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Escaping the golden cage

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Escaping the golden cage

Switzerland is beautiful, affluent, safe and convenient, yet many Swiss move on. Some find it dull or even claustrophobic. Here are the stories of seven Swiss people who’ve decided to try their luck elsewhere in the world. They are people who’ve “escaped the golden cage” – or at least given up on some of the comforts of Switzerland to pursue new adventures.

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Niklaus Mueller

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The “golden cage” is actually a luxury – its “bars” both a springboard and a safety net helping the ambitious to stretch their wings – says a young Swiss man studying in Shanghai, China.

For Niklaus Mueller, China is the place to be; he’s living there for the third time in five years. Like many Swiss of his generation, the 32-year-old is eager to explore the world and use that experience to his advantage.

What’s less typical is the fact that he’s swimming against the current.

“A lot of my friends wanted to go West, but I wanted to go back East. I'm fascinated by China, and even though I had already spent more than two years there, I felt like I could deepen my understanding of it and its place in the global economy,” Mueller tells swissinfo.ch.

Very neatly dressed and equipped with his own notes for the interview, Mueller seems like a man who considers things carefully and prepares accordingly. His first taste of China came in the form of an internship at an international law firm, CMS, in 2011. He needed to return to Zurich for the bar exam in 2012, but China stayed on his mind.

“I was already convinced that I had to find a way to come back to China,” Mueller remembers. Back in Shanghai, CMS offered him the chance to kick off his career as a full-time associate – which he did for two years.

However, you can’t stay forever at the place where they knew you as an intern, and Mueller swapped that job for one at Credit Suisse in Zurich. But after a year there, China was still calling him – and he enrolled in the MBA programme at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in 2015.

“I’m very interested in entrepreneurship and innovation, and given the current developments in China, I think it’s one of the most exciting places to be,” explains Mueller, who is originally from Bern.

That excitement extends to Chinese culture, history, and also the language, specifically, Mandarin.

“It seems every character has a story behind it, and that helps you to remember all the characters by trying to understand the story behind them,” Mueller explains. He’s passed four out of six test levels so far, and is preparing for the fifth – which will require him to know 2,500 characters.
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“The Chinese are very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, whereas we Swiss would like to have all the details. We don’t like it much if there are too many open questions.”

Speaking of character: Mueller clearly has an ambitious one – one that has helped him to override any real or perceived notion of Switzerland’s “golden cage”.

“I can understand that people somehow feel a bit restricted. They say it’s hard to make a change, as the norms for expected behaviour are clear. It might be difficult to break out,” Mueller says.

At the same time, he believes Swiss people should be grateful for the political and economic stability at home.

“This helps us. We have the luxury to venture abroad and if it doesn’t work out, we have the comfortable situation that you can always come back to Switzerland. I’m pretty sure I’d find a job within a couple of months if I went back home,” says Mueller, adding, “This takes away a lot of the pressure if you go to another country.”

Indeed, maybe the better term would be “golden safety net” – something not everyone can enjoy. Mueller cites the example of a Spanish colleague who had to stay in China because she was struggling to find work in Spain.

Sino-Swiss comparison

China itself is enjoying a period of increasing prosperity and better links with other nations.

“Chinese companies are all over Europe and the rest of the world, and with the free trade deal signed between Switzerland and China in 2014, I think there could be some interesting opportunities,” notes Mueller.

And while Switzerland often ranks high in innovation, Mueller praises the entrepreneurial spirit of China as well.

“Innovation is a tricky thing. In the news you read that China is a copycat, but if you see what's going on, China has taken a leading position in certain industries such as e-commerce and fintech. Besides, if you look at technology firms in the US, you have often the equivalent in China,” Mueller is convinced, giving examples of how Alibaba’s Taobao, Tencent’s WeChat and Didi Kuaidi are China’s answers to eBay, WhatsApp and Uber.

He’s also impressed with the tech solutions available for small businesses, like the phone payment apps that everybody uses – pointing out that these have been available in China for years, but are fairly new in Switzerland. This probably has a lot to do with the optimism and open-mindedness that characterise the China that Mueller is experiencing.

“The Chinese are very comfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity, whereas we Swiss would like to have all the details. We don’t like it much if there are too many open questions,” says Mueller, who remembers observing that during contract negotiations at the law firm where he worked. “You could see quite some clashes of culture. To me it helps if you loosen up a bit.”

Trade-offs

Asked what he doesn’t like about China, Mueller is careful with his answer. Living in a land where news gets censored, it’s as if he doesn’t want to risk offending his hosts.

“There are masses of people – crowded streets and a packed metro system – but I’m fine with this because you can’t change it,” he says, displaying the kind of self-censorship and diplomacy that will surely help him get ahead in business.

But where he sees room for improvement is environmental policy. Every morning, he consults a pollution app.

“Way too often, the air quality is bad. Sometimes you can barely see more than 100 metres ahead of you. It’s worse in winter than in summer. There are days when you can’t pursue any outdoor activities because of the terrible air quality – and some more days where you decide to restrict yourself and you just want to stay inside,” laments Mueller – who misses enjoying Swiss nature.

It’s somewhat of a paradox, finds Mueller.

“You see the degradation of nature; this huge economic growth clearly comes at a high price,” Mueller says, “but there are also positive signals, like seeing China’s major investments in renewable energy and its recent commitment to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.”

