Co-Pilot Spotlight: Arita Baaijens

Posted on December 18, 2017 by Cora Boyd

Arita Baaijens traveling the Forty Days Road in Sudan

The Co-Pilot Spotlight navigates into the minds and experiences of travel professionals and professional travelers. Join us in the cockpit with Arita Baaijens, biologist, author, and director Living Landscapes Foundation.

OTPYM: Where was the first place you ever traveled?

ARITA BAAIJENS: My first long trip abroad was 9 months in Israel and Sinai. The next major trip abroad was 9 months solo travel in Central America during times of civil war. I witnessed a lot of violence against indigenous peoples and the loss of political innocence.

Where is the last place you visited?

An extinct volcano in the Southern Highlands of Papua New Guinea. The steep, 1000-meter deep crater was left to itself for 250,000 million years. The result is a biological Wunderkammer! The clan of hunter-gatherers that owns the crater believes that masalei, or spirit people, in the crater are all powerful. In the crater, one has to speak a special language. To laugh or talk loudly is forbidden. No mention should be made of life forms outside of the crater. My 2.5 month stay with the Papua’s in the rainforest and my visit into the crater changed my understanding of our world in profound ways.

Where is next for you? Why?

I recently started a project in my own country: Paradise in the Polder. The aim is to develop “deep maps” that project both objective and subjective data. I have observed that policy makers make critical decisions by drawing maps with only part of the story. To amplify the story of the stakeholders, my team develops, in cooperation with cartographers and universities, a new kind of map that visualizes both objective and subjective data, such as sacredness, oral history, memories, and cultural history. Once the methodology is perfected, I will go back to indigenous communities around the world to help create deep maps of their environment in support of their land claims.

Why do you choose to travel?

It is not a choice. I simply have to escape the well-defined Dutch polder landscape and the mentality that goes with it. Every square cm of Dutch soil has been touched, engineered, and fought over. My country lies below sea level. Out of necessity, we are ruled by control freaks, engineers, planners, managers, and in short: humans acting as substitute gods. It drives me nuts. I love iconic landscapes like deserts, steppe and mountains. Places that escape the human scale, where one feels the true power of nature and where we – humans – are no longer the centre of attention.

How has travel helped to define your world view?

Travel shook my Western world view to the core. Just being with other cultures and trying to understand the world through their cultural prism helped me understand that every culture, also our modern hi-tech culture, creates a model of reality. A model that helps us cope with a universe that we will never be able to explain or understand. The western model is not better than other cultural models, just different, to quote anthropologist Wade Davis. Imagine how much more interesting life becomes if you embrace diversity of thought!

Where is the favorite place you’ve traveled and why?

The deserts of Egypt and Sudan. The desert, camels and I have a passionate & unconditional love affair. For better and worse, till death us part. How can one explain a longing? The first time I visited the desert in my early twenties I knew: that’s my place. I want to disappear into the void and learn how to survive. It took me another ten years to find out how to buy and handle camels and – we are talking pre-GPS times – how to navigate the void, this immense nothingness the size of a continent.

When on your travels have you felt the most out of your comfort zone?

During my last journey in Bosavi, the rainforest in PNG, I felt totally inadequate in the claustrophobic forest that wanted to kill, cut, sting or strangle me. Death adders, pythons, fast flowing rivers, trees blocking the view everywhere, no sky. Food is very basic, and I was forever hungry. No sugar, no fat, no oil, no milk products, shortage of proteins. The people were amazing though!

Who is the most interesting person you have ever met while traveling and why?

A number of people, equally important and equally interesting. Let me introduce you to one of them, Sudanese desert guide Yussuf Gamaa, an illiterate nomad from Darfur. His family had lost all of its animals during a severe drought. Yussuf kept the family alive and made sure his brothers and 9 kids could go to school. He worked as a desert guide for camel traders, a very difficult, dangerous and responsible job. Without maps he knew how to find his way into Chad, Libya and Egypt. Intelligent, courageous, curious, good humored. We made many journeys on camel together. Our friendship and travels taught me that Western media have a very limited idea about people in the Islamic world.

What is the most adventurous food you have tried while on the road?

Steamed fat larvae of the sago beetle.

Any funny anecdotes from the road?

One time, during my many years of desert travels in Egypt, I was at a water well in the middle of nowhere. A geologist showed up in a 4×4. He looked at me, my 18 saddle bags filled with food and equipment, water jerry cans and other stuff lying around, with no village around for hundreds of miles. ‘Where’s your tour bus?’ he finally asked. I pointed at my 3 camels grazing in the distance. I think he’s still recovering.

We all have our stories. How has your life’s story influenced the way you travel?

I am totally open minded these days. The other culture is always right until proven wrong.

What is the most impactful travel experience you have had? How has it shaped you?

My long solo journeys in the desert taught me that identity does not exist. What we think of as our identity is the total sum of what other people think of us. In the absence of others, my identity disappeared, I became one with my environment. Siberia and Papua New Guinea challenged my western worldview.

In what ways, as a society, can we change travel to be a force for good?

Stimulate people to also explore destinations closer to home. As individuals we could quit taking selfies. We – the traveler – are not the centre of the universe.