"Arctic, Arabia, Africa & Asia" JohnniOmani's Profile
Gazing out the window of my bus wondering how such a beautiful country could have descended into chaos is a memory that will stay with me for the rest of my life. Beautiful rolling hills passed by while farmers use machetes to clear the fields and prepare their land for harvest. Those same machetes were probably used only a few years earlier in the incomprehensible Rwandan genocide. Despite my random thoughts of trying to understand the land of Rwanda, life continued to move forward. Women in beautiful African clothes worked in the fields while countless young Rwandans passed our bus while carrying baskets on their heads. Everyone on the bus huddled together in order to make space for the ever increasing number of passengers while a two year Rwandan girl was coughing beside me. Her mom had recently travelled to the capital Kigali for treatment and now was heading back to their village. The man in front of me had a machete scar on his neck while the man to my right was missing four fingers. Rwanda present day suffers scars on so many levels. After playing with the HIV affected baby and enjoying her smile during the bus ride, we slowly rolled into our destination in Western Rwanda.
Wooden shacks sparkled in the setting sun on the town of Ginsenyi on Lake Kivu on the Rwandan, Congolese border. The entire journey through Rwanda had been surreal and now my journey would lead me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. A place that strikes mystery and fear in most people’s minds thanks in part to the novel The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. The town is a dusty frontier town that is the gateway to the oldest national park in Africa and home to the largest population of Silverback Gorillas on the planet while the area around Lake Kivu had become notorious in the mid-1990s due to the tens of thousands of bodies that were dumped in the lake during the Genocide. All of these thoughts ran through my mind as the sun was setting. Meanwhile, the striking mountains surrounding the town quickly vanished into the darkness as the lights of motorbikes twinkled around me on the dirt roads. Men and women huddled around fires on the side of the road to keep warm while my motorbike taxi and I negotiated about a price to find a guesthouse. After twenty minutes, he dropped me off a guesthouse favored by Rwandans and Congolese. After checking in and paying the 10$ US for a private room, exhaustion set in after the emotional and physically exhausting bus ride. As my head hit my pillow, images of the Genocide victims sitting beside me on the bus ran through my mind. The Congo was only 1km away and unknown to me at that moment, the next day would surpass anything I have ever experienced in my life.
The next morning, the sun broke through the window of my guesthouse and the weather outside looked lovely. A warm crisp breeze blew through my room as the old wooden panel windows were opened in my room. My eyes surveyed the beautiful mountains in every direction as I stepped onto the balcony and the birds were chirping on the ledge beside me. Congolese refugees walked around the town trying to sell products as Rwandans were gearing up for the day ahead.
“Do you know how I can get a visa for your country, I want to go to America or Canada but nobody can help me and the Iranian officials here won’t assist me either”. “I want a better life for me and my family but we feel trapped in this country”. “I am educated and speak five languages yet I can’t find work”. How was I supposed to respond to his request? I certainly didn’t work for an embassy or consulate but that piece of information didn’t matter to my new Afghani acquaintance. The man’s optimistic eyes searched my face waiting for a positive response while I thought of a diplomatic and hopeful response. I wasn’t sure what to say so I explained how the immigration process worked in Canada and which websites and people to contact.
The man’s heart sank as I explained Canada’s point system for accepting immigrants. The man had fled Eastern Afghanistan as the fighting intensified in his village in 2004. His family had been separated during the chaos and he had travelled with his daughters and wife to Iran to avoid the violence. He was educated in Kabul as an engineer and now lived in Iran as a refugee of war. Life for Afghan refugees in Iran is not an easy life. They face discrimination and racism from the locals due to the fact that Iranians compete with the newly arriving foreigners for employment and living space. Millions of Afghans arrive annually in Iran which has ultimately caused friction between the two nations.
