in Africa and Asia. (I know, very ironic when home is Colombia!). That ́s when the maternal instinct hit my mom, but deep down she knew it was a lost case. Now, even she enjoys joining us for a trip to the border of Kuwait and Iraq
or being in the crossfire along the Nagorno Karabakh-Azeri border.
My father was more conservative, considering places like NYC or Paris as ideal destinations. When I graduated High School with outstanding marks, he told me I could choose a destination for our holidays, think- ing perhaps I would opt for those cities. He went nuts when I told him back in 1986 that the chosen place would be South Africa and Zimbabwe. He acted his part for a while, but ultimately joined us and loved it.
There have been many “Aha! moments” of enlightenment in my travels: Enjoying alone the night skies in the deserts of Mauritania, talking to a former Sandinista rebel in Granada, or to a monk in Tibet about the origins of the world, or conversing with official museum guides in Minsk and Gagauzia, or with the frustrated mother of a young doctor in Cuba. There are then the visits to conflict zones like Abkhazia or Kosovo or enjoying the unexpected warmth at a Sudanese wed- ding party.
However, I would like to single out two trips. One for its lasting effect on my soul, and the other one for its impact on relations with the other side.
Back in 2010, I went solo across most countries in Eastern Europe, focusing on battle fields, concentration camps, tracing family roots and discovering related documents. There were city tours, long drives, border crossings, a visit to Chernobyl and Stalin ́s tunnels, and a lot of very intense interaction with locals. Months after returning I could still feel like riding on a magic carpet.
Now allow me to share a brief insight into the other trip. One of my hobbies is to visit places that relate to the two pillars that define my identity: Judaism and Colombia. With the former, I am inspired by the legendary Benjamin of Tudela who traveled to remote places and unique communities, visited his- toric sites and connected deeply with the people there. For me, those places have included Uganda, Siberia, Myanmar, Ethiopia, India and a myriad of shtetls across Europe. As a Colombian, I try to draw parallels with places like Cambodia, Rwanda or the Balkans which have been struggling to resolve their is- sues and turn the page after their respective civil wars and holocausts. It is a never-ending quest to understand the illusive truth and find the unique solutions to each case.
So here is my other meaningful trip. Recently, I organized the latest version of Extreme Travelers International Congress in Marquetalia, in the historic heartland of FARC rebellion in Colombia. For over a year, I had to plan the logistics and meet with all parties involved in the conflict to come up with the final product. It never crossed my mind before that I would sit down at home for dinner with the leadership of my sworn enemies of yesteryear. Getting former rebels to work hand in hand with their own victims, with the military and police, the government, the director of the UN mission to Colombia and be able to listen to their stories has been a most remarkable experience. The positive results of this trip are keeping me connected to the inner circles of some relevant actors in current Colombian history and with a couple former FARC commanders. I am exposed to new information and to different versions of recent dramatic historic events.This makes me take on new personal challenges as I deal with my daily life in this intense and complex country.
As of today, there is one travel experience that has impacted me the greatest for the past seven years. Long story short, while searching online about plans for the Arctic I met on Facebook somebody showing off pictures of her trip to Antarctica for her travel TV show. So many things in common, such great conversations and chemistry, yet we could not find a chance to meet, even though she lives an hour away in neighboring Panama. As luck would have it, she loves Africa and animals, and I was ready to attend the ITB travel show in Berlin a couple of weeks later. As I often do, I combine work-related travel with regular travel. For that occasion, I had booked myself a nine-day solo trip to Senegal, The Gambia, Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde. So, within a couple of weeks we ended up having our first date in West Africa. We met at the airport in Dakar, and nine days have turned into a wonderful seven years, full of exciting travel. Sandy organizes the fancier destinations and unique cruises (she represents a few cruise lines for Panama and Central America), and I come up with the more exotic ideas.
Certain places I’ve traveled to have surpassed expectations. Some I thought would be average but turned out to be great; some I thought would be great turned out awesome. This means, I am excluding here other fascinating places that I may have enjoyed greatly but fell within expectations. So, here they are: Mongolia, Abkhazia, Mauritania, Faroe Islands, Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Greenland, Madeira, Malta, Slovakia, Galapagos, Easter Island, and French Polynesia (Bora Bora). A separate group would include the more mundane regions of Italy, USA and European Russia, probably not in most people ́s lists of places with exciting destinations, but after having driven tens of thousands of miles there, I cans happily say they offer a never ending list of surprises along the road which often fall out of the radar of most travelers.
The only true disappointment would go to two of the most exciting places as well: Surinam and Guyana, because of their infinite capacity to turn the most trivial of matters into absolute and chaotic of nightmares.
The TCC was the first travel group I joined. I remember when I first learned about it and made it a goal to join, and they joy I felt when I got my first pin after visiting Greenland. I am only past the half-way mark because up until not long ago, I had left in the back burner pretty much all the islands in the Pacific and remote uninhabited rocks. Thus far, I have concentrated more into connecting the dots and driving the distances, filling out the map. Now, a new chapter may begin as I am starting to discover the pleasures of reaching these islands.
Other obvious goals are to finish off the list of UN and UN+ countries, but above all, I am more concerned with regions and specific thrills, even if it means going back again to countries and TCC regions already visited. Ultimately, my goal is to be able to travel until we pop.