The Chalbi Desert, Kenya
They wrote a book and I loved it. They left on a motorbike to discover Africa, taking their own path and leaving their own mark, and I thought this is what travelling should be about. They seem they are ready to take on the world with open eyes and with an open mind, and I knew they would be open to a conversation, too. They said yes, kindly and promptly, and here is my interview with Ana Hogaş and Ionuţ Florea, the two architects turned adventurers, authors of the book Oyibo, citizens of the world.
The Nubian Desert, Sudan
This June marks five years since you set out to follow one of your dreams, leaving on a motorbike tour of Africa, after having left your jobs and having put your careers aside. I think I am not mistaken when I say that many of us, at one point or another, fantasize about doing something of the kind. But what does it really take to make the leap?
We know that it sounds like there must have been an a-ha moment, but in hindsight the night when we talked about going to Africa by motorcycle registered like any other calm evening at home. Except maybe for the fact that at the time Ionut was stuck in bed, unable to walk without crutches (he had had an Achiles tendon surgery) and I was giving him belly shots to prevent blood clots from forming. So it was not a big moment. It was a very clear decision though, and since then we did everything to make it happen, as if we had signed a contract somewhere, it was that certain. We had had vague ideas about driving a car to southern Africa before, and we had been going through a very sterile and difficult time since 2009 (careerwise, as architects we were very much affected by the burst of the real estate and subprime bubble). So perhaps that this decision has been slowly forming inside our minds and Ionut’s surgery was just the release valve, I don’t know. In a way, I had been dreaming for long to become a vagabond, and he had been fantasizing with the idea of a physical challenge, and Africa has been a magnet for both. The escape to Africa was like a 3 in 1 logical step.
But as we tell in the first chapter of our book OYIBO, another accident, much more drastic, forced us to actually leave for Africa another 9 months later that originally planned. I guess that our decision needed some further testing. So tested we were, and when we finally left into the world we were as open as one can be to whatever life was to become and had nothing left to lose.
What is the most important lesson that Africa has taught you?
We are not sure we could name just one, there were many little lessons, many tiny moments of redefinition of what our idea of ourselves was. Ours was not a cultural shock kind of journey. It was overland and mostly off-road, so it was a slow, soft awakening to lots and lots of new stuff. Like being a baby in a way and learning to walk, to smell, to try flavours. We took it all in. We became less angry with our own selves, more compelled to act upon our instincts, to chase even the most ridiculous paths. We also learned a lot about our human limits, how we deal with hunger, extreme heat, getting lost in the Sahara, having to fight with each other for the last drop of water, not washing for weeks (yes) and having to make a life in the wild as nomadic westerners carrying a lot of useless gear in places where the best tool one has is their common sense and open mind. The extremely humbling hospitality and gentle curiosity of the African people was the most profound prejudice-shattering part of the journey and we will carry that forever in our hearts.
Doing volunteer work, Nigeria
Although I have the feeling I know what you are going to answer to this question, tell me, which is your favourite African country? Why?
P.S.: Is it Nigeria?
Nigeria is truly tattooed on our hearts. We just clicked with the people: we found them to be both strong and vulnerable, creative, hard working, a bit naïve in some respect, very passionate, true survivors. We were lucky to work as volunteers side by side with Nigerians from all 4 corners of the nation, belonging to more than 6 different ethnicities, Muslims, Christians and animists, all together in this tiny place in the rainforest, far from the tarmac or Internet. That place and episode is also our biggest regret of the journey, as we should have stayed there much longer than we did.
And which is the most overrated African country that you visited?
Perhaps Egypt, but you must take that with the proverbial grain of salt. True Egyptians are wonderful people, but the massive tourism industry has been spoiling the good old Muslim hospitality and we, as tourists, are the ones who much return things back to where they should be. We were also very tired at the time, and in Libya and Egypt there were tensions and problems that eventually led to Benghazi; our view must have been affected by that as well. Having said that, Egypt is a spectacular country, with some of the most amazing ancient relics and stunning landscapes. Cairo is a city to behold.
What remains your most beautiful memory of Africa?
The fuzzy feeling of being at home in Africa. We had that feeling over and over, for example when buying goods from farmers, working in Nigeria, waking up in the forest, watching zebras graze under a gigantic rainbow, being rained upon and feeling miserable and small, getting scared shitless in the Sahara under the most brutal thunderstorm and stuff like that.
Western Sahara, bush camp
Having coffee in Sudan
A little earlier you mentioned the hospitality and the gentle curiosity of the African people as prejudice-shattering. Did you leave with any other prejudices on your adventure? How has your experience there changed that?