The man was polite, well spoken and gentle. His traditional clothes and long beard were well groomed showing that despite not working and living a difficult life, he had great self pride. Both of us looked at each other while the world around us was oblivious to our presence. Standing in a square in Central Iran while speaking to an Afghani man was surreal. Families enjoyed picnics while couples rollerbladed around the square. My new friend and I sat down on a bench and continuted our conversation. The man’s warmth obliged me to answer his questions. He was incredibly excited to meet me as he said that he has never met a Westerner foreigner before. He invited me for ice cream and we walked around the square together as he told me about his harrowing journey across Taliban controlled territory in Afghanistan. Despite the difficulties he had experienced, he proudly showed me photos of his wife and children and described his life before the war started. The man’s stories of pre war Afghanistan were filled with smiles and tears. He told me that he and his family used to go to their favourite park to laugh and enjoy each other every Friday before the war took place. After several hours together, we parted ways with a traditional kiss on each cheek and a warm hug.
That meeting in the hot Iranian sun was nearly five years ago and that man’s face and words still stay with me to this day. Hearing his journey really put my life into perspective. So many travellers explore this world freely without obtaining a difficult visa or work permit while others would give any item they possess to obtain freedom. Meeting people around the world has made me realize how lucky I am to have been born in Eastern Canada. Taxi drivers with Master degrees in Syria to PhD holding shop keepers in Yemen has shown me that not everyone has a fortunate position in life. Realizing how lucky you are to be born in a Westerner nation should never be overlooked or forgotten. Life in most countries doesn’t include all inclusive beach holidays, SUVs or fancy restaurants. It consists of parents and families trying their best to improve their family’s future while working 15 hours a day. My travels have allowed me to meet African children who walk two hours to school to Armenians and Georgians who deal with daily power cuts and cold showers. I have had enlightening coonversations with people from Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, North Korea, Yemen, Brazil, Pakistan among many others and their resilience has always been astonshing. One thing is for certain. My passport is a luxury item and that is something I will never take for granted
The green lights looked as though they were dancing with each other, moving across the sky as though they were moving to a Latin rhythm number. The brightness of the lights shined as though they were meant by nature to guide the Inuit’s path across the frozen Earth. The freezing temperatures bit at my nose while my eyes strained to take in the views. Complete amazement. Thoughts ran through my mind. Was I really here? Was I really sleeping in an igloo? The wind howled across the Arctic tundra as stars dazzled the sky. It was my fourth night on the tundra. Despite the temperatures dipping below minus fifty, the warmth of the igloo was comforting. The warmth gave me a sense of security against the elements while deadly creatures lurked the night in search of prey. Polar bears and wolverines roamed the area while we slept with the warmth of ice all around us. The stars and northern lights illuminated the tundra in a way that a lake or sea would catch the early morning sunrise. My arctic adventure was coming to an end but the last four days had been unforgettable. The land trip across the Canadian Arctic started with a warm handshake outside the town of Arviat. The elders had agreed to take me on a Caribou trip with them. Their friendly weather beaten faces greeted me as my friend and I pulled up in our skidoo.
Everyone was excited for the trip. Dogs barked off in the distance and we soon realized that our transportation would be a combination of dog sleds and skidoos. The dogs looked ferocious and their temperament intimidating yet my 70 year old guide assured me everything would work out for the best. After accepting his Inuktitut translated advice, we threw our gear into the back of the komatik (wooden sled). We set off with the only goals being to caribou hunt and ice fish. My friend and I laid in the back of the komatik overcome with excitement as the sled bounced against the icy tundra hitting invisible bumps along the way. The town behind us drifted off into the distance as we raced with the sun on our faces. The sled dogs barked as the skidoo effortlessly made its way across the barren landscape while ice found its way into my thick beard. The cold was mind numbing and after observing the beautiful scenery for an hour, I laid down to protect myself against the wind. The cold was overwhelming and it amazed me how anyone could survive longer than an hour on the tundra without the assistance of an elder. Occasionally, we popped up from underneath the caribou skin blankets to check our location but the arctic tundra was only distinguishable by occasional Inukshuks to guide our way. The eskers (bumps in the ice) guided our Inuit drivers and the thought of navigating my way around the arctic landscape was extremely intimidating. The wind was brutal and my feet were numb now. It was astonishing that my driver was 70 years old and only wore a a homemade Arctic wolf fur jacket and knitted handmade toque that his wife had knitted for him. My clothes felt like a comforting blanket. Seal skin boots, a coyote fur jacket and rabbit fur mittens were the only items that stood between me and death.
