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Visiting remote tribes with Edward Vallance

While many of us are addicted to travelling we often follow the same paths around the world. You’d often expect to see backpackers in Australia, South East Asia and Indonesia. Meet Ed, his travels are a little different to the average travel geek. Visiting remote tribes in South America and touring Arctic Russia are just some of the amazing adventures he’s been on.

We tracked down Ed on his return from Siberia to find out about his amazing travel experiences.

What experience made you a travel geek?

My dad went to work in Oman for 2 years when I was age 11 – 13 and I spent a total of about 8 months there visiting him during school holidays. It was a country literally emerging from the Middle Ages: until 1970 they had had a Sultan who had banned everything Western and Modern, from medicine and schools to cars and roads to electricity, televisions, telephones and even spectacles. In 1970 the new Sultan used oil money to pay 1 million foreigners to come and help develop the country, of whom my dad was one. We spent every weekend exploring the remote mountainous and desert corners of this beautiful country by 4 wheel drive, on foot and by camel and it was this that got me obsessed with exotic and off the beaten track travel. It also gave me a sense of urgency to explore as many remote and isolated places where people live radically different lives from us as possible because I saw how quickly Oman (and therefore presumably the world) was changing; how by age 13 roads and telephone lines had brought civilisation to places I had visited aged 11 that were previously almost completely wild.

What has been the most memorable moment on your journey so far?

It’s impossible to name just one, sorry. Being invited by a remote Amazonian tribe to take part in a ritual where they burn themselves twice on the arm then put frog poison into their bloodstreams; being invited for tea and bread by nomads in the remotest part of the Moroccan Atlas; traveling on foot for a month through the highlands of West Papua, just me and a local villager, sleeping in village huts or under the stars; meeting a Mentawai shaman with full body tattooes and sharpened teeth in the jungles of the island of Siberut, Indonesia; living in a teepee and traveling by sledge with reindeer-herding nomads in the Russian Arctic; living with who I believe to be the happiest people in the world, a remote tribe on the island of Espiritu Santo, Vanuatu; being invited to join in a 3-hour, 200-person tribal dance to celebrate the opening of a new men’s meeting house on the island of Pentecost, Vanuatu, myself the only one wearing any clothes; spending 5 days on Fais, an Outer Island of Yap State, Micronesia, a tiny island hundreds of miles from anywhere with some of the friendliest but most isolated people in the world; being the first outsider every to visit one tribal community on the island of Mindoro in the Philippines.

Having a feast put on for me by Armenian villagers who I had only just met; Visiting tribal markets in South West China where the people dress in the most psychedelically colourful and crazy traditional dress I’ve ever seen; visiting reindeer-herding nomads in Northern Mongolia; cycling from Lithuania across Belarus and into Russia; driving on the frozen surface of Lake Baikal, Siberia, in early May and having to rescue the car after its front wheels got stuck in a partially melted patch of ice!

You’ve visited some amazing countries. What made you pick them?

I lived in Argentina because I studied French and Spanish at university and had to spend 6 months in a Spanish-speaking country. Most of the South American countries I have visited were during or after this time. Everywhere before this was traveling with family or friends and everywhere after was to visit tribal / indigenous groups who I had researched and found interesting, with the exception of Russia and a few former Soviet Union countries nearby. I have spent almost 2 years in Russia and despite having originally had no interest in it originally, a very strong interest in it has now developed and is competing with my interest in tribal people! Since I speak reasonable Russian the former USSR is also an extremely rewarding place to travel.

Meeting with so many remote tribes must give you a new perspective on the world?

Definitely, before I thought money and success were important, now they are the least important things to me. I feel more that personal development, understanding different ways of thinking and life, pursuing your dreams while at the same time not neglecting those close to you, not endlessly consuming unnecessary luxuries, friends and family, trying to be a good and decent person, these are the most important things.

What lessons have you learned from visiting tribal villages?

I’ve learned more and more from each tribal group I have visited. I learned the least from the first, in the Amazon, because I was the least well-prepared. I don’t think I was going there with the attitude that I could learn anything, I just wanted to see something really exotic. When I got there it was so isolated and so exotic, and it was my first time doing anything like that, that I was quite shy and didn’t make full use of the opportunity. I learned more and more from each tribal encounter, until now the main goal is to spend as much time talking directly to the people themselves (wherever possible I try to learn as much of their language or a lingua franca as possible before I go so I don’t need a guide or interpreter).

