Fellow Travelers

Travel changed these 4 people. Then they changed the world.

WHEN I WAS A KID I saw travel as an opportunity for adventure and hedonism. It was a chance to try new things, to learn a bit about the world, to absorb a bit more life. But I did not travel with anything resembling a conscience. Travel was something that was earned through hard work -- it was a reward, it was something the world owed me.

Then, when I was a senior in high school, I went to El Salvador and saw poverty for the first time. Shortly after that, I traveled to Brazil, South Africa, India, and China. I saw shanty towns and starving children. I saw horrors that had been hidden from me in the suburban United States. And I met people in all of these places who were still kind to me. I started questioning things I'd always taken for granted -- the idea that poor people were poor because they were lazy, the idea that people living in poverty were somehow fundamentally different from me -- and my life started to change.

My experience isn't remotely unusual -- it's extremely common for travelers to leave one person and come back another. And a lot of the time, the people that come back end up changing the world. Here are four of them.

George Orwell

Photo:  Monsterspade

Photo: Monsterspade

Eric Blair was a middle class kid in turn-of-the-century England when his family decided he ought to go serve the Empire in Burma. Blair had an innate sense of fairness, and he began to chafe against the injustices of the imperial system. So he quit and became a writer. From there, he moved back and forth from London to Paris, living in abject squalor in order to better understand poverty. He wrote two influential books describing the life of the poor under the pen name George Orwell -- Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier.

When Blair went to Spain to cover the Civil War, he put down his pen and picked up a gun. A lifelong socialist, Blair was appalled at the brutality and the propaganda of both the fascists and the Stalinists. This would influence his two greatest known works, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. His became the best known voice to speak out against totalitarianism in the 20th century, and his name is basically a catchphrase for anti-totalitarianism today. Who knows what we would have lost if he'd stayed at home?

Che Guevara

Photo:  Vurter

Photo: Vurter

Ernesto Guevara was born into a relatively well-off family in the Argentine city of Rosario. He'd grown up in a left-leaning family, but he himself said that the period in which he became a revolutionary was when he and his friend Alberto Granado took a year to ride a motorcycle through South America. Along the way, he met the continent's outcasts, poor, and indigenous, and he came out of the journey totally changed.

Guevara wrote about his experiences in the seminal travel book The Motorcycle Diaries. He became a leftist revolutionary, and eventually joined a group of anti-imperialist Cuban's led by Fidel Castro. "Che," as he became known (after a popular Argentinian word), would become Castro's right hand man, and would be a major force in converting the nationalist Cuban leader into a full-blown Marxist. Guevara's legacy is checkered at best -- his tactics were brutal, and he became a full-blown executioner when the revolutionaries took Havana. But his face became the face of 20th century rebellion, and the fact that he changed the world is unquestionable.

Siddhartha Gautama

Photo:  Lidealista

Photo: Lidealista

Siddhartha Gautama's early life is the stuff of myth -- he was born around 2600 years ago into a life of luxury. He was a prince, and his father made sure that he was given every luxury imaginable, and was sheltered from even seeing any suffering. But when Siddhartha began traveling beyond the walls of the palace, he began to see suffering -- aging, disease, poverty, and death -- and he became convinced that material wealth wasn't the key to life.

He renounced his birthright as king and he became a wandering monk. One day, while traveling, he sat down underneath a Bodhi tree and meditated until he became enlightened. After that, he was known as the Buddha -- "the Enlightened One." The religion founded around his teaching, Buddhism, is now the world's fourth largest faith.

Malcolm X

Malcolm Little was born into a poor family. His father was murdered by white supremacists when he was young, and Little was shifted around foster homes until he fell into a life of drugs and crime. After being arrested for a robbery, he was sent to jail, where he began to educate himself. He converted to the Nation of Islam, rejected his last name and replaced it with an X, and quickly became the most influential voice for black power in America.

Malcolm X’s early teachings were controversial to say the least. He was a black nationalist, and did not believe in integration or cooperation between the races. He was an unflinching critic of white supremacy, and was often (with some good cause) accused of being a bigot towards white people himself.

It wasn’t until he left the Nation of Islam and went on the hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage, that Malcolm X began to change. On the hajj, he saw people of all races cooperating and treating each other with dignity and respect. And he began to temper some of the anti-white rhetoric (while still furiously denouncing American racism). We unfortunately did not get to see enough of the man he would’ve become after this change — he was murdered by members of the Nation of Islam in 1965.

