Category Archives: Travel

People from Different Worlds

One little girl stands out especially in my memory, even though I only saw her for a few seconds. No more than six years old, she was digging through a pile of garbage in southern India. There was nothing unusual about the girl. In fact, I might not have noticed her if it hadn’t have been for the gigantic black pig digging through the same garbage pile. Just as we drove slowly past her, she looked up and caught my eye. While I sat comfortably in the car on my way to the hotel, she was struggling to find a little bit of food before the pig found it and gobbled it up.

My first production in India, 1980, was a documentary film about the Swedish orphanage, Elida Children’s Home. That trip to India gave me experiences that have influenced my life in many aspects. We landed in Bombay (now called Mumbai) early one morning in April. We left the airport before 6 AM and the taxi dropped us off in the middle of the city where we walked along streets where people dressed in rags still slept or were just waking up. A few luckier individuals slept on collapsed cardboard boxes. I was only 22 years old and never experienced anything like it – thousands of people! Many were children that appeared so frail they probably didn’t have the energy to wake up again. Others sat up, rooting among their few possessions – a rag, a bottle, a cup. A few eyed me carefully. It was surreal – everything seemed to move in slow motion.

Before embarking on this trip an older man told me, “When you come home you will be a completely different person. No one visits India without being deeply affected.” Why our Lord has given us such divergent circumstances and how we can find it so difficult to be grateful, are questions that have often crossed my mind. India has changed a considerably since my first visit in 1980, much to the better, but the memories remain.

A few years later, in 1987, we filmed a series of educational films. I had also been asked to film some desert excursions for a Swedish charter company. Tourists rode on camels from Sakkare to the pyramids in Giza. (A fantastic experience that I’ve had myself.) Stopping at a small oasis with palm trees and Bedouin tents to rest, they were invited into the tents and offered a cup of tea.

I stood outside and filmed as the tourists went into the tent. After a while two women came out, enthusiastic and grateful for everything they had seen and received. One of the women expressed her gratitude speaking loudly, “Such beautiful children! Imagine these poor people opening their home to us and sharing the little they have. What a wonderful experience!”

They moved on and soon two other women came rushing out of the tent. They were not happy. As they came closer I heard them griping, “Did you see the flies in that little child´s eyes sitting on the ground? So disgusting. How could the tour guides takes us to such a dirty tent and expect us to drink that awful tea?” They hurried away toward the camels, complaining loudly about their experience inside the Bedouin tent.

People react so differently when confronted with something foreign or difficult to understand. You can face it with a positive or a negative attitude. When we’re looking for film ideas, we look for the good, the positive, even among the difficulties and problems. Our aim is to encourage hope and happiness even in situations that appear trying and despairing.

If everyone could focus on the positive in life, what a celebration it would be.

Sri Lanka – My first visit

Two Ahikuntaka boys
Two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. (Photo: Per Wester)

My teacher in elementary school had a sister living on the island of Ceylon in the Indian Ocean, off the southern tip of India. Sometimes her sister sent letters. It was a special treat when our teacher read the letters out loud for the class. While she was reading, the envelope was passed around the class so that we could see the beautiful stamps with exotic animals and flowers that were glued in the corner. From the letters came exciting stories about elephants, jungles, endless beaches and about tea that grew on bushes. For me, Ceylon was a country sprung from the pages of storybooks.

In November-December, 1980, when I was 23 years old, I was offered the opportunity to travel to Ceylon. By that time the country had officially reverted to its original name, Sri Lanka, which means “the shining or glimmering island.” When I arrived on Sri Lanka the first time, the International airport, located just north of the capital, Colombo, was only a small, inconspicuous building surrounded by palm trees that seemed to bow down as the plane came in for a landing. When the doors of the plane opened and I took my first steps down the stairs out into a tropical world it felt like walking into a soft wall of warm, moist air – a totally new experience for me.

