A Conversation with Masha Nordbye
Masha Nordbye is an intrepid and extraordinarily well-traveled artist and expedition leader. An award-winning television/documentary producer, director and writer, she has visited more than 100 countries and worked on over 100 documentary productions for companies that include National Geographic, The Discovery Channel, PBS, the three major networks, and other cable channels. Amiong her many accomplishments, Nordbye is the co-producer/director/writer for the one-hour HD documentary, “The Blue Revolution,” filmed in over 10 countries, which investigates the state of the world’s oceans and the efforts numerous countries, foundations, and individuals are making to create a new ocean ethic. Nordbye is also the author/photographer of five books on Russia as well as numerous magazine articles. Her most recent book is “Moscow, St Petersburg & The Golden Ring.” When not on the road, she resides in California.
DG: How did you get started in the travel field?
MN: Before I was born, my mother worked with the US State Department and was stationed in Asia and Europe; so I grew up fascinated by her many exotic tales. My travels began in my imagination. By the age of 13, I had read all the amazing accounts by French explorer Alexandra David-Neel who, disguised as a Tibetan pilgrim, became the first Western woman to ever enter the forbidden capital of Lhasa. Of herself, she wrote: ”Ever since I was a child of five, I craved to go beyond the garden gate, to follow the road that passes it by, and set out for the Unknown.” Alexandra was one of my heroines; and I, too, dreamed of someday traveling to faraway places and penetrating the forbidden borders of Tibet—and it was 17 years later that I finally got my chance.
When I was 15, I went on a trip to the then Soviet Union with a teacher and a few members of my class. On the second day in Moscow, while out alone for an early morning stroll, I noticed a garbage truck that was moving along a narrow street. From one side, a shovel-like device scooped up the trash to dump into a hole at the top of the truck. But, it would miss the opening, and most of the trash fell back onto the other side of the street. It was quite ridiculous, so I took a picture. The driver saw me, and stopped. Suddenly, I had three men escorting me along the street, and down into some sector police station. I was detained for a few hours and interrogated in broken English. The KGB accused me of having taken a picture that would badly portray the city, so the officers took my film.
When I was finally released, lo and behold, the garbage men were waiting outside. I guess they had been paid off for turning me in. They thanked me for cooperating, and gestured to get into their truck. The driver took us home to his apartment; and, to make up for my unpleasant detention, the whole family threw a party with lots of music, singing and, of course, vodka. At midnight, I was dropped off by Red Square, where I vowed to learn Russian and return someday!
What a crazy and eye-opening experience for a teenager, and it turned out to have a great impact on the course of my life. Even though the socialist regime was a tough one to live under, I fell in love with the Russian people, and the country has drawn me back for many visits over three decades.
As a filmmaker, I went on to make over 15 documentaries within the former Soviet Union. It was quite the time—maneuvering around the Soviet system—when everything was forbidden, but anything possible. I have quite the stories to tell! (Segments from some of these films can be viewed on my web site: www.mashanordbye.com)
How many countries have you visited?
This year, Tajikistan, became my 103rd country visited. A great moment was when the Soviet Union dissolved, and all the satellite territories became independent. From the Baltics to the Stans, I gained quite a few more countries!
What have been the two biggest challenges of your career?
Two experiences pop to mind that have to do with ”fear” and the ”unexpected.”
Once, on an expedition, I was part of a group of the first Westerners given permission to film and raft a river in the Altai region of southern Siberia. A Soviet helicopter dropped us off, and left us in the middle of nowhere. If anything were to happen to us, no quick rescue was possible. For weeks, we had to make our way through a narrow gorge; we slept atop boulders on the side of the rushing river. The rapids were so huge in spots that we often had to pack up and carry everything around them; at one point, the entire side of a mountain had collapsed, damming the river, and it was a half-mile portage across it. There was no option to really quit—we would have had to climb the steep cliffs to the top, and it was then a few days hike to the nearest village, if we could even find one in the mountains.