A Border Glance
The border was coming into to focus. We were waiting in line to cross back into Rwanda from the Congo just as I noticed an older man on the opposite side of the road looking in my direction. Our eyes locked; transfixed on each other realizing that our lives had been extreme opposites. His eyes sought my face with a sense of urgency and envy. The look is indescribable unless you have experienced it firsthand in a third world country. The man was twice my age and he just gave me a blank stare that said nothing yet revealed everything.
The sun was ready to go down in less than an hour and the world behind us was fading away. Thoughts ran through my mind as my papers were being checked by a Congolese border guard. Thoughts of what that man with the fascinating eyes must have been thinking when we connected glances. Had he been a refugee?Perhaps he was a migrant worker? Surely he had suffered unimaginable circumstances that would surpass anything endured by me in my lifetime.
The man’s look was haunting; a look that almost begged for help yet his silence was humbling. Those eyes that really touch who you are as a human being and remind you how fortunate one can be in life. Surely, our eyes only connected fora few seconds but it seemed like an eternity.
Just as the African night was falling, Rwandan soil was once again beneath my feet for the first time in nearly a day. So many questions. Where would that man sleep? What would happen to him and his family? Despite the uncertainties, one thing is certain.That moment in the Congolese evening will not be forgotten.
The last few years has given me further insight into foreign cultures and I must say that I am learning or at least observing a great deal about how the world operates on a daily basis. I have noticed countless great things about people and their customs but I have witnessed harsh realities that will linger in my mind for the rest of my life. Travelling is a fantastic way to learn about the world and despite the majority of the time being filled with great memories, journeys through off the beaten track destinations (places where many travellers feel out of their element) have left sharp impressions in my mind. Countless people travel with their eyes closed but I believe witnessing, remembering and learning from people in difficult situations teaches you to view the world through an alternate set of lens. Ive travelled through East Africa and witnessed the realities of situations where a significant % of the population have survived and continue to survive in unimaginable circumstances. Ive met people who didn't ask for my money but for the clothes off my back to people that only get a chance to really bath when it rains.
I witnessed lepers in India begging for money while people in Syria and Iran try to make ends meet despite sanctions. After experiencing these countries first hand and coming home to Canada with all its luxuries can be tough on me at times. No matter what happens in life (missing a car payment or having student loans) things can always be worse. People suffer hardship on a daily basis and thousands die needlessly in places such as Darfur or in Northern Uganda. Travelling and experiencing the hardship of other people has put my own life into perspective and I have such a deep respect for the resilience of people around the globe.
I firmly believe that most people by nature are good spirited folks willing to show a foreign host a great time if they extend a welcoming hand and an open mind. The people I have met through my travels throughout the past four years have given me such a multi faceted outlook on the world. Ive come to the understanding that everyday life of peace and happiness is the desired outcome for most folks but not the reality for others. Travelling really changes your vision about what life is and how people deal with it. Many people I ve encountered are genuine people that would do anything to trade positions with a foreigner. I often think how it was absolute luck that I was born into a great family in Canada and after travelling abroad I never take that fact for granted. Travelling is a rollercoast ride of emotions but a ride that Ive been lucky enough to experience on numerous occasions. I will continue on this journey for the rest of my life and I will continue to be humbled by the resilience and hospitality of people from around the world.
