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On travelling, people, and respect for other cultures.

Fast Confession - traveler Jiří Kolbaba: Meeting the Dalai Lama, but also a helicopter door torn away and a car exploding while driving!

Karolína Lišková
14.Oct 2019
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10 minutes

Even though almost everybody travels these days, very few people can consider themselves true travelers. But Jiří Kolbaba is a real adventurer and traveler to the core, he has been doing almost nothing else for a quarter of a century now. When he's not trudging through a desert or freezing on an iceberg, he travels all around the Czech Republic to pass on his experience. He publishes books, broadcasts on the radio and fills up social media. When you're sitting at a table with him, you sit with bated breath. Not that he wouldn't let you get a word in, but his experiences and stories are so enthralling that I felt bad for not having more space in this interview. No wonder he's published eight books, because that still isn't enough.

You'll be reaching the age of retirement in a year and a half. How many years have you spent travelling?

I've been travelling for 25 years, I have been entertaining myself with this amazing activity for a quarter of a century now.

How did the idea and the passion come to be? To do it for a living...

I don't want to work. (laugh) I used to run a business in advertisement and marketing, I was a workaholic, spent up to 16 hours a day at work. Then I traveled to Bali and realized that people can live differently. So I decided to live differently too, to enjoy freedom, to reconsider my life and stop chasing after money and career.

I started to scale down my company, back then I had about thirty employees. Then I downsized to the point that these days I only have a single assistant from back then, a guy who's been working for me for over 20 years, he takes care of all that. And I can be away for months at a time and the company keeps going.

Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ
Prodej exkluzivního domu, Praha-východ, Okolí Prahy

The first country was Bali, then?

The first country may have been Mexico, Tunisia and then Bali. But that changed my life, my priorities. Bali has left an impact on me specifically because of the spiritual energy they have there.

Was that after the revolution?

That was in 1994.

When comparing it to times past, when people couldn't travel anywhere, how did it come across to you? Compared to the bleak Czechoslovakia from back then?

I viewed it a little differently at the time. I had been doing sports professionally, I had been to the West under the former regime about six times. You didn't have to take part in the regime and could still get out, be it only to a race in Austria, Germany or Switzerland, but I already knew how the West worked, how the mechanisms of a capitalist society worked. I adjusted quickly and started my own business.

Then you said to yourself that you would like to get to know other cultures. But you had to learn photography to go with that.

I started travelling and I couldn't speak English at all, I could speak German and Russian. I didn't take pictures and I didn't even know how to go about things. I decided, though, that I didn't want to actively engage in business anymore, and that I wanted to learn and know more. I started educating myself on various topics, rhetoric, written word and photography. More and more things came slowly. I'm learning to this day, I enjoy it, it makes me feel free. I can say that I am an absolutely content person.

In your fast confession you said that you receive invitations to visit from royal families and governments of various countries. How did that happen?

I don't understand that at all, I call myself a Budulínek from Brno. I really do still consider myself the kind of person that still has a lot to learn in the three disciplines I use to make a living. I don't understand how it can happen that I suddenly get invited by the Spanish Minister of Tourism to take photos in his country. Or that I'll get invited by King Abdullah II, king of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, to take pictures for him. Or that I'd get to meet the Dalai Lama. I've recently met with the President of Iceland, because I'm publishing a book about Iceland, and he wrote the introduction for this book. Or that I'd meet the president of this and that country, I don't understand that. I was even invited to the celebration of the birth of the Sultan of Oman.

These things are hard to understand for me, but it works. I think that whatever you put out will come back at you. When you're positive, aren't xenophobic, put away complexes and respect yourself and those standing beside you, you open doors and hearts everywhere.

When you're not out of the country, you spend time with people who want to learn from you and hear your stories. How do you manage your personal life alongside it? How did you manage to get married and have a child?

I had to sacrifice that. I got married back during the former regime, I've been divorced for over thirty years. I always spend a few years living with a girlfriend, until both of us realize that I'm not cut out for this, and the relationship ends.

I don't want to be selfish, I take the women I live with on trips with me, but I can't take them with me on trips to Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Antarctica or to a hike in the Himalayas. Those are hardcore things, some girls wouldn't be able to take that.

Now I have voluntarily retreated into my own world. I'm happy to be on my own, as I still spend time with many people anyway. I enjoy it, even the solitude, I know how to be on my own. Sometimes I even pretend to be Robinson Crusoe, I let myself get thrown onto an uninhabited island and try to survive.

So you have to manage to do things such as start a fire, find a source of drinking water...

No, I don't need to eat cooked food at all, so I don't care about fire. Water is important to me, of course, that's a crucial thing. So these days I know how to get some from leaves, roots, how to collect rainwater using bamboo. I learn from the native tribe folk on Solomon Islands how to catch fish using a harpoon, a bow and arrow, fetch lobsters off the ocean floor, and so on.

