The Favourites of Jakob Øster

Please introduce yourself:

I am Jakob from Denmark. I was born in late 1971. Before I turned 18, I never really travelled. Back then I got easily carsick, seasick and was very afraid of flying.

Since I didn’t like cars, boats or planes I started off with the train “interrailing” around Europe in 1991&92. Found out I liked always going somewhere new. Started using other means of transportation – and kept going.

If somebody back then had told me I would one day go to Yemen, Syria, Libya and Iraq and bring my kids to Afghanistan, Sudan and Somalia I wouldn’t have believed them.

But I did venture on. Along the way, I found out that the world is a kind and friendly place. I found no danger in the “dangerous” countries. Just friendly people with the same dreams and ambitions as you and me. So I just kept going. Along the way, I met my life partner Charlotte – and we got two fantastic kids who we bring on our travels as often as possible.

On 31. July 2019 I stepped foot on my last and 196th country Eritrea (I count 193 UN countries + Kosovo, Vatican, Taiwan).

How many days have you approximately travelled?

Around 2.050 days. In Travellers Club of Denmark, members can register all their travels so this number should be pretty accurate.

What are three of your favourite countries and why?

It is hard to choose between so many great places. But perhaps:

A perfect country for adventure seekers. I love to stay with tribal people and document their otherworldly ceremonies (see below). Also in Ethiopia, you can feed wild hyenas, photograph gelada monkeys, see rock-hewn churches, visit Simien National Prak and the Danakil Depression. Plus I like the hospitable and ever-smiling and optimistic locals.

I love the friendly, forthcoming and welcoming people and the fact that everyone seems to always be enjoying their life. Plus the nature is great, the system with homestays (casa particular) gives you the opportunity to live with the nice locals. On top of that, I think all the old colonial building, the 1950’s American cars, the cycle taxis etc make it one of the most photogenic places in the world.

A country that has so much: Passionate people. The worlds southernmost city. The spectacular National Parks Los Glaciares and Perito Moreno in the Tierra Del Fuego. Watching whales and sea lions near Peninsula Valdez. And the sublime capital Buenos Aires.

Are there any countries you don’t enjoy travelling?

I have enjoyed all my travels. But: Guinea in West Africa was super corrupt and a very difficult place to take pictures and I got detained for taking an ‘illegal’ photo and on top of that got amoebic dysentery. I have also been harassed by super corrupt officials in DR Congo and Gambia. Some of the Pacific countries – especially the main island Tarawa in Kiribati – are very remote and very polluted and the locals sometimes defecate right on the beach.

What are three of your favourite cities and why?

Buenos Aires
You will find people dancing the tango at public squares, great steaks and red wine and some of the most passionate people you will meet everywhere – just go watch a game at the ‘Bombanera’ football stadion in La Boca if you want to know what I mean.

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My home town. Some of the worlds best restaurants. World-class modern architecture combined with old well-preserved areas (like Nyhavn), A super cosmopolitan city. Perhaps the prettiest girls in the world. High income and prices mean that almost everywhere seems cheap when travelling. Best place to connect to the Faroe Islands and Greenland. A fantastic place to live in.

The harbour has pretty much the most spectacular setting anywhere (tied with Rio perhaps) with the Sydney Bridge and the Opera House. On top, it has great people and fantastic beaches nearby.

What are three of your favourite hotels or places you’ve stayed and why?

I generally don’t like fancy hotels very much. Though some luxury is nice from time to time I usually prefer to meet people at cheap and cheerful local hostels or guesthouses or simply live with local people. I love to learn about a country from the locals – not from other tourists/travellers in a fancy hotel or in an air-conditioned tourist bus. Here are three examples:

Shreenath Palace, Jaisalmer, India
My wife Charlotte and I rented a private room from an Indian family living in a Haveli (traditional townhouse built from golden sandstone) in Jaisalmer, India. It looked like something straight out of 1.001 nights and our room had 3 (very old) balconies and six free-standing pillars. To get to the bathroom at night we had to wake up the family. They were sleeping (in three generations) in just one bed in front of the front door. The young son then got up – unlocked the door and escorted us to the outside bathroom.

Mursi village, Ethiopia
Stayed with Charlotte and the kids (then aged 8 and 5) a week in a remote Mursi village in the Omo valley of southern Ethiopia. We camped next to their thatched huts. Toilet was in the bush, and the nearest freshwater well was 7 kilometres away. By day we played with the Mursi children (bringing western toys such as frisbees and water guns that they had never before seen) and talked to the women while the shepherd men were in the field with the cattle. We also witnessed four very special ceremonies: wedding, name giving, jugular vein (a bull is shot in the neck with an arrow to take some of its blood – and a boy then has to drink the warm blood) and finally the illegal “Donga”-ceremony (see below under favourite travel moments).

Horse Nomads, Bokonbaevo, Kyrgyzstan
In the Kyrgyz summers, horse nomads go on Jailoo – “summer camp” in the mountains. They move their yurts up to around 3.000 meters altitude where they find fresh grass for their horses and cattle. With our kids – then aged 4 and 7 – we stayed for a couple of days with six nomadic families. No-one spoke a word of English so we could only communicate via my very limited Russian and Kyrgyz vocabulary (plus my Russian app on my smartphone). We had our own “sleeping yurt” and shared all meals with the nomads in the “eating yurt”. For the kids, it was like a farmhouse holiday learning how the nomads produced cheese, yoghurt and fermented milk after milking their horses and cows.