All the stories my teacher had read from her sister’s letter came to life, but the sound of the waves, the intense song of the tropical birds and the smell of the flowers and burning grass in the warm, humid air was something that could not be portrayed on paper. Sri Lanka was so much more. Still, the colorful stories springing from those letters telling about a tropical island, far off in the great big world, had left an indelible impression on me as a child.

My first encounter with the people and sights of Sri Lanka had been so intense. Every day was full of new experiences. I had walked on warm, empty beaches, seen elephants and met people who welcomed me as a friend. It was impossible not to fall in love with this tropical paradise. There was only one thing missing on my list of things to experience, and that was to see a cobra. But one morning, just before Christmas, 1980, looking out of the window of my bungalow, I saw two young boys squatting by the little gravel road. At first I paid them little heed, but when I discovered that the boy’s cloth bags were full of snakes I was intrigued. I went right out to talk to the boys and was able to become acquainted with their extraordinary pets. Finally, I was able to hold a real-live cobra! Little did I know, meeting those young boys would lead to a deep, life-long friendship with an exciting culture.

That first visit to Sri Lanka was followed by many more and over the years my teacher’s sister, Inga-Lisa Fairweather, who has lived on Sri Lanka for many decades, became a very close friend. I have returned to the island almost once a year since 1980. It’s fascinating how the stories we’ve heard as a child can have a lasting influence on our lives. I never dreamt that Sri Lanka, my childhood paradise, would one day be like a second home to me. Throughout the years I have made some extended visits and produced many films about the people, nature and animals on the island.

Sri Lanka – A Paradise to Return To

LaVonne and a Blue Whale
Swimming with a Blue Whale – We were only yards away!

There are some countries in the world that have that little extra something, that appeal that draws you back like a super magnet. Sri Lanka is one of the countries I find difficult to be away from for very long. They have everything – jungles, wild animals, history, fascinating people, long beaches and exciting underwater scenery. It’s never hard for me, as a filmmaker, to find a story on this paradise island.

My latest trip, in March-April, was my 30th visit to Sri Lanka. I have often been there over extended periods, maybe 2-4 months at a time, working on various film projects. My first visit to this paradise island was in 1980. Sri Lanka was, at that time, a somewhat primitive country with rough, narrow roads and people doing hard labor with simple tools. A country not yet industrialized but still maintaining the unique culture of a fading colonial era.

Now, in 2017, Sri Lanka is a modern country with well-developed roads and transportation. People live much like we do in Europe, for better or for worse. For me, one of the more disturbing “modernizations” is the ever-present television that can now be found even in the simplest homes in rural Sri Lanka. People have succumbed to the same social paralysis that affected us in the 1960’s, staring at a moving picture on the screen rather than visiting and talking with each other. Even if they don’t have time to sit down and watch, the television is left on as some sort of artificial companion or status symbol. Of course, television, correctly used, can be a great source of entertainment and information.

This spring I and my wife and colleague, LaVonne, were in Sri Lanka to film the final scenes for our new film, a story about the Ahikuntaka people, and to gather more material for our new book about Sri Lanka. First we visited Kudagama, a small village about 30 minutes drive south of Anuradhapura. When I came to Kudagama the first time to film in 1982, the village was little more than a cluster of huts made from mud, sticks and leaves. Most alarming, however, was the obvious alcohol problems in the village. Virtually 100% of the people from the age of 10 years old were alcoholics, drinking large quantities of the cheapest alcohol called Kasippu. Terrible violence and riots broke out daily. I think it could best be described as “Hell on Earth.” In our coming book and the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” I’ll describe more about working in the village at that time.

Since that first visit in 1982, I have followed the Ahikuntaka people throughout the years and seen the village develop and change. This spring we spent several days in the village, interviewing the elders and visiting with friends. No longer a hell on earth, it is now closer to paradise. What brought this change? I’ll tell you more about that later.

