Jose Antonio at the South Pole
Jose Antonio, you are one of the best travelled Spaniards. How did your travels begin?
It all started at a very early age. Any place that seemed remote, different, or even strange made me wonder big time. I used to ask myself questions like "How do they live there?", "What do people talk about?", "What does the whole place look or feel like?". I had to satisfy my curiosity and that triggered the madness. A madness I can comfortable talk about here as I am sure you all understand me. I then visited nearby countries (although my first was Argentina) and kept going and going... How could I stop? The world hides enough corners to keep us wandering for several lifetimes...
Jose Antonio in Kiribati
You have lived in 11 different countries. Which ones? How have your experiences differed in these countries? In which one were you happiest to live in?
Life lead me to live in several countries for different reasons. Studies, work, love, or even just because. As a Spaniard, of course I have lived in Spain and then UK, USA, The Netherlands, Germany, Malaysia, Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and France/French Polynesia.
Most of these countries are very different from each other so that would be a first contrast to note. Also the motivation that put my hairy chest on each one of them added a different perspective in the whole experience. In general, I can say that what was always different was the landscape, the food, and the culture though people everywhere have the same dreams and fears deep inside.
I enjoyed each and everyone of them. I do not think there are better or worse places. What really matters in the end to me is how you feel in a certain spot, who you share it with, and what experiences you have. I had some of the best years of my life in Venezuela, my time in DRC was truly special, the USA set the beginning of many things, Mexico brought high performance times... And I could go on and on with all of them...
Jose Antonio in Central African Republic
You are especially involved in projects in Africa. Why especially Africa?
I was once asked why not Mexico. A country that had given me so much. My answer was clear: "Because for Mexico there is you (this person was Mexican) and there is hardly anyone for Africa. You take care of your people and I will try to take care of those no one seems to care about..." Every country has needs but I believe that countries with resources have better chances to take care of their people and it is not my task to do that. However, in many African countries (with or without resources) most people get no help at all. Particularly in remote areas where it is inconvenient or dangerous to deploy this help. That gave me the answer and my final destination.
You have lived in the Democratic Republic of Congo for a number of years. Tell us something about this country which for most foreigners represents something of a no-go zone.
I have lived several months of each year for a few years now in DRC. A country that has recently won the prize (several times) of being the poorest country on the planet. The first thing I will say is that it is one of the most fascinating and authentic countries in Africa. I have been fortunate to have had the chance to enjoy all of the countries in this continent and still strongly think DRC is top 5 for many reasons. Adventure here is as good as it gets. Of course I would not dare to say it is a destination for everyone. It is far from the tourists (and travelers) routes for a reason. Violence outbreaks are common, health services have a long way to go, distances are huge, infrastructures are the worst you can imagine, and it is definitely a place full of risks... BUT DRC is DRC and to me it is really hard to beat as a destination. Likely the adventure of a lifetime for most. Hopefully one day it will be open (i.e. easier) to enjoy.
Jose Antonio in DRC
You have a travel blog, Travelzungu... As you say in your blog, mzungu means traveller, stranger, white, explorer in Swahili. Is this the way you mainly see yourself? And what are your aims with this travel blog?
Indeed, Mzungu means all of those things and literally it means wanderer. I guess I respond to all of those definitions and hence the name www.travelzungu.com although I always blend in right away and become as much as a local as possible everywhere.
I have never been a very active person on the internet but I realized that my family and friends always enjoyed gatherings in which they would ask me over and over to talk about my travel experiences from my very particular perspective. At some point, given the fact that I spent a lot of my time traveling and those gatherings were hard to arrange, I decided to write about it on a blog. Besides, If many people enjoyed and laughed listening, why not spread it so that more people could enjoy by reading? It has been a year now and although it takes time, it is rewarding to receive countless messages from people that have a better week thanks to reading my Monday posts. I did not expect that.
My blog sells nothing but it seems to bring smiles to many and just that means a lot to me. It is just the pleasure of writing and sharing with others. At this moment it is only in Spanish but I am in debt with English readers and will work on that when time allows.
You also have another website, called the Mzungu project. This is about helping others. Please tell us more about it and how our readers could become involved if they wish.
When I turned 33 and having accomplished all my professional goals, I decided it was time to give back to life what life had given me. I thought education would be my approach to it and changed my life radically. I did not need a bigger house or a faster car and could live with little so got rid of everything and moved to DRC to build a school for underprivileged children on my own. Why on my own? Well, I did not know anything about NGOs, charities, or foundations, and though I am sure there are many that are great, I wanted to make sure that the money I had earned with lots of effort went straight to where it was supposed to. And as simple as it sounds (which was not at all)... I went there and built it.
It was a totally anonymous endeavour but when people around me started asking about it I noticed a huge impact on everyone. I never sat down to think about that there was an enormous amount of other people interested in the same thing and inspired by what I had done. Many wanted to help me do more, participate, live the experience... So much so that this has become a big part of my life today. That is how www.mzunguproject.com was born. It is a way to open doors to others wanting to participate. And there are many ways to do it. Of course, economic contributions help a lot but there are other ways too, some people are good at spreading the word, others at fundraising, drawing construction plans, or many other skills and talents that could help. I invite all to contact me, to know more about the project, and, why not? donate if they wish. I am always open to listen suggestions, collaborations, etc. In the end, we all win.
This 2016 I will be building a second school and will even take people with me to live what most likely will be the experience of their lives and leave in their heads an indelible memory. Furthermore, I will show the results in a way that they (or anyone) will not imagine at all. It is going to be a blast!
Jose Antonio in Bhutan
You have a few countries left to complete the UN list. Do you intend to finish them all? Any ideas on which one you want to leave last?
Of course! I am not in a hurry and have many other trips in mind before that happens but knowing every country will give me the whole picture of this world we live in and would love to accomplish that endeavor.
I guess I may be forced to leave Syria for last according to current events but if I could choose out of the 10 or so left at this moment, I do not have a preferred one. They are all also in the same region so probably logistics will take care of that.
What is the greatest lesson that travelling has taught you?
I do not want to pick just one!
Traveling has taught me that the best kind of intelligence is adaptation, that we all are the same no matter where we come from, that helping others is a must, that the more you travel the more you learn, that if you need to change your perspective on life, travel will help big time, that your problems may be smaller than you think, that life is a journey, that there is a whole bunch of people waiting for you out there, that traveling is part of feeling alive...
You haven't lived in Spain for decades. Do you still feel Spanish?
I sure do although I can see the difference of mindset between me and other fellow Spaniards. Having been exposed to so many intense experiences and places definitely changes your internal thinking structure. Of course I love my country, my culture, my gastronomy...
What are your travel plans for the remainder of the year?
Mzungu Project will take a big part of the year so I will be traveling to Africa and particularly to DRC for sure. For the rest, Central Asia and the Caucasus are in my mind as well as parts of the Caribbean, hidden corners of South East Asia and North America and why not Europe. You know how it goes, then things come up and end up somewhere else! but always with trips in mind.
Finally, a quirky question... if you could have one superpower, what would you choose and why?
Definitely the superpower of printing multiple entry, non-expirable visas on the spot with my fingers... Just kidding.
My choice is the superpower of sweeping away suffering and healing others mentally and physically. I think life is unfair on many and being able to provide them higher quality of life would be not just awesome but would also bring a better world.
Jose Antonio in Socotra-Yemen
The photos in this article are from the private collection of Jose Antonio Ruiz Diez