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Interview with the passionate traveler, meet Sonja Mardesic

Atitlan Lake Guatemala

April is “inspirational women month” in Srsck country. Today we are interviewing a Croatian traveler with a mission. Unlike most of us, she does not settle for only dreams but she tries to live them and to achieve change in the world. Knock, knock, Miss Sonja Mardesic.

So Sonja, you are studying in Istanbul at the moment. What are you doing there exactly and why did you chose Turkey?

I first came to Turkey as an MBA exchange student simply because the word “Istanbul” sounded really inspiring to me. The decision was made in a small Indian village and I was not in the best conditions to really research more about it. But then I stayed for so many other reasons; the main one is the master in Political Science and International Relations I’m currently enrolled in, at Bogazici University.

The university is fantastic, people welcoming, Turkish environment and history fascinating and rich. In Istanbul, you can simply find everything: the Bosporus, the sea, tea gardens, colorful markets, crowded streets, beautiful old buildings. Istanbul has a soul, and definitely a very strong personality!

What is your goal in life? Where do you see yourself in five years time?

Well, I have always considered myself as very lucky in life so I deeply feel the responsibility to share this luck around me and help those who need it. The world does not lack of people who need help but I am for example particularly sensitive to the fate of forced migrants and refugees around the world.

Sonja on het way to Panama City for the Makesense project (c) S. Mardesic

I want to make a change, a sustainable and responsible one, I don’t believe in assistance, except in emergency situations. I want to help people to stand up for themselves, give them the driving energy and the preliminary conditions. Where I will be? I guess somewhere on Earth.

You were born in Zagreb (Croatia) but grew up in Dijon (France). To which country and nationality do you feel connected?

Yes I left Croatia with my parents and sister when I was 8 years old. It took me a long time to accept the good sides of it but today I do thank my parents for the decision they made at the time. However, I still feel deeply Croatian, everywhere, except in Croatia maybe because there I realize how different my life is from most of my co-citizens.

With time, I also start accepting my French side as well. It’s not always easy. France and the French are so interesting but not a “neutral” country and people you can easily cope with. But I definitely feel European!

What is the best thing of both countries?

For me the best of France is its “globalism” while the best of Croatia is its “locality”. France is inherently open to the world, French people travel everywhere I have the feeling that the whole world is full of French people. I like this curiosity and adventurous spirit, as well as the “art de vivre”, the value of quality of life is so characteristic for France, and the way they fight for their rights.

What I love in Croatia is the closeness between people, the spontaneity in human relations, unlike in France where everything has to be planned in advance and follow the rules, Croatian people are much more flexible and don’t complain all the time, I also love the traditions, the beautiful Dalmatian Coast and islands in the Adriatic sea, and my grand-mother’s 100% homemade food  .

Beautiful Croatia (c) Srsck

Last year you chose to leave your comfort zone and went for a bike trip with a partner through Latin America. It was part of the Makesense project. Could you tell us more about Makesense?

Yes! Makesense is a worldwide network of friends who believe in social business and social entrepreneurship. We support social entrepreneurs, people who take the initiative to create social or environmental projects. We put them in touch with groups of people around the world who have the skills and will to help them to solve their challenges in an innovative and creative way.

We especially believe in projects which aim to be self-sustainable, at least in a medium/long-term. During our Latin America trip, we interviewed many social entrepreneurs and revealed their challenges in order to help their projects to grow bigger and stronger.

Why did you choose for Latin America and most of all why did you chose the bike? What was the most emotional moment of the trip and why? What did you learn on this adventure?

We first wanted to travel around the Mediterranean Sea. Then the Arab spring sprang. Arthur had always wanted to travel in Latin America and I happened to be in Mexico just about that time so we decided he would join me there and we’ll head south together.

A bike is a great means of transportation; it is cheap, not too slow, not too fast. You are free, you get the chance to meet people, admire the landscapes, end up in villages you would never stay if traveling by bus or car. People are much nicer too you and you simply feel so good after a hard day of effort; you deserved your day and can reward yourself with some local culinary specialty without feeling any guiltiness!

As you can imagine it is hard to pick one moment out of 5 incredibly intense months but more than the  hurricane, the rain, the jungle, the endless climbs, the volcanoes, the tribes I remember one very simple but essential moment. I was in Guatemala, sitting with my bike by the magical Atitlan Lake surrounded by volcanoes and I simply realized that I was “here” and how amazing it was! This is what Arthur and I call a “moment-là”, a “moment-here-and-now”. We realized that you usually simply live but that you life is flowing without you being aware of that. Taking such a moment is a treasure!

