Forget borders, focus on people

Vanja Roller combines his two passions – work and travel, he is a global nomad and has met 65 countries and their citizens

By Jelena Božić

Have you ever admired from afar, an Instagram page dedicated to traveling, maybe even envied it’s founder a bit? Devoted to discovering more about the compact digital postcards from the Instagram profile, I talked to Vanja Roller, a travel, exploration, nature, hiking, food and art enthusiast.


How did traveling become a major part of your life?

The passion for traveling probably stems from my early childhood, when my parents used to drag me everywhere, from trips to Vienna and Budapest, to camping in tents during the summer.

As a high school and university student I was lucky enough, thanks to my mother, to visit many places in Europe, and sometimes even a little bit further.

And then comes the question of work and I decide to accept an offer in aviation. This opened doors to a new world to me. After spending 18 years in an airline I decided to start a new page in life and started working abroad as a technical consultant, which I’ve been doing for the past 7 years, traveling the world, working and enjoying myself.

If you’ll allow a more personal question, what exactly do you do?

When it comes to my education and line of work, I completed my studies of mechanical engineering and shipbuilding at the University of Zagreb, therefore a graduated engineer, and later a MBA at Cotrugli Business School. I’ve been in aviation since the beginning of my career, for 18 years as a technician in Croatia Airlines, and since 2011 a small entrepreneur, which is how I freelance in technical consulting of civil aviation all over the world.



How many countries have you visited so far?

Now that is an inappropriate question hahaha. What does a number of countries mean? A number of some sorts of administrative borders. For example, driving from Belgrade, through Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Lichtenstein in order to reach Zurich means you visited 5 countries. Not even to mention cruising in the Caribbean, where you’re basically collecting stamps. I personally find it irrelevant. Have you been to the USA if you’ve been to New York for a week? Have you been in Brazil if you spent a weekend in Rio? In both cases the answer is NO. Of course, you count the countries in a list but you haven’t truly met them. Please, forget about administrative borders, focus on people, traditions and spaces, numbers are irrelevant. But, if anyone is still interested in that number, in my case, today at the beginning of 2018, it’s 65, not a lot neither a little. There are countries in which I only spent a couple of hours, and those, which I met profoundly. I will give you one example, Brazil.

As I stressed earlier, if you’ve been in Rio for a weekend or the carnival, you had a great time but you haven’t met Brazil. I’ve been in that country over 10 times, sometimes even for as long as a couple of moths at a time. Rio is a beautiful town, but Sao Paolo has that something Brazilian. The people, the nightlife, the vibe… that’s special in Sao Paolo. Something similar is Belo Horizonte, the third largest city in Brazil (locals claim that the population is around 5 million, Wikipedia claims differently), in which I spent most of my time. The IT center of Brazil, the city of the young, for tourists probably not very interesting since it doesn’t have any special monuments, except for beginning works of Oscar Niemeyer for architecture lovers. But, nevertheless, it’s a city with an amazing energy, nightlife in Lourdes and Savassi districts, cafes, young people, nearby historical locations (Ouro Preto and Mariana are less than 2 hours away by car). You can meet the real Brazil there. Working with Brazilians, daily lunches, parties and nightlife on the weekends, are what makes Brazil unique. I traveled through Brazil from Manaus in the north, over Brasilia and Belo Horizonte, the whole Minas Gerais region in the middle, to Rio and Sao Paolo, as well as to big centers, to Curitiba and Porto Alegre in the south. It’s not just a country, it’s a continent.Traveling made me realized how good people are in their essence.

Traveling made me realized how good people are in their essence

Where would you return?

Argentina! Always. Simply special and unique. The people, the landscapes, the food. Everything. Beautiful country, just very far away. Especially Patagonia, which is, for now, the most beautiful place on Earth that I’ve seen.

There is one more place, country to which I always gladly return to, the most beautiful place in the world, without which this world would be a much boring place – Italy. The food, the people, the landscapes, the opera, cars, design… whatever, for me the one and only is Italy. Luckily it’s not far away, so we take a trip there every year.



My advice to anyone under 20, learn mandarin, the sooner the better

What motivates you to travel?

It’s my life. That’s why I chose a job that allows me to do so. I live a somewhat nomadic lifestyle, but I enjoy it. Traveling made me realized how good people are in their essence. You often remember nice experiences and forget about the bad, but there were much much more good ones. Even in places that many describe as dangerous or unreachable, I felt nice and welcomed, locals showed me the way around, and that was truly beautiful. Here’s an example. A couple of years ago I was in Karachi, Pakistan on business. Everyone warned me, be careful, don’t leave the hotel and so on, but that’s not me, it’s impossible to meet a city by staying in a J. W. Marriott. So I made a deal with my colleagues at work, to take me out to places they go to. That’s not always simple in such countries, but we went to the beach, to the mall, and finally to old Karachi where we went to a local market and later to a local restaurant for dinner. They went to pray one after the other, forming a line, so that someone is always with me, but there really wasn’t any need for fear since all the locals looked at me in approval, for joining them in their customs at the time of Ramadan. I went out on my own during the rest of my stay, again without any issues.

How do you decide which destination to visit next?

There are two ways. The first one being work, wherever it takes me I go.

