Issue # 16 of literary magazine Drunken Boat is dedicated to Exploration. You can read my contribution here.
Very busy with preparations for the Altai expedition 2013.
Arita Baaijens grew up in the bible belt of the Netherlands, close to farms and wood lands. She escaped her native town Ede to study biology at the Free University in Amsterdam. In 1990 she gave up her job as a consultant in environmental affairs, bought camels and ever since has explored the desert of Egypt and Sudan during the winter months with her small camel caravan.
Arita Baaijens feels most at home in the desert: the silence, the peace, the endless plains, the sobriety, the hardship, the scarce human contact - Baaijens finds it all far preferable to the noisy chaos of the West. In Egypt she mostly travelled solo. The solitude had a significant impact and changed her outlook on life. In the barren landscape of sand and rocks one cannot fill the time with economic and cultural activities. The confrontation with ‘nothingness' can be quite scary. But it can also a blessing: when there is nobody to rely on you discover your true strength. Arita Baaijens transformed fear for the unknown into a positive force.
After years of travelling in the empty desert of Egypt, Baaijens went to Sudan, a land of nomads. She made spectacular treks through the inhospitable northern Sudan which borders on Chad, Libya and Egypt. Curious about the backgrounds of famine and ethnic conflict Arita Baaijens made several journeys in Darfur. Her travel companions were all men: her guide and armed protectors lead her in her voyage of discovery to virtually unrecorded ruins, hidden springs and lost cities. The contrast between the ‘rich' westerner who can afford the luxury of travelling through the desert for pleasure, and the Arabs she employs is a rich source of lively anecdotes. Suspicion becomes trust, hostile eyes turn kind and full of admiration and friendship.
After the war broke out in Darfur the author went back to find out what had become of her former travel companions. Some had joined the janjaweed, others became rebels. One of her body guards refused to kill his own people and simply left the area. Her former desert guide was still doing his job and risked his life everytime time he crossed the desert with a trade caravan of camels, destined for the meat markets in Egypt. Listening to the stories Baaijens found out that even in war time men have a choice.
After two decades of sand, camels and Arabs, Arita Baaijens has broadened her horizon. She found a new challenge in south west Siberia, where she trekked on horseback and explored the remote Altai mountains in Russia to search for Shambala, a mythical kingdom. According to Buddhist legend this paradise on earth is located in a remote valley somewhere north of the Himalayas.