After our visit in Kudagama we traveled to Sri Lanka’s east coast to film and photograph the marine national park, Pigeon Island. The national park is a popular destination and the coral reefs surrounding the island have been damaged and destroyed by the many tourists walking in the bay, breaking off the delicate corals. Although Pigeon Island is worth a visit, the real excitement is to be found just outside the national park in the deeper water where the Sperm whales and Blue whales feed. We dove at several beautiful sites that week, but one day we were snorkeling in deep water when a Blue whale swam straight towards me. (The Blue whale is the largest creature to ever live on earth.) His enormous body was just a few yards in front of me when he slowly dove into the bottomless depths. The intensely blue water, laced with rays of sunlight, engulfed the whale as it was slowly sunk into the depths. It was magical. Swimming with that gentle giant in his own environment is an experience I’ll never forget.

Coming this fall, 2017, the film “Ahikuntaka – The Children of Paradise” and a book about my favorite places on the paradise island, Sri Lanka.

The Path to Ginde Beret

3 men in Ginde Beret
Three men welcomed us on the path to Ginde Beret.

I wanted to see the places in Africa that Dr. Tom Coleman spoke about so often, and in the spring of 2016 I booked a trip to Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa I met my translator and chauffer. We had a lot of places to see so we left the city early the next morning. Leaving Addis Ababa, we drove west for about an hour and then turned north, up through the mountains and a beautiful forest. The air was crisp and sweet and the forest was brimming with wildlife. At first the gravel road was wide and even, but it gradually became worse. It was about 120 km across the mountain but, with big rocks and large holes in the road, it took us several hours before we came to the small village of Kachise.

Our goal was to get to Ginde Beret, where Dr. Coleman had worked most of his time in Ethiopia. From Kachise the best route was to walk down a steep footpath to the valley below. There was, my chauffer told me, a road, but it went way out of the way and wasn’t at all in as “good” condition as the road we had just come by, so the decision was easy. I wondered if anyone in the village remembered Dr. Tom Coleman and his family who had lived there during the 1960’s and 70’s.

We arrived in Kachise before dark and checked into the hotel. Well, they called it a hotel; it was really not more than a shed. The toilet was a hole in the ground and there was no running water. The room we were givien was small and dirty and the mattress was lumpy and hard. I pulled out my travel sheets and crawled into bed. We needed to get an early start in the morning.

We were up at sunrise, ate a quick breakfast, a couple of eggs and tea, before beginning our trek through back allies and out to the edge of the cliff where the serpentine path wriggled down the ravine. We stood for a moment on the edge and looked down at the little village of Ginde Beret far below. A great surprise was waiting for us down there. No one has yet forgotten the miracle doctor, Tom Coleman, who saved the lives of thousands of suffering people.

We were four people in our group when we began walking down the trail, myself, my friend, Stefan Jansson from Sweden, our translator and a guide. But within minutes we were joined by more and more people who offered to carry our equipment and camera bags. I don’t know where they all came from; they seemed to appear out of nowhere. Our little troop was transformed into a caravan with people all eager to help. The path was steep with large rocks strewn here and there. Some portions had been repaired with large stone steps that made it easier to step safely. Tall trees lined the path giving us shelter from the sun. Baboons and other wildlife wandered nearby, watching us curiously.

Coming down into the valley we met people on their way up the path to Kachise. Many people from Ginde Beret climb the steep path daily to go to school, work or shopping. Suddenly there were three men standing on the path in front of us. As we came nearer I noticed that they were missing fingers and their faces had been badly marred by leprosy. Without hesitating they reached out, one after the other, to shake our hands in welcome. Their fingerless hands felt soft in mine, but it was a peculiar sensation. It was the first real encounter with a leper.

