Welcome to the Conversations series: these are a series of long form, in depth interviews with writers of multiple genres about travel themes, including place, exile, belonging, home, habitat, quest, and craft. I started the series in 2015 with Tim Cahill, Patricia Schultz, James Dorsey and Raquel Cepeda. This year began with Jeff Greenwald , Harrison Solow, and Nayomi Munaweera. Next up, Dutch explorer and adventurer, Arita Baaijens.
Arita Baaijens is a Dutch adventurer and writer who has already completed over 25 desert expeditions on camel throughout Egypt and Sudan. She is the first woman to have crossed the Western Desert of Egypt solo by camel and the first Western woman to have travelled the Forty Days Road by camel twice. In Mauritania she photographed the last surviving female caravaneers. In 2013 she was the first to circumambulate the Altai Golden Mountains in the heart of Eurasia: 4 countries, 101 days, 1500 km on horseback. She's the author of several books, Desert Songs: A Woman Explorer In Egypt and Sudan, and the forthcoming Search for Paradise.
We are exploring many topics in our Conversation, including heeding your calling to travel and explore, dealing with harsh landscapes, traveling solo, writing about Nature and the sacred, overcoming writer's block, the craft of travel writing, and how to buy a camel! Read on...
AGA: What was your early life like?
AB: Cozy and unconcerned is how I remember my early childhood days. If I do possess a travel gene, it certainly wasn't part of the DNA I inherited.
AGA: That's interesting. I'm finding that many travel writers say much the same thing! Tell me about your daily life as child: paint me a picture.
AB: I grew up in a small rural town in the center of the Netherlands. Plenty of farmland, sheep, cows, endless woodlands and forests where my parents took me and my older brother on summer Sundays. The rest of the year Sundays were extremely boring. We grew up in the Bible belt and went to church in the early morning. The rest of the day we were not allowed to do anything that involved money or work. No ice cream, no swimming pool, no nothing, just an endless boring day and a father who was tired after a long week of hard work.
AGA: Did your family travel at all when you were young? Can you recall any adventures or journeys?
AB: During the week my mother would take us on small adventures. In autumn we'd go and pick berries and mushrooms in the pine forest. In spring, we'd pick flowers in meadows and catch frogspawn. After school hours, I would build huts and play with friends.
During the long summers my parents took us for two weeks to the sea, close to where my father had grown up. Apart from one brother, all his siblings now lived elsewhere. That was the biggest trip I ever took in those days was to the Dutch sea side, a 200 km drive from our forests to the sea and a horizon that seemed to jealously guard what lay behind it: the great unknown.
Very different from the family of my mother, who all lived in the same provincial town of Ede. Every Saturday uncles, aunts, cousins and nieces would all flock to the house of my grandmother, who owned a house and a big plot of land. The parents worked in the vegetable gardens, each family had their own plot. On warm summer days a pump with a big iron swing offered deliciously cold and sweet water. I also remember the mysterious cellar under the huge kitchen floor, it was dark and a bit smelly down there, the shelves were stocked with glass jars filled with peas, string beans, mushrooms and all kinds of berries. A peat stove in the kitchen always kept a tea water on the boil. There was a cat, a dog, chickens and a rooster, a sow and once a year pink piglets.
AGA: This sounds idyllic, and hardly the start in life I expected you to share, since you have spent much of your adult alone crossing vast landscapes! Were there any adventurers in you family history? Any storytellers--or stories unspoken and waiting to be told?
AB: My father grew up in a poor family in a tiny village on an island. His father had been a successful trader but had lost his savings in shadowy transactions. He lost face and committed suicide, and the villagers had found his body dangling from a tree branch. As a result the five children were raised in poverty.
Just after the Second World War, my father was 18 years old, he and his brother fled the village. They trained as soldiers and volunteered to go fight a dirty war in Dutch occupied territories. After three years my father returned home, married my mother and settled down. After 20 years of marriage my father left us and immigrated to the United States to start a new life--just like his grandmother had done back in the 19th century. Her escapade was a well kept secret in the family and I had only heard about it when I was in my thirties or forties.
AGA: Tell me about this grandmother of yours: she sounds unusual for a woman of her time.
AB: My great grandmother ran away to the United States, leaving her only child--my grandfather to be--and her husband, to go after her Dutch lover, who was probably waiting for her on the other side of the ocean. This was in the late 1800s! A year later she came back, and I've always wondered why. I have so many questions! I can just not understand how she, a simple village girl who had to courage to run away, could find the money for an expensive ticket on an ocean steamer and manage all the logistics. I will never know the answers--but one thing I do know: I have inherited her rebellious spirit.
AGA: What an extraordinary woman of mystery. And what about you? What were the dreams of your youth?
AB: My dreams as a young child mirror the small world I lived in. Like any other five year old girl I wanted to become a princess, later on a hair dresser and the ultimate dream was to become a school teacher.
I loved to go to school every morning and took books home from the school library. All kinds of books, about all kinds of topics. I remember reading about Scott, the Arctic explorer, but I never ever dreamt about becoming an explorer myself.
AGA: What writers did your family read? Were they big readers? Were you exposed to great literature or the writings of explorers?
AB: The most important book in our house was the Bible. After dinner my father or mother would read passages from the old fashioned translation and I can still hear the unusual, archaic, mysterious, incomprehensible words that served as dessert. From Genesis all the way up to Revelations.... it must have taken years to finish one reading. And after my parents turned the last page the whole thing would start all over again.
The words were pure magic, not of this world, the Bible provided me with a rich vocabulary. Miracles, battles, psalms, prophets, kings, soldiers and beggars. The most incredible, cruel and moving stories were dished up after dinner and as a child I believed them all.
AGA: The Bible certainly contains lots of stories about travelers. In a way, it's a big travelogue, with lots of stories from the desert and other places that pushed people to the edge. Any remembrances of these stories?
AB: My father had inherited an antique Statenbijbel, huge and leather bound, with locks made from copper. In it were etchings, as stark, dark and magical as the vocabulary. It is from this Bible that I first learned about Sinai, the desert peninsula in which the Israelites roamed for 40 years, or so the story goes. The image of those harsh granite mountains of Sinai stuck and must have stirred something deep inside, the image created a longing that must have been at the root of my career move, years later, when I became a desert explorer.
