Sandra Stinson Olansky
Adventurer, Artist,
Traveller, Activist

Hello, Everyone! When a friend asked me to do a TEDx Talk about my travels, I said, "No way! I've been an ART teacher for 35 years but I'm not a public speaker! Besides, everyone travels today and I don't have anything to say”. He said, "But you travel differently. They might enjoy hearing about that." So, I like taking risks and I like a challenge, So here I am, pretending you are a big classroom of kids.

IN 1987 wanted to do a small research project in northern Kenya I wanted to collect drawings from tribal children, who never went to school, and drawings from city children who did go to school, and compare them. I wanted to go for all summer, 8 weeks. My good-natured husband replied, “Great, I’ll get to make my own decisions for two months!” My three children, all in college, agreed, so I packed up my tent, small tape recorder, blank tapes plus Reggea music by Bob Marley, plenty of paper, pencils and crayons, PLUS, a huge amount of trust in my fellow man and myself! A friend said I was brave! I thought, CRAZY ,. is more like it!

I flew to Nairobi, then took a bus to a small sleepy town in the north with sandy streets and tribal people nearby. When I got off, I just stood there, not knowing where to go. A young man approached me and helped me find a room and I got settled. I liked his open honest expression so I told him I needed a guide for several weeks and would HE be available. He was only 21, and needed work, so he said “Yes, but I need a friend as I've never done this before although I know the area for many miles”. When I met his friend, I asked to meet their families, then their former teachers, and lastly, the police to tell them where I was going and when I would probably return.

The police told them they were responsible for my safety and should take good care of me, which they did. Then I needed to find a donkey to carry our food, water, and supplies. The owner said his donkey would not go without a friend, so I took two donkeys. Then, the owner said, his donkeys would not go without him! Okay, that's fine...but HE needed a friend, so a boy about 14 joined us, and did most of the work. We now had a small expedition of seven… five people and two donkeys!

We hiked to the Samburu region where the men wear traditional red or purple blankets wrapped around them, leather head caps, carry spears and look gorgeous! The women also, with collars of colorful beads. Men tend cattle all day while the women do all the work:, children, food and goats.

We asked if we could set up our tent inside their manyatta or yard, surrounded by a thorn bush fence, along with their goats and cows, for protection from wild animals... At night we built a fire and the Samburu joined us and we shared tea, sugar and corn meal, called Ugali. Then they sang and I brought out my tape recorder and recorded their singing and talking...when I played it back for them, they were thrilled and howled with laughter and rolled on the ground hearing their own voices!! Then I put on my reggae tape and everyone danced wildly!! In the morning when I peeked out my tent I saw a circle of youth waiting for us to wake up. "Cassette!, Cassette!” They wanted to hear their voices again. I collected many drawings, mostly from adults, who insisted on drawing. Some had never drawn on paper before. They decorate their gourds and spears with lines and dots, but paper was new to them. Some children tried eating the crayons.

We trekked for several weeks meeting Turkana, Rendili and Gabbra people. We collected drawings and shared our tea and sugar and sang and danced under the stars! I WAS IN HEAVEN! No sounds of civilization, only a hyena in the distance and a lion in the bush..and their singing and the moon overhead! They live close to nature. They don’t need the comforts all the stuff we have. They have their families, their cows, and their community.. and find joy in these relationships. I didn’t know how dangerous this area was until later when a missionary told me that bandits from Somalia come down, shoot up the people and steal their cattle regularly! I told him, “I know how to hide my money, I put a little bit here, a little bit there” He said, “The last tourist we found tied to a tree naked!” We were lucky.

We had thrilling experiences meeting wild animals: elephants who passed by our tent at night and we could hear their stomachs rumbling, and a growling lion nearby. When I got home I told my husband how wonderful it was and how I wanted to do it again in a new place.

During the next few summers I lived with tribes in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Uganda, Mali, and Namibia.

Besides learning about these cultures, I learned about myself. In Tanzania I learned what it’s like to be hungry. Living with a group of Hunters and Hatherers. The Hadza.. (you know ALL of OUR ancestors were once hunters and gatherers so I thought how interesting it would be to live with them.) The women dug tubers to eat and the men occasionally found a bee hive in a tree, smoked it and brought it down. They all gorged! After two weeks of my noodles and their tubers I was starving. I consider myself vegetarian but when they killed an impala, I shared it. This was rare because there are so few wild animals left..due to the Massai cows who drive them away. I know what it’s like to be thirsty. We dug for water 6 feet down in a dry river bed. The liquid was brown as coffee, but when boiled we drank it and were so grateful! In northern Kenya we ran out of food and lived on camel milk for a week, morning and evening when the Rendili milked their camels. It was rich and delicious and filling. I always felt safe, except in vehicles, which are pretty scary due to poor roads and crazy drivers.

