From Myanmar to Sierra Leone to Belarus: Insights to my life as a travelling journalist

Even though I know that my current lifestyle may seem a bit extreme for some people, these past weeks have reached a new level – even for me. Usually, it’s easy to follow my travels more or less on social media, but for the past three months I’ve been less active in the online world. On the one hand, it’s all been trips focussed much more on journalism than on travelling per se, while on the other hand, I got a bit tired of trying to keep up with everything on social media.

Meanwhile, I absolutely agree that keeping a neat social media profile (whether it’s just for fun or as a tool for self-promotion/marketing) is to some extent a job on its own as well. And even though journalists like to claim a blog is a good tool for self-promotion too, in my case it’s probably more a way of procrastinating really, so since some of my friends (and even my mum…) desperately lost track of where I am and what I’m doing, I thought I’d write a little update.

Impression from my work in Myanmar.

After my three and a half months in Myanmar where I was working at the local magazine “Frontier” as part of a programme of the Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland, together with the biggest journalism school in Switzerland (which I didn’t attend), I came back home in December for… one week!

My brother had offered our family a trip to Ireland for Christmas, which was a great idea since I’d rather use the time over Christmas to discover something new with my family than going through the same procedures at home as every year. No articles from Ireland though, just leisure time.

Travelling in Ireland

Hiking in Ireland.

This time, I got back to Switzerland for… two weeks. One of the problems, if you not only study international relations but also have international relations, is that your friends are scattered all around the world. So occasionally it might occur that you get an invitation for the 30th birthday of a friend in… Finland. But since it was during the rare periods I was actually in Europe, and since I work independently, there was no reason not to go and I was absolutely happy to meet my friend and another good friend from Stockholm in Helsinki.

We’ve all been studying together in Stockholm in 2013 and still keep in touch today. As I (obviously) like to work from different places, I stayed a few days longer and while my Finnish friend, also a journalist, was at the office, I worked from different cafés in Helsinki, finishing my last pieces about Myanmar and starting to prepare my next trip to Sierra Leone.

Helsinki Finland

Frozen sea in Helsinki.

Yes, back to Africa! The reason: There is a student’s organization in Switzerland called IFIL – Initiative for Intercultural Learning – which organizes study trips to interesting countries once a year. The organizers are usually students or young graduates who have a special link to the country. As a student, I’ve been on one of their trips to Tanzania back in 2014 and absolutely loved this mix of meetings with officials (for example from the African Court of Human Rights, the Department for Youth and Sports, the Swiss embassy etc.) or people from civil society (for example from NGOs, orphanages or the university).

This year, there was a trip to Sierra Leone – a country I didn’t know much about, but which had somehow caught my curiosity. My plan of course: First the ten-day study trip with the group, and then staying another ten days on my own to do some research for articles.

Travelling through Sierra Leone with a backpack.

Backpacking in Sierra Leone.

If you’re the only journalist in the group and there is a blog that needs to be written, you know whose task it’s going to be. So I won’t write about our experiences here again, but will point you to the link to the blog (which is in English too): Sierra Leone travel blog for IFIL.

After this fun trip with a fantastic group, I researched on various topics such as the catastrophic landslide that occurred in 2017, the role of radio during the Ebola crisis, the problem with bushmeat and endangered chimpanzees, and the role of telecommunication companies as bank substitutes for money transfers. I also spontaneously climbed the highest mountain in West Africa, Mount Bintumani (1945m), which was definitely worth it even though I managed to hurt my foot.

Hike to Mount Bintumani in Sierra Leone

Hiking through the jungle.

Back in Switzerland, I only had one week before my next trip to Belarus. This one was a press trip, meaning a Swiss NGO working on human rights in Belarus and Ukraine had organized a trip for journalists around the topic of human rights and repression, with a focus on the situation of homeless people.

I was curious to discover the probably least-known country of Europe, and especially topics related to human rights. It was a very intense time full of meetings with highly interesting people, projects and organisations and we also visited cities in the east and the west of the country.

Journalists group in Belarus

Research in Belarus with a group of journalists. Photo: Marco Fieber.

While I usually don’t buy a return ticket if I don’t need to, for this trip I’ve booked the return ticket even before I booked the ticket to go to Minsk. The reason: I’ve received an invitation to speak at a journalism conference, with the aim to share my experience as a freelance journalist in Myanmar.

It was not the first time I was invited as a speaker, but usually, it was for smaller organisations in a more informal way – this time, I was going to get paid for it and they would even print my face on flyers, wow! Of course, I didn’t do it for this reason – as you might imagine, such conferences are always a great opportunity to network, which in journalism – especially as a freelancer – is very important.

Coffee and passion helped me through this day, after having slept only two hours since I’ve had to catch the earliest flight possible back to Zurich Switzerland, in order to be able to arrive at the conference in time. Nevertheless, the whole conference was very interesting and definitely worth it. A short conversation I had when I arrived and people looked at my luggage with the airport tag actually pretty well sums up my last few weeks:

“Oh, are you coming directly from Myanmar?”

Me: “No, no, from Belarus.”

Someone else, looking at the splint on my foot: “Oh, so did you hurt your foot in Belarus?”