AGA: What other books do you remember reading?
AB: Despite the fact that I grew up in a working class family in the fifties and sixties and books were expensive--pure luxury--I cannot remember a time I was not reading. Once a week, we would take books from the library.
My father also owned a few world literature classics: I recall Tolstoy's Ana Karenina and others, but I didn't read those until high school. In high school we had to read stacks books and poetry, from Camus and Sartre in French; to Goethe, Brecht and Boll in German; to Shakespeare, Wordsworth and William Golding in English. And of course, Dutch novels and poetry from all genres and periods...
AGA: Did you have a literary mentor or guide in your life at that time?
AB: I owe a lot to one specific teacher with red lipstick, red hair and a French surname. "La Soeur" had just moved from Amsterdam to our small town, for reasons that were beyond me. She not only spoke, dressed and walked differently, her teaching methods were also unconventional, a fresh breeze in airless room. This woman clearly had a mission, she didn't want her pupils to dutifully read novels and poems, she wanted us to be moved by it, to feel the power and music of language. Which brings me back to Genesis and the Bible: In the beginning there was the word....
AGA: I always am struck by that line, "in the beginning there was the word.." Powerful and evocative. Listening to you talk about words and their power, it's interesting to point out you did not choose literature as am early career path.
In your teen years, you decided to study environmental sciences, and this discipline shows itself in your knowledge and writing about the landscapes you visit. Why did choose this?
AB: During my high school years I loved both languages and the sciences, and as I came from a working class family, I felt obliged not to waste my talents, as it was a great privilege to go to university. As I watch my father studying in the evenings to catch up on the basic education he received as a child, I was careful to choose a study that offered good career prospects: biology. This was back in the 70's and 80's, when we were just realizing that natural resources were very limited, and rivers, air and soil were all polluted. Pesticides, nuclear power plants, acid rain, visions of silent springs - I grew up in a time of protest, civil unrest, unemployment, dark thoughts about the future.
As a young student I did what seemed logical and right: to try and change the world that grown ups had messed up.
AGA: Yet despite this very practical side of you, there was also a wildly independent streak. I feel there is a fierceness and vulnerability under the stories you tell..did this arise from some event in your early years?
AB: My father had left us when I was only seventeen, a tremendous shock and something unheard of in our conservative Protestant community. Sometimes people by would stand still in front of our house and point to the house of the outcasts and sinners.
My mother felt humiliated, hurt, distressed, although she tried to hide these feelings. One morning, after coming down for breakfast, I heard her sob and mutter that she wished she was dead. My heart broke. I just stood there, as if struck by lightning. The state of total shock can't have lasted longer than a second, but the effect lasted a life time.
AGA: So you saved yourself from the same fate..or tried to?
AB: I could not help or save my mother, but I would save myself I decided then and there. No man would ever do to me what my mother had to go through. From now on I would be in control and pull the strings. And so I did. Until I reached my mid-thirties, I practiced divide and rule. I would always have more than one lover at the same time, if not in reality than at least in imagination. This method prevented me from falling in love with one person, there would always be someone else, and that nobody would have the exclusive privilege of winning my heart.
AGA: Yet, I think this decision also left you free in some ways, to fall in love with other things, like landscapes and places. Perhaps not right not right away, but eventually. So you left that life and the small Dutch town of your youth--or did you? Is it still with you?
AB: Decades later I had to admit that I may have left Ede, but it hadn't leave me. My behavior and character were still shaped by what had happened during my teens. I am a fighter and prefer to strike before the enemy does. Not a bad strategy, I thought back then...
AGA: Has this attitude helped you on your journeys? You've spent years in some of the most difficult landscapes on Earth: the Sudan, Egypt, Siberia...
AB: My combative and fearless attitude helped me on many occasions, especially during my explorations on camel in the North African desert, this vastly beautiful expanse of sand, rocks and stars. Seductive beauty of a dangerous kind.
Only recently, having worn myself out - knocking everybody down is a tiring business - did I find out that I only have one enemy and that she lives inside my own head: a frightened and angry little girl whom I locked up for many years and now wants to be released.
AGA: A lot of writers have an angry child inside, myself included. I think creative people often struggle with this duality, but at the same time, it is what brings them to their knees creatively, as well. Thank you for going deep and sharing that.
Let's talk about your early travels.
AB: I started traveling as a student.
When I was 22 years old I lived in Israel for a while, fell in love of course, and also traveled to Sinai. The desert was empty, beautiful, frightening, awesome and felt strangely familiar because of all the stories I had been fed in school, church and at the dinner table.
I could hardly take it in, steep granite mountains dipped their feet right into a crystal clear and blue sea. The land was rich in color, but apart from Acacia trees, clumps of date palms and hidden water wells the majestic mountains and narrow canyons were dry and unforgiving.
Underwater, though, was a magical world dressed in wild and jubilant colors. Corals competed with fish in exotic splendor. Sinai made my heart jump, explosions under my skull, my thirsty soul drank it all in and it still wasn't enough to quench my thirst. I stayed many months longer than I had planned, but finally went back.
AGA: I love that Sinai was your first major journey, considering the Biblical references from your childhood: it is so connected to your life and core. It sounds like it was an extraordinarily powerful experience. What destination followed?
AB: A few years later, in 1980, I traveled solo around Central America for nine months.
The journey was a revelation in many ways. To travel by myself in the age before internet and mobile phones, in a macho environment was quite a challenge. I felt lonely and miserable in the beginning, nobody to talk to for days, but I held on and then one day it all changed and I just wanted to keep on traveling. Those were the days dirty wars were fought in Guatemala and El Salvador. At night I would hear shots and the next morning find dead bodies or smell the smoke coming from burnt villages. On this journey I overcame my fear of traveling solo and lost my rather naïve faith in American politics.
I guess that meant I was growing up.
AGA: Travel does that, swiftly and without mercy.
Let's talk about the shift you experienced in going from a 9-5 job as a environmentalist and scientist to becoming a traveler, explorer, and adventurer of the most unusual kind.