One morning, noticing what looked to be a rather large rapid below us, our group of hearty travelers decided to row across the river, and portage overland from the over side, where there was more solid ground. As I got into the raft, my gut was aching—my instinct was telling me, do not get into this boat! But, there was nothing I could do. We could not stay where we were, and we dared not attempt a run. But, suddenly, a swifter than expected current began to suck us downstream. As the rubber boat quickly rounded the bend, an enormous rapid came into view. From my perch in the front of the raft, the approaching wall of water looked like a tsunami.
For the first time in my life, I really felt fear— a complete and utter state of helplessness. We twirled around atop the upper lip of a gargantuan whirlpool for what seemed like eternity. If we fell inward, the strong vortex would suck us deep down to the bottom, and the raft would be crushed to a pulp. It was quite the Zen moment, time stood still, and reality intertwined with the surreal. Our lives felt in the hands of a mere flip of a coin. We happened to fall off the outer side and away from the menacing black hole. I felt like I had entered the belly of the beast, got spit out, and divine providence let us come out the other side into the light of day.
My second challenge has to do with the unexpected. I’ve been on many remarkable adventures: stood on the North Pole, ridden camels across Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, filmed erupting volcanoes, scuba dived down to 180 feet in the South Pacific, trekked across parts of the Himalayas, tracked Dugongs in the Arabian Gulf and I’d never been hurt or injured.
My last big trip in Russia was several years ago, when I covered the first car race, staged by a billionaire Russian entrepreneur, on the first road completed across the country. I traveled from Murmansk in the northwest, south along the Volga River and all the way across Siberia to Vladivostok, a total of 9,000 miles. A crew from Murmansk won the race, and 10 kilos of gold.
I then flew back to Moscow, and decided to bop up to St Petersburg for a few days to visit a friend. At the Moscow airport, while riding the shuttle out to the plane, the doors suddenly popped open and I fell out, spraining a left calf muscle. When I got on the plane, I asked the flight attendant (in Russian) for some ice to put on my leg. She gave me a paper bag that contained a thin slab of ice. I thought nothing of it, and placed it inside my jeans on the throbbing area. Well, she had given me dry ice; so to make a long story short, it practically burnt my calf off. I had to make my way back to the U.S. where I needed several skin grafts, was on crutches for months and in rehab. Here I had just crossed all of Russia—ten time zones— in temperatures down to 40 below, huddled for nights in a frozen SUV, and climbed over ice floes in Siberia—without one hitchski! I get on a plane; and, it goes to show—when you least expect it—one little bag of ice did me in!
What is it that keeps you traveling?
Nothing has let me learn more about myself and the world than by being on the road. It allows me, at times, to be stripped down to the core and totally present in the moment. It’s also quite a feeling when my only wish is to have a clean cold glass of water! Some of my most profound moments have nothing to do with achievement (as summiting a mountain), but doing something as mundane as sitting quietly by a river and observing nature. By traveling and interacting with other cultures, one gains a further sense of humility, appreciation, patience, curiosity and compassion. Many of these simple traits are being lost in our own age of technology. As Westerners, we often feel superior to third world tribes whom we think have no education or a sense of the world. But they remain in touch with the earth, community, silence, rhythms of nature, and have ideals and goals not based on money and consumerism. I often ask myself what have we sacrificed and lost in our own nature for the sake of modernization and more and more technology? And what affect will it ultimately have upon us?
Can you describe an anecdote or encounter that captures the rewards of travel for you?
Last year, I went to Africa, to Kenya. This trip for me encapsulated adventure, reward and a rich learning experience—all that can come from travel. I was with a small group of people who were helping to raise money to drill wells in the Masai Mara. Women have to walk miles to watering holes (that even the animals use), and then carry home the heavy plastic drums on their backs.