Animal welfare is another issue that troubles Mueller. While he applauds the use of every edible part – think pig-ear salad and fried chicken feet – he’s uneasy about how animals are treated in China.

“Especially the way they prepare them, and the way they keep them – there are definitely some no-gos,” says Mueller, citing animals stuffed into cramped cages as an example.

But what he loves to eat are dumplings, boasting, “Now I make some decent ones myself, actually!”

Future is … bright white?

As Shanghai is so cosmopolitan, Mueller hasn’t experienced extreme culture shock – though it’s difficult for him to find size 45 shoes there. But he recalls a time when he found something unexpected while shopping for moisturiser.

“I knew that for Chinese women, it’s very important to have very white skin, so they have a lot of whitening creams. But there’s an incredible variety of lightening products for men as well. No one told me this, but apparently, it’s also a big thing for them,” laughs Mueller, who’s blue-eyed and naturally fair.

Special creams or not, the future is looking bright both for Mueller and the people of China.

“They‘re optimistic. They know that this is their time – that they have a bright future economically,” says an enthusiastic Mueller, who draws energy from the fast growth and pace – especially in Shanghai. “It’s incredible to be here and experience this first-hand.”

And as a Swiss person trying to fit in?

“If you want to live in China you really have to be willing to dive into the culture. This is why it’s important to try to understand Chinese civilisation and history, and to try to learn the language.”

But he concedes that Shanghai is a very international city – and quite a contrast to some of the places he’s visited in the Chinese countryside.

“Shanghai is somewhat of a bubble; it’s not typical China to me anymore. It’s rather cosmopolitan and a cultural melting pot.”

Mueller will graduate from his MBA programme in 2017. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. He’s curious, mobile, and has a skill set that could take him just about anywhere.

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Blaettler sisters

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A bit of fun at the beach before heading home and tackling school homework.
A bit of fun at the beach before heading home and tackling school homework.
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Sisters Daniela and Marina Blaettler left claustrophobic Switzerland for the wide open spaces of Africa. They’ve found what they’ve been looking for thanks to fishermen in Kenya and Masai women in Tanzania.

“I couldn’t live there anymore. I felt too much under control,” says 52-year-old Lugano native Daniela Blaettler – who now lives on the Kenyan island of Lamu in the north of the country.

Her father was from Airolo in canton Ticino and her mother from Pontresina in canton Graubünden. When she was 19, she left her loving family and home in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland for France’s sunny St Tropez. Despite coming from a close-knit family of three sisters and a brother, the urge to escape her native country was too strong.

“Switzerland is very beautiful but I needed something more than just beauty,” she says. “I was looking for challenges as life was too easy for a young person in the country.”

But even glamorous St Tropez couldn’t satisfy Daniela. After seven years on the French Riviera working in a friend’s shop and selling houses, she started getting itchy feet. An appointment at the hairdresser ended up becoming life-changing. While browsing the Paris Match Voyage travel magazine, her eye was drawn to a photo of people riding African elephants.

“I always dreamed of having an elephant in my garden instead of a dog,” she told swissinfo.ch. “When I saw the picture it reignited my dream again. I was tired of St Tropez and ready for a change.”

She did some research and found out that the photo was taken at an elephant rehabilitation centre in Botswana. She promptly wrote a letter to the owner, who got back to her after a year and invited her to work with elephants at the camp. Thus began another adventure in a peripatetic existence.

“We were making movies, advertisements and leading elephant safaris,” she says. “The project was about saving problem elephants in zoos around the world and releasing them into the wild in Africa.”

Big sister was watching

Several years later, Daniela’s sister, Marina Oliver Blaettler, was also dreaming of escaping Switzerland. However, unlike her sister Daniela, her dreams were not a teenager’s quest for new horizons. She was 34 at the time, working for a software company and living a comfortable life.

“I woke up one morning and decided it was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” says the 56-year-old. “I felt tied down and Switzerland was too small for me.”

Marina wanted to travel the world. Her plan was to stop in Africa first to see Daniela and then continue on.

“We are very similar, my sister and I,” says Daniela. “We have the same heart.”

In the beginning, the sisters’ decisions to leave Europe for Africa came as a shock to the family. But they were very supportive.

“My parents never gave me money, but they told me that I would always have their love and a room in our house if I ever came back. That gave me the strength to leave,” says Daniela.

“My mother probably would have done the same thing if she had belonged to our generation. My father was very Swiss, but he understood our need to explore the world,” says Marina.

Daniela and Marina’s siblings were not as adventurous. Their only brother moved to Spain but their oldest sister remained in Lugano and is quite content there.

“She lives 200 metres from my mother’s house in Lugano,” says Daniela. “She has a husband, three children and a dog. Not everyone has to leave home.”
A bit of fun at the beach before heading home and tackling school homework.
A bit of fun at the beach before heading home and tackling school homework.
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Preparing to leave for a shopping trip with right-hand man Shueb.
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When Marina flew down to Botswana to visit Daniela, she was hooked.

“As soon as I set foot on African soil, the perfume of the earth or something just told me that I wanted to stay here for longer,” she says.

While Daniela was busy working with elephants, Marina was offered a job running the camp. It was an opportunity she felt she couldn’t refuse.