AB: I enjoyed my career tremendously but also knew that one day I would leave that career behind for...something else. But what? I had no idea, I just had this nagging feeling. I was restless and when my situation didn't change I became severely depressed.
Was this all there was to life? To be a slave of the alarm clock? Rrrriiing. Get up. Shower. Go to work. Act important. It didn't seem right, at least not for me. Something inside was cooking and it seemed to be collecting courage for what was to follow. All I could do was prepare myself for the big jump.
When the call to adventure came I would be ready. Which meant: no mortgage, no marriage, no children, no strings, no ties.
AGA: That is big decision, to have no ties. Tell me how all this unfolded.
AB: After the journey I finished university, found myself a job as a consultant in environmental affairs and meanwhile I dreamt about working abroad. My journeys had taught me that traveling for the sake of traveling was not fulfilling. Beautiful places all start to look alike after a while, as do the travelers you meet on the road. I wanted to work and travel, that much I knew, but how to arrange that? How I longed to be an artist! But I was a biologist... so what to do?
I visited Sinaï briefly and fell in love again with the underwater world and the desert. For the next ten years I tried to find ways to stay in the desert and learn from the Bedouins how to survive and disappear. Although I came back every year and had many Sinai friends by then, I could not make it happen. I was too afraid to give up my job for ..... yes, for what exactly? I couldn't explain, but the longing was real enough.
AGA: Yes, that longing was what would carry you--but for what? That reminds me of the Rumi quote, "The longing you express is the return message." The longing is both the question and the answer.
AB: Back in Amsterdam I felt restless, frustrated, and powerless. Not for a month or even half a year but for years. The pressure was building up, how to find the valve which would release it? I made business plans, tried this idea and then another. Nothing worked.
In total desperation I finally succumbed and went to an astrologer a friend had recommended--the Dutch ministers of state are among her customers!
"My goodness", the lady astrologer said over a cup of tea, "such turmoil in your life. But something good will come up, something beyond your wildest dreams. You can't even picture it so don't try. All you must do now is keep calm and save your energy for the moment of change. Hold out for another two and a half years and all will be well."
And, I feel a little uneasy to say this, but it is exactly what happened.
AGA: We all need to visit that astrologer! It makes sense to me that your journey would include a visit to an astrologer, actually, because you are so interested in what is unseen.
Did you have other influencers in your life that helped with that decision of leaving a career behind? Who and how did they influence you?
AB: Nobody in my family understood my restlessness, and I was told: "Be thankful to have a career going in times of economic crisis." My job came with an extra month salary every year, insurance, pension, career prospects, prestige. My colleagues at work didn't understand either. Only one of them, who became a friend, shared my lust for travel and the wish to live abroad.
What comforted me in those days was to be part of the tango community in Amsterdam. I danced all my prejudices about gender roles away, as a feminist who had defined ideas, I had never worn high heeled shoes before, let alone sexy dresses.
Tango taught me how to play. I could be a vamp, next day a bitch, or a mother or a scientist. The outfit didn't change who I am. And I found solace in the music, the melancholic melody of the accordion, which expressed the strange longing I felt for something that seemed beyond my reach.
Yes, I wanted to travel, but it was not about seeking thrills or showing off. I was and still am driven by an immense curiosity and about testing my limits, both physically and mentally. In those days I never dreamt of becoming an explorer, it just didn't occur to me that that was a possibility. Exploration was a male affair, something to do with guns and daggers, muscles and testosterone.
AGA: I think exploration is most definitely not a male affair! I am glad you changed your mind about that, and shared your gifts. But before this huge decision happened, were you writing at all?
AB: I wrote from a young age. But I never imagined a career as a writer. Authors were as far removed from my What-Would-You-Like-To-Be dreams as were explorers. I have always written stories, kept a diary, played with words, but it never occurred to me that I would want to be a writer. To be a writer you not only have got something to say, you must also want to share it. Writers were people from another planet, it was already unheard of that I went to university and all I aimed for was a meaningful job which paid well. Professionally I wrote articles for magazines and newspapers, no fiction, but informative articles that dealt with environmental issues. I had learned the basic facts of how to get a message across at university and these insights were very helpful when I started my writing career later on.
AGA: Were there other writers or influencers who attracted you to the idea of the desert? What about Egypt or Sudan, two of the countries you’ve spent significant time exploring desert regions in?
AB: No writers pointed to the desert.
Although... it is strange to say, and I write this tongue in cheek, it was God herself who pointed the way. She brainwashed me with desert scenes in the Bible and without any doubt this was the seed from which my later journeys.
Once I had embarked on my first solo journey, I was on the lookout for like- minded souls, which I found plenty of-- as my book shelves can testify. The first book I read was by Robyn Davidson, and the second was Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger.
These two books were followed by a tsunami of books about desert and desert travelers: Jane Digby, Alexandrine Tinne, Rosita Forbes, Theodor Monod, T.E. Lawrence, Pierre Loti, Bagnold, and Rohlfs, to name a few.
AGA: Eventually, you quit your job and went to the desert. Let’s talk about what you had to do to prepare for that.
AB: How to you prepare for the unknown? You can't and that is the beauty of it.
AGA: That is difficult to hear but it is also very true. Can you tell me about that first journey and how it came to be?
AB: I mentioned earlier that I first had a taste of the desert in Sinai in 1978, where I was struck by the Bedouin way of life and the ability of people to survive in such harsh conditions. After that, I kept dreaming of a long desert journey.
In 1988, an Egyptian photographer told me about Carlo Bergmann, a German who travelled in the Western Desert of Egypt with camels. He contacted the man for me in Cairo. Unfortunately we disliked each other instantly. Carlo didn't even bother to ask me why I had wanted to meet him.
A month later, in Amsterdam, I was watching a beautiful sunset. Imagining the same sky without roofs and antennas, I thought and longed to be in the desert. I set aside my dislike for the German and visited him in Cologne to discuss a journey with him.
It was then that Carlo mentioned that having sex with me in the desert was part of the deal.
When I told him that physical services were out of the question, "Okay. We'll do it your way, but then you’ll have to pay me extra for my services as your guide."
I raised my eyebrows, but agreed.