The Middle East has long been discriminated against and misunderstood by people worldwide especially by the western world including my friends, family and myself. Most travellers don't consider travelling this region due to the political turmoil and conservatism but despite having its problems, the Middle East offers travellers just about anything you could ever imagine. The Middle East is an archaeologists and Historians dream come true. Although it helps, it isnt necessary to to have any appreciation of history to be blown away by much of what there is to see in the region. The area has some of the most incredible structures known to man from Petra to the Pyramids with less known gems like Baalbek or Shaharah.
Most people that visit the region are absolutely stunned to learn that the Middle East has some of the most impressive structures and ever built by man. Not only are they incredible but there are so many different styles of buildings that exist in the region. Yemen has some of the most visually dazzling buildings in the region with its ginger bread type homes. Oman has impressive gleaming white buildings that shine in the sunset like nothing you have ever seen before. Egypt has the ancient wonders ranging from the Pyramids to Abu Simbel while Jordan has the beautiful ruins of Petra and Jerash. Iran has gorgeous blue tiled mosques while Lebanon is home to some of the best preserved Roman buildings on Earth. Add Turkey, the Gulf and Israel to the list and you would need 3 lifetimes to experience it all. In addition, the views are out of this world. The desert scenery in Oman, Iran and Jordan will make your jaw drop and the mountains in Yemen, Turkey and Lebanon are a paradise for trekkers. The Middle East has just about anything you could ever ask for and due to current problematic areas ie Iraq, Israel/Palestine and you have a place where mass tourism does not exist. After three years of exploring its sights, the Middle East still humbles me when I least expect it whether it is the stunning sunsets or hospitable people. Living in the Middle East has opened up my eyes and mind in so many different ways and allowed me to experience one of the most interesting cultures the world has to offer. I have traveled through Palestinians' refugee camps to drinking tea near Iraq and every person I met traveling thus far has been so friendly to me no matter their political ideology, religion, color, origin or gender. They have always greeted me with the most honest sincerity and welcomed me to their country. I am far from naïve and I don’t live in a fantasy world of peace and harmony but human beings are more alike then most realize or willing to admit and traveling in the region has allowed me to discover this first hand which is proving to be a remarkable experience that I will treasure for the rest of my life.
Travel here and you will walk away in awe :) The Middle East has to be experienced to be believed and with five thousand years of history and culture, it is impossible not to fall in love with the place.
The Caucasus has always been a region out of the ordinary. For thousands of years it has been a bridge and refuge, a home to mountain clans and ancient peoples and an area that has seen its fair share of oppression and conflict. The Caucasus consists of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan and Armenia are remarkable countries but I found Georgia to be the most fascinating nation due to its traditions, people and history. Even as late as the 20th century there were mountain men in Georgia wearing medieval tunics and wielding swords. Most travellers first impression is one of astonishment due to the locals hospitality as well as the beautiful views. It lives up to the old travel writing cliché of the ‘land of contrasts’. Georgia is home to stunning mountain scenery, police corruption, a unique language, legendary hospitality, brutal history, fantastic traditions, heavy drinkers and soviet statues making it the absolute highlight of my travels thus far.
Africa is the type of continent that will leave a lasting impression on your mind and soul like no other. It is a place that will shock you, surprise you and entertain you; it will get under your skin to the point that you will leave and promise yourself and new found friends you will return one day. Africa is home to some of the most amazing animals, people and sites on Earth bar none. The sight of women walking on dirt roads from village to village with water jugs on their heads while dressed in bright colourful clothes will make you smile yet realize the existence and reality that is Africa. Harsh extremes are common here and should be treated with humility and respect. The people will most likely leave the strongest impression on you and their enthusiasm and spirit is eye opening to say the least. Africans will embrace and adopt you and you will feel like you stepped into a land that that should have visited years before in your travelling career. This continent has to be experienced to be believed and the continent is full of thrills and excitement. Obviously Africa can not be summarized in a single paragraph but trust me, if you go and give this misunderstood continent a chance it will not only get under your skin but into your blood which will make you go back time and time again.
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