This article was originally published by the Matador Network.

Meet the 80-year-old man who has spent his life underwater

All photos screen captures from the movie Jago: A Life Underwater, available to watch on Smithsonian Earth

ROHANI, AT THE AGE OF 80, is more muscular than most Americans have ever been in their lives. Though his back is bent, his body is corded with thick muscles — not the bulging bodybuilder type of muscles we’re used to on the Jersey Shore or California boardwalks, but the dense, wooden muscles that only come from real-life use.

Rohani is a seafaring hunter of the Bajau people. The Bajau are often called “sea nomads,” as they earn their living entirely off of the bounty of the sea. The Bajau are spread out among the Philippine and Indonesian Archipelagos. The ones who live at sea are renowned as the world’s best free divers. The ones who live on land are renowned as equestrians.

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Rohani is a diver who lives in the Togean Islands, near Sulawesi in Indonesia. He first dove when he was five. When he first went under, he was terrified of all of the big fish. “My father told me — don’t you flinch in the presence of big fish. Even bigger fish than these you will encounter someday.”

He eventually overcame his fear — his father taught him how to slowly, deliberately breathe, how to minimize effort underwater, and how to respect the “sea spirits.” “Practice wherever you find yourself,” his father told him. “Learn from what’s around you. Push too hard down there and you will die down there.” At 20, Rohani was allowed to hunt on his own, and was considered a man. It quickly became clear that, even for the Bajau, Rohani was an incredible diver. As he pushed himself to stay under longer and to go deeper, he acquired a reputation. With the reputation came the name: “Jago.” Jago means master.

Jago: A Life Underwater

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Directors James Reed and James Morgan interviewed Rohani for their recent film, Jago: A Life Underwater. Rohani is an old man now — he does not have all of his teeth, his skin is weathered, and he does not have the strength or the breath that he used to. But he remembers the life he spent underwater, and he tells Reed and Morgan his story as modern Bajau re-enact the major events in his life.

It’s a stunningly beautiful life — the towns that the Bajau live in are what we in the west would probably call shanty towns, but it doesn’t seem to matter to those who live there, as the towns are built directly over the water. The Bajau people have been known to spend upwards of 5 hours a day underwater without the aid of scuba gear. They hunt using spearguns, and can dive to incredible depths.

Rohani, in that sense, is also a standout. He tells of rupturing his eardrums as he dove to a depth of 20 fathoms — which is 120 feet below the surface. Many Bajau rupture their eardrums intentionally to let them dive to these depths.

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As he gained some renown, he got married and had a family — two daughters and one son. But he wanted to explore. And he wanted to make money for his wife. His goal was to earn 1 million ruppiah, a small fortune back in those days.

Today, a million Indonesian ruppiah equals about $76.


“I left my village, Kabalutan,” he says, “I crossed the sea. This is the way of our people. To explore and seek experiences. If I had just stayed in Kabalutan, my experience wouldn’t have been complete. But because I traveled, I saw a lot of things and had plenty of experiences.”

He hopped from island to island to hunt. Eventually, he joined the crew of a Japanese trawler boat, which caught fish with nets and sent them back to Japan. The Japanese often hired Bajau, as they are known as excellent seamen.

But while he was gone, his son grew up, and he started to dive without Rohani’s guidance and expertise. While out diving with Rohani’s brother one day, his son drowned. When Rohani heard, he “went mad,” and tried to kill himself with a dagger.

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He says of the sea spirits, “If we destroy the coral, they destroy us.” Most Bajau practice a religion that is a syncretic mix of Sunni Islam and ocean-based animism. Rohani remembers, as a boy, seeing a man walking along the bottom of the sea far beneath him. He was not a man — he was a sea spirit.

The Bajau are now at the forefront of sustainable fishing efforts — they do not take more than they need, and know now to overfish in certain areas. “There used to be plenty of fish and not many people,” Rohani says. “Now there are many people crowded like fish… Now we must hunt carefully. Go hunting where we’ve never been.”

Jago is a look into a totally different life, a totally different world, and is a reminder that there is no one right way to live. Rohani is proud of his life and his reputation, and it’s hard to watch the movie (shot in 4K) and not feel a little jealous of the things he has seen.