Anyway, I’ve come to the conclusion that there is a lot to be learned from these people. Without exception they know how to live in harmony with their environment, not destroying it, whereas we simply cannot figure out a way to do this. Perhaps, if properly analysed, there could be found in their societies some element that could be transferred to ours that could improve it in this way. Their legal and education systems often function near perfectly within their own societies too. Obviously they could not be transferred to the West, but perhaps elements of the thinking behind them could.

Not every tribal group lives in paradise as is sometimes romantically imagined in the West – many have developed destructive and stressful cultural institutions – but some do. I have visited people who have only food, water, housing, family and friends, who work only two or three hours a day and who believe they have everything they need, that there is nothing more they could possibly want. Everyone in their society is equal and there is no crime or even serious arguments. Their expectations of what they need are so low that they are never disappointed. They have so much free time to spend with their extended families that there is much more of a sense of social support than anywhere else I have been. Compared to people in the West, where we are constantly being told we need to work more and more, have less and less free time, buy more and more unnecessary luxuries, these people were extraordinarily happy, welcoming and generous. The higher people’s expectations, the more likely they will be disappointed, and the more stressful their lives will be in trying to attain them.

Where are you now? What have you done there and what do you plan to do next?

I’m now teaching English in Moscow, Russia. As far as I know nowhere elses pays the ridiculously high fees for private tuition as Moscow. I financed my last year-long trip by working very hard here, teaching lots of private students and saving up. I came back last August and planned to do the same but various things have prevented me from saving enough for more than just a couple of months of travel this summer. First I had a recurrence of malaria then I spent 6 weeks in England trying again and again to get a Russian visa ($500 a pop) and being refused due to a mistake I had made on the form. Eventually I got a new one in Kiev, Ukraine.

What advice would you give to people thinking of travelling for an extended period?

Spend longer in each country rather than trailblazing through loads. Try to learn some of the language of your main destinations. Try to go to places off the beaten track, places not even mentioned in Lonely Planet. Try to meet locals rather than other backpackers. This sort of travel may not be for everyone but for me it is far more rewarding than following Lonely Planet, staying in backpacker hostels and seeing the recommended sites.

What unusual location in the world that you have been to would you recommend to everyone?

Vanuatu literally has something for everyone. The main island, Efate, has adventure sports. Many islands have some of the most beautiful white sand, palm-lined, clear turquiose water beaches in the world and the chances are very high you’ll have them all to yourself. There is also great diving, both for wrecks (such as USS Coolidge) and fish, on some islands. There is some stunning mountain scenery, especially on Espiritu Santo, and some mountains that have been climbed by very few people. The local people of Vanuatu were found by some survey or other to be the happiest in the world, and I agree. They are also the friendliest and most hospitable of any country I have visited, with the possible exception of Yap State in Micronesia. They have also preserved their traditional culture more than almost any other country. Even the President, when he returns to his home village, has to answer to its Chief. Villages regularly have traditional dances and rituals and in remote parts people wear only loincloths, grass skirts or penis sheaths.

What locations and countries are you looking forward to visiting next?

I’m planning on trekking through Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan for 2 months this summer although my plans constantly change at the last minute. Next year, assuming I’ve saved enough, I want to travel through Africa (Mali, Niger, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Namibia) and the Sub-Continent is also high on my list (India, Nepal and Pakistan). If the situation in Afghanistan ever improves I’ll be there too.

And lastly, can you describe how travelling makes each of you feel personally?

Free, I guess, like I’m pursuing my dreams, unhindered by plans, ambitions, a career or any other social constraints. I don’t want to knock anyone who doesn’t travel – people are all different, with different dreams, mentalities and paths through life, and that’s what makes the world an interesting place – but I feel that for me personally I’m doing something far more worthwhile than just working and spending all the time. I have the idea that if I spent my whole life working in an office I’d end up in the same place spiritually (and probably geographically) as I started in, all the memories would just blur into one and I’d regret it at the end. 99% of the things I would have worked so hard to spend money on would have disappeared to be replaced by something new, better and more up to date. But my memories from travel will never disappear.

You can read more about Ed’s amazing journeys on his website

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