Secondly, when I earn enough money, I go to a destination I want to and haven’t been to. Over a decade ago my primary interests were cities and civilizational heritage. By which I’m referring to museums, buildings and cultural heritage. Today the situation is a bit different; my focus has shifted to nature. Therefore the focus of all my new trips is nature, to be more exact mountain climbing and mountains, as well as the sea, ocean, parks, nature in general. I’m lucky enough to have a partner who had a similar development in life, therefore we share the same interests, and so finding a destination isn’t difficult. Our last adventure was Argentina and its surrounding countries. Our next bigger adventure (referring to traveling for over a month) will be Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, during the summer of 2019. Until then, we’ll make due with short trips and wherever our jobs take us. I’m currently at the Canary islands (9 weeks), after that I’ll spend a dozen of days in France and later on 3 months in Vietnam. I’m looking forward to the project that is taking me back to Vietnam, even though Las Palmas isn’t bad either. Vietnamese people are wonderful even though they eat dogs.


Out of all the places and countries that you visited, where did an event, tradition or human relations mostly surprise you?

When talking about cultural differences (or civil as some like to say) that place is China. Last year, I spent 3 months working on a project in Jinan. That’s a ‘town’ with a population of 8 million, between Beijing and Shanghai. A special project and a special experience. And not just due to the fact that it was my first trip to China, but mostly due to my colleagues on the project. Furthermore, the team consisted of people from all around: local Chinese people from Jinan, Chinese people from Shanghai, Americans, Poles, Austrians, Singaporeans, Australians, a Colombian, a Sinhalese, a Malaysian, an Englishmen, and my humble Croatian self. But the Chinese truly were a whole other story. We were located in Jinan in northeast China, while the company we were working with was from Shenzhen in the south. One day in the end of February it snowed in Jinan, and not one of the team members from Shenzhen came to work, because it was the first time any of them had seen snow. Communication was extremely difficult. We had a team member from Singapore but of a Chinese heritage, my dear friend Patrick, who is completely bilingual, fluent in both mandarin and English. Patrick was my door to China, the couple of days we spent together a bit later in Beijing were a magical experience. But the Chinese are very different from us, they don’t show any respect towards anyone, and have the power and drive to conquer the whole world. My advice to anyone under 20, learn mandarin, the sooner the better.


What are your first associations to that place?

My first associations to China are power, tradition, greatness… I met just a part of that country. Of course, when working with them and you see whole different side opposed to just being a tourist. For example, having lunch in the cantina, going out for dinner (even though it’s much less common and much more complicated than in other countries), see them work, see their toilets (which will test your gut), when you walk (getting spit on is common), and much more. Personally, I found the spitting and lack of respect of personal space unpleasant, but I’m eager to find out more about this wonderful country.

What did you learn there, that you wish you would have known prior to your trip, and isn’t in a travel brochure?

Whenever I’m leaving for a tip, whether it be personal or of a business nature, I always prepare myself for that destination. Travel brochures are a treasured source of information. And let me take this opportunity to clear up the stigma of tourists and the ‘other’ ones. There are no other ones, everyone going to a country, as a foreigner is a tourist. Whether they are the ones in Ritz Carlton or those with backpacks that sleep in motels, or ones that are there on business, once all of them go out, or have a free weekend, they all become tourists, and there isn’t anything bad about it. Let’s not kid ourselves, all those labels, tourist, adventurist, businessman or whatever, they don’t matter, all of us visiting a foreign country are TOURISTS. I can sometimes spend 6 or more months on a project in a place, but for the locals I’ll always remain a tourist. Which doesn’t automatically imply a lack of respect, or prevents me to find a common way of interaction. The only difference lies in the question whether you want to feel and understand the local customs, or you don’t. Differently put, will you as an Englishman go somewhere and look for a pub serving English beer or will you go to a local restaurant and try a local beer/wine/whatever. There isn’t a difference in you and your companions drinking beer you bought in the local supermarket, or drinking it in a bar of a 5 star hotel. It has nothing to do with status with which you travel or the amount of money you spend on that trip.

Besides for travel brochures (my favorites being D&K and National Geographic), I use the Internet, many other books and recommendations from friends and acquaintances. But, in order to truly meet a place, you must visit it, meet the people, feel the climate, smell the smells, and hear the sounds… food! Food is one of the main guidelines when meeting a culture. That’s why I always look for places with a local cuisine.

Has this experience changed you in any way?

Every experience, every trip changes you in some way, some more, some less, but every tip is a new experience. Whether it’s negative (rarely but happens), or positive. And that’s why I stress the fact that it’s important for people to travel, meet new places, people, cultures, to become more tolerant, have a greater level of respect, and finally learn to coexist better with their neighbors back home.

One lovely example is an experience from the fall of 2016. I was working on a project in California, in the dessert, half way from LA to Las Vegas, in the middle of nowhere; It was Thanksgiving day and out American colleague invited the whole team (2 Irishman, an Englishman, a Dutchman, and a Croatian) to a thanksgiving lunch. We spent the whole afternoon/evening with a typical American family, eating turkey and enjoying other traditions. It was an unforgettable day. Whatever you or I, or someone else thinks of Americans, good or bad, it was a wonderful experience I’ll treasure forever. Did it change me, of course it did. Such a positive experience, an exchange of positive energy, can only influence a person in a positive manner. I can only add, my dear Pat, thank you once more.





What made you take photographs on your trips and share them on social media platforms, is that some sort of hobby as well?

Hahahahah. No, photography isn’t a hobby and in fact I don’t have enough time to take it more seriously. Everything that you had seen on social media are photos taken with a smartphone, I aim to share a moment, experience and beauty of a place. I share photos from my trips with friends and the public (my instagram profile is public) in hopes that by sharing my experiences I will encourage others to travel more, because I believe that if more people traveled and meet other cultures, this world would be a much better place, with less misunderstandings and hatred towards differences.