“I went back to Switzerland and sold my house, car and everything and returned to Botswana,” she says.

Camp work kept both sisters occupied but their joint Botswana sojourn would not last forever.

On a reconnaissance trip to Cairo to plan the transport of two elephants by road, Marina was struck by the abject poverty she encountered en route.

“Seeing so many people by the roadside made me feel that I couldn’t justify raising so much money for elephants when there were other priorities for the continent,” she says.

Daniela also had her moment of disillusionment a few years later when a beloved elephant was put in chains.

“I told them I would only come back when they released my elephant into the wild. Two years later I went back to see him being released in the wild. I followed him for three months to make sure he was fine and then went back to Kenya where I started my new life,” she says.

Starting over

Daniela fell in love with an English marine biologist whom she met in Nairobi. But it was not to be.

“He’s a wonderful man. I still have a broken heart,” she says.

In order to recover from the emotional trauma she took up an assignment to photograph fishermen on the Kenyan island of Lamu. She was enchanted by the place and its fishing community.

“Lamu is the most beautiful place on earth. There are no cars, discos, casinos. It’s still pristine,” she says. “Here I am always in love.”

But for local fishermen life was not a bed of roses. Competition from fishing trawlers and dangerous seas during the rainy season meant that making a living was difficult. One of them, Ali Lamu, approached Daniela for a job. She thought about how she could help and came up with a creative idea.

“I was intrigued by the material used for the sails in their boats,” says Daniela. “I drew a big heart on one of them and added the phrase ‘Love Again Whatever Forever’ and framed it.”

She then asked a friend to display it in her shop. Barely one hour later it sold for €180 (CHF193). With the help of fishermen, Daniela made several more, and soon she was successful enough to start a business making artwork and bags out of recycled fishing boat sails.

She named the brand Alilamu, after the fisherman. Today the business employs 30 full-time staff, including Ali Lamu, who is now the director.

“Ali Lamu is my pillar, friend, brother and biggest supporter,” says Daniela.

Lamu’s life has also changed since he first approached Daniela for a job.

“Now I have built a small house for my family and can send my children to school,” he told swissinfo.ch. “When I was a fisherman I used to rent one room and struggled to pay the rent.”
Preparing to leave for a shopping trip with right-hand man Shueb.
Preparing to leave for a shopping trip with right-hand man Shueb.
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Discussing bag designs at the new leather workshop in Mkuru.
Discussing bag designs at the new leather workshop in Mkuru.
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Like her sister, Marina was also finding her feet after leaving the elephant camp in Botswana. She ended up in Tanzania on a holiday trip and didn’t want to leave.

“What I like about the country is the diversity with its mountains, savannahs, forests. Botswana was beautiful but completely flat,” she says.

She fell in love with and married old Africa hand Paul Oliver, and she ran his successful safari camp near Arusha in the north of the country. However, her heart was not in her job and opportunity knocked in the form of an exciting offer by a friend, who ran an NGO in Milan.

“She asked if I was interested in working for a project that helped provide an income for Masai women by marketing their beadwork jewellery. I accepted the job on the condition that the project would become self-sustaining one day.”

Two years later the project became an independent company called Tanzania Maasai Women Art with 200 Masai women working for it. The women keep aside 10% of their group’s earning for development work, like repairing a hut.

“Around 99% of the women are illiterate and live in poverty,” says Marina. “I cannot make radical changes in their hard lives but at least the money from the beadwork improves their confidence and self-esteem,” says Marina.

They do have tough lives. The Masai women have to collect wood and water to cook for the family and then look after the livestock. Their views generally aren’t considered in community decisions, and they often suffer physical abuse.

It took a year for Marina to win their trust. She hopes that one day, the Masai women will run the business on their own, and that she can step away and start her next project – a centre offering equestrian therapy to disabled children.

“Marina is a person with a strong character. She loves what she is doing and is very encouraging. The women are very happy when they get new orders,” says Masai Margaret Gabriel, who was responsible for shop sales before quitting in April 2016.

Switzerland? Too many rules 

Switzerland is far from the sisters’ minds, though they do visit the motherland once a year.

“When I’m in Switzerland, I feel like I am in a holiday resort. Everything is so clean and organised,” says Daniela.

She spends her holiday eating Swiss food, walking in the mountains and shopping at the nationwide supermarket chain Migros.

“I feel more Swahili than Swiss,” says Daniela. “I like when people arrive on time, but if they don’t it’s not a big deal.”

Daniela has integrated into the local community in Lamu and has adopted four local children ranging from three to 18 years of age. She has even been given the local name of Khalila.

“Lamu is very beautiful and peaceful and is hence very good for your health, heart and soul,” she says. “I wake up, walk to the beach to see the sunrise and also catch the sunset. But at the same time, I can also take a train and go to a busy place if I want to do business.”

Despite missing Swiss chocolates, Daniela says she could not live in Switzerland again because she feels too much under control there.

“There are so many signboards telling you what to do or not do,” she says. “In Lamu we are so free despite all the dangers around us.”

An ever-present threat is the militant group Al Shabab, which has carried out several attacks in the region near Lamu. Somalia is not far away.

“There are no al-Shabab attacks on the islands but you’ll see security forces on roads, beaches and big hotels since a threat was issued a few months ago,” says her business partner and friend Ali Lamu.

