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Interview with Petro Marais

Petro has just celebrated her 30th birthday in Mogadishu, with Somalia her 67th UN country. She tells us about her take on travel and why this is now her way of life...

Petro, tell us something about your early years and how your interest in travel developed.

My earliest memory from travel was my first overseas trip when I was 5. I was born in South Africa and we went to visit my uncle in the US just when it the old system had ended. I still recall coming back and there was a very different feeling in the air. Today it has made me realise how the world is constantly evolving and changing.

Other trips as a child was going away every school holiday to places like the Kruger, Okavango Delta in Botswana, Kalahari in South Africa, De Hoop in the Western Cape, Namakwaland...

My grandfather was an award winning photographer and pioneer in wildlife photography within Southern Africa, my father inherited that hobby and it turned out that despite heavily protesting the urge to pick up a camera, I followed suit. It was also the reason my parents would take us away every school holidays, take us out of school or on weekends - for the photos and I would be dragged out of bed at the crack of dawn for the sunrise.

In 2000 life as I knew it was flipped upside down, everything was sold and exchanged for a 6 pax RV. We moved into that and would drive up and down the East Coast of Australia for 6 months. My father was employed and since financially they had hit the reset button all the holidays stopped for the exception of the odd camping weekend.

A year after I had graduated from High School I decided to return to where it all began - South Africa and threw in China as my first adult overseas trip. It was not long after this a naive 19-year-old me thought the Navy would be the perfect career to see the world. I would spend hours on their interactive section of seeing where ships would pull into and sail.

It was only when this career ended I was able to follow my dreams of really seeing and experiencing the world. Due to a medical discharge, being given compensation, I have been able to fund the past two years of traveling full-time on a modest budget.

Pisa, Italy.
So you are both South African and Australian; what are the main differences between these two countries and which parts of yourself do you find reflects each one of these?

Australia is the preferred country choice for South Africans to immigrate. South Africans are usually bilingual and have at least basic English. Europe isn’t a big attraction since it is only the UK that is predominantly English. The weather is a quick turn off, Canada is still too cold and same with the US. If you aren’t successful or don’t have enough points for an Australian visa you will go to New Zealand.

I find South Africans to be more “snobby” than the Australians, Australia was built by convicts so it has a laid back “She’ll be right mate” feel to it. It’s much safer in comparison with South Africa, to me the food in SA is better however I have to say Australia is great for finding every cuisine due to being a multi cultural society. Very few Australians are third generation Aussie.

On my mum’s side I am 10th generation and my fathers side 13th generation South African. South Africa you live behind 6 foot fences with electric wires above, full CCTV, laser beams, alarms, security guards and guard dogs. In Australia I can leave the keys in the car, and never need to lock the door. Having grown up on a rural property I was more worried about snakes than strangers.

The first few years I would go back to South Africa I would always be so on edge, worried something would happen anytime. I’ve learnt to let go of my fear and may even be too relaxed now.

The day Petro joined the Australian Navy.
What are the last three countries you travelled to? What are your impressions from them?
In the last month, I went to Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia. I am still recovering from the flood of emotions and knowledge I was rewarded with. Everyone I met along my journey was always friendly towards me. I was never made to feel unwelcome and managed to always interact with the locals. 

Iraq: I traveled by road from Baghdad down to Basra. I loved taking a walk down the cradle of humankind. Visiting sites still standing thousands of years later. It was the first one of the three and I can be very curious about different cultures and religions. Instead of getting more answers I left with more questions I want to be answered. I was there whilst the Arba'een pilgrimage was taking place. I can't compare Iraq to another visit but think it would be a fair call to say that this would have to be the best time of the year to visit. 

Afghanistan: I arranged a small private tour with two traveler friends. My only regret was that I did not stay longer. This will be up there with my favorite experiences and trips one day. We could often interact with the locals, I am not shy and would go up to have a conversation with people even at a restaurant. Perhaps if I was in a country that tourists frequent more I would likely rarely do this. However people would usually stare, I would return with a smile and then decide why not go up and have a conversation. In my opinion, a big part of a country is the people. Especially in countries where the majority of information shared globally is war-related I will find the human aspect, try to capture it with my camera and then share that part. Not the sensationalism aspect. For me, this was very easily done in Afghanistan and we were even able to interact and take photos with a group of girls wearing burkas. It really is amazing how far a smile and hello can go. 