Me: “No, no, in Sierra Leone.”

…my life as a travelling journalist in a nutshell.

Working in Sierre Leone

Working at the beach in Sierra Leone.

Croatia also won the world cup

It was a pure coincidence that I happened to be in Zagreb during the final of the world cup – which, to the surprise of everyone, France was going to play against Croatia. Even the Croatians themselves hadn’t expected to reach the finals (for the first time in history) and so the preparations were spontaneous, almost hesitant. Only on the morning of the big game did the main square get transformed. The balconies were wrapped in flags and the big statue of Ban Josip Jelačić on his horse got dressed with a huge flag around his shoulders.

Statue of Ban Josip Jelačić with a Croatian flag

Ban Josip Jelačić

Contagious euphoria

We had to change our initial plan of watching the game at the main square Ban Josip Jelačić as it was already packed with people a couple of hours before the start of the game. Nobody wanted to miss this event, not even those who couldn’t care less for football. The city was full of people in Croatian shirts, from the grandma to the new-born.

Many people were wearing red and white ties – not because they wanted to be formal, but because Croatia actually claims to have invented the tie. Ironically, during the Napoleonic wars it was the French who became intrigued by the unusual, picturesque scarves distinctively knotted at the Croats’ necks and adopted it. The word “cravate” in French is apparently a corrupt French pronunciation of the word Croate. And of course, on this particular weekend not only locals were dressed like this, but also Asians and other tourists – the euphoria was contagious.

Croatian merchandising

“Proud to be Croate”

Even though the colours of the two teams were the same, it was obvious that only Croatian supporters were here thanks to the emblematic red and white checkerboard, which you can also find on the middle of the flag. “I really hope Croatia wins today, it would be so much more than just a victory for the football team but also a victory for the whole country, a sign of unity and hope for the future”, said Kristina, a 29 year old Croatian.

“We are a very young country and with our difficult past and the challenging current economic situation, a victory would bring us more together.” Croatia indeed has had a difficult past, having seen a change of regime many times in the last years, from being part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Habsburg Monarchy, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, Socialist Yugoslavia and finally becoming independent in 1991. Kristina’s words made us hope for a Croatian victory even more.

Ban Josip Jelačić square in Zagreb

The main square of Zagreb

Ćevapi, pivo and football

Having realised there was no chance to watch the game from the main square, we bought the typical Ćevapčići (minced meet with bread and onions) and a few Ožujsko beers (Croatia’s most popular beer) and went to Zrinjevac park instead, one of the big parks in the heart of Zagreb. We found a spot where we could see more than two thirds of the screen – not too bad.

Ćevapčići in Zagreb

Traditional Ćevapčići

I had expected to be able to tell the course of the game just by watching the fans – which turned out to be a wrong assumption. Even though the two goals for Croatia provoked loud screaming, lightning colourful fires and starting chants, to my big surprise I almost didn’t notice the first goal for France. Sad faces, for sure, but no boos or angry shouts as I’ve seen in other countries. The fans seemed very fair, even though with every following goal of Les Bleus, the hope of the Croatians faded noticeably.

Therefore, the surprise at the end of the game was even bigger: only a few minutes later, the Croatians were smiling again and started singing and shouting. “We are still proud of what we achieved”, a Croatian told me. The streets were packed, in every corner there seemed to be a party. We joined happily and couldn’t stop smiling as we watched fireworks being lit in the middle of the street, people waving enormous flags, and passing cars being shaken by the crowd. Even two police officers couldn’t hide their emotions, so people ended up taking selfies with them to the amusement of everyone.

Zagreb is a party place

Party in the streets of Zagreb

The next day, we walked around in the city, and even though it was Monday and not the weekend anymore, there were way more people in the streets than I’ve seen on Saturday. It was a day of celebration and if we hadn’t known better, we would have believed that Croatia won the world cup. At 2pm the national team would come back home from Russia, so everybody wanted to welcome them.

Unexpected wait

I wanted to head South instead and took the bus at 4pm to Zadar – a huge mistake. After only ten minutes of driving, we had to stop. The crossing in front of us was blocked, thousands of people were standing there and the whole traffic stood still. We waited and waited. After one hour, I lost hope and started thinking whether I would have to stay another night in Zagreb.

Two hours later, a police helicopter arrived, flying close above us. Many people left the bus to go and have a look, and since the bus couldn’t go anywhere anyway, I did the same and approached the crowd. Just in time! The bus with the national team just passed, the guys standing on the roof, waving flags and celebrating. Our long wait got compensated! It was a fun experience to be part of this and I didn’t mind that we arrived 2,5 hours late in Zadar.

The national football team of Croatia

Croatia’s football team on top of the bus

The owner of the sunset hostel I’m staying at in Zadar, Marina, told me that she’s been watching the game at the hostel and that many of the guests were actually from France! So she ended up wearing a French t-shirt while a French guy wore the Croatian t-shirt. “It was such a great night – full of joy and mutual respect!”, she told me. “We are so happy we became second – and to be honest, it’s much better that France won, because they would have been very sax if they’d have lost. Like this, everybody is happy!”