20 Questions with: Roseann Hanson

Welcome to the new 20 Questions column at Pangaea Expeditions. Periodically, we sit down with adventurers, overlanders, travelers, writers, policy makers, environmentalists and people we think are genuinely interesting to learn more about the person behind the persona. We thought the perfect person to kickoff the new 20 Questions column is the illustrious Roseann Hanson.

Roseann Hanson has founded numerous conservation organizations and initiatives around the world, including ConserVentures. Her flagship event, the Overland Expo, is the reason adventure travelers from around the world flock to Arizona every spring to learn more about overlanding and adventure travel.

Roseann lives and works completely off the grid in a 350 square-foot cottage with her husband, Jonathan in the Sonoran Desert near Tucson, AZ.

Pangaea Expeditions: One of the first things that people notice about you is your unique accent. Where did that come from?
Roseann Hansen: I think it comes from traveling and working with so many people from so many different countries.

PE: What is ConserVentures?
RH: We founded ConserVentures as an organization to promote exploration. And by exploration we mean everything from you getting out and exploring your neighborhood, your backwoods, the area around your home, to heading out and driving around the world and also more serious expeditions that have a scientific or conservation purpose.

PE: What is it that made you so passionate about conservation?
RH: That goes back many, many years ago growing up in southern Arizona. I grew up in a beautiful area with vast amounts of open desert and watching the urban growth and urban sprawl. Southern Arizona now has these 30 different golf courses that have destroyed our desert and conservation just became a response to uncontrolled growth in our area and that lead to more awareness of wildlife and issues throughout the world. As I travelled more I was able to see how people can make a difference and also how important it is for people to become involved in conservation at their local level. So I really believe that conservation can’t be imposed by governments, it really needs to come from the ground up by the people who live there.

PE: Where did your interest and passion for the Masai come from?
RH: That came from a very lucky opportunity as a conservationist. I was invited on a project in Kenya in 2002 and it involved an exchange program between Masai community members, American conservationists and cowboys in Arizona. It was called the Two Cowboys project and it was about two different cultures that seemed so different and yet very very similar in their own cultural preservation, land preservation, wildlife issues. Bringing them together was really a wonderful thing to be involved in. I was one of the people who helped organize it and bring it together.

PE: What would you say is the biggest misconception people have about the Masai?
RH: That’s a good question. I would say that the biggest misconception is that they are primitive just because they still practice nomadism and a pastoral lifestyle when in fact they are actually pretty sophisticated. They simply choose to live like they’ve lived for a millennia and they choose technology and modern things to their advantage but they eschew other things that they don’t feel continue their culture. It’s really fascinating.

PE: What do you think would surprise people most about the way they use technology?
RH: The cell phone is probably the most surprising. They use it as a very sophisticated tool for communicating voice to voice but text messaging is used extensively to share information, for example, about cattle pricing if you were going to be selling some of your livestock. They keep up with each other on whose got the best cattle prices in which market and where. The use it for sharing information on drought cycles and where the best grazing is. So they continue their nomadism but they share information with the extensive cell network that exists in east Africa. You can be in the middle of the Serengeti and easily text message anywhere in the world.

PE: What would you say the current situation with the Masai is right now?
RH: The biggest problem facing the Masai right now is very similar to elsewhere in the world and that is loss of open landscape. Their traditional homeland is being subdivided and they are losing their ability to be nomads. In a sense it mimics what happened in southern Arizona a hundred years ago where we started fencing and stopping the animal migrations and stopping the natural movements of animals and people. That’s happening now in east Africa. It’s particularly hard on the Masai in Tanzania where the government is less sympathetic to traditional cultures.

PE: Do you think the Serengeti highway is actually going to go through?
RH: If you talk to people in the know, people who know how the governments work, they feel that the governments are probably working on this behind the scenes and that it’s more political than anything else. We certainly hope not and don’t think that it’s going to go through, but vastly more terrible things have happened in Africa without any blink of an eye, so it could well go through.

PE: What is it that first inspired you to travel and discover the world?
RH: That was how I grew up, although it was not around the world. My parents really enjoyed just exploring and so that’s what we did for family vacations — even just on weekends — was to explore southern Arizona and Mexico. I think that just was a normal thing. I don’t think I stayed in a hotel until I was 16 years old.

PE: How did those trips shape your outlook on life and the way you view the world?
RH: Spending the weeks and weeks in the summer camped on a beach in Mexico with my parents just opened my eyes to other countries, and other cultures and I loved being so free to explore. They just let the kids explore all we wanted. It was really a special time.