Somalia: I was often warned this is as bad as it gets. Having already been to Somaliland and opting to still go despite the constant danger warning it was important to me to see more than just the one day in Mogadishu. Fortunately, someone had invited me for a trip for 5 nights that included, Kismayo, Garowe and, Mogadishu. There is very little information out there so for the first two regions I presumed they were highly dangerous since that was a common misconception. Instead, a common theme I witnessed in all of these countries is how life still continues. You will people being happy, sad and worried. You will see them out celebrating and remembering devastating events. You will see new construction going on despite their world being torn apart for decades. 

I have been heavily rewarded with courage, perseverance, and hope. No university could have taught me these skills, as well as this month did.

Hornet's Nest, Bhutan

So you just celebrated your 30th birthday in Somalia! How does that feel? Wouldn't you have preferred to be with friends and family for this day?

My friends and family are scattered all throughout the world. To me, it was important to be somewhere that was off the beaten path. I think I managed to do that fairly well. The first option was to go to Madagascar for the baobabs, the second was gorilla trekking. I am not very good at organising and realised this was going to be lonesome. So when I was invited for a trip to Somalia it was not hard for me to be convinced. I did take my time though to say yes. But only since I wanted to consider the risks I would take. I certainly don't regret celebrating it there. It is something different and an experience I will never forget.

Cutting the 'Somali flag' birthday cake in Mogadishu.
You're now a 'full-time' traveler. What are the things you always carry with you no matter what?

Too much!! I started off with a lot less but realised my suitcase is my home so I need some comforts. 

The easy answer is for a day excursion I will have my camera plus one lens, another camera to film, my phone is hardly used for photography, I must also have a little bit of money or preferably a card.

In my suitcase I have a first aid kit, medication for cold/flu and stomach bugs, a yellow fever certificate, my laptop, nice clothes since I decided I prefer quality instead of cheap and ditch, some shoes I never wear, my drone, gopro, stabiliser, more lenses, filters, hard drives and toiletries. Souvenirs are very rare. 

Andorra.
Of the countries you have been to, which ones have surprised you most and why? And which ones have disappointed you if any, and why?

Both of these are difficult to answer. There are always expectations when you have so many traveler friends and are constantly learning. Instead, I will share two stories. When I first started this journey I thought time will not be on my side as well as the financial means to do this for an extended period of time. I set a goal to get to all within 500 days. Could it be done? Yes... but you will miss out on too much and most your time will be spent transiting. Laos is the country that changed this. I had decided to take the slow boat up to Luang Prabang. I went to Kuang Si Falls. I realised how much you will miss of the world if you rush through it. That I would not be able to have these experiences. That was when I called off this ludicrous idea. For me, life is way too short to waste it on planes and end up seeing very little and missing out on so many experiences a country has to offer. From then on I remained open and flexible. For most of my trips I can leave as soon as I want or stay as long as I want.

The second part of the question I can't exactly answer. I think you could go back to a country that may have left you disappointed and have a different experience the next. Each time we go somewhere we have a different experience. I'm a sucker for revisiting places. The first time I went to the UAE I was very new to the travel scene, in fact, it was the first country I had. I ended up having the touristic experience it has been designed to provide. Since then I have returned and stayed with a travel friend, I was spending most my time there with local expats and did not experience anything touristic about it. Seasons change so does our mood and travel style. Change it up and next time somewhere you felt disappointed with may end up being completely different. 

Pyongyang, North Korea

So tell us a couple of travel stories that have really had an impact on you.

I had a layover in Bahrain. I was not going to leave the airport, but I was visibly upset on the plane. Just after landing a guy started to speak to me and to check if I was ok. He invited me to go to his home. I kept trying to decline his offer but on a whim ended up agreeing. I thought to myself we go to places to understand them and meet their culture. It was a short 7 or 8 hours there. But in that time he bought me dinner, he and his wife would have had less than 4 hours sleep to take me out for breakfast in the old souk and back to the airport. It's in a part of the world the western media will write about for westerners to fear the middle eastern culture. I have experienced nothing but kindness and true hospitality. The sad thing I realised was if he had landed in my home airport no local would extend the same to him. 

Another way I have evolved and changed is making friends. In the start, I would always reach out and form a bond and connection with the people I meet. This has changed though. I am not sure at what point but it was around six months into my journey. I can no longer make 24-hour friends. People are always fascinated with your lifestyle and telling your story on repeat can become draining. I still maintain the friendships of the people I met at the start. Today though I like to live in my own bubble and observe the world instead of getting too close to it. I have realised I am an introvert. I will take my time to recharge when I had to be social, when my batteries are full I will crawl out of my bubble again and make some more 24 hour friends. It is rare for me to now make friends I will remain in touch with on a long-term basis. Most people I meet and exchange contact details with will not hear from me again until the day I fly into their country. With already having so much to do on my phone I need to restrict having too many online conversations. Instead, I focus on my priorities and real in-person connections. If I am out for coffee or dinner with someone I will not touch my phone again until we part ways. 

