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Han Bi-ya excited about new U.N. job, still loves to travel

JEJU ― Han Bi-ya, a popular travel writer and newly appointed advisor to the UN Central Emergency Response Fund, is excited about her new job and proud of her accomplishments.

“My job is to aid underfunded emergencies around the world, and make sure the victims get the help they need,” Han told reporters during a press conference on Jeju, Tuesday. “I am very excited and will do my best for the next three years.”

The 53-year-old, who is known for her best-selling travel books and emergency relief work, was appointed the new advisor of the U.N. fund in late September.

A humanitarian fund established to give more timely and reliable aid to those affected by natural disasters and armed conflict, CERF works closely with some of the most experienced world aid organizations, including the United Nations Children Fund, World Food Programme and World Health Organization. Han’s term will last three years, during which she will work in New York and Geneva, while making visits to countries in need.

“I am Korean-born, and learned everything that I needed to know in this country,” she said. “I am pleased to be proof that one can be raised solely in Korea and still do great things for the world.”

Han rose to prominence in 1999 by publishing a four-volume travelogue, “Daughter of the Wind: Three and a Half Times around the Globe on Foot.” The books chronicle Han’s seven-year travels around the world, taking her to many impoverished and isolated regions, from 1993 to 1999. She gained recognition for trying to travel on foot as much as possible, while avoiding taking flights and other means of transportation.

Famous for “talking too fast,” Han spoke quickly and with enthusiasm during her travel-themed lecture at the 2011 World Trail Conference on the same day. The conference room of Jeju’s International Convention Center was packed with people, many of them teenagers and those in their 20s.

“By travelling by foot, I witnessed how a kid, who you just saw playing on the ground a minute ago, could die the next day from simple diarrhea,” she said. “I saw how so many people in this world could actually lose their lives by not having 1,000 or 2,000 won in their hands.”

Inspired by her experience while travelling, Han took a job at World Vision Korea, an NGO, as the leader of their emergency relief team in 2001. Her job was to aid war refugees and victims of disasters around the world. She quit her job in 2009 to pursue a master’s degree in the United States.

During the lecture, Han suggested that those visiting isolated and hunger-stricken regions of the world carry at least four types of drugs.

“Bring painkillers, anti-diarrheals, antibiotics and anthelmintic tablets,” she said.
Travel writer and advisor to the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) speaks during a press conference prior to her lecture at the 2011 World Trail Conference at International Convention Center on Jeju, Tuesday. (Jeju Olle)
Travel writer and advisor to the U.N. Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) speaks during a press conference prior to her lecture at the 2011 World Trail Conference at International Convention Center on Jeju, Tuesday. (Jeju Olle)

“You can very easily help the locals when they are sick with those pills, because such drugs are mostly not available in those regions of the world. And also, learn how to do CPR. You can learn it in a day or two at the Red Cross. You’ll realize you can in fact be able to save people’s lives with it.

“I was not the most sympathetic person in the world before starting to travel,” Han continued. “I was focused on my own development and my own happiness. I would not have been able to do what I do now, which I absolutely love every single second of, if I didn’t discover the world by traveling.”

Han recently got a teaching job as an instructor of a relief work certificate course at the Institute of International Humanitarian Affairs at Fordham University in New York. And her 2005 book, “March to the World, Off the Map,” is just a couple of months away from becoming a million-seller.

“We are only 5,000 copies short,” she said.

Han called the Olle trail’s Route No. 1 course on Jeju, known for its panoramic view, the “most beautiful scenery in the universe.”

“I’ve been to 103 different countries,” she said. “But I’ve never seen something so strikingly beautiful as this one.”

Though she is now devoted to her humanitarian causes, Han still loves to travel, especially in the mountains.

“You never get bored of the mountains, and they feel different every time,” she said. “And you get to learn more about yourself each time you travel. It’s such bliss.”

By Claire Lee (
Korea Herald Youtube