It wasn't easy… Sometimes, when I was over-tired, sunburned, dirty, and hungry, I said to myself, “Why am I doing this? I must be crazy. I could be home with my family and eating ice cream". The next morning I would wake up fresh, look out my tent, see the sunrise and a man standing tall with his spear and blanket, silhouetted against the sky and the buzz would be back! And I would think; "This is so fantastic! I'm so lucky to be here!"

One special trip was in Irian Jaya, the western half of Papua New Guinea, a huge island above Australia but controlled by Indonesia. I read a BOOK about the Asmat people in the jungle and swamps, who were head- hunters and cannibals till the 1950s. They were also outstanding ARTISTS: Now missionaries had convinced them not to fight or fear each other, and focus on their wood carving, which they could sell to the world for good profit! I wrote the missionaries but they said, NOT TO COME. Some villagers had never seen a white woman and it was hot, humid, full of mud and mosquitoes and I wouldn't like it. PLUS I couldn't get a permit! But I knew I would LOVE it, so I wrote the author of the book and asked him. He said GO! JUST GO! You will find a way! My husband suggested I write the government ahead of time, asking permission saying that I was a teacher and wanted to learn and teach about these people. I got A PERMIT!! I flew in on a small missionary plane from the capital of Jayapura. Once in the village, I was introduced to the Asmat in their long house, and they welcomed me warmly with loud shouts WHA! WHA!

They allowed me to stay in the long house where the men lived, carving wood, drumming and singing each night. The women lived separately with the children. I brought them large bags of rice and tobacco, and they were very protective of me.. They were having a huge festival soon and everyone was working hard making wood carvings They painted their bodies, AND mine, and put cockatoo feathers in my hair and shell ornaments on my arms. I was in HEAVEN again!! The festival went on for several days, all night long, drumming, singing, and feasting on sago, which is their basic diet….To make sago you scape out the sago tree, washing and pounding it into chunks of starch roasted over a fire. It tasted, not surprisingly, like saw dust, but flavored with fat juicy sago grubs (white worms the size of your thumb!). At first when I saw these grubs squirming in a leaf, I said, “No thanks, I'm not hungry”. But by the 3rd day I was starving and said, “Yes”. They were roasted and served hot......I said to myself, "it's a French fry, it's a French fry!" They were delicious, but I'll never know if they were REALLY delicious or IF they were delicious because I was so hungry.

I spent 5 summers going back to the Asmat AND the tribes in the Highlands, the Dani and Lani, people who still use stone axes, and grow 14 varieties of sweet potato! The women wear only a grass skirt and the men wear a gourd for modesty, various sizes. Again I tape-recorded their singing, which may all be lost in another generation.

Two babies were named after me, in Asmat and in Tanzania! My husband said, "You know that means you have to send them to college"!

I integrated my travels into my art program. My students saw my slides and artifacts, and then made their own artwork. They painted animals in the Serengetti AND made cardboard shields inspired by the Asmat. I did an adult class too where we BECAME Asmat and raided a folkdance session at a summer camp. It was wild fun!! I took these photos to the Asmat and they howled!

In 2007, my husband died and I retired from teaching. I started doing art work, but I found it lonely, so in 2010 I discovered India! This is now my 10th trip to India in seven years! The first time I went, an India friend warned me: You cannot travel alone!. You have to have a car and driver. No way, I prefer the amazing trains,(non-AC) buses, camels, bull-ox, bike and elephant, ha ha, just kidding. I connect with the people by teaching English and Art, songs and games. I adore the festivals, color, art, temples, and mostly the PEOPLE, who are so welcoming and friendly. When I return home, I try to welcome visitors to America the same way. I invite them to my home and for dinner.

Standing here today required me to push myself beyond my comfort zone, and that is what I hope I have motivated you to do… TRAVEL! MEET STRANGERS. Tours are fine but you won’t meet the people or experience their culture. Do it on your own or find a local guide. Don’t let fear of the unknown stop you. If you don’t travel, try meeting strangers anywhere. I believe every person I know enriches my life. You will find people open, welcoming, interesting, and interested in you!

People are remarkable and wonderful everywhere.

Thank you.