"Bring condoms anyway," he wrote in a letter that arrived a week later.
I was furious and cancelled the trip.
AGA: I don't know whether to laugh, cheer you on, or get angry. These stories are all too common for women travelers! But you did end up going with him, right?
AB: The desert kept calling and just before Carlo went to Egypt I let him know I would be coming, bringing the money but no condoms. He waited for me in a small desert oasis and helped me buy my first camel.
We first made a short trip to check if things would go well between us. If not, I could always leave. During that trip, I felt very much at home in the desert and was confident I could manage the situation with Carlo. When I told him I would continue the journey he didn't agree. My cold behavior had been such a terrible disappointment for him, he wanted me to pack my bags and leave.
So there I was, incredibly happy in my new environment, but having to leave Eden because the man I depended on was frustrated by my refusal to become intimate with him. Either I left or I agreed to have sex with him. Being a feminist the last possibility was against my principles. But extreme situations call for extreme responses and against all better instincts I agreed to pay the price. Still, it wasn't going to be as simple as that. My cold and calculating behavior had made him impotent. My fault, he said.
To cut a long story short, we travelled together for three more weeks. The landscape was fascinating, but the man drove me crazy with his vitriolic moods. He considered himself to be the "King of the Desert" and expected me to behave according to his rules. After a month, I desperately wanted to leave and I told Carlo to bring me to an inhabited oasis. The night before my departure I watched the full moon appear from beneath the earth. The sand dunes glowed in the silver light of the moon and I could not bear the thought of leaving this magical place. I decided there and then I would continue the journey on my own--and this was pre-GPS times!
Carlo warned me that I would die if I missed the water wells en route. I nodded and asked for directions. He gave me a detailed description of the route, told me how to handle the camel I would take with me and waved goodbye.
AGA: While that sounds like a good choice for a lot of reasons, it was also a dangerous one. How did you manage?
AB: The solo journey sobered me up. It was much more difficult than I could have imagined. I nearly missed the first water well, I did miss the next one, my camel ran away and so on. But the desert was not my biggest enemy. My mind was.
Imagining romantic scenes, a fire at night and starry skies, I’d thought I would finally achieve the peace of mind I was longing for. But the opposite was true. Not having someone to tell me where to go or what to do, I felt utterly lost. I realized that all my life I had been doing what my parents, schoolteachers, friends and bosses had expected me to do. Now that I was alone, I didn't know how to fill all the hours and minutes and I began to wonder who I was. With no people around me my identity was... lost.
I'd never realized that being alone meant that you stopped to be the person you thought you were because that person was the product of other people's images of you. In this social vacuum I had to rebuild my identity, but how?
AGA: That is the aspect of the desert and such landscapes that I think about most often: that with no one else there, who is one? Once, I walked across Spain, and for several days, managed to be entirely alone: no people, no animals, nothing. I had been looking forward to it, but once I was there, it was quite leveling. I had thought it would change me, but strangely, it did not. Did you find this to be true of your solo desert experiences?
AB: One thing that haunted me was the presumption that my stay in the desert would change my life. But things were still the same. After the trip I would go back to my job. Nothing had changed and I felt cheated, but didn't know who was to blame.
Being alone made me wonder how the German survived all the lonely winters in the desert. I tried to understand his way of thinking and slowly fell in love with his mind. I was sure the feeling would disappear as soon as I would see him again to hand over the camel I had taken for this journey, but it didn't and after my solo journey we travelled together for two more weeks.
We kept up the relationship and the next year went for another desert trip together, but he was unable to accept me as an equal desert partner and I could not accept being the second in command. So in the end I purchased my own caravan of camels and this time I was absolutely determined to make a long solo journey. Preparing for this journey I had convinced myself that if I succeeded--Carlo gave me a 30% chance to succeed--then from that moment on nothing would ever go wrong in my life. Although it was stupid and dangerous to think that way, there was some truth in my reasoning. Once you discover your true strength in the face of loneliness and panic in a hostile environment with nobody around to ask for help and guidance, what more is there to fear in later life?
AGA: That is staring courage in the face, Arita.
AB: The journey proved to be very, very difficult, and there were moments I should have returned to the inhabited world while I still could. One of the two camels was breaking down and I had lost the way, or rather my mind, and thought I was walking on Mars and would keep on walking forever, in solitude and without the camels who would surely die. When I reached the point of no return - with enough water to go back, but barely enough to reach my point of destination - I decided to continue. I'd rather have killed myself there than admit I was defeated.
Well, I did succeed and lived to tell the story. What's more: fear didn't disappear, but when I look it straight in the eyes the monster disappears, there's only me and my scary thoughts.
AGA: Being alone in the desert sounds akin to being in another world. Can you share what it was like to be alone, and give a few excerpts from your book about exploring Egypt and Sudan solo?
AB: The desert is my home. It was love at first sight. Of course the desert kills if she can, but that is simply the way of it. I do not fight the desert, why should I? She gives herself to me, totally, and fills me with courage, vitality, lust for life. Face to face with danger I have no time to worry about futilities. Here and now, live or die, nothing else matters. To survive in this environment you must feel at ease and accept danger, yet, the minute you start to feel on top of your game, invariably something will happen to remind you who is in charge here.
To be alone in the desert is pure bliss. To know that there is nobody around for hundreds and hundreds of miles, to dance under the stars, to sing and shout, to cry and laugh, to live or die without anybody ever knowing what happened is so refreshing. Our lives are ruled by fear, fear for the unknown, for not being good enough, for not being accepted, for not living up to expectations. The desert is a free zone. It is a void, filled with potential, up to you what to make of it, what to believe, which face to pull.
As I put one foot in front of the other, I wondered whose voice I was hearing in my head. Who or what was determining my actions? Where were my thoughts coming from and where were they going? My sense of space and time altered. Sometimes minutes went by during which my head was totally empty of thought: I was one with the sun and the camels, and everything was a fine just the way it was, but as soon as a wisp of thought floated by, the clock started ticking again. .. I saw the world as a magic trick and my mind as a magician who could make things disappear and reappear at will.