PE: What’s something surprising about you that most people would not guess?
RH: That I really suck at navigation. I don’t even like GPS. I’m good at dead reckoning but when it comes to compasses and stuff I really suck.

PE: When you’ve been traveling, what’s been the strangest food that you’ve ever eaten?
RH: Fermented yogurt drink in the Omo Valley in Ethiopia.
PE: How was it?
RH: I threw up all night.
PE: So you wouldn’t go back for seconds?
RH: Probably not.

PE: What’s your favorite travel destination?
RH: Probably the Sea of Cortez.

PE: Conservation seems to be more than just a buzz word for you. Tell me about your sustainable lifestyle.
RH: We live 100 percent off-the-grid. We are seven miles from the nearest electrical hookup and we generate all our electricity with solar and wind power. Our office is made from recycled styrofoam blown with concrete called rastra block and it’s very highly insulative. My vehicle is a recycled 1984 Land Cruiser that I put in a brand new, very efficient turbo-diesel engine that gets about 27 miles to the gallon and we run biodiesel in it.
ConserVentures purchases renewable energy certificates to offset all of our travel locally or around the world as well as any of our offsite energy use, so any printing we do, any business that we do outside of our sustainable system. For our events such as Overland Expo, we purchase energy offsets for all the travel that every participant does to come to the show. We estimated it all with a company called goodenergy.com and we purchased several thousand dollars worth of renewable energy tickets to offset all of the energy used.

PE: Kermit the Frog is famous for saying that it’s not easy being green. Do you agree or disagree?
RH: It’s something we’ve done for 10 years now. We live off-the-grid. It’s easy for us, but I would say for most people it’s pretty hard. Particularly in the fast-paced lives that we have to live in North America. It’s pretty hard to be low impact.

PE: What’s one simple thing that you wish people would do to be more environmentally friendly?
RH: I found it counter-intuitive but we think exploration and travel is the best thing people can do because it opens their eyes to what’s going on in the rest of the world and other cultures. For example, I really have a hard time thinking poverty exists very much in the United States after you see how poor most of the rest of the world lives. And the kind of social systems we have here for helping people who need help don’t exist in the rest of the world. How that relates to being environmentally conscious is the more you see how other people live and what’s happening in the rest of the world I think it makes you reflect more on your own life.

PE: What’s the best and worst part of living in a 350 square-foot house with your husband?
RH: The best part is realizing you really don’t need that much space. But then we’re lucky. We have about a half-million acre backyard. That’s nice but the hardest part is both of you have to keep from setting up a lot of clutter because clutter just won’t work when you only have 350 square-feet.

PE: I understand that your house is literally ringed with books. What are a couple of your favorite titles?
RH: Not possible. It’s really those of the moment.

PE: If you were to grab two, what would they be?
RH: We just managed to get a copy of Angela Beckwiths’s book on the Masai which was her first book in 1976, which is an amazing ethnographical tome. It’s just beautiful. It’s beautifully photographed but also co-written with a Masai scholar.  It’s an amazing book.
The other one, I’m hooked right now on is a series of books. They’re silly so it’s a good one. It’s
“Thereby Hangs a Tail.” It’s a murder mystery with a dog. Sorry it’s just a goofy book.

PE: Of those books both on the wall and in the to-read stack, what author do you think best captures the spirit of travel?
RH: We have hundreds of books right now that are needing to be read. Jonathan just finished rereading to me Ted Simon’s first book. He is an observer and a fine, fine writer and he really captures what it is about travel and introspection and getting to know other cultures. He’s really one of the finest.

PE: You and Jonathan are both writers, both photographers, both conservationists and you’re both working in the same office. How does the partnership influence each others work?
RH: It’s really great. We compliment each other by having different skills, really understanding each other’s, how each other sees things. I’m always sending things to Jonathan for his feedback on a new project. He’s a fantastic idea person. When we co-author something we just split the writing in half. We don’t try to write the same pieces together. We’ve been doing that 26 years and it works really well.

PE: What are you most proud of or how would you like to be remembered?
RH: I would say, I would really like to not be remembered for me, but for the projects that we’ve been involved in. What I’d like to be known for are the great things that those projects have accomplished. One of the organizations that I helped that helped to start and get going was Sky Island Alliance and now they are one of the best conservation groups in the whole region and that’s just super, super proud.

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