Great Zimbabwe Monument
You are one of the moderators for Every Passport Stamp, the Facebook page for those who seek to do every country. What does this involve and how do you manage to combine this with non-stop traveling?

I certainly have to take a few steps back from this role in some locations. My main priority with this lifestyle is to immerse myself in the location. When it is somewhere I would consider "special" I will not get a sim card so I can remain disconnected. 

Every Passport Stamp has always been one of my favorite travel groups. I took a very active role in it when I first started to make it a better group for all travelers. The past few months have been an intense travel schedule so I remained at a distance but in the coming month, I hope to build a website and obtain some discounts for more off the beaten path destination tours for members. Everything in the group is a bit of trial and error just like in real life and our travels. I am grateful for being given the opportunity to moderate EPS since I have made so many new friends along the way. 

Mozambique
You have met many of the world's biggest travelers personally. What do you think links all these people in terms of character and personality? And how do you feel they are different?

The more I travel the bigger the gap is becoming with connecting with my friends back home. For me, this can be a very lonely life. Travel is my life and there isn't much else that I can share online. (There is always the option of not sharing anything at all). However, I think my mum likes to see what I do as well as a few other friends. It is just easier to share it on a few platforms. Due to only sharing travel there has been some negative feedback from a few individuals over the years. Coming back to meeting travelers - I reached out and became friends with them since for most of us it is such a big part of our life. We are all crazy in some way and can learn so much from one another. I sincerely value these connections and are thankful to the ones I am able to reach out to vent to about a bad experience etc. If I was to do this to my friends back home they may not necessarily understand why I would be frustrated over a canceled flight for example and just say oh how awful when perhaps I may need some alternative suggestions. We think alike and all have had similar experiences.

Budva, Montenegro
What are your travel plans for the next few months?
Right now I will take a bit of a break in Germany to catch up with photo and video editing. For Christmas and New Years I will be in Chad. This is as far as I planned. I would like to get some personal administration out of the way I keep delaying. For this, I may need to stay in one location. It could potentially be Central America or home for a few months.

Once this is done I would like to plan a trip to Nigeria, Turkmenistan, Venezuela and potentially Syria. All the "easy" countries get to fall in between when it makes logistical sense. The number of countries I have been to is not some impressive number in the hundreds but I like to take it slow and steady - add a few difficult ones in each year so I will not be left with 20 or 30 difficult ones at the end. When I refer to this, I hope to never see travel as an end. 193 is one list to me that I do not wish to obsess over. The same with Nomad Mania, MTP or TCC. I truly just enjoy the ride and not the satisfaction of adding a new country. I think this satisfaction disappeared around the 50 country mark. To me its just a question of have I been there? Once I get there I leave it up to potluck to see what crazy and amazing experiences I can have. 
Iraq
Finally, our signature question - if you could invite any four people from any period in history to dinner, who would be on your guest list and why?

I try not to idolise people. Instead, I will read about someone and become inspired however never obsessed. Most people are just normal human beings when you get to know them. My TV channel of choice when I am home is the Crime channel. I love solving mysteries so it would have to be some I get to find out some answers.

As scary as this sounds but perhaps Jack the Ripper so I would know who he/she was. 

I was based in Perth at the time MH370 disappeared. I was asked to go on a ship to search for the remains. Every time I see an article about it I always read it. So definitely would love to sit down with the pilot to find out what happened. I guess I watched a few too many aircraft crash investigations to have one of them unsolved for me. 

Another airline mystery is Amelia Earhart. Not only would I love to know what happened to her but I would also like to sit down and talk about all her accomplishments.

Lastly I have been watching Making a Murderer. I keep going back and forward on whether Steven Avery did murder Teresa Halbach. She would be the only person to tell us who was responsible so I would want to sit down with her. 

I am sure there are a few more mysteries I would not mind solving. 

If my first 10 answers have not already made you think I am a little odd, this certainly will. But in all fairness the only science I took during high school was forensic science so mysteries are what intrigues me the most. Perhaps that also explains my insatiable lust to see the world. 
 

Interview with Somali TV outside Garowe airport
The photos in this interview are from Petro's personal collection and we thank her for sharing them with us at NomadMania!

Find out more on Petro's website : WorldMission196!