Just recently I spent two months in Iceland living in an RV. When I was returning it two months later, they were extremely surprised that I hadn't used the stove even once. Even hot tea is a waste of time to me, I want to live, not stand around the stove. I admire women who can spend hours by the stove each day. I don't need warm food, I've gone without it for up to four months. Our bodies are meant to consume cold food.

So you're a vegetarian?

No, I eat everything.

Luxusní vila na prodej v okolí Prahy - 320m
Luxusní vila na prodej v okolí Prahy - 320m,

When you get to hang out with various royals, they offer you traditional food and drinks from their country. I know you don't drink alcohol. Have you ever made a faux pas such as turning down luxury wine you were being offered?

I'll clarify. I do drink wine, but I have never had a single shot of hard liquor in my life, nor a beer, nor a cup of coffee. I plan to keep this up until the end of my life. So I'll refuse. If they're trying to make me, like it often happens in our country, then that isn't a person who could become a buddy of mine, whom I could keep in contact with. If I politely tell them "no", then it's a no.

There is an important piece of travel advice for when you're abroad. When you are really being forced to eat of drink something, you should say to the chief or whoever in the village in question: "I'm sorry, I appreciate this immensely, but my religion forbids me from partaking." You say this to them and they'll respect it, because they always believe in something. When it's somebody's beliefs, they consider it okay. Each one of us acts in accordance with their faith and that's okay. And because I'm an omnivore, the only food I've ever refused were roasted rats.

Where was that?

Many places, China, Indonesia. Recently I was offered some in Cambodia by one village chief. He said that I didn't have to worry at all, that it was no dirty city rat, but a clean rat that had spent its entire life eating rice in their field. He still didn't convince me, though. But otherwise I have no problem with eating spiders, frogs or snakes in these countries, a while ago I ate four scorpions. I don't have a problem with it.

Have you ever been in real danger?

Unless going down the D1 highway, no, never. (laugh) In the 25 years I've spent travelling, being on the road for up to 9 months in a year, no one has ever punched be, robbed me or even looked at me funny.

That's impossible!

People have attempted to rob me three times. Once, that was more serious, in Papua New Guinea, once in Nicaragua and once on the island of Java. It always turned out well for me, though, I was never really robbed, they were all attempts. That's all, nothing has ever happened to me otherwise.

Some travelers like to hide money all over their body, in case they actually get robbed...

Yes, that is a well-known thing. I tend to have my money hidden in my belt, for example, it's always better not to have your money in one place. Another good trick is having bills folded going from the lowest to highest value. Not in one stack, but on top of each other. Then, when I'm taking a picture of somebody and they say they want money, I reach into my pocket and then I can say that I don't have any more. Other people always pull out their wallet and show everything in it, that's not good.

You take pictures with your phone, when I'm sure you also own an amazing reflex camera of some kind.

I don't need one though. I use my phone to make books, calendars, for screening. I have been broadcasting on Impulse radio for sixteen years, I have an app for it, I record in studio quality. I email it to them, they cut it and I have almost a million listeners by morning. Every day, for sixteen years, it's crazy!

Do people call you or write to you asking you to recommend travel destinations to them?

There are about a thousand every year.

How do you deal with it?

Some of them I can deal with, some I can't. 220 people who are going to Bali are waiting to hear from me what it's like there. I've been there fourteen times, so I can tell them many things about it.

How do you feel about pollution, garbage? Especially in Indonesia, Malaysia...

It's a big issue there now. The West is trying to steer people onto a different path, to think about it a little differently. Indonesia is battling it now, especially Bali. They'd never been eliminating plastics like this before.

I've heard a new theory recently. My best friend from Bali is in the Czech Republic now. He was speaking on TV and the host said that the plastics and garbage were initially brought there by tourists anyway. But they don't have the mechanisms figured out the way we do. We're a relatively clean country, but on the other hand, there's so much trashy behavior... For example, when I see a smoker that finishes a cigarette and throws the butt on the ground. Or throws it out of a car's window, which people in many countries just don't do. We're somewhere in the middle, there are many cleaner but also dirtier countries.

Do you think that it won't get better? Will we be forced to get used to it?

Get used to it, definitely not, we can change it, but we have to start at home. Then our habits will prevent us from doing it abroad and we'll lead by example. I scold people when I'm abroad, too, like some time ago in Reykjavik in Iceland. People found it funny and wanted it featured in some newspaper. I saw a guy finish a meal and throw his McDonald's trash out of his car's window. He was driving slowly through a pedestrian zone, so I picked it up and threw it back in his lap.

I always do this. One day somebody's gonna deck me in the face or kill me. Every time I see somebody tossing a cigarette butt I make them pick it up, last time it was President Zeman's bodyguard. He threw a butt on the sidewalk, I won't let anybody get away with that. Some people snap back saying that we live in a democratic country, that somebody should clean it up for them, that we pay taxes for that.

Were you ever really afraid?

Not really.

That's impossible.

I'm a coward, I'm not a brave person. Sometimes I get into a situations like flying a plane, deep sea diving, I've had a helicopter door get torn off on me, a car blew up on me while I was driving and caught fire. Interesting things happen sometimes, at least I have a story.

