Interview with Jakob Ă˜ster

INTERVIEW WITH A NOMAD

Jakob is one of the nicest guys out there - we can confirm this! And what singles him out as one of the travel greats is that he has achieved it all while leading a 'normal' family life in Denmark. Here he tells us how he has managed to balance all this...

Tell us something about your early years and Jakob the non-traveller.

I grew up in Roskilde, Denmark into a family which almost never travelled. I first started travelling when I started playing international table tennis tournaments as a junior player. Back then I was scared of flying, I had problems with motion sickness and I had absolutely no idea I would one-day travel as much as I do today. I was, however, a very curious kid who liked to read about the adventures of Tintin – the (fellow) redhead reporter who goes to wild places, has great adventures and always narrowly escapes when he is in trouble. I also loved the Donald Duck stories where he travels to exotic places with his family. I think the extreme curiosity, ability of perseverance and open mindedness that I have carried with me from my upbringing has been key to later becoming a world traveller.
Is it hard to travel big, while being a family guy and having a normal job? 
It is a lot easier than people think. I seriously believe that most people in rich countries could fairly easily visit 100 countries while having a family and a normal job. It is only a matter of prioritizing. Buy a cheaper house/apartment, drive an old car, keep your old kitchen, don’t buy all the ridiculously overpriced shoes, watches, handbags and clothes that the first world countries for some obscure reason has gotten us all to believe that we so desperately need.

I have a well-paying job in IT / Sales but I think with the right level of prioritizing I could also have done it as a mailman. The real issue as I see it is getting time for the travels and overcoming the practical obstacles and the fear of the world that the media and the society constantly inflict.

For me key to this has been an understanding family (including my parents) who never questioned or worried about my travels. A girlfriend who is herself a very experienced traveller (and who worries less about dangerous countries than I do – she was the one insisting on bringing our kids to Afghanistan when I suggested going solo). Charlotte and I have travelled together in around 80 countries and at least once every two years she is kind enough to let me travel a month solo to realize my dreams and pursue my goals. Between jobs I have also done three almost year-long trips (the last one with Charlotte) when I was much younger.

Since then I have just travelled in my holidays. In Denmark most people have 6 weeks paid holiday and I have always had kind employers who have allowed me an extra two weeks (self-paid) holiday so I could travel a month in summer and a month in winter each year while maintaining a full-time job.

I consider myself tremendously lucky for having all this – a loving family, a beautiful and well-travelled girlfriend, super adaptable and curious children who loves to travel, parents who trust that I can take care of myself, a nice job with great colleagues and a happy everyday life when I am back home. I couldn’t see how I could ask for more.
Papua New Guinea
Was there a moment when you decided that you want to be a ‘country collector’?
I had almost been to 100 countries before I started signing up for all the travel clubs – The Travellers Club of Denmark, Nomad Mania etc – I was simply too busy travelling and living for that. And initially I had no desire to travel to the ‘dangerous’ or war-torn countries.

Then I entered the Travellers Club of Denmark and met lots of inspiring adventurers and people who had been to even stranger places than me. Some of these people were a great inspiration and I started building a network of people (later including people from Nomad Mania too) that have been invaluable when later going to some of the very tough-to-get-to places. Seeing that other travellers could actually visit every country on the planet inspired me to try to do the same. Plus, along the way I found out that almost all the countries labelled ‘dangerous’ were full of normal, kind and friendly people (much friendlier to travellers than in countries full of tourists) – and that with the right amount of planning and precaution I could travel just about anywhere.
Saudi Arabia
And what about your ambitions for records and failures. And were there really some failures?
I like records and I admire all the travellers in their 20’s breaking records. I have had the pleasure of interviewing several of them for my blog or for the Danish newspaper I now occasionally write for (on a freelance basis).

For me it is both about records (even though I might not get any) and about experiences. My quest will probably end up taking a total of around 25 years and that time has allowed me to sometimes spend longer time in countries and go to more adventurous places that I could report from.

Concerning the records: for some time, I thought I would be the youngest Dane in every country but then my friend Henrik Jeppesen (Beyond every country) beat me (with a large margin) to it.

My next ambition was to be the youngest hobby traveller to complete the 193 UN countries. I failed again (Norwegian Gunnar Garfors beat me to it finishing at 37 years and 344 days).

Presently I think it would be cool if I could be the youngest hobby and family traveller to visit every country in the world. Hobby meaning, I have a normal non-travel related job and pay for everything myself. Family meaning that I have a beautiful girlfriend and two fantastic kids that I try to bring as often as possible. Maybe someone out there will beat me to that as well (I haven’t heard of anyone – but you never know).

