By Chelsea La Near
This week, we’re taking a close-up look at Runa Lindberg, a travel photographer and digital marketer who has contributed to Parlay Vacay and runs her own photography tour company. We caught up with the young entrepreneur to learn more about her fascinating life and the inspiration behind her business.
Traveling wasn’t always a pastime for Runa. She grew up in Schwäbisch Hall, a medieval town about an hour outside of Stuttgart, Germany, where her parents planned and managed the local gardens. Her mother was afraid of flying, and her father didn’t think his European hunting trips were suitable for children, so the farthest the family ventured was the North German coast to visit relatives.
The land where the Lindberg family lived included a huge, 17th-century farmhouse and plenty of typical farm animals such as dogs and horses. Runa acquired an equestrian education mostly through trial and error since there wasn’t anyone nearby to give riding lessons, and she subsequently spent much of her time exploring the surroundings on horseback. Though this provincial life sounds like everything a tourist’s Deutsch dreams are made of (or something straight out of a Disney movie), it required endless imagination and curiosity for the only child to entertain herself. Runa credits her grandmother, who also lived on the farm, with exposing her to books and movies set in exotic locations, which further sparked her innate curiosity and fueled her travel dreams.
Runa made her first trip outside of Germany when she was 17 to nearby Poland. She was accompanying a friend who had a business trip in the rural southern region of the country and who happened to know a horse breeder in the area. While her friend worked, Runa was able to explore the rural landscape, again on horseback. She described the forests she rode through as “lonely and beautiful,” and even encountered bison and wild sheep. A few years later, she took her first plane on a trip to Spain, and at 22, she traveled beyond Europe for the first time to reach her dream destination of India.
India had played an important role in Runa’s imagination thanks to books she read as a child, including a popular favorite, The Jungle Book. However, her trip didn't go as planned - shortly after her arrival in Mumbai, a Pakistani guerrilla group hijacked the city in one of the worst terrorist attacks India has seen this century. "We were in the street when the first restaurant got attacked," she recalled. She was fortunate to be able to stay at a friend’s place in an old colonial building by the sea. There was a neighborhood fruit tree that could be reached by the balcony, and Runa waited out the worst of the lockdown among the wildlife that fed there. After a few days, the Indian military arrived, but the airports and train stations continued to operate at limited capacity, so Runa remained in Mumbai for the duration of her month-long trip. Such a scenario might intimidate many travelers, but Runa found an opportunity in the crisis to really get to know the people of Mumbai and the city itself. She fell in love with what she encountered, and her desire to experience more of India only grew.
A year later, Runa visited Cambodia to lend her photography skills to a friend's nonprofit organization that worked to educate local farmers. At the time, Runa was just an amateur photographer who had fallen into the craft by coincidence while studying design. "I had
always been interested in visual art, so capturing my travel adventures through the medium of photography seemed obvious,” she said of her foray into travel photography.
"With time, I developed my own way of capturing small and big moments on the road."
Runa's friend certainly believed in her talent and took her to remote locations in Cambodia to document the rural life and the people there. She made portraits to feature in a calendar that helped the organization generate donations and attract attention.
When Runa returned to Germany, her photography took a backseat to the event-planning business she founded while still studying. “My original goal was to have more money and time for travel and art, but the job quickly developed into a 24/7 effort that provided me a great financial situation, but left me little time for anything else,” she lamented of this endeavor. “My whole life took place in the big cities. My work trips sent me to places like Florida and Dubai instead of remote villages in Southeast Asia, and I spent my time playing golf and riding.” Five years into her "hip" entrepreneur life, an unexpected personal catastrophe, and the anxiety that came with it, forced Runa to reassess her priorities, and ask what her heart truly beat for. The soul-searching led to a lifestyle change that happened almost overnight:
“I rented out my penthouse apartment on AirBnB, sold my convertible, exchanged my Louboutins for hiking boots and my Louis Vuitton for a photo backpack, and set off into the world.”
Runa wound up back in India and traveled across the country before finding herself in a small, hippie community in Gokarna on the Southwest coast. She stayed there for six months, living in a small fishing hut right by the sea. "There I rediscovered my love for art, especially photography,” she claims. In India, she didn't feel the same pressure and anxiety to keep up with everyone else that she felt in the West. She found India to be full of love, and she was drawn to the lively culture and rituals that indicated a strong connection with the past.
Reinvigorated by her travels, Runa returned to Germany and entered some of her work in an international photography competition. Her photo series taken in Varanasi won the grand prize, and her pictures were exhibited in Essen, Germany.