AGA: Such a harsh place, and yet you write about it almost as though it is a lover, sometimes faithful, other times jilted. There is a element of completion... what about discomfort?
AB: I do not want to romanticize my life in the desert. It is a harsh existence with at least as many lows as highs. There is no enjoyment involved in battling sandstorms for days or even weeks at a time, discovering that the camels have run off, or listening to the plaintive bellowing of animals that are hungry or thirsty.
I do not feel particularly brave standing on the edge of a cliff face that I know I must descend, even though I'm not sure how and the camels are rearing in terror and crapping all over everything. And yet, it is infinitely more satisfying to take on the elements than to join the frantic rat race to get ahead in your chosen profession.
AGA: Yes. This is an elemental truth that would change the world if people took the time to notice it! And so your draw into the desert is this quest, and you write about it being a sacred quest. Define this quest, this journey, in sacred terms.
AB: In my home country human lives are governed by the minute hand of the clock. When I grew up in the sixties and seventies the Dutch were very much taken care of from cradle to grave--has drastically changed. The only way a young woman could test her strength and pass the threshold into adulthood was to give birth to a baby. An achievement of heroic proportion, but as I never wanted children this gateway into adulthood was closed to me. My society didn't provide any other rite of passage for a woman, so I created one for myself without realizing that this was the reason I took to the desert.
Of course I had wondered why I was risking my life on desert solo journeys, but if I had known the answer beforehand then I wouldn't have had to go and find out, or would I? All I knew is that I had this incredible longing to disappear in the desert, the longing was unexplained but nevertheless it was as real and solid as the sun, the moon and the stars. All I could do was to answer the call to adventure. That was the easy part.
AGA: Yet such journeys are not all light or fulfillment; they bring out the darkness in us as well.
AB: The more difficult part was presented in the desert, where masks go off and you are confronted with dark forces inside you: jealousy, hatred, fear and all those other demons you never knew lived inside you. Fascinating and also shocking. Because until then I pictured myself as a very civilized, reasonable and nice person.
Who could have imagined that I would see ghosts, lose my mind for a day or two, have fits of jealousy, fantasize about murder and experience hatred, as thick, black and poisonous as smoke produced by an erupting volcano. Unbelievable what the human mind is capable of once the reigns are let loose in a sterile environment, devoid of diversions, people or social structures.
I didn't understand what was happening to me and why it was happening until I heard Joseph Campbell talk about the journey of the hero.
'That is me!' I thought.
AGA: Indeed, it is you. I think you are still on that journey, the hero's journey.
Let's head a lighter direction and a practical one. I think one thing people will want to know is the how-to aspects of such a journey: the basic, on-the-ground necessities. Can we talk about camels? Your book, Desert Songs, is devoted to camels and they are an integral part of your trips--without them, you would not have survived.
How does one buy a caravan of camels? I’m so curious about this. I sense it’s a very complicated answer…and yet I want to know how it is done, because I feel will illuminate how determined you were to change your life and follow this call into the desert.
AB: Camels come in different shapes and sizes, but there’s not one that doesn't have a mind of his or her own. The problem is you only get to know their character after the purchase. I remember standing at the edge of a 300-metre-high limestone plateau with three camels I had just bought after a long search at the camel market in Cairo. A steep sand slide made it possible to descend, but the lead camel was afraid of heights and made a great show of sitting down. It was not until the others had reached the bottom that separation anxiety got the better of her fear of heights, and she slid down the slope.
This was not the first time I was caught unawares by the peculiarities of camels. One had a fear of climbing. Another refused to cross bridges. Sometimes my camels would take fright at a rock in the sand dunes, or bolt at the rustling of a bush. But there are spunky camels, too, born leaders with a cold-blooded streak. Unfortunately, it’s only after the deal is done that you find out whether the new acquisition is brave or timorous, energetic or lazy, or just plain full of mischief. One thing I can tell you though, if you travel solo please take female camels or nagas. They’re less strong than a male camel, but they’re friendly and don’t go around attacking people the way a dakkar does, plagued as he is by male hormones.
AGA: Do you have checklist for camel-buying? Just for fun? And for the serious camel enthusiast as well, who might be reading along?
AB: My checklist for how to buy a camel....
-Check foot soles: not too much damage from sores or previous repairs
-Check joints and back tendons, tendons should be tightly stretched when the camel sits on the ground. If not, this can be a sign of overloading
-Droppings: examine to see if camel eats sorghum or other dry food. If the camel eats grass only it has to learn to eat grain. Also, if droppings are slimy the camel is not healthy and you should treat it before going on a journey.
-Let the camel sit and stand up. If movements are not smooth, this may be a sign of injury.
-Breastbone must be intact. Look for deep indentations, they could indicate bone disease. Breastbone should not touch upper part of front legs when the camel is fully loaded.
-Mange is a contagious disease. With the loss of hair the camel lacks insulation and suffers from heat and cold. Mange can be treated with tar.
-Check the camels' back for saddle marks. You want one who is used to carry a saddle
-Notch in the nose means you are dealing with a riding camel
-Excessive spit can be a problem: spit plus wind equals spit in your face.
-Check eyes for signs of blindness--no blue hue.
- If the animal constantly turns towards the sun, it may suffer from a parasitic disease which breaks down red blood cells, Trypanosamiasis.
-Teeth should not be too worn
-Saddle must fit easily on hump
-Certain scars from branding indicate treatment for diseases
- The camel has to follow you and obey orders. Is she nervous? In that case you may have a future run away.
AGA: I can buy camels now--or at least walk around a camel market and pretend to know what I'm doing, even if I don't buy any. Any other camel tips?
AB: Don’t forget to bring plenty of salt for your camel – a camel needs more salt than cows, it supports the metabolism and prevents mange.
AGA: Another thing I was interested in having you share was a list of important things which you took to the desert. I’m inspired by the great list-makers, who were often women that created lists as poems.
AB: Amulets, knife, ropes, water jerry cans, leather bucket, compasses, watch, maps, sorghum, salt, medicines and scalpel to treat camel diseases, small stove, sleeping bag, thermo underwear, sunglasses, lots of sugar, turban, poems, notebooks, pens, pencils, spare saddle parts, presents, binoculars, torch, and solar panel.