Lamu is also worried about the responsibilities Daniela has, such as taking four local children under her wing.

“She has a big heart. But sometimes she’s alone and needs someone to help, like when her adopted daughter was sick,” he says.

Hut life and open spaces

Her sister Marina’s life is also a world away from a typical Swiss existence. She lives in a Mongolian-style tent on a friend’s farm – along with a horse, two dogs and a donkey.

“Switzerland is claustrophobic. I love the open spaces here: the mountains, forests and savannahs,” she says.

Marina’s day seldom follows a set timetable as her work – and Tanzanian life in general – regularly throws up unexpected surprises. But she does like to fit in a few activities when things are not so chaotic.

“I start my day with a horse ride and then go to the shop and office in Arusha. I return home in the evening and go for a long walk with my dog, watch the sun set, and sometimes have drinks or dinner with my friends,” she says.

Unlike Botswana, there are no dangerous wildlife like lions or leopards around – only smaller predators like hyenas and jackals. Marina can walk around freely. Besides the animals, the area is also home to the Masai people whose huts or bomas dot the surrounding countryside. On weekends, she takes her bicycle and rides up to the Masai villages and chats with people about income-generating opportunities.

But it is not all picture postcard Africa.

“A lot of people envy me because I live in Africa but things can be difficult,” she says. “Things break down and there is a lot of bureaucracy and corruption.”

She is also separated from her husband, and pretty much on her own, apart from a few friends. However, she doesn’t think she could return to Switzerland at this point.

“Switzerland is a little island and this is reflected in the way people think. It stops at the borders,” she says.

She does miss the snow and skiing, as well as the Swiss sense of organisation.

“It is very difficult to make products for the first world in third world conditions. The slow pace of Tanzanians can be frustrating at times,” she says.

A fragile future?

Her former colleague Margaret Gabriel is anxious for her. She says Marina works too hard and does too much. Gabriel is worried about the future of the enterprise that Marina has invested so much into.

“She has to think of the next generation as some of the women are getting old and can’t see well enough to do beadwork. She has to start projects with young girls to ensure the future of the company,” she says.

In spite of the heavy workload and the responsibility of 200 Masai women on her shoulders, Marina has no regrets.

“I am living my dream. I have everything I need even if I don’t have a lot of money. I am truly at peace, which was my goal in my life.”

Her sister Daniela has some advice for her fellow Swiss dreaming of getting away some day.

“My friends call me courageous but I don’t understand. It is more courageous to stay in Switzerland for the rest of your life. Follow your heart, don’t be afraid or worry about money, everything is possible if you have an open heart.”
Discussing bag designs at the new leather workshop in Mkuru.
Discussing bag designs at the new leather workshop in Mkuru.
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Silvia Brugger

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Every Monday morning, the whole sales team meets to discuss plans for the week.
Every Monday morning, the whole sales team meets to discuss plans for the week.
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Silvia Brugger distinguished herself by becoming the first Swiss woman to compete in the Iditarod dog sled race. But how did she end up in Alaska in the first place?

“Dear Philipp: Here’s a short report about me. This is the first time that I’ve written something like this, and I’m not really sure where to begin.”

That’s how Silvia Brugger started a long, letter-like text about her emigration from Switzerland. I got in touch with her as is typical these days, online - in this case via Facebook.

I had put out an alert searching for Swiss people in Alaska, and I was lucky that Silvia answered my call after an old school mate in Lucerne shared my Facebook post. Quite naturally, she went ahead and created what we call “user-generated content” by writing her own story. I’ve just jumped in with some follow-up questions here and there.

Silvia’s life story begins like this:

I was born in 1974 and grew up in Cham near Zug. I have four siblings; Max is my twin brother and the other three are four and eight years older. (My sisters are twins, too.)

As a child and teenager I did a lot of travelling in Europe. My grandparents lived in northern Germany and our family had some Icelandic horses. Nearly every year, my sisters and I competed in international tournaments.

After finishing secondary school, I studied tourism in Lucerne – thinking I could apply to Swissair afterwards. But first, the spirit of adventure got a hold of me. After studying at a language school in Perth, I travelled across Australia with a friend. We were just 18 years old.

Then it was time for me to concentrate on my career. After an apprenticeship at Carlton Elite Hotel in Zurich, I took on a seasonal job at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel in St Moritz.

What life lessons did you learn at the Palace Hotel in St Moritz?

Let me think. It’s all a bit of a blur – probably because I went out practically every night and drank too much beer :-)

Generally, I’d say that what I learned in Switzerland is something I miss a bit here in America: a sense of personal discipline and responsibility. Both are necessary for a successful working life. For example: The lawsuit business in the US drives me insane. Someone buys a McDonald’s coffee, burns his tongue, sues the fast food giant and gets $1 million as compensation? I don’t understand that. Such situations are now normal; there’s no need for common sense.

During a trip to Canada (1997), I met the Willis family from Anchorage. They had Icelandic horses as well as sled dogs. Bernie and Jeannette Willis spontaneously invited me to visit them for a few weeks. This was my first time in Alaska.

After a final season at the Palace Hotel, I moved to Alaska in 1999. That same year, I married Bernie and Jeannette’s eldest son, Andy.