The young entrepreneur had already been toying around ideas for a new business venture, and this achievement helped solidify her plans. She wanted to help others have the perspective-altering experiences that authentic travel offered, but realized that such "off the beaten path" adventures required either a lot of time or very good contacts - both difficult and often inaccessible to people with normal jobs. With this target audience in mind, Runa designed a photography tour agency centered around events in India where like-minded explorers could experience "real life, real moments, and real culture! To be there instead of watching, to become active instead of being the audience - and to capture it all with your camera!”
Runa recently returned home to Germany from India to ride out the coronavirus pandemic, but she intends to have her tours up and running again when this is all over, and even plans to add tours in multiple countries. In the meantime, she provided us with some great insight about traveling, including her insider recommendations.
1. What inspires you to travel?
I have always been curious and restless - when everything moves and changes, I find peace. I can feel homesick for places I’ve never been. Throughout my travels, I’ve made friends all over the world who I love to visit again and again, or even meet them somewhere along the way.
I find traveling, and diving into another society to broaden my horizon, to be very life-changing. What is considered “normal” here in Germany is quite different a few thousand kilometers away. Through traveling, I have come to know that there is not one society/religions/ethic that is definitively right, and there is a lot to learn. Since life is finite, I want to learn as much as I can about the world and its inhabitants. I also want to contribute to helping others recognize other ways of life and cultural characteristics as important and beautiful, and not to dismiss them as old-fashioned. There is so much beauty and diversity in the world that can often only be appreciated if one alters their perspective.
2. What do you love the most about travel?
I love to be free and go where I want and discover what I want without feeling bound by society’s expectations.
3. What, if anything, do you like the least about travel?
Borders. As the owner of a German passport, I am lucky to be able to traverse borders so easily - but there are so many people in other countries who don’t have this privilege. Why do politicians decide who can and can't travel? Humans have managed to set foot on the moon, so we should be able to find a way for anyone on Earth who can afford it to travel where they want.
4. How do you think travel has changed you?
Travel continuously changes me. I no longer worry about rules and values that are so strongly anchored in Western society. I don't care what car I drive, I don't buy brand clothing anymore after seeing the miserable conditions under which the big brands produce. I try to avoid plastic where I can, after having seen the excessive environmental destruction it causes with my own eyes. I have also learned to be tolerant and to accept and love life in whatever form it comes along.
5. Do you have any travel hacks to share?
The most important thing is not what you have with you, but the kind of mindset you have. Expect nothing and instead make room for what awaits you on the journey. I hear this question quite often, mostly in combination with the question "aren't you afraid of getting lost somewhere" and I can only always say: nobody gets lost - a “somewhere or nowhere" only exists in a fearful mind.
6. What is a destination that pleasantly surprised you?
I was pleasantly surprised by Sodwana Bay in South Africa. I was on a road trip through South Africa and intended to stop there for just a short time, but we stayed for more than a week. This place has its very own special vibe - very relaxed with beautiful dune landscapes and impressive coral reefs. If you like nature and solitude, Sodwana Bay is the right place for you.
7. What is a destination that disappointed you?
A destination that disappointed me the most was Kathmandu. The post-apocalyptic presence of the city gave me a lot of trouble. I was also there in January, perhaps one of the worst months. It was cold, dark, dusty, and dirty and every 5th person wanted to sell me opium or hash. They must think foreigners can only endure Kathmandu in January with the help of drugs?
8. What are some “off the beaten path” destinations you can recommend?
The plateau of Livno, Bosnia. It has wild horses, wolves, bears, so much nature and not a single soul. It’s a very unique area, but I wouldn't recommend a trip without a local guide - large parts of the area are still minefields from the Bosnian war.
Another recommendation is Theyyam Festival in the south Indian state of Kerala on the Malabar Coast. The Theyyam is a Hindu ritual that is performed in remote jungle villages. Some believe the origins of the performance date back to the Neolithic period. The performers fall into a trance to the rhythm of the drums. At a certain point, the dancer is no longer a human being, but transforms into a deity according to their faith. This cult is closely connected with nature. For about 400 male and female deities, spirits, mythical ancestors and personified animals, rituals are held outdoors.
Chelsea La Near, M. Ed., is a writer, wanderluster, and language education professional from Missouri who spent the past 9 years teaching abroad in East Asia and is currently based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @chelsealanear and Instagram @thenearsea for more.
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