When asked if they had ever heard of Dr. Tom Coleman, they all began talking at once. Dr. Coleman! It had been 50 years since they last met him, but Dr. Coleman had saved their lives. I realized that many people in Ginde Beret indeed remembered the Colemans. They asked, “Is he coming back soon? Are you one of his children?” I explained that I was a good friend of Dr. Coleman and that I wanted to film in the village and show it to Dr. Coleman. We spent a whole day in the village and they showed us all the places where the Coleman family had lived and worked, and where the children, Judy and Bill, had played. A visit from a friend of the Coleman’s was cause for a celebration. I felt humbled by the reception we received in Ginde Beret and it gave me a greater understanding of the impact Dr. Tom and Elaine Coleman had made in Africa between 1956 and 2004. The name Coleman is spoken with great respect in Ginde Beret. It represents people who sacrificed their own comfort and prosperity to save the lives of thousands of suffering people.

Don’t miss the premiere of the film and the chance to meet the Coleman family. April 22 in Cambridge, MN. Tickets available online or at the door. More information at cameraQ.com

A Terrorist on my Flight

Part of airplane wing over Alaskan coastline
From my airplane window

(Continued from last week)

When he reached the final security checkpoint the guard took one glance at his passport and let him pass. “Why doesn’t he stop him?” I wondered anxiously. Just ahead of me in line stood an elderly woman, probably someone’s grandmother. The guard pointed first at her and then at me and explained that we had been randomly chosen to go through a thorough search, as if the earlier security checks had not been thorough enough. After 15 minutes of thorough examination, I was allowed to put on my shoes and belt, and to repack everything that had been torn out of my carry-on luggage.

Entering the plane I contemplated the absurdness of being force to go through these humiliating searches at every gate, over and over again. Why should I, a father of five with my pale Scandinavian complexion, be suspected of being involved in any devilish terrorist plot? And the old lady who had stood in front of me at the control table, surely she wouldn’t hurt a fly! Nothing seemed to make sense anymore.

When I finally reached my seat and placed my hand baggage on the chair, our eyes met for the first time. The suspicious looking, young, Arab man, raised his eyes for a split second to look at me from his seat next to mine. “This can’t be happening” I thought. I stowed my bag, took my seat, and as calmly as I could said, “Hi, How are you?”

He mumbled something in return but did not seem to be very sociable. I tried to think of something intelligent to say to get a conversation going but came up blank. Instead I reached for the flight magazine in the pocket in front of me and opened to an article about the events of September 11th. Coincidence?

I glanced at the man next to me. He was holding several small, handwritten notes in his hand, all written in Arabic. He seemed to be trying to conceal them from me while he read them, which only made me more suspicious. I’m sure I was not the only one on the plane who had noticed the nervous, young man. But what could I say to him? He was such a neat, clean cut, well-dressed young man.

The plane began rolling and we soon took off towards Amsterdam. Soon the smell of food filled the cabin, lunch was being served. It actually smelled good, even if I wasn’t really hungry. Without really thinking I turned to the young man and said, ”Food will taste good, I’m starving!” He looked at me and nodded. Our food was served and we ate in silence, the conversation I had hope for never got off the ground.

I noticed that he didn’t drink the wine that was served, so I assumed he was a devout Muslim. As we finished our meal, and the stewardess removed the trays, I turned to him again and mentioned that the food had tasted good. He nodded his agreement.

There I was, sitting next to a terrible terrorist who was most certainly going to blow up the plane. If that was the case I at least wanted to know why. I needed to get him talking. I asked him, “Where are you going?” A simple question; not too intrusive. He looked at me and answered without hesitation, “I’m on my way home to Abu Dhabi to see my parents.” “Abu Dhabi!” I exclaimed, “I have been there many times on my way from Europe to Asia!” He smiled at me and his nervousness seemed to evaporate. We began talking about his homeland, the desert and the ocean.

He told me he was studying at the University of Washington in Seattle. But he also had a hobby. “Do you like pocket watches?” he asked as he stood up. He brought out a beautiful leather bag. “I buy these in the US for a few bucks, and sell them in Abu Dhabi for around $1000!” He brought out one pocket watch after the other, all wrapped in toilet paper, to show me. They were all from the 1800’s. “You see,” he explained “American’s only like new things. I buy old watches, pay a small price, and sell them for a good profit.” He brought out an unusually small pocket watch, carefully wrapped in paper. “This is from the mid-1800’s. I will keep this one for myself.”