We did have some preconceived ideas: the most important was that we thought we would be shunned by our professional guild for unplugging and switching to a vagabond lifestyle. Then we worried a lot about what would happen to us after we had sold everything of value and spent the money on “travel”. Could we eventually make a living from something else or would we be become penniless bums? We were second-guessing ourselves, when in fact, in our humble opinion, the best investment is in ourselves and our journeys to wherever they may be (physical or spiritual or of some other kind). What probably saved us was that, from the start, we put our trust in people: we hoped that if we fell, there would be someone to help us up, and, indeed, there always was (sometimes that someone was one of us).
When you were travelling through Africa, you were considering living there (in South Africa, for example). You are back in Romania now and have already toured Central Asia on motorbikes, South-East Asia, China, Tibet and Oman on mountain bikes, and returned for a 6-week MTB trip to Africa. Are you ever thinking about moving countries? Why/why not?
Yes, a lot. It’s gonna happen. We find quite nurturing the experience of starting over from scratch. Our hope is to settle for a while in Africa, if we find a job/purpose/sustainable way. That would be a lovely homecoming; but there are also some continents to be explored before that. So let’s see what happens.
Fighting with the mud, Congo
Cape Agulhas, South Africa
Do people make the place?
Well, yes, they do. But let’s not forget that people are just a species in this complex beautiful ecosystem we call home. The animals, the plants, the rain, the oceans, the deserts – they all come together with their energy and colours. We are deeply connected with each other and to the other living or material bits, and we are just learning about how this works and what makes us work. We personally do travel a lot for the people, but also for the sheer beauty of a place, for the solitude that some places require, or the physical punishment that others force upon us in order to have a deeper effect on a personal level.
Your photography is beautiful, leaving me the impression that it is an accurate depiction of Africa, just like your book. I remember something you wrote, about a tribal woman who said something like “All everyone of you wants (the tourists) is a photo of us”. That really had an impact on me and it made me sad. And it made me think about photographer Jimmy Nelson’s book, “Before They Pass Away”, where he showcases tribal cultures (not all of them) around the globe. It may have been a remarkable effort, but one that brought along plenty of criticism (to which I subscribe, too), accusing the author of a primitive attitude towards indigenous communities, and of forcing his own ideas on the photographs, which looked staged and were glamorised for his own profit and for feeding the fantasies of the Western consumers, while failing to reflect the real tribal life. And it makes me wonder: do we have a romanticised idea of these people and of the parts of the world they inhabit? Do we see them with too narrow-sighted eyes, without trying to understand them and see them as who they really are?
We are unfit to answer, as we visited too briefly. One must live for years among this tribes to be accepted and to be given access to true knowledge. It’s impossible not to have a romanticized idea of the cradle of humanity, we all have that yearning inside us that calls back to the mother’s womb, to being Adam and Eve under the first open skies, and Africa can have that effect on you. The tribal fabric of most African countries retains a lot of what we like to think it’s the truth in those photos you’ve mentioned. We try to look at those undoubtedly “staged” photos as re-enactments of something that is already lost. Things are changing, albeit not as fast as in other places. For the future generations those photos could be at least some sort of recordings of our heritage. The African tribes are also inherently beautiful and artists are inspired by pure beauty.
On the other hand, we are vocal against disenfranchising people by forcing them into Vogue pictorials, or having them masquerade traditional symbols to entertain tourists, playing important rituals as acts for cash and stuff like that. The Africans do need to be respected more. We, in the West, have a tendency to throw mercy at them, and it’s the last thing they need. There is a lot of untapped ancient knowledge in Africa, and that is paired with resilience and unique creativity. We have a lot of faith that the continent shall become a force to be reckoned with in the future.
If someone is travelling to Africa for the first time and chooses to visit only one country, what would you suggest?
Pick any country that speaks to your curiosity and visit shyly as you would a member of your family. Some countries are arguably more testing to someone who visit the continent for the first time, but there is no country to be avoided or to be considered the star.
I have to say that reading your book has made me ask myself some questions, as I was mentioning when I talked about it a little while ago, here, on the blog. And that is because I felt that everything you lived on the road was authentic, real, honest, meaningful. Probably I am not the only one. How have the people received your book? Which was the most moving feedback you’ve had?
We are thankful to our readers for constantly sending notes and photos. We welcome all feedback. Some messages are quite humbling and personal, there are others who had similar encounters with a deeper self in Africa and who connected with OYIBO. We have no idea yet if the book is a bestseller, but we do hope that it reaches more homes and more hearts. We like to say that “OYIBO is you”.
As I was previously telling you, I think you are setting an extraordinary example for everyone, but especially for the youth and for children, who are alarmingly too connected to the virtual life. How else do you think we can encourage them to live their lives, lead an active life (without it having to be a trip around the world), be themselves and maybe not give up social media altogether, but at least resume to an elegant approach to it?