AGA: Lots of sugar, poems, presents. I like this list!
After you finished this journey, you got your first book deal. How did that happen?
AB: After my first solo desert journeys I was invited by Mizzi van der Pluijm at Contact publishers to pass by for a chat. Was I interested to write a book? I looked at the shelf behind her, filled with books from well-known writers. Why would she ask me, a beginner?
AGA: She asked you because you had good stories to tell! She saw the natural storyteller in you.
AB: She told me that writing is a craft, just like any other craft. A carpenter doesn't produce his masterpiece at the beginning of his career. It takes effort, training, discipline and of course talent. But talent is not the major ingredient for success.
She made it seem so simple. Okay, I said, let me give you my travel diaries. If you still want to continue after reading my notes, I'll do it. She nodded. It was strange to let a stranger read uncensored notes which were extremely personal, if not outright embarrassing, because of the extreme things that had happened between me and my travel companion, the German desert explorer Carlo Bergmann. But I needed to know if I had what it took to become a writer. After she read them, Mizzi called within days: "Get started."
It was the beginning of a long process. I rewrote the manuscript several times and learned along the way. That is how I know the value of a mentor, someone who believes in you and sees your potential, even if you do not. A person who knows when to listen, when to push, when to cheer, when to kick you in the butt. I feel very privileged to have had such a great mentor and advice you to also find someone you trust, if you plan to write a book.
AGA: I agree with you. I think a good mentor is paramount to success. Someone who sees the virtue of your work and can help you refine your voice--not someone you pay, for this not a duty--but someone who destiny partners you with. It is a calling to be a mentor, and an important one. Actually, being the mentee is a calling as well.
I want to talk about how you ended up writing your current book [which comes out in August 2015] about Siberia. After you journeyed many times through the desert, you stopped going back, and chose, of all places on Earth, Siberia. What happened?
AB: After about fifteen years of desert exploration the desert was done with me: I have no other way to explain the sudden fatigue and irritation I felt on my last camel journey in the Sudanese desert. Problems I would have previously ignored or understood as a challenge now triggered anxiety and not again! sensations. It was just one nasty thing after another, until the very last day, when I had to sell my camels and was taken advantage off by the same people whom I had hired to protect me.
After the desert journey I stayed with a friend in Khartoum and slept for three full days, dead to the world, unable to face reality.
To make sure the desert had definitely turned its back on me I went from Sudan to Egypt, where I rented two camels and went for a solo journey. Every day was a trial. I did not enjoy one single moment. The love affair with the desert was definitely over and after I had returned to Amsterdam I just didn't know what to do with my life.
After three rather miserable years I decided to try my luck in Siberia.
AGA: That sounds painful. Why Siberia?
AB: Shambhala is an idea which for Buddhists is the equivalent of achieving a high state of spiritual development. And according to some, this mysterious realm is also a reality, to be found in a hidden valley surrounded by icy peaks somewhere north of the Himalayas. Insiders claim that the Altai, a pristine mountain range in southern Siberia, is high on the list of potential locations. When I heard about this, it made my heart race with joy. A search for an earthly paradise in a maze of mountain chasms and glaciers was exactly the challenge I was looking for.
Let me make something clear from the beginning. As a biologist and agnostic I do not believe in the existence of a mysterious realm where only the good prevails. My mission has a different purpose: to restore my purpose in life.
The past twenty years I wandered much of the year with camels through the deserts of North Africa. For this, I gave up a comfortable career, old age pension and love relationships. It was a price I willingly paid. Roaming between sand and rocks, I was happier than I ever thought possible, but a few years ago, the unthinkable happened: the spell was broken. The desert was done with me, the flame of inspiration was extinguished. It was a disaster for me personally, and for me as a writer. How in the name of heaven should I continue without this feeling of purpose and sacred fire. Should I be one more egg in a crate, or should I stand up because the alarm goes off?
If, during this period, I had been handed a potion that would have turned me into a stone or tree, I would have swallowed it without hesitation. After three somber years I only saw one way out and that was to find a new obsession. That is how I arrived in Siberia, where I first heard about that Shambhala might be found in the Altai Golden Mountains.
AGA: The flame of inspiration was gone--so you sought it elsewhere, in Siberia?
AB: If the desert was my lover, Siberia was a strange uncle. It took me years to get familiar with its landscapes, it's people and their belief in sacred nature, Gods and spirits.
The desert had been my alpha and omega, my point of orientation, a refuge, a place where the mind expanded and could wander in all directions, a filled void which feeds the soul. The desert had fit me like a glove from day one. In Siberia--I none of that, at least not during the first years.
AGA: This sounds like such a difficult time for you. It must have affected your writing...
AB: What hurt most in the years after I had left the desert--or the desert had left me--was that nothing propelled me forward anymore. My drive, my raison d'être, the fire inside: totally gone. As a result I could not write anymore. Articles, yes, but books were out of the question. Inside I was hollow, empty, raw skin with nothing underneath. The vivid adventurer and intrepid explorer was dead and gone. A miracle my hair didn't turn grey overnight, so big was the trauma of my sudden departure of the life I had known for so long.
AGA: Did Siberia cure your writer's block?
AB: Some authors write books like others bake a delicious cake: just for the pleasure of it. Not so for me. I suffered from a writer's block for many years after I had left the desert.
The thought of having to produce 250 pages created nausea after several failed attempts to write about my experiences in Siberia, which I had visited ever since 2007 on a yearly basis to search for Shambhala.
On my journeys into the mountains I had met with prophets, visionaries, charlatans, herders, throat singers. I had visited shaman clinics, holy mountains and even a professor who operated a time machine.,,,but somehow my writing lacked urgency and an undercurrent..it was too anecdotal. I tried different styles and different genres. A travel journal, blogs, columns, free writing, scenes. Sadly nothing worked. No matter how hard I tried - and believe me I wrote hundreds and hundreds of pages - the writing was not bad but missed sparkle, flavor, and heart.
One day I was doing the dishes, and I decided to quit being a writer.Who needed books anyway?