The representative for the village was this absolutely delightful character named Ole Tome (O’la To’may). We had quite the unique opportunity to spend time in his village in the Mara. The Masai warriors, carrying their spears, took us on walking safaris. (When children walk to school, they often come across sleeping lions.) While in vehicles, we witnessed the huge wildebeest and zebra migration across the river from Tanzania. The village welcomed us as family, and we experienced, first-hand, the life of the Masai in all its riches and hardships.
Where our modern civilizations are tossing many intrinsic values to the wind and destroying the natural environment, the indigenous people here are going through their own culture shock. How can a people, as the Masai, retain their traditions while having to assimilate more and more to the modern world? Schools are now being built to educate the children. Since the government funds them, the subject of religion—Christianity—must be taught. But the Masai have long believed that the ”big blue sky” is the god that looks down upon them. The Elders want to preserve the Masai customs, but who ultimately decides how much to keep and what to disband? Here, the cattle still hold more worth than women. A woman can have a cell phone, but is still expected to have gone through the rights of circumcision. Females are expected to take care of the children and household, and they even work to bead jewelry to earn money for the community. (To me, the men seemed to be mostly herding the cattle and napping.) With more time on their hands (even a village well can save hours in a mother’s day of toil), what happens to the centuries-old Masai hierarchy when women become more empowered?
Ole Tome lives with a much younger wife (the men are still allowed multiple wives) in a mud-walled home that has a solar-powered computer. The main diet of the Masai is milk, meat and cow’s blood, but here comes Coca Cola and fast food. Do they continue drinking cow’s blood or allow in orange juice? Will the hunks of fried meat soon be made into hamburgers? In these types of areas the transition is literally taking place overnight from lion hunter to laptop (the warrior coming of age is no longer allowed to kill a lion). Over time, it shall prove very interesting on what is allowed to change, and how much of the ingrained traditions survive. I only hope that the women, at least, gain some ground on the cows!
Is there one thing that you try to do on every trip?
Because of my Russian travels, one of my most favorite things to do in a new city or place is to find a sauna. Nothing lets you get a better glimpse into the heart of a culture than sitting half-naked with the local people! In Russia, the banya is quite a special and unique experience. No banya is complete without a bundle of dried birch leaves, called veniki. Inside the piping hot bathing area, the custom is to lightly swat each other with the branches. When someone, usually one of the babushki (grandmothers) or dyedushki (elderly men), gets carried away with flinging water on the heated stones, moans of khavtit (enough) resound from the scorching upper balconies, when lobster-red bodies come racing out of the steamy interior and spring into a pool of ice-cold water. Afterwards, wrapped in a crisp white sheet, one returns to the sitting room to relax and sip anything from hot tea to cold beer. After sweating, being whacked by birch branches, rubbed down on marble slabs by bulbous babushkas, and given cold shots of vodka, one cannot help but leave with body and soul rejuvenated!
During my last expedition, while in Bukhara, Uzbekistan, I discovered a 600-year-old hamam, a Turkish steam bath. I knocked on the door—and it just so happened that the hour for men had finished. So I, along with another female in my group, was let inside, the front door was locked, and we had the whole place to ourselves for the equivalent of a few dollars fee. There were three large stone cavern-like rooms, each heated to a different temperature. What an experience to lie within the hot misty womb-like interior and imagine the type of clientele that had lain upon the same warm stones over the centuries, dating back to the times of Tamerlane.
How do you think being a woman has influenced your travels?
I think it actually has had more of a positive influence rather than hindering my journeys in any way. I’ve traveled all through Asia on my own, and, as a solo woman, it always has created more of a curiosity, and opened up many more doors for me. I remember arriving into a village way out in the hills of Western China. I was on my bike and unexpectedly rode through on the way to a mountain shrine. Suddenly, the entire village came out; it seemed no one had ever seen anything like me. Even the pigs stopped in their tracks! One elderly gentleman with a long wispy white beard came up and touched my hair and skin like I was an apparition—as if he had heard of the legend of blonde, blue-eyed maidens and had lived to see one!
Any tips for women?