And the most important things we learned came from the all these people who gave us everything without expecting anything in return. Our friend Rafael, from Monterrico, Guatemala, taught us “never to break the chain of friendship”, whatever you receive, give it back to somebody else who will need it later. If we would all do that, the world would be far better, he told us.

Non stop rain for two weeks, Guatemala (c) S. Mardesic

How did you live the one on one experience with your partner, Arthur? It must have been quite intense. Would you have preferred to go alone or was it a success this way?

It was so perfect! The funny thing is that before the trip we were both secretly convinced that it would never work out and that we would have to split at some point. Moreover Arthur is a very solitary person and needs some time for himself. And actually we became simply friends for life and spend maybe a total of 10 hours apart in the whole 5 month trip! We are so different but at the same time so complementary.

The secret was I think that even with our differences, we are both extremely flexible and easygoing. We do not care what we eat or where we sleep; we can stand hard conditions and laugh because we have been wet for 2 weeks of endless rain.

I traveled alone in South Asia and it was perfect. I traveled with a great friend in Central America and it was perfect as well. I don’t think I would like to travel by bike by my own. It’s nice to have a friend to support you when it’s hard and share the nice moments when it’s great, and it’s safer of course. But you have less opportunity to think and dream.

Would you do the trip all over again? What would you do differently now that you know what you know?

I would definitely do it! Actually the initial plan was to go all the way down from Mexico to Argentina. Because of this master in Istanbul, I decided to come back from Panama. So I still have all South America to cross, and I still want to do it. Arthur, my partner is on the way, by his own, in Ecuador now!

What I would change: I would prepare in advance the meetings with the social entrepreneurs; it was not always easy to get in touch with them while traveling. I would also be less worried and carry less stuff.

Market day in Zunil, Guatemala (c) S. Mardesic

What or who inspired you and kept you motivated during your trip when it at some times got rough?

To be honest, unlike Arthur, I didn’t know anybody doing such kind of things before the idea came up to my mind. Arthur used to read tons of adventure and travel books since his childhood so he could give you many names. I just got the inspiration from my dreams and then found out about other people who did it afterwards. And my motivator during the trip was definitely Arthur, cycling 100 m ahead in the mountains!

What do you think is overrated in the society we live in? What gives you hope in the world?

What is overrated is the value of the “normal” path of life, you know: you are born, you study, you get a job, you get married, you have children, you have grand-children, maybe great grand-children if you’re lucky, and then you die. Social pressure is really strong, but if we all keep on living that way, we can only repeat the mistakes from the past. On the contrary, if we to do something different, if we try, experience, see different perspectives, touch, taste, then we might find the inspiration and wisdom to change something, for the better.

What gives me hope? Thousands of smiles shared during my travels and amazing people, full of positive energy, inspiration and projects I meet in everyday life!

What would be your advice for other female travelers who want to make a change in this world?

Don’t allow fear sweeping away your dreams! I traveled by my one in South Asia (mostly India) and by bike in Central America, which is known for being one of the most dangerous and violent regions in the world. You cannot image how many people told me I should never do these trips and how dangerous it is, and I am naturally a quite fearful person (I confess, it happened to me to look under my bed not such a long time ago).

In the old house of Trudy Blom, San Cristobal, Mexique (c) S. Mardesic

I was terrified before leaving, but I did it and I am so glad I did! This kind of experiences, nobody can take them away from you, they become part of you, make you better and stronger.

Who is your favorite heroine in fiction or in world history and why?

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of George (Georgina) from the Famous Fives by Enid Blyton. I wanted to be like her, she was not like other girls: she was brave and daring and adventurous!

From real life, I discovered Trudy Blom in Mexico, a Swiss journalist/anthropologist/photographer who has spent her life fighting to protect the Lacandon people (an indigenous tribe in Mexico) and to save their jungle. For them she became the Queen of the Jungle but she also managed to keep in touch with her own world and have her own life, organizing intellectual, artistic, political gatherings in her and her husband’s open house in San Cristobal. She had an incredibly fulfilled life and is such a source of inspiration to me!

Where is your next trip bringing you to? Which countries are still on your wish list and why?

Good question! I’m leaving tomorrow to hitchhike in the South of Turkey but it will be only for a short period. It will be my first hitchhiking experience though, so pretty exciting!

My next medium-long term trip will definitely be around former-Yugoslavia. I cannot believe I spent months traveling around Asia, Latin America and the world and I don’t even know my neighbors/cousins! As for my wish list, it is as long as the number of countries in the world, plus the non-official ones!

To read more about the inspirational bike tour of Sonja Mardesic and Arthur check their blog . It’s written by Sonja in English until February 24th. Afterwards Arthur took the blog over in French.

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