In 2001, Andy and I set up our own lodge. We bought the building and its land at an auction and spent a year cleaning, tidying up, repairing and renovating.

I never thought that I’d be able to fulfil my childhood dream of having my own fishing and hunting lodge. My life was full of adventure: we fished all summer, hunted in autumn and spring and trained sled dogs in winter.

Andy and his family were really into the world-famous Iditarod sled dog race. All the men have participated over the years. In 2007 and 2008, we had a pretty good dog team – and now it was my turn to complete the 1,000-mile race. I was the first Swiss woman to ever take part in the Iditarod.



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Every Monday morning, the whole sales team meets to discuss plans for the week.
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Silvia hunted down this black bear in Beluga about a decade ago. Today, the threee Golden Retrievers are her best friends.
Silvia hunted down this black bear in Beluga about a decade ago. Today, the threee Golden Retrievers are her best friends.
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Wow! I don’t even know where to begin. As with the horses, the whole thing started as a hobby. The Willis family had had sled dogs for a long time. At the beginning, they were probably a bit of a substitute for the horses for me.

I always liked being with animals, but I grew up in an apartment where we could only have two cats. We got our first dog – a golden retriever – when I was about 16 and we moved into a house. Of course, you can’t compare sled dogs with pets; these are “working dogs”. For generations, they were kept as draught animals.

It was nice just going out with the dogs = 30 or 40 miles :)

I’m an active person who loves challenges. So I wanted to have sled dogs not just for fun but also for relatively short races (200-300 miles). So I put together a team of about 20 dogs that I could later do the Iditarod with. It took me seven years to prepare. I raised all the dogs myself and trained with my husband.

A run with the sled dogs gives you all sorts of feelings! It’s adventurous, and sometimes even dangerous. A lot of things can go wrong. In the wild, you can easily get lost. Aggressive elk might attack the dogs – even injuring or killing them. Then of course there’s the cold: temperatures of -30 and -40°C are not uncommon. From November to January, the days are very short (10-15 hours). This makes it very challenging when you train from 8am until 6pm.

But the hard work is worth it! Later in the winter (February and March), the days get longer and in a normal year, the snow conditions are ideal and the temperatures pleasant (around -10 to -20°C). Under such circumstances, I can imagine nothing better than going for a “run” with 12 well-trained sled dogs. Except for the panting of the dogs, it’s absolutely silent! And when you’re out at night you can often admire the aurora borealis.

And then of course there’s the personal challenge of participating in a race – especially the legendary Iditarod! One thousand miles is very far. Depending on the weather and route conditions, it takes the winner about nine days. Finishing the race is the biggest reward for the hard work.

For 1,000 miles, I need ten days. You can find the details on the Iditarod website – search for “Silvia Willis” in the 2007 and 2008 archives.

As a rookie in 2007, every day was an adventure and I never knew what awaited me. The weather wasn’t so bad, but it was one of the coldest years. Many participants (both dogs and people) battled frostbite. At the finish line my whole face was swollen. I also had a bad infection in my left hand and needed emergency treatment with a scalpel at a checkpoint. It was done by a volunteer nurse (not a doctor!) who had a little first aid kit with him.

In the long run, however, this lifestyle was too stressful for my marriage, and Andy and I soon parted ways. I moved from the “wilderness” to the city, and I now live a “civilised” life. The dog races were a lot of fun and I miss them. But the dogs were also very demanding. We couldn’t go on holiday because the dogs had to be fed every day. At the same time, the summer training break coincided with high season at our lodge.

Now I work for K&L Distributors as the beer sales team leader, and I have six employees. I’m responsible for beer sales in about 80 liquor stores in Anchorage, Wasilla and Palmer.

What do you miss about Switzerland?

I miss a lot of things. Public transport is unbeatable compared to Alaska – which is so vast that public transport wouldn’t be financially viable. Also, I miss the many hiking trails. Alaska has a lot of nature and mountains, but most of it is very remote and potentially dangerous (wild animals). Being Swiss, I am also spoilt when it comes to chocolate. I fill all my pockets when I fly from Switzerland back to Alaska.

I regularly compare Alaska with Switzerland and wonder where I would rather spend the rest of my life. Should I return to Switzerland to be closer to my family? Which place has better economic conditions and health care? And so on. The way to the “right” answer is long. Both countries (USA and Switzerland) have positive and negative sides and it isn’t easy to compare and contrast.

In the US, it is easier to enjoy my personal freedom and follow my dreams. And when I write “USA” I mean Alaska. I could never imagine my life in a big city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. Alaska is comparable with Switzerland; I especially like the mountains.

I have the impression that Switzerland is very regulated – too much is dictated by the state. Switzerland is relatively small and densely populated. During visits I almost get a sense of claustrophobia.

How do you stay in touch with your friends and relatives in Switzerland?

Most of my contact is just via Facebook, but I enjoy that very much. It’s a nice way to find out what my former classmates are doing today. Without Facebook I’d have no idea. And thanks to “Hangout” I’m also in regular contact with my siblings and our father. We all meet online on a Sunday morning about every two months.

I’ve been living in the US for 17 years, and although America isn’t perfect, it’s easier for me to pursue my personal dreams here. I don’t know how to express that better; I can’t find the right words. In Switzerland, my life was all planned: go to school, do an apprenticeship, find a job, work for the rest of my life and save for retirement.

