“Don’t worry, it’s easy, we’re just going to talk. I love your story, and there is so much you’ve learned that inspires me. Thanks for agreeing to tell me more about it!”
Her eyes smiled, and she nodded.
We met Anne Christensen in a little hole in the wall place, aptly called The Secret Sanctuary, tucked into the fringe of Kuching, on the western end of Malaysian Borneo. She gamely crammed herself into the back seat of our tiny rental car and shared a couple of days worth of adventures with us, and in the process the story of her extraordinary young life unfolded.
She took her first big trip at eleven years old, to attend a summer camp in Tennessee with 80 kids from diverse international backgrounds. The point? To build bridges through play and friendship and to open up the world to young kids at a formative point in their lives. If only her camp counsellors could know who she’s becoming and the good use she’s made of the gift they gave her.
When Anne was just 19 years old, she applied to a very rigorous program, run by the Danish government, to learn Pashtun, a language spoken only in Afghanistan. She worked hard for three years before the government deployed her as a translator in a UN Camp. She celebrated her 22nd birthday the day after she arrived in Afghanistan on a pile of moving boxes and found herself the head of the Culture and Linguistics Department, with a staff of 12 interpreters under her.
Come sit with us, will you? Pull up a cushion on the bamboo floor of the open air room, lit with silk lanterns in deep reds and oranges. Let the sound of the waterfall soothe away the sounds around you now and listen to the laughter filtering in from the three backpackers sipping brews at the bar. All I ask is that you sit quietly, Anne is nervous, after all.
Tell us your story: Who are you? What did you do? Where have you been? Inspire me!
I went to a German boarding school and international college and have been traveling on and off to new places ever since.
I began learning Pashtun at 19, got paid to learn it and then had to take one deployment for six months to Afghanistan. It’s within Danish government, but you worked with in the civilian arm of the program.
In Afghanistan I was the head of the Linguists and Culture department, consisting of 12 interpreters and me. I was the cultural advisor and in charge of sensitive material.
Most of the translation was for the government agencies and NGOs helping to improve infrastructure, education of teachers, prisoner rehabilitation, ESL education, supporting the development of the legal system, and other long term sustainable projects. The Afghans were doing the work, managing the projects, and we were funding their own self sustainable work, and monitoring it.
What is the one thing you learned from travel you could never have learned in a classroom?
How did your experience change your life upon returning to Denmark?
Seeing the difference between what was in the press and what life was like on the ground taught me that. And beginning to understand the value systems of different cultures that motivate what they do helped me to see how there are very different reasonings behind the actions we read about in the press. I’ve recognized the power that the press has in shaping how we think about something, on both sides, no one knows the whole truth.
I learned about myself that I love talking to people and being able to speak their language. I’m a good interpreter, but I learned that that’s not what I really want to do, I want to be the one talking, sharing my ideas, and reaching across cultural boundaries with my own ideas, not as someone else’s mouthpiece.
Travel has taught me how to live in my own culture with humor, laughing at people when they perceive something as Danish. It’s taught me what it means to be Danish and what I value in my own culture. When I was young, I had disdain for much of that. The older I grow the more and more I appreciate my own culture and the opportunities that it has given me. I think we’re really privileged because of all of the opportunities that we have and the choices that we have. We have the power to change our future if we want to… in other cultures that’s not always the case, especially for women.
What, in your opinion is the single greatest factor that keeps people from traveling?
What enabled you?
I love meeting people everywhere and seeing beautiful things and learning. Traveling is a great way of doing all of those things combined.
What was your biggest obstacle to overcome?
Who did you meet on the road who changed your life? Tell us about that.
The first time I met her I was sitting within a police unit waiting and drinking tea. She was the first woman I’d seen who was not in a burqa, only a veil and her uniform. When she got into this unit everyone jumped up and offered her tea and cookies and asked what they could do. They treated her like they would treat the chief of police. She was a happy person, smiling and talking, talking. She had been a police woman since the time before the Russians.
She was married to a man 30 years older than her and had two kids. Having only 2 kids is amazing in Afghanistan because most women are expected to stay home and have lots of babies. She told her husband that she wanted to be a police officer and he supported her, which is unusual in her culture.
It’s important that they have female police officers because men are not allowed to search women, and it’s because of her that there are now about 30 police women in Helmed. She inspired me a lot. Meeting her was a completely different world from seeing the men in the meeting. She was an amazing woman with a lot of charisma, the men respected her for the work that she was doing. It inspired me to believe that you can do anything if you want it badly enough, and no one can stop you.
She’s called the black widow because she wears this black veil, and she’s lethal if you get on her bad side. She also runs two brothels in town, which is illegal… everybody knows, but nobody talks about it and it’s protected because she’s the one running it. Everything works underneath the table. My opinion is that the reason that she can continue to be outspoken and prominent in the police department is that she has something on most of the powerful men in the city, which gives her leverage. The corruption level is very high, and that would definitely help her protect herself and her family.
We’re working to give every young person the freedom to travel, tell us how we can do that.
What are your plans moving forward?
I’m really interested in Central Asia. I see myself in ten or fifteen years with my own company in Denmark and traveling to Central Asia to do humanitarian work. There are six of my friends, we all have different interests and areas of expertise, and our dream is to set up a business that creates links between businesses in Denmark and small start-ups in Central Asia… looking for marketing opportunities and needs to fill and making the connections that allow that to happen. The idea is that with the skills we each have, that together the six of us can work together to impact the world from our corner of Denmark. I will definitely keep traveling and working to make the important contacts that will allow us to change the world.
Want to connect with other travelers? Check out Anne’s traveler profile, then fill one out yourself to become part of a community of like-minded travel lovers!
Photo credits: meunierd , Milosz_M , all others courtesy of the author and may not be used without permission.