Of course, there are areas of the world that would be dangerous to enter as a solo flip-flopping woman! Utilizing common sense and not jumping into clear and present danger goes a long way to self -preservation. I guess it all depends on what types of comfort you want, how far you want to push yourself, and what type of adventure you’re up for.
If you could return to just one place, where would it be?
I always look forward to returning to my most favorite city in the cosmos, St Petersburg, Russia. It’s such a beloved spot of mine that I think I must have dwelled there in a past life. With such a remarkable 300-year history, the former capital was forged on beauty, innovation and progress; there’s nothing quite like it anywhere in the world. Sparked by the reigns of Peter I and Catherine the Great, St Petersburg became host to Russia’s Golden Age and a Mecca to some of the world’s greatest composers, writers, artists and dancers. As the catalyst for Russia’s Renaissance, the city flowered in the music of Tchaikovsky, Glinka and Rimsky-Korsakov; the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, Pavlova and Nijinksky; in the arts and crafts of Repin, Benois and Fabergé; and in the literature and poetry of Gogol, Dostoevsky and Akhmatova. This paradoxical place has also inspired a flood of revolutions. It was Petersburg for the czars, Petrograd for a nation at war, and Leningrad for the followers of the Bolshevik revolution. I’m continually spellbound by this unique and inspirational atmosphere.
My latest travel book, Moscow, St Petersburg and the Golden Ring includes a wealth of information about this fabled and charming city.
Where haven’t you been that you would most like to go?
Over the past several years, I’ve been working on documentaries about the world’s oceans and marine life for the Save Our Seas Foundation. Cinematographer Tom Campbell and I have filmed from the Middle East and Mexico to the Caribbean and South Pacific. I’ve just finished a one-hour film on the state of the world’s oceans, entitled The Blue Revolution.
Recently, I saw Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Encounters at the End of the World. I’d love to go diving beneath the ice in Antarctica, or take a submersible a mile down into the ocean depths. Also as a child, I loved astronomy and fantasized about being the first woman on Mars. It’s exciting to hear that NASA is planning missions back to the Moon, and possibly on to Mars that could still happen in my lifetime!
You recently led a ”Stans” trip for GeoEx. What most surprised you about the Stans?
I’ve led a number of trips for GeoEx—to Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, the Silk Road, and this past spring to the four ”Stans” of Central Asia: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.
In 1987, I was in Ashkhabad, Turkmenistan, filming a National Geographic special on the Russian Circus. So, for this trip, it had been 20 years since I had visited the city.
My last memory of the capital was of one main dusty street and the circus building. Today, because of the natural gas, the country has a new-found wealth. But as in many of these ex-Soviet places, where architecture was boring and gray, the bigger and more colorful now constitutes better. It was quite surreal—huge marble monstrosities have been built up into the desert for as far as the eye can see. And at night, they’re all lit up by purple and pink pulsating lights. In two decades, the area has gone from camels to capitalism on steroids!
Uzbekistan has even changed since I was last there five years ago. Then, people still came in from distant villages to sell their homemade wares. Now, the bazaars contain mass-produced products for the buses of group tourists—often the same ceramic plates, forms of jewelry and factory-made carpets.
It’s a paradox: many of these remote places have today become far more accessible for the average tourist. One can travel in relative comfort through rougher lands, have the trip itinerary planned by others; be served familiar foods, and experience a rather stress- and problem-free vacation. One no longer needs to be like Sir Richard Burton or Alexandra David-Neel who spent years struggling to enter and explore forbidden lands. But, at the same time, I miss having the unique opportunities of the explorers of old, when there where still mysterious and little-known places to venture. When travel becomes too sterile and insular, to me it defeats the purpose. One has to break out of the routine, shake out the cobwebs, act spontaneously, and embrace the unexpected; adventure is an amazing tonic for the spirit. The whole idea after the journey is to return home, not just with a bunch of souvenirs, but as a changed and more conscious human being.