He collected many items and antiques from the US. This time he was also bringing a Ford Model-T that his father had ordered for the museum he owned in Abu Dhabi. We had a lot to talk about and the trip over the Atlantic passed quickly.

When we parted in Amsterdam I was amazed at how quickly my fear and suspicions were dispelled by a little conversation. It is not at all surprising that he was nervous at the airport in Seattle, nor was my reaction surprising. We were both victims of the events of that dreadful morning of September 11, 2001. The world may never be the same again. But I learned something on that trip to Amsterdam. Communication may be our primary weapon for dispelling fear and misunderstanding between people. While evil may now have a face and a profile, not everyone who fits that profile is evil. Something to remember as we live and travel in this multicultural world, communication is more important today than it ever was.

It will never be the same again, will it?

Statue of Liberty with NYC and Twin Towers in background.
New York City, 1986

For those of us who travel regularly, whether it is for business or for pleasure, the tragic events of September 11th has made a lasting impact on our lives. Not only did thousands of people lose their lives that day, the extent of evil in human beings reached a totally new dimension. And that evil was given a new face and a new profile, which, unfortunately, sometimes even affects the innocent.

Last year in September, just days after the airlines resumed flying again, I was en route from Anchorage to Colorado Springs. It was not a direct flight; I would have to transfer in Portland and again in Phoenix. I don’t think that I have ever seen an airport more deserted and desolate than that morning in September when I arrived at Anchorage International Airport.

Check-in went surprisingly easy. I had expected much more difficulty with security controls. Soon I was comfortably seated on the plane with only a few other brave souls as co-passengers. Just before take-off two large, well-built men came on board and made their way to their seats at the back of the plane. “It’s obvious who they are,” I thought, “certainly not tourists!” The same thing happened on the flight from Portland to Phoenix, two large, well-built men sat at the rear of the plane. On the final leg of my journey, from Phoenix to Colorado Springs, it happened again. Two large, well-built men entered and sat down at the rear of the plane.

Just before take-off, the silence aboard was broken by the crackling of the speaker and the captain began to speak, “Well, flying has never been safer,” he assured us. “Just take a look at the stocky gentlemen sitting way in the back,” he chuckled, “I don’t think any terrorist would want to pick a fight with them!” Since then air marshals have become more difficult to detect. Either they have been given other assignments or they have learned to blend in with the passengers.

Two months later, in November 2001, I was again en route from Anchorage, this time to Amsterdam. I was changing planes in Seattle. Air travel had recovered since September and the airport was once again full of people. Among thousands of hurried passengers I spotted a person coming toward me in the corridor. It was a young man, very well dressed, with olive skin and dark hair. There was no way that he could hide his Arab background. He could have stepped right off the covers of many of the magazines we saw the days and weeks following the terrorist attacks in September. He was the epitome of what was now profiled as the face of evil, a death machine, or a terrorist.

But it wasn’t so much his appearance as his actions that alarmed me. He seemed nervous, eyes glued to the floor, never looking at anyone. As he passed I breathed a sigh of relief that I was not on the same flight as that suspicious character. I continued, somewhat relieved but surprised that one person among thousands of people in this crowded airport could make such an impression on me.

Well, it didn’t matter anymore, I had reached my gate and soon the experience would be forgotten. But the sign above the gate showed that there had been a change in plans. My flight would depart from a different gate. “No problem,” I thought, “I have plenty of time.”

I soon reached the new gate, and there he was again, the young Arab man, looking at least as nervous as before and just a few people ahead of me in line. “This can’t be true!” I mumbled to myself, “What are the chances of this happening? Maybe one in a million.” What do you do if you end up on the same flight as a suspected terrorist?

I’ll tell you what I did next week!