So you were left with nothing?

I was left with nothing, my passport got burnt up, my money, my clothes. Those are the challenges though, to overcome trouble.

How did you overcome this?

I had a credit card left, so I rented a new car. Tourists from the Czech Republic brought me a new passport, I have several. I bought new things, it's just that everything in Iceland costs four times what it would cost in the Czech Republic.

How do you view young people and travelling? Many of them are nomads. Do you think that the future of travelling might be different than what it was when you began to do it?

I support them, everyone that I meet abroad. I've personally never worked abroad, and when somebody does do it and can communicate with their parent company remotely like that and can make a living that way, I admire them for that. It's fine and it is proper.

I cannot guess what the future will bring. But I appreciate everybody who acts decent and polite abroad, leaves a good impression, feeling, emotion or information about our culture, and who also brings other universal truths from abroad that we need to hear and know to elevate ourselves and to be better at things. Sometimes we can be the example, sometimes other people can be an example to us.

To travel without prejudice, go there so that I can speed up my personal development, to learn something, to learn about different standards. So that when I want to speak about something, it is based on personal experience, not just because I read a headline in the news. I'll always applaud that, I'm a big supporter and I'm happy when I meet a successful Czech with morals and a big heart.

What are your plans for the remainder of this year?

I have a lot of talks scheduled all over the country. I'm happy that the venues are almost always full and people come there for inspiration. They inspire me too, we exchange energy and information. My book about Iceland will be published before the end of November, it's a very colorful travel journal, with an introduction by the president. Besides Korea I'm planning to visit the Galapagos Islands and Ecuador. Then I'll most likely leave for the holidays or dedicate my time to working on new projects and shows for next year.

At the start of next year I'll spend a month in Antarctica where I'm planning to live in a tent. There are many interesting trips that await me next year. Within three years of publishing my book about Iceland I'm planning to publish a book about the planet, my life, those nearly thirty years I've spent travelling. I want to celebrate freedom and show how a Czech who has decided to enjoy freedom can live, what they can see during thirty years of living abroad.

Whoever wants to know more about my travels can come to one of my talks or follow me on social media. There's more than enough inspiration there. People from Prague can see me after a long time on 10/31 in Dlabačov Cinema, where I'll hold a discussion about Hawaii and Alaska. These are actually charity events called The Magnificent Thousand. All the proceeds go to children's cancer and leukemia treatment.

Jirka, thank you so much for the interview.

Fast confession:

Which country on the planet have you not visited yet?

There are still a few left, Columbia comes to mind for example, which is the last country in South America, I'd like to visit it soon.

Which country do you never want to go back to?

There is no country like that, there really isn't. Out of all countries I have been to, and that's almost 140 of them, there is none I wouldn't want to visit again, quite the opposite.

Who would you never want to travel with under any circumstances?

Some questions really... I don't know that either, I don't know any person I wouldn't want to travel with.

What was the most you ever paid for one trip?

I don't really look at the money side of things either, but the most expensive trips were probably the ones to Antarctica, where I went to several times. Or the North Pole.

What was the most luxurious hotel you've ever stayed in?

There were several, because sometimes I'd be invited as a guest by the government, or a sultan, those were amazing things. But the most expensive one was probably in Seychelles, at the golf resort there.

What do you do when you're not travelling or giving talks?

I always travel or give talks.

Who's a big competition to you?

Competition? Nothing like that, there are many colleagues and we support each other and we are friends. We don't consider each other competition.

What was the craziest illness you caught on your travels?

I haven't even been sick in the Czech Republic for the past 30 years. I've never been sick nor seriously injured.

How do you remind yourself of home on your travels?

Sometimes I check the internet and see what's going on back here. Sometimes I'm horrified and don't even want to come back, but on the other hand I always love coming back, because I love the country.

Where in the world have you seen the most beautiful women?

Here, in the Czech Republic, right across from me now. There are beautiful women everywhere.

What personal possession do you always have to have with you when travelling?

A camcorder, a camera, my phone. That one's the most important, I use it to take pictures, write and stream. The phone is a vital thing for me.

Name three of a good traveler's principles.

A traveler should be tolerant above all. They should realize that whatever they're putting out will come back at them, and they should also be friendly, open and communicative.

Which country would you like to spend the rest of your life in?

I want to be here, if they stop pushing us even more to the east, or if we don't warp our morals even more. Some individuals that decide these things, that is. So I want to live here, until the rest of my days. This country is prosperous, amazing, interesting, pleasant and I like it here.

Are you planning to ever retire from traveling? When?

Physically I would be supposed to retire in a year or two. I have to laugh at that, though. I think that I'd like to keep travelling for 10, maybe 15 more years and I'll never retire. I'll keep travelling even more and maybe one day I'll die, as is best for a traveler, on a trip.
A question by the interviewee to the editor:

Will you go out for coffee with me?

Yes, right now, I'm looking forward to it.
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