Travel these days seem to be largely portrayed in a glamorous light courtesy of influencers and celebrities, who spam their social media feed with chock-full of photos featuring their luxurious villas, decadent dinners and exotic destination choices. What about the flip side of travel? Travel that opens your eyes and sheds light on prevalent global problems, real natural disasters and actual crises.
Sufi Rohaizad is a humanitarian photographer for Global Ehsan Relief and the founder of GERTV, a platform which features photos and videos that raises awareness about their missions abroad. Some of these trips prove to be exceptionally tear-jerking, notably the recent Palu disaster that left this Indonesian island devastated.
Read on to discover more about Sufi, his incredibly unique travel experiences and how his exemplary purpose of travel should be emulated.
How many countries have you been to? How often do you travel?
Hmmm let’s see Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia… Okay, hang on [loses count]! Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nepal, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, Jordan and Saudi Arabia! Twelve in total for now.
I travel once a month on average but at times, twice to thrice a month. The minimum stay in countries that are near is four days, but countries that are further, I’d usually spend about seven or more days. The longest I’ve been away was for an Umrah trip that spanned 20 days.
Which was your most memorable trip?
Bangladesh, for sure. I was in a van with the rest of my team, on a two-hour journey to the refugee camp site and there was this particular area that we had to pass by. We saw Rohingya refugees feigning for their lives by basically climbing on lorries and trying to grab basic necessities for themselves.
I’ve been there eight times now and noticed that at least 70% of the refugees are orphans. When witnessing these innocent children just fighting for their survival without their parents, it really hits me hard every single time. Just being there, the ambience and witnessing the refugees… I will never forget it.
Did you experience anything traumatising during your travels?
My team and I were activated for four days after the earthquake-tsunami hit Palu. We were actually told not to go immediately because there were still bodies strewn everywhere and the stench was no doubt very overwhelming. I saw people claiming body bags amidst the fresh rubble and people were still trapped beneath…
Was that something very emotional for you?
Well, it hit me that this was essentially part of my job. The more trips that I embarked on, the easier it became for me to remind myself that I had a task to fulfil. I don’t feel affected whilst carrying out my duties, but it will definitely hit me at the end of the day. I guess there’s a reason why sometimes you’re just built for a certain field of work.
Have you faced any stigma due to your religion?
Since most of my trips are to Muslim-friendly countries, I don’t face any stigma. But for some countries, as an NGO, you will need a whole list of documentation to reiterate the purpose behind your trip and other details. The process can be very tedious and frustrating.
Which destination have you found to be underrated?
Bangladesh. I don’t understand why people don’t put in the same amount of effort in their research to visit Bangladesh as they would to Paris. It’s a beautiful place with great food and one of the world’s longest natural sandy sea beaches, apparently. People should definitely give Bangladesh a chance.
Do you think the purpose behind travel is lost these days with the new social-media savvy generation?
I like this question. There was an instance when someone commented on a photo that was taken during the devastation in Palu. The gist of the comment was that he kept insinuating on how awesome it is to be able to capture such nice photographs overseas, without being tactful about the fact that Palu was just hit by a catastrophic disaster.
For us, it’s a job and a duty to carry out interviews and gather stories. The photos that we take are meant to raise awareness of such tragedies, not to brag about our trips. We’re not just there to “take photos to upload later.” Social media is important, but it should be for the right reasons and it must be used wisely.
What has been the most exotic food you’ve tasted?
The most exotic I would say would be this home-cooked “rendang dish” when I was in Myanmar. They are quite big on meat dishes.
Special Mention: I have to point out that the briyani in Dhaka is extra fragrant and the unique part is that the briyani there is served without any gravy. Maybe it’s because I love Indian food so I particularly enjoyed this, and the hearty breakfast platters served in Kashmir.
Any destinations that you plan to visit soon? What are your upcoming projects?
Turkey and UK in December for a winter relief project and we’ll be heading to Jordan in January, most probably for another Umrah trip.
Name a country that you think people should visit
Sri Lanka is nice. I went to a particular area which was so quiet and serene. There were just one or two cars on the road. I feel like people should experience the level of peace that you can only find there. I think that there are so many things to explore and do in Sri Lanka.
Window or aisle seat?
Window for sure.
Do you prefer summer or winter vacations?
Winter holidays (because Singapore is warm enough already!)
Tea or Coffee? In your opinion, which country makes the best Tea or Coffee?
Coffee! Hands down, Turkey.
If you could swim with dolphins or go shark-cage diving, which would you pick?
[Without hesitation] Dolphins! If you go shark-cage diving, you’re trapped within a steel cage. An experience with the dolphins seems to be a lot more liberating, a lot more free.
If you must choose one place to live in, where would it be? (besides Singapore, of course!)
Cuba — cigars, coffee and the music [laughs]. I like the vibrant lifestyle, everything’s bright and colourful. I know a lot of people question the safety, how it’s a dangerous place to live in, but to me, I feel that because of its exclusivity, it makes me more curious and inclined to make a living there.
If you could sum up travelling in a sentence, what would it be?
Travel builds confidence, adaptability, connections and encourages innovation through ideas.