Thank you. Now, the parents are responsible to give the young and vulnerable the right tools for exploration. The smartphone is a great tool, but it cannot replace real life, like falling of your bike for example. Very young people and kids cannot buy this gizmos themselves, so this is what should be first addressed. Then, information, information and information. We believe in allowing universal free access to knowledge, in sharing and putting quality content out there. Eventually someone will pick it up and move the world forward.
The wake up call, Congo
Was there anything at all you missed from your life prior to your journey (besides family and friends) while travelling?
The close ones were dearly missed indeed. We also missed having access to good computers to work on, a well fitted garage to work on the bike, a gym to exercise, good Internet connection. But those were easy trade offs against the freedom of life on the road.
How was your return home after 14 months of nomadic life? Do you think it’s important to call a place “home”, to feel that you belong somewhere?
We think it’s important to have a sense of family and home. Within our respective families we have always been some sort of misfits. They love and support us, but we tend to swim against the current, and that is OK. On a personal level, Africa felt very much like home, much more than Europe has ever felt. We also felt at home wherever we stayed for longer: Togo, Nigeria, Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, Cambodia, Vietnam. Last winter we cycled in Uganda and Tanzania; we were returning to Africa after 3 years and we were wondering ourselves if we had not romanticized the whole moto trip thing. But the moment we touched down we instantly plugged back into that old feeling. It was very real. It’s important to recognize that connection. We work to remind ourselves that we are OYIBOs.
Now, being a vagabond is also tiresome and consuming. After a while we need to stay put and let everything sink in. For us, home is not something local or physical, rather a feeling of being in sync and waking up with a purpose. Returning to Bucharest after 14 months as self-imposed nomads was incredibly difficult and painful, and we chose to leave that part out of the OYIBO confession. Perhaps we’ll share that in another book.
The Tropic of Capricorn, Namibia
What about your architect careers? Are they put aside for good? With your travellings, photo exhibitions, speaking events and writing your first book, do you feel you have found your true calling?
We are on a different path, that’s sure, but we do not exclude the possibility of returning to big urban design in the future, if such a holistic opportunity will come. It’s too soon to say we’ve found our true calling. Let’s just say that we are more aware of our different callings and that we are attempting new stuff. The things you’ve mentioned are bits of what we do or did to share our story and to make it more meaningful to ourselves in a therapeutic sort of way. Much like writing OYIBO was, these activities allow us to revisit the journey we made around Africa by motorcycle. As for a career, we are still makers, designers, we still do that, only differently.
How were your subsequent travels different (physically, mentally, etc) from the first African journey?
We had travelled in vagabond fashion before Africa, but Africa was much more intense and much more open, in the sense that we were free to move and do, we had a tent all the time, and we were consistent in going deeper and exposing ourselves as much as we could. Riding on 2 bikes along the Silk Road to Mongolia and back, cycling across China & Tibet, or South East Asia, cycling in Oman and East Africa were continuations of this personal choice of how we experience the world. We discovered in Africa that this is something that we do very well. We relish in exploring new places, connecting with strangers, overcoming troubles, improvising things when in need. We also need to find new challenges to continue to grow. Our strengths are always our weaknesses, though, so we try to pick our battles wisely.
Oman by bike
Tanzania by bike
What advice would you give someone who is thinking of following his dream, whatever that may be?
To just go for it. Too much planning and splitting hairs means risking to postpone too much the real thing.
Who would you take along for the ride on your next trip? And by the way, when are going to hit the road again, and where to?
Each other, or nobody, for that ultimate self discovery that everybody needs once in a while. Having said that, we are going to hit the road in late August together with a group of open minded people who are ready to break a sweat and work as a team. We are leading this group into Namibia for a 2-week adventure organized with Wild-thing.ro
Which continent do you want to discover by road next? Why do I have the feeling that it’s not Europe (and I am not saying this because you are Europeans or because you have probably had your share of travelling around Europe)?
Indeed, we travelled quite a bit through Europe, and there are extraordinary places there that need to be revisited or discovered, but we yearn for more untamed places, and while we keep going back to the map of Africa, we think an Americas trip is due.
What makes you happy at the end of the day?
Doing something out of passion and experiencing a deep connection with people and nature. It can also be just having a good meal, or simple things like that.
Selfie on the meteorite, Namibia
Q&A on Africa:
Most beautiful sun rise: east coast of Zanzibar
Most beautiful sun set: over Zambezi, at Victoria Falls in Zambia
Best food: fruits all over (jackfruit is our favourite) and octopus soup (supu pweza) in Zanzibar
Warmest people: the Sudanese
Most beautiful road trip: Damaraland, Namibia & Lesotho
Perfect trails forever, Mongolia
The paper version of the book Oyibo will also be available in English by the end of the year.
photos: courtesy of Ana Hogaş and Ionuţ Florea