Record or no record – I could not have dreamed of a better life than this – I have a perfect family and I am able to self-finance pursuing all my dreams.
Uganda
Tell us a story from your first travels that has had a great impact on who you are today.
My first big “world trip” was in 1996/97. I was 24 years old and travelled alone for the first time. I had bought a flight ticket to Moscow, a train ticket with the trans-Mongolian railway from Moscow to Beijing and a return flight ticket from Sydney and was planning to travel from Moscow to Sydney without flight. When I landed in Moscow I was supposed to be met by a local agent who was supposed to take me to my accommodation (a homestay with a local family in a grey Moscow suburb) and hand me my train ticket. However, the agent wasn’t there. This was pre-internet and pre-mobile phones and the lady in the airport information spoke not one word of English. Fortunately, I managed to find the office phone number of the agent and I also found a random guy (after asking quite a few) in the airport who could translate to Russian so the information lady could phone the agent. Luckily, he answered the phone (out of office hours) and arrived about an hour later with my onward train ticket. After that all went well – the homestay, the trans-Mongolian and the 10 months of overland solo travel (I made it all the way to Bali without flight and flew from there to Darwin and continued overland to Sydney).  After that start and the rest of that amazing trip I thought I could do pretty much anything if I just set my mind to it. So, I decided that when I had saved up enough money my next trip would be from Antarctica to Alaska without flight.
With the family in Guinea-Bissau
There is one great drama writer who said that a plane can fly, not because of its wings and engines, but because of its passengers belief in safe flight… How do you feel about planes now, considering your fear of flying in the past?
 
Well I am a man of science (I have a Master’s degree in Engineering) so I certainly do not believe the plane flies just because the passengers want it to.

My first two long trips where almost entirely without flight (trip 1: Moscow to Sydney and trip 2: from the Antarctic circle to the Arctic Circle in Alaska) simply because I was afraid of flying and because it was cheaper and I back then did not have much money.

After those trips I started flying more. I have been truly terrified when flying small planes in south America and the Pacific especially if the weather has been bad.

Luckily by facing my fears – fear of flying, fear of dangerous places etc – I have gradually overcome them – and now I quite enjoy flying if I am on a relatively big plane. Very small planes in third world countries in bad weather is still not a personal favourite.
Faroe Islands
What is the oddest place you have ever spent the day or night?
I witnessed a satanic ceremony of the secretive Poro people in northern Ivory Coast in 2014. The Poro only show themselves publicly once every seven years. Back then nobody knew that the Poro existed outside of Sierra Leone and Liberia. And I was unable to find any other articles/TV-documentaries about them before I wrote an article about them in a Danish newspaper. They allegedly killed a local policeman (and got away with it because they are very powerful in the local society) in preparation for the ceremony I watched. Hiding in a small shop looking through the armpit of my local fixer I also got to witness the warrior part of the ceremony. (Check ‘Poro’ on Wikipedia or read a short version of this story in English here – scroll to number 1: http://www.expedition-everywhere.com/top-10/top-10-adventures/ )
If you were condemned to one country for the rest of your life, which one would you choose?
Denmark. We have the prettiest girls. We are the worlds happiest nation. We have the best social security system with free education and free hospitals. We have no corruption, no crazy gun laws and a very well-functioning democracy. And being one of the richest countries with high salaries I believe it is one of the best countries for working, saving and travelling the world at the same time. Only the weather is too cold and dark in the winter.
Scotland
Finally, our signature question - if you could invite any 4 people from any period in human history to dinner, who would you invite and why?
I guess this could be answered in different ways:

For beautiful women I would go for: Scarlett Johansson, Angelina Jolie (in 2001 when she did Tomb Raider), Michelle Pfeiffer and Danish actress Sofie Lassen Kahlke when she was in her late twenties.

For adventurers I would go for Columbus, Marco Polo, Peter Freuchen and Thor Heyerdahl.

For people making money from their hobbies: Richard Branson, Tony Wheeler, Hugh Hefner and Bill Gates.

For authors: Mario Puzo, Tolkien, Walt Disney & Hemingway.

Actors: Al Pacino, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt & Jack Nicholson

Politicians: Churchill, Obama, Che Guevara & Margaret Thatcher.

If I had to choose only four I think I would go for the hot women (for obvious reasons).
The photos in this interview are from Jakob's personal collection and we thank him for sharing his images with us here at NomadMania!