“When I sleep at sea,” he says, “I dream only of an underwater world.” What a life, what a world.

Jago: A Life Underwater can be watched on the Smithsonian Earth streaming service. If you want to learn more about the Bajau, check out this photo essay on the “last of the sea nomads.” This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

5 travelers who never came back

YOU’VE ALREADY HEARD OF THE mystery of Amelia Earhart: the trailblazing golden-age pilot who mysteriously disappeared in 1937 during a circumnavigation of the globe. But Earhart is hardly the only traveler to have set out on a journey only to have vanished into thin air. Here are 5 other travelers who went out exploring — and never came back.

1. Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was an all-around badass. The author basically invented the twist ending with his classic short story An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, he inspired generations of horror writers with his creepy stories like An Inhabitant of Carcosa, and he became one of the world’s most eloquent misanthropes, writing the classic Devil’s Dictionary, and going by the motto, “Nothing matters.”

But he was also a kickass journalist. Late in life, he went to Mexico to report on the escapades of Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. The last trace of him was a letter sent to a friend the day after Christmas reading, “As to me, I leave here tomorrow for an unknown destination.” Bierce was never seen again.

Rumor in Mexico is that he was executed by firing squad in a cemetery (he was known to be critical of Pancho Villa), but there has never been any proof of this. Despite hundreds of theories, there has never been any substantial proof as to what happened to the great Ambrose Bierce.

2. John Franklin and his Crew

In the 19th Century, the British Empire was insistent on discovering the Northwest Passage — the fabled route from the Atlantic to the Pacific over the top of Canada. But what they didn’t know was that the route was almost always covered with pack ice.

One of the most infamous expeditions sent to discover the passage was that of Sir John Franklin. The expedition, made up of two boats, the Erebus, captained by Sir John, and the Terror captained by veteran sailor Francis Crozier, and made up of 127 crewmen, sailed into the winter ice in 1846 and became trapped. The ice didn’t thaw the next summer, and, after spending two winters there (and after losing 24 men, including Franklin, to disease, accidents, and scurvy), Captain Crozier took the remaining men out over the ice in a mad dash for civilization.

They were never seen again. Inuit gave reports of wandering, starving men who refused to ask them for help, and said that the men had resorted to cannibalism to survive. Some reported that Crozier and another crewman had survived and were near Baker Lake, some 250 miles away, nearly a decade later, but what really happened mostly remains a mystery — though the sunken Erebus was discovered underwater in 2013.

3. Frank Lenz

Frank Lenz was basically the Amelia Earhart of cycling. He was a Philadelphian cyclist, and he decided he wanted to ride his bike around the world. Although it had already been done once before, a magazine hired Lenz to do it himself in 1892, as Lenz was an excellent photographer and would be able to capture the trip on film.

He started in Washington, D.C., and peddled to San Francisco, where he caught a boat to Japan. From there, he biked through China and through the dense, almost impassable jungles of Burma. From there, he rode through modern day India and Pakistan (then part of the British Empire), and then into what is now Iran.

He was last seen in Tabriz in Iran, peddling out of the city towards Erzurum in Turkey. He was never heard from again.

4. Percy Fawcett

Percy Fawcett might be the swashbucklingest person to have ever lived. The British Lieutenant Colonel and archaeologist was the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, and that other swashbuckling archaeologist you may have heard of, Indiana Jones.

In his 30s, he became fixated on the mythical “Lost City of Z,” sometimes popularly known as the golden city of El Dorado. With his son and his friend, he set off into the Brazilian Amazon to find the city in 1925. His final letter, sent from the jungle, read, “You need have no fear of any failure…”

The nearby Kalapalo tribe passed down an oral story of three explorers who came into their village one night and stayed for a while. The explorers then moved on, and for five days, the Kalapalo could see the smoke from their fires. On the fifth day, the fires stopped. No one knows what happened after that.