Also, I’m more worried about the political and economic situation in Europe than in America. But the whole world is changing. We are all affected by it, no matter where we live. In Alaska, we depend on natural resources. Currently, we’re struggling with a gigantic multi-trillion state deficit. This is worrying and the future is uncertain. At the same time, I’m also worried about the European situation. So I think it’s good that Switzerland has never joined the EU. This protects it somewhat from any negative economic impact. Nevertheless, Switzerland is in Europe, surrounded by and influenced by EU states.

I didn’t leave Switzerland because I didn’t like it. I had the opportunity to broaden my horizons, and I’ve taken advantage of this. I am proud of my heritage, love my country and like to travel to Switzerland for visits. But at the end of each stay in Switzerland, I look forward to flying back “home” to Alaska.
Silvia hunted down this black bear in Beluga about a decade ago. Today, the threee Golden Retrievers are her best friends.
Silvia hunted down this black bear in Beluga about a decade ago. Today, the threee Golden Retrievers are her best friends.
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The Hostettlers

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It was in paraguay that Christine learned how to make cheese.
It was in paraguay that Christine learned how to make cheese.
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Imagine leaving the comfort of Switzerland for a place with no roads, electricity, or running water. To pursue their environmental dreams, the Hostettlers moved to South America 40 years ago…but it has not always been an easy ride.

“Do we want to go back to Switzerland? Definitely not,” declares Christine, without hesitation. “Here, there is a sense of freedom and the possibility of creating things that we could never have imagined in Switzerland.”

The couple has certainly made full use of their opportunities in Paraguay. They have created a nature protection organisation, an eco-tourism programme, and an organic farm called ‘New Gambach’ – an homage to their Swiss village of origin – where we meet to look back at their 36 years as Swiss expats.

The couple talk about nostalgia, family and friends. They talk about orderly Swiss society, where everything has to be perfectly in place. Despite all that, this is the place they call home, they insist. Hans built their home with his own hands in Alto Vera, in the Itapúa region, near the San Rafael National Park.

A dangerous endeavour

Their proximity to the national park speaks volumes. The Hostettlers’ story is closely tied to the fight to defend Paraguay’s rainforest, which is one of the richest ecosystems in the world, but also one of the most endangered.

And when talking about the dangers, Christine can never forget a fateful Sunday back in 2008.

“There was football on the TV. I was alone at home and I heard noises outside. I went out and found myself face to face with someone in a balaclava pointing a 38mm revolver at me,” she recounts. Christine still doesn’t know whether someone up above was watching over her, or if the gunman simply aimed badly. But fortunately, when the gun went off, the bullet didn’t hit her.

Hans also escaped unhurt from a similar episode when unknown individuals shot at his plane as it flew over the forest trying to detect illegal logging operations, fires or farms.

“They imagined that by killing us the fight would be over. They now know that there are many more of us,” says Christine.

The cold Oberland

But let’s go back to the start of their adventure at the end of the 1970s in the Bernese Oberland. At that time, the Hostettlers enjoyed a calm family life in Gambach, near Rüschegg.

But it was much too calm for them, and when Hans learned he could buy a plot of land in Paraguay, the couple jumped at the chance. With support from their family, they bought 250 hectares.

“It was like life 50 years ago,” jokes Christine, remembering the inhospitable paradise with no basic infrastructure that they encountered. In Switzerland, it was cold and boring, but at least it was comfortable and safe.

In February 1979, Christine flew to Paraguay with their eldest daughter Brigitte, who was still a young baby at the time. Hans had arrived six months earlier. The former sailor had cleared the land of trees and weeds in order to build the family’s new wooden house.
Hans enjoys working with his hands, and over the years, he has transformed their home. He fitted it with an electrical system, powered by water from a nearby dam and lake, which he built himself. He also maintains the family’s combine harvester and built an ultralight plane, which he received in parts in the post.
It was in paraguay that Christine learned how to make cheese.
It was in paraguay that Christine learned how to make cheese.
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Hans uses his plane to check for illegal activity in the nature preserve.
Hans uses his plane to check for illegal activity in the nature preserve.
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The small plane, known as ‘Lucy’, only arrived in 2005. Before that, the family were confronted with regular difficulties and disappointments. Mosquitos, humidity, and Brigitte’s health problems made them question whether they had paid too high a price for their life abroad.

But despite these challenges, their farm started to bear fruit – or rather, milk. While in Paraguay, Christine learned how to make cheese. And Brigitte was joined by a baby sister and brother, Teresa and Pedro. Their organic soya crops proved to be a success, and environmental activities started to become a full-time job for the couple.

The plane, purchased with support from the environmental group WWF, has been an asset to the Pro Cosara association, which has been fighting to protect the rainforest for years. The group was formed in 1997 by a young couple to keep an eye on the region, which became a protected zone in 1922. It attempts to acquire land from private owners whom the government has not paid, to stop the 73,000-hectare area from becoming an ecological park.

There are threats from large intensive farms – mainly soya, but also illegal farms – and illegal logging activities.

A new front

Christine and her team have worked tirelessly to develop Pro Cosara, which now has an extensive international support network. It does research programmes for the national park, and environmental education to raise awareness and develop sustainable activities.