The world was changing, multi-media was hot and I had plenty of visual material to tell stories without writing a single word. Surprise, surprise: visual stories need a script! As the Bible says so beautifully: In the beginning is the word. Writing a script tricked me into writing a book.
AGA: I love how that Biblical line keeps showing up just when you need it. Everything is full circle, and there you are, going back to your beginnings again, your childhood. And this when things began to come to life again for you?
AB: The real turn around happened after my solo journey in the summer of 2014. On horseback I crossed valleys, a steep mountain pass and several rivers to reach the barren and uninhabited Ukok plateau, a high land surrounded by white capped mountains, right on the border with Kazakhstan, China and Mongolia. I went to have an intimate conversation with the mountains, rivers and moors to try and understand the sacredness of nature, much in the way of the indigenous peoples of Altai. Until know I only had an inkling, and what I needed was time alone with nature. My guide was the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa, or to be more exact: his heteronym Alberto Caeiro, who wrote that thinking is not a matter of logic but of the senses.
AGA: Your book, your experiences in Siberia, are a love letter to the Siberian landscape: an unflinching love-making...can you talk about how you write about Nature?
AB: Nature is my most important companion, apart from my horse or camel. I am attracted to vast landscapes where the climate is so extreme that people cannot live there, or if they can, then only as nomads who move their yaks, camels or reindeer from one grazing ground to another. In such an environment, Nature is no longer decoration for a nice outing, but a Force. It can kill and demands respect from the small and insignificant fly on the wall you are.
When I am in such powerful places, it doesn't take long to I find myself communicating with the Force, map and compass in hand. Sometimes I negotiate, sometimes I curse or babble nonsense like lovers do. At other times I feel so ecstatic that I want to dance, cry, and laugh, like I did last summer on the Ukok highland in southwest Siberia, a kingdom of snow- capped mountains, glaciers, rivers, peat, moss, grass. When I am alone with the Force and feel its power, I not only am aware of the razor blade in my stomach, but I also start to notice things I didn't notice before. Fear and awe create acute awareness for your surroundings.
AGA: I find fear and subsequent risk to be important elements of travel writing, because of the afterglow: once the risk has passed, and there is a meeting, a oneness. In your case this is you and the Force meeting, even if only briefly...
Who do you feel captures the Force well in their travel writing?
AB: Someone who writes in great detail about seemingly unimportant details in landscapes, details which escape most of us when hike in the woods, is Robert Macfarlane. Read his The Last Wilderness or The Old Ways and you enter a world of incredible beauty, not a Barbie-type of beauty, but something to do with battered and eroded cliffs, a swim in ice-cold water, dampness, old trees that whisper.
Macfarlane surrenders to the landscape: on his wandering he takes calculated risks to create more awareness plus he takes the time to listen to what nature has to say. Tim Robinson, cartographer and writer, wrote three books, each one as thick and solid as a Bible, about the landscape in the south west of Ireland, where he lives. Such a detailed way of describing different layers of landscape is called Deep Mapping. Every landscape is like an onion with many peels, to get to its core requires a lot of patience and dedication.
AGA: I am devoted fan of both Macfarlane and Robinson--in fact, The Old Ways has a favorite line of mine. “We are adept, if occasionally embarrassed, at saying what we make of places - but we are far less good at saying what places make of us...”
AB: Reading poetry and books by giants like Robert Macfarlane, Tim Robinson, Barry Lopez, Jay Griffiths, and of course, John Muir helps me to find my own voice and to even dig deeper in my conversations with Nature. The writing flows naturally from observing and noticing structures and forms in the landscape, scents, color nuances, the feel and quality of the wind and legends connected with a certain tree, rock or place.
The better and in more detail one observes - drawing or sketching helps - the better the writing. Philosopher and writer Alain de Botton dedicated a chapter to ways of seeing in his book The Art of Travel. He quotes the 19th century painter John Ruskin, famous for his detailed paintings of natural objects and phenomena.
AGA: I'm so glad you brought up de Botton's Art of Travel, and the chapter on Ruskin is the one of the best: On Possessing Beauty. Ruskin believes that we have a innate desire to possess beauty, and asks two questions: do we really see what we are looking at--and how much do we see if we do? Two great quotes from Ruskin are “By attempting to describe beautiful places through art, by writing about or drawing them, irrespective of whether one happened to have any talent for doing so.” (and) “Your art is to be the praise of something that you love. It may only be the praise of a shell or a stone.”
Writing is art and art is Nature.
AB: In the desert I developed the habit of tasting words on my tongue. This happened during grueling long marches of eight hours a day under a hot sun. Sometimes the desert landscape was so monotonous and uninviting, and my mind so empty of thought, that I felt desperate.
How to fill the hours ahead of me? That's when I started the habit of picking a color, or stone, or something else I would see in front of me and try to come up with the exact words to describe what I saw. Kept me going for hours!
Another habit I developed is to send a daily but imaginary telegram home, maximum word count twenty. The telegram describes my situation and the act of putting together a string of words not only fights panic, despair or boredom, but it also helped me to value and understand the power of a word, the impact of where you place a word in a sentence, the effect of a comma more or less.
AGA: Do you think the travel writer writes as an outsider? I’ve heard claim to both inside and outside. Does the travel writer belong?
AB: A travel writer is always an outsider, whatever we try, we can never completely abandon our roots. The more I travel, the more I immerse myself in other cultures, the more I understand the "Dutchness" in me. That is perfect, as long as I understand my position and am open to other views, other ways of seeing and explaining the world. Sometimes you cannot stay an outsider, to be able to understand rituals, healing practices, belief systems, you have to immerse yourself in those practices.
For example, I noticed I cannot write insightful about shamanism if I never tried to journey myself. To know what a shaman sees you cannot stay an outsider, you have to take the prescribed drugs or give yourself to the beat of the drums so you know from the inside what that is like.
When you come out of the experience and wish to write about it, you can do so as the outsider with the added knowledge of the insider. If you lose the outsider standpoint of view when writing, you may lose the connection with your audience, who probably won't understand what you are talking about. Also, it would be wrong to pretend that you, the initiated, can now speak for the tribe or culture you try to understand. We need to be careful and humble in this respect.
AGA: What are the advantages of being an outsider?