5. Ettore Majorana

Ettore Majorana was a famous Italian physicist who worked with the likes of Heisenberg, Bohr, and Enrico Fermi (who called him a genius). He was known for his work on neutrinos, and was considered a brilliant mind, but his health was poor, and in his later years, he became a hermit. In 1938, one day, while he was living in Palermo, he withdrew all of his money from his bank account, and sent this letter to the director of his University:

“Dear Carrelli, I made a decision that has become unavoidable. There isn’t a bit of selfishness in it, but I realize what trouble my sudden disappearance will cause you and the students. For this as well, I beg your forgiveness, but especially for betraying the trust, the sincere friendship and the sympathy you gave me over the past months. I ask you to remember me to all those I learned to know and appreciate in your Institute, especially Sciuti: I will keep a fond memory of them all at least until 11 pm tonight, possibly later too. E. Majorana”

But shortly after, he sent a telegram saying he had canceled his plans. He’d bought a ticket from Palermo to Naples, and then was never seen or heard from again.

Some believe he escaped to Argentina, others believe he committed suicide, others believe he was killed or kidnapped due to the possibility of his participation in building an atomic bomb, others believe he simply left to become a beggar or a monk. But no solid proof has ever been found of what happened to Ettore Majorana.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.

Meet the woman who swims with Great White Sharks

GREAT WHITE SHARKS are on the brink of extinction, and Ocean Ramsey is doing something about it: She’s swimming with them. Ramsey, a professional scuba instructor, marine biologist, conservationist, model, surfer, and free diver — I definitely just got winded typing out that resume — has been bringing attention to the plight of great whites and other sharks by getting out of her shark cage and swimming with them.

This culminated recently with an incredible video Ramsey shot with a GoPro:

She has now swum with 32 different shark species, including the great white, and she says she’s doing it to try and dispel the myth that sharks are “killing machines,” a myth that has been lazily propagated by the media and pop culture ever since the movie Jaws.

“In truth,” she writes on her website, WaterInspired.com, “sharks are intelligent, calculated and generally very cautious about approaching humans. More importantly, sharks play a vital role in maintaining a healthy ocean ecosystem. Many people are unaware that sharks are being over-fished to the point of extinction. As the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum said, ‘In the end people will only protect what they love, and only love what they understand…’”

Photo:  Ocean Ramsey

Photo: Ocean Ramsey

Great whites are apex predators, which means they’re at the top of their food chain and have virtually no natural predators of their own. Apex predators are absolutely crucial to the stability of their environment.

For example, when Yellowstone National Park recently reintroduced wolves — the habitat’s natural apex predator — into the wild, the effects were astonishing: Not only did it bring some measure of balance back to the ecosystem, but it increased biodiversity, helped trees grow taller, and even changed the course of the rivers.

So it follows that the loss of apex predators such as wolves or great white sharks can be absolutely catastrophic to their environment. But that doesn’t stop us from killing them in absolutely staggering numbers — somewhere between 23 million and 200 million sharks a year are killed in the senseless and inhumane act of finning, where fishermen catch a shark, cut off its fin for shark fin soup, and then just dump the animal back into the ocean to die.

Which species, again, is the killing machine?

Photo:  Ocean Ramsey

Photo: Ocean Ramsey

Sharks kill an average 11 humans per year, while we kill around 11,417 sharks per hour. “There are estimated to be less than 400 white sharks in the North Pacific and less than 3,500 great white sharks left worldwide,” Ramsey writes.

“More than eighteen million people die from starvation and 1.2 million from car accidents. Crocodiles kill more than 2,500 people per year, and even they are protected in many areas. The world offers little to no protection for sharks. Sharks are vital to the oceans and planet. They need and deserve to be protected.”

Photo:  Ocean Ramsey

Photo: Ocean Ramsey

This isn’t to say you should go for a swim the next time you see a shark, as Ramsey explains: “I’m not advising that people go out and just jump into the water with white sharks or tigers or other large species, just as I wouldn’t recommend jumping into a yard with a strange dog. Sharks do need to be respected as wild animals and appreciated for their role as top predators in the ocean ecosystem.

“My shark experiences have all been positive in part because, while I know sharks are not mindless man-eaters, I simultaneously have respect for their capabilities, a lot of experience interacting with animals and reading body language, behavior, and I am comfortable with my own water abilities while also trusting my dive partner.”

Photo:  Ocean Ramsey

Photo: Ocean Ramsey

If you’d like to help in this cause, first: Don’t eat shark fin soup in your travels. It’s brutal and unsustainable. Second, Ocean Ramsey’s site has provided a ton of awesome petitions you can sign to help, and a bunch of projects and charities you can donate to.

This article was originally published on the Matador Network.