Pro Cosara is on the right track. Christine left their management board in February 2016, but she is still a member of its advisory committee. She has a new ecological challenge: ecotourism. Recently, American students visited the area and identified 70 different species of birds living nearby.

Their Paraguay home is a real paradise. But isn’t the Bernese Oberland equally idyllic? Was it such a good decision to emigrate?

“The best,” replies Christine immediately. In addition to the freedom, the couple are delighted that their children can grow up with such close contact to and respect for nature.

Switzerland: always on their minds

Home, family, farm, crops, environmental battles: the Hostettlers have an incredibly busy life. But they have never forgotten the country where they were born.

Their two daughters now live in Switzerland and the couple regularly visits. In Paraguay, they take part in activities alongside fellow Swiss expatriates, and Christine has helped for five years as a volunteer to ensure that Swiss citizens who have retired in the region still receive their Swiss pensions.

Forty years after leaving Switzerland, what does she think about her homeland?

“There has been a radical change,” she declares. “It is no longer the Switzerland we remember. Our parents worked for years with foreigners who had rights and didn’t try to impose their cultures. Today the situation seems different and I fear for a loss of Swiss identity.

”What would she say to any Swiss person considering moving abroad?

“Before making a definitive decision, they must travel to their chosen country and live there for at least three months,” she says. “There are people who send their containers of stuff in advance, who spend their savings and then realise too late that their destination doesn’t correspond to the place they imagined.

”In spite of their youthful enthusiasm, the Hostettlers didn’t take everything immediately with them when they moved to Paraguay. Their furniture, for example, remained for years in Rüschegg. And their last few Swiss possessions arrived not so long ago. They may well have emigrated, but they have not totally lost contact.
Hans uses his plane to check for illegal activity in the nature preserve.
Hans uses his plane to check for illegal activity in the nature preserve.
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Bruno Manser

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Bruno Manser with Penan Leader Along Sega.
Bruno Manser with Penan Leader Along Sega.
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The headlines raced around the globe in 2000. The Swiss rainforest champion, researcher and human rights activist disappeared at the age of 46 from Borneo, where he had been living with his friends, the indigenous Penan.

Basel journalist and author Ruedi Suter, who covered Manser’s activities for years before writing his biography, Rainforest Hero, tells the story of Manser for swissinfo.ch.

Manser himself had become a member of the ancient Penan tribe. His commitment to the endangered native people garnered attention worldwide, and his reputation for honesty led Manser to be considered one of the most reputable environmental protectors of the 20th century. He was a citizen of the world who practised what he preached and looked more closely when others looked away.

“The Malaysian government’s and logging companies’ considerable interest in silencing Bruno Manser has been documented,” Basel’s civil court declared in 2003 at the end of its missing person investigation.

Manser, who grew up in Basel, loved life. But not at the price of ignorance, destruction, and exploitation. And not at the price of the industrial society in which he grew up, which too often lives from credit and thrives on the exploitation of indigenous peoples and nature. Manser’s asceticism provided a counterpoint to the opulent society he came from; his life was a radical return to simplicity.

Bruno Manser rejected the modern lifestyle wherever possible – countering with intelligence, creativity, stubbornness and humour. He rejected the idea of studying and became a shepherd, spending 11 years in the mountains, once saying: “I wanted to learn about everything we use in our day-to-day life.”

New life in an old world

So that he could apply what he had learnt, Manser began searching for a group of people with a primeval lifestyle, who relied on hunters and gatherers. No such people existed in Europe, so in 1984 he travelled to Borneo, in the Malaysian state Sarawak. He audaciously made his way through the primeval forest and discovered the Penan, a group of 300 families who lived as nomads there.

The Penan took in the peculiar stranger. He threw away everything he had come with: clothing, first-aid kit, toothpaste, shoes. Perched on his nose, only his eyeglasses remained. Manser forced himself to go barefoot, suffering at first from open sores. He regularly had to remove thorns with a knife. He learnt to withstand pain, because living with the Penan in the jungle meant living with pain. Walking barefoot became the norm. It was an act of liberation: the modern man was no longer dependent on shoes. He had triumphed over himself!

Manser soon gained the respect of the Penan for his willingness to adapt to their world – going barefoot and naked, suffering from hunger and humidity, fighting insects and leeches. Skin ulcers and malaria also became a part of his life. Eventually, he was able to move through the jungle like the Penan, hacking his way through underbrush with a machete, taking breaks in a squatting position, swimming across raging rivers, and fashioning a bed in the treetops for the night.

The simple life of the forest nomads appealed to him. It was as if he had been reunited with his long-lost family from a previous life. He had no interest in returning to the confinement, exhaust and noise of Switzerland, or to the masses of people who choked biodiversity and lived so removed from nature. People who searched for the meaning of life in technology, moneymaking, and the entertainment industry, but became increasingly sad and lost. Instead, Manser wanted to remain in the company of the simple, warm-hearted Penan. To share their sorrows and happiness, and to draw strength from the life-giving jungle.