AB: A travel writer is exposed to different cultures, languages, rules and even laws. It doesn't take long to realize that cultures, including your own, are a construct. Every culture had to find its own solutions and answers to face the challenges the environment offered. Depending on where you grew up - islands in the Pacific, mountains in Central Asia, below sea-level in the Netherlands, a Peruvian jungle - the answers, stories and myths to help navigate its inhabitants through life differ. So basically, there is no right or wrong way to explain the world and our existence. All models are valid, albeit different. The realization that absolute truth does not exist may cause great confusion, but it can also create an enormous sense of wonder, of freedom even.
My goodness, the world is how we want to see it! It is a stage, as Shakespeare already knew. Change your perspective and you change the world you live in. Meaning: Endless points of view, creation without limits, constant change; what more can a writer ask for? Yes, you are an outsider, fantastic!
To be a good observer you have to be an outsider. When you become too intimately involved with the culture, you may no longer see what makes this culture so special. So the challenge is to immerse yourself in your new environment, but never lose the observant eye which helps you see the wonder, stay critical, and ask the right questions.
AGA: How does that theme of belonging or being on the outside translate into your relationship with the desert?
AB: The desert is me and I am the desert. No inside /outside, up until the point something goes wrong. Then, in a snap second, the desert turns from friend into enemy, albeit a very impersonal enemy.
The desert is just desert, she has been there for centuries and millennia, and will still be there long after I am gone. She doesn't care if I live or die, it is of no consequence to her, I am just a tiny speck which is there one minute and gone the next. Instantly my system goes into survival mode. I sense, smell and taste fear. My breathing goes faster, adrenaline rush, my vision changes, enormous focus, unreasonable actions. This is panic, I realize. If I want to survive I have to calm down first. Stop, unload the camels, drink water, accept the facts, and wait until my hands stop shaking. The soft shaped sand dunes are no longer beautiful...well, actually they are still beautiful, but now their edge has changed from a buttock or soft breast into a very sharp knife made of steel. Silent sand dunes and rocks for hundreds of miles around.
I just stare into the distance, a hobbit, lost in space, with no defense to speak of.
Just wit and will. I remember such moments of snap transition vividly, as if it happened yesterday.
AGA: How does one write in the desert or on these harsh journeys? It seems like it would be difficult given the practicalities.
AB: I love pens & paper. The first thing I do upon arriving in a strange place is head for a stationary shop. On all my journey I bring notebooks of different sizes. A tiny one with a spiral on top, which fits in my breast pocket. I take it out many times a day to jot down my course, notes about the environment, thoughts. As I have to keep on walking or riding while I write, I only use keywords and write in short hand. Nobody can decipher my scribbled notes, not even me sometimes.
Every evening I sit down and write my diary, using the notes I took during the day. Free style writing: impressions, thoughts, descriptions, a list of geographical coordinates, flora and fauna. Details matter! So I never economize on that and describe my emotions, the landscape, the people I met and also my thoughts in great detail.
I also take lots of pictures and keep my iPhone charged and handy for that purpose.
In the early days of my travels the smartphone didn't exist and to take a picture required me to stop the caravan, get the camera out of its protective suitcase, tie the camels down, and then take a shot. Which of course almost never happened... the caravan had to keep moving!
AGA: How about when you return home: how do these notes come to life?
AB: When I write an article or book and get stuck, I always go back to my notes. And it never stops to amaze me how fresh, vivid and spot on my descriptions are. When I write my travel journal after a long day in the field my inner censor is absent, I am just happy to sit down and let my pen to the work. No thinking is required, I write in free flow style, and some of it is better than anything I try to compose sitting behind my desk.
AGA: What kind of advice do you have for people who want to write a book?
AB: To write a book because you want to be published is not a good enough reason. Don't believe your dear ones if they say you should absolutely write a book because your stories are so interesting. Of course they like to listen to you, they love you! The point is: Do you have something important to say, something that matters, something you feel passionate about, something that has to see the light?
If so, get started right away. If not, keep a notebook or start blogging until the topic emerges.
Another great help was my mentor at my publishing house, who advised me to read a chapter in John Gardner's book The Art of Fiction. An eye-opener. Gardner describes the mistakes most beginners make and if you are an aspiring writer, you must read that chapter, it will save you a lot of trial and error.
As my publisher said: a writer needs talent, but writing is a craft like any other. To become good at what you do, you need to exercise that talent by reading other writers and improving your skills, you need to expand your repertoire, which you can do, for example, by copying styles of different writers. Immerse yourself in poetry, novels, non-fiction. Eat, breathe and jot down beautiful words. Taste them on your tongue. Try dialogue, different tenses, write a script for a movie to understand plot and the sequence of scenes. Never ever think your work is done, stay curious, play, there so much to learn. Writing is a lifelong process.
AGA: I always ask each interviewee this question: tell me three things you own which you have collected from your travels, and why they are significant to you.
AB: Sudanese amulets against scorpions and bullets, given to me by camel herding nomads. When traveling in the desert I always were these amulets, as they connect me to the land and the people whom I admire and love. My first flint tools/potsherds with graffiti. And strings of hairs from my favorite camels.
AGA: What is next for you?
AB: In August 2015 my book Search for Paradise will see the light: this is about my Siberian journeys.
AGA: Arita, thank you! This has been an amazing Conversation: it's a gift to have you in this series. I can't wait for your Siberia book to come out!
Readers, please leave a comment and share the interview, just after her bio below. Scroll on the arrow and choose where to share. Sharing is caring! Thank you. Her book is on Amazon and the link is both here and on the right hand column of the website! -AGA
Arita Baaijens is an explorer, biologist, author, photographer, and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, the Explorers Club, the Long Riders Guild, and WINGS Worldquest, who recently selected her for one of their distinguished awards. Currently she travels and works in Siberia and Central Eurasia researching sacred landscapes and traditional cultures. In March of 2015 the Spanish Geographical Society honored her as Traveler of the Year. She has written numerous articles about her journeys and several books, including the award-winning Desert Songs: A Woman Explorer in Egypt and Sudan. Her upcoming book Search for Paradise will be out in August 2015. You can follow her on Twitter and her website.