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What are the three worst places you’ve stayed?

Hotel at Vietnam/Laos border
No running water, smelly toilet inside the room (couldn’t be used due to no water), no electricity, very dirty, no mosquito net, of course, lots of mosquitos. Price: 2 USD per person.

Hotel at Nepal/India border
A dirty room with only a dirty bed inside it, no window, no other furniture. Price 1 USD a person.

Wooden shack outside of Masai Mara
I did a super cheap ‘camping safari’ with a local (non-certified) operator. The ‘camping’ accommodation turned out to be a wooden shack full of holes outside the national park. The place did have electricity but there was no switch in my shack so I couldn’t turn the light off (and the light bulb was hanging high and out of reach). Lights were on most of the night since watchman forgot to turn off the generator. Lots of mosquitos were attracted all night. No mosquito net of course. The next night we had no electricity at all since the generator was then out of gas.

What are three of your favourite restaurants and why?

I usually only dine at fancy restaurants with work/clients – I’d rather save my own money travelling and – again – I much prefer meals in local homes:

Lobster at a casa particular (accommodation in a private home) in Viñales, Cuba
Officially seafood could only be served at official restaurants but my kind host (I better not mention her name) still cooked up the best lobster dish I ever had.

Naustfest (boathouse party) north of the arctic circle in Skjomen, Northern Norway
I visited my friend Gunnar Garfors (who has been to every country in the world twice) in his cabin up north. At the Naustfest everyone was bringing delicious local fish dishes which we enjoyed under the midnight sun with one of the best views I have ever seen.

The best meal I ever had was cooked by my friend Rasmus Krath in his Copenhagen apartment
Rasmus has worked in the kitchen at two different Michelin star restaurants in Copenhagen. He had cooked for several days (mastering molecular gastronomy etc.) and had invited some special people for a sublime adventurer’s dinner. Several of the dishes were copied from the menu at Noma (several times voted as the best restaurant in the world) and Kong Hans (another CPH Michelin restaurant).

What are three of your favourite travel moments, and why?

I am so fortunate that I write travel articles on a freelance basis for the travel sections of several of the major Danish newspapers. I particularly love documenting rare and special ceremonies and people. My three favourite travel moments/articles are these:

Documenting the extremely rare Poro ceremony in the Ivory Coast
The Poro is a secret satanic brotherhood that exist only in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Ivory Coast. They are presided over by the Poro devil and come in different grades; chiefs, fetish priests, warriors and the crowd. They sometimes wear death masks, and women and children are not allowed to see the warriors or chiefs. The Poros allegedly only show themselves to the public at their initiation ceremonies held at a non-disclosed date approximately every 7 years. I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time and attended this very special ceremony. I was fortunate enough to see both the general ceremony and the warrior/fetisch priest/devil part.

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Documenting ‘Les Sapeurs’ in Kinshasa, DR Congo
I had read about the “Sapeurs” – (Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes) – poor Congo locals from the slum who dress up elegantly – and wanted to meet them and document their existence. But they are not easy to find. I drove around looking for the three full days in diabolic Kinshasa traffic. I finally met a guy who could fix me up with three Sapeurs. We did a three-hour photoshoot on different locations in Kinshasa. Last location was in the Gombé Cemetery where the founder of The “Sape”-movement is buried. By chance a TV crew was there and I was allowed in to watch a Sapeur Ceremony. Later the same day I had a random meeting with more than 100 Sapeurs walking in the middle of a road in the outskirts of Kinshasa.

Documenting the Mursi Donga Ceremony in Ethiopia
Donga is a secret and illegal stick fighting ceremony between different Mursi tribes. We were told it is only held around 10 times a year in a secret location and very few people on the planet get to see this. We found it deep in the bush after four days of searching. The fighters decorated themselves with fresh cow dung prior to the fighting. After about an hour of viewing the fights, we ended up being chased away by angry Mursi men who wanted more money than we had agreed when arriving.

You can read more of Jakob’s top 10 adventures by clicking here. For all of his travel articles in Danish, you can visit his Danish website here.

What are three of your worst travel moments and why?

Crashing with a bus in Venezuela where a fellow backpacker died

Being interrogated by the secret police in Tripoli, Libya before it was decided to deport me and to throw my local fixer in jail (I miraculously managed to get into Libya in the end though).

Being withheld and interrogated for almost 4 hours by military police in Conakry, Guinea and repeatedly threatened with jail by ten armed soldiers

More about these stories is planned in a future book by Jakob.

What are your best travel tips?

Be curious and approach and talk to as many locals as possible

Learn some words in every local language

Do not postpone realizing your travel dreams until you are old

Travel against the seasons (cheaper and less travellers)

Spend less money on hotels and transportation – it is a much more genuine experience to ride the local bus or stay with locals.

You only live once – make the most of it!

You can follow Jakob on his English website, Danish website, Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Thanks to Jakob for the inspiration and the interview. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and his family several times. He has many amazing stories from his impressive amount of travel.

Interview: November 2020.

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