In the view of the Penan, Manser was one of them – their ‘Laki Penan’. He, too, fished with a net, and hunted bears, apes, wild boars, deer and birds with a blow pipe and poison arrows, or with a spear and flint. He gathered wild berries and made flour from heart of palm. He learned their language, recorded his observations, and produced countless documents about people, animals, and plants.
Bruno Manser with Penan Leader Along Sega.
Bruno Manser with Penan Leader Along Sega.
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Pictured in Bern in April 1993, Bruno Manser and Martin Vosseler went on a hunger strike to call for a Swiss embargo on tropical wood products.
Pictured in Bern in April 1993, Bruno Manser and Martin Vosseler went on a hunger strike to call for a Swiss embargo on tropical wood products.
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Although he wasn’t homesick for Switzerland, memories of his family and friends provoked a latent nostalgia in Manser – heartache that caused him to send back letters and audio recordings, but would never compel him to voluntarily leave his new rainforest family. He had arrived in the paradise he had imagined, and nothing could ever drive him away.

Perhaps Manser was already aware of the destruction of this immense forest and its clear springs, its wildlife and flora. Already there were areas that had been ravaged by the timber companies with the blessing of a government that ignored land claims and the increasing struggles of the native people who were dependent on the forest for their livelihood.

For the politicians in Sarawak’s capital city, Kuching, the rainforest was free for the taking. The valuable hardwood was sold to industrial countries to provide them with ceiling beams, furniture, luxury yachts, window frames and broomsticks.

Manser’s expulsion from paradise began the first time he heard the whine of a chainsaw.

Simple life spokesman

The Penan asked him for help, and Manser organised blockades against the bulldozers. Suddenly he was catapulted into the role of strategist for the Penan’s non-violent resistance against the civilisation he had turned his back on – against corporations and a powerful state that used concessions and soldiers to destroy the habitat of the forest dwellers.

Manser was fair game: he was hunted, shot at, and declared public enemy number one. Film crews came to turn a spotlight on the courageous rainforest protector. For the global press the “white savage” was made the spokesman for the Penan. His appearance was modest, his voice quiet, his speech earnest. And all of a sudden, the world listened. Manser, the architect of the resistance, became the symbol of rebellion against the destruction of the world’s rainforests.

Spreading the word

Alarmed by the fact that the Penan’s habitat was being sacrificed to produce cheap wood for the international market, Manser returned to Switzerland in 1990 to transmit their plea: “Don’t build your houses out of our forest.”

In Basel, with the help of the human rights activist Roger Graf, Manser created the Bruno Manser Fund, which has since developed into a powerful rainforest protection organisation. The main goal: to convince consumers in industrial countries to forego wood from the rainforests.

Manser clearly identified the symbiosis between the hunter-gatherer societies and their habitats: “If the forest dies, the people die with it.” Gentle in style but unyielding in substance, he testified before international bodies such as the European Union, the United Nations, and the International Tropical Timber Organization, explaining the desperate situation of the Penan.

In Switzerland, Manser lived very modestly, worked around the clock, and travelled a lot. Repeatedly, he fought his way back to Borneo and the Penan. He became more radical, sensing that time was running out for the Penan.

Manser went on a hunger strike in Bern to bring attention to his cause, attempting to force mandatory declaration of the origins of wood and wood products – to no avail.

“The sated don’t want to understand the hungry,” he complained. The forest in Sarawak shrank further. Animals were driven out or poached. The once healthy Penan tribe was headed for destitution. By 1996, 70% of the primeval rainforests had been destroyed. Rainforest protectors tried to increase awareness of the problem in Europe and Sarawak through all sorts of daredevil campaigns. Nothing helped. In 2000, Bruno Manser returned to Borneo – and disappeared forever.

Was he murdered and disposed of without a trace? That was the most likely explanation. But it couldn’t be proven, any more than an accident or suicide. His disappearance remains a mystery.
Today, his family and friends no longer wait for Bruno Manser to return. They sense that he is near them, in their hearts and in their thoughts. Now and again they believe they hear his strong voice: “It is only deeds that count. Yours as well.”
Pictured in Bern in April 1993, Bruno Manser and Martin Vosseler went on a hunger strike to call for a Swiss embargo on tropical wood products.
Pictured in Bern in April 1993, Bruno Manser and Martin Vosseler went on a hunger strike to call for a Swiss embargo on tropical wood products.
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Gallery - MBA student in Shanghai

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Gallery - Living life to the full on the Kenyan coast

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Hunting, fishing, and refreshing beer (Gallery)

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The Hostettlers and their Guarani jungle paradise (Gallery)

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Rainforest activist (Gallery)

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Finding fulfillment among the Tanzanian Masai

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  • Authors
    Marcela Aguila, Anand Chandrasekhar, Philipp Meier, Susan Misicka, Ruedi Suter

    Photographers
    Daniele Mattioli, Georgina Goodwin, Trent Grasse, Rodrigo Muñoz, Bruno Manser Fund

    Photo editors
    Christoph Balsiger, Thomas Kern, Ester Unterfinger

    Production
    Filipa Cordeiro, Devaprakash Giretheren, Kai Reusser, Luca Schüpbach, Felipe Schärer Diem

    Translators
    Simon Bradley, Susan Misicka, Jeannie Wurz

    Coordination
    Susan Misicka

    @swissinfo.ch

    Credits: Bruno Manser Fond , Bruno Manser Fonds, Daniele Mattioli, Georgina Goodwin, Keystone, Rodrigo Muñoz, SRF-SWI, SWI swissinfo.ch, Sandra Gysi, Trent Grasse

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