Tom Schmidt: Eco Spin in Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series

Mallika Naguran speaks to Tom Schmidt of the Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series to find out what motivates the award winning author to write, draw and publish what could possibly be Asia's most significant and environmentally pertinent graphic novel series.

Tom Schmidt: "I wanted to capture places before they disappeared."

Tom Schmidt: "I wanted to capture places before they disappeared."

Singapore, 9 June 2013. Tom Schmidt might make you laugh. As a stand up comedian, he delivers a punchline or two that gets people cracking up. As an illustrator, he draws a world in all its glory. As a writer, he describes the destructive human impacts on such beauty. And that’s no laughing matter. As an architect, he walks the talk by insisting on responsible development.

Schmidt, author, illustrator and publisher, might tell you a joke about how he started on this journey over a decade ago and ended up with having three fully illustrated books under the Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series. “I owe it to my grandmother…” he deadpanned, at the book launch of the third book Bumbling Through Hong Kong in Singapore on 1 June 2013 in conjunction with the Asian Festival of Children’s Content.  The book won a bronze medal in the Graphic Novel/Drawn Book category of the Annual 2013 Independent Publisher (IPPY) Book Awards that drew over 5,200 entries.

Schmidt started sketching travel journals to humour his grandmother, among others.  They had way too many questions about his numerous trips (he’s covered around 70 countries thus far), and he spent much time describing them in some detail when he returned home in the US. But what better way than illustrating them in a travel journal, he thought. And that's how the illustrated novels began. The bumbling traveller series have funny bits in them. But the messages behind them aren’t funny; in fact, beneath the humorous content lie subject matters that are dead serious.

The stories capture Schmidt’s observation and perspectives on environmental impacts caused mostly by human activities such as development and land use change for agriculture. The first in the series Bumbling Through Borneo introduced disappearing rainforest with the rise of oil palm plantation.  “I had an interest in environmental issues such as deforestation, displacement of indigenous people, marine pollution and so on,” explained Schmidt on what got him started on these illustrated books.

Hong Kong is the third Asian destination featured in Schmidt's Bumbling books following Borneo and Sumatra.

Hong Kong is the third Asian destination featured in Schmidt's Bumbling books following Borneo and Sumatra.

Bumbling through Borneo was first printed in 1992 and subsequently revised twice, published independently under Kakibubu Media. The illustrated book introduces the protagonist, Bob, a bumbling American architect who receives a cryptic handwritten note,  that stated: “ Your journey begins now –Sarawak. A great reward awaits you up the Rejang River.” That got Bob packing.  Following an exploration of Sarawak in Borneo, Bob and his main travel companions go on to discover cultural and heritage riches of Sumatra (Bumbling through Sumatra), and thereafter of Hong Kong.

The travel companions featured are Jon, a Swedish carpenter with severe allergies; Ken, an Australian electrician; Franz, a zany German artist; among others. The journey begins with a clue, continues through a series of connected puzzles, and the four bumble on, through thick and thin, sometimes life threatening mishaps, otherwise funny episodes, meandering through cultures and norms, on a grand and seemingly unending quest. And so the story continues.

Bumbling Through Borneo, Sarawak and Hong Kong

The search for the “reward” and the need to solve the mystery of the cryptic note takes the characters through different parts of Asia. The book series contain beautiful illustrations of Asian scenes and nature and many box outs with detailed information on specific socio-environmental issues or cultural traits. They are, in sum, a treat for the eye, food for the brain and a stab in the conscience.

In Bumbling Through Borneo, Schmidt describes the importance of ecosystem services of the Rejang River that flows about 560km from the hinterland to the South China Sea. It is a “lifeline for thousands of small indigenous communities that are located along its banks. Increased siltation and pollution in the once clear river due to logging, new oil palm plantations, sand extraction and other development. Lack of proper sewage and disposal facilities have resulted in increased organic pollutants and water-borne diseases,” he writes.

Schmidt reveals another reason for keeping travel journals (apart from keeping his grandma quiet and satisfied). “I wanted to capture places before they disappeared,” he said, referring to natural environments such as forests and rivers, and built environments such as indigenous homes and heritage buildings and religious places like temples. In fact, Schmidt was jolted from the lull of his architecture career when he read the news of a longhouse in Sarawak that he once visited would be soon under water due to the construction of the Bakun Hydroelectric Dam.

Logging and deforestation has changed the face of Borneo and affected the fates of wild creatures such as the orang utans.

Logging and deforestation has changed the face of Borneo and affected the fates of wild creatures such as the orang utans.

The controversial Bakun Dam on the Balui River – a tributary and main source of the Rejang River - was conceived in the 1970s to be the biggest dam in the region at 207 metres high with a reservoir and a surface area of almost 70,000 hectares. It was supposed to produce 2,400 MW of electricity, enough to power the needs of Sarawak and beyond. It also rung the death knell of the way the things used to be, destroying not just homes of the indigenous’ community, but also their livelihoods and invaluable cultural assets.

Dayak communities and non-governmental organisations opposed the dam viciously. There were “problems of water quality deterioration, silting of areas downriver, displacement of over 100 protected terrestrial species from their natural habitat...” writes Schmidt, adding that “almost 10,000 Kayan and Kenyah native inhabitants have been displaced from their ancestral homes and relocated to Sungai Asap in Bakun.”

Bob and his friends continue to travel through Indonesia in the second book, Bumbling Through Sumatra. There they brave through the pirate-infested Straits of Malacca to encounter several mishaps and end with a mystical encounter with the shamans of the indigenous tribes of Mentawai Islands. The fate of the orang utans is also depicted in the context of biodiversity loss as a result of unsustainable agricultural development. “In today's world of tailored tourism, it is refreshing to see Schmidt travel the way travel ought to be done - with arms, eyes, and mind wide open,” reviewed Robert Lee, an ecologist with UNESCO.

Readers can appreciate the intricacy of heritage buildings with Schmidt's drawings, such as the cross-section of this 19th century Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong.

Readers can appreciate the intricacy of heritage buildings with Schmidt's drawings, such as the cross-section of this 19th century Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong.

Bumbling Through Hong Kong with nearly 200 hand-drawn illustrations takes readers through the many ancient and cultural traditions, historical relics (such as the Man Mo Temple, pictured) and natural assets of the densely populated city and Hong Kong's New Territories. Again the message is important and unequivocal: unsustainable development has its consequences. Schmidt who has lived in Hong Kong since 1997 thinks the city needs a greater injection of environmental awareness. “In today’s era of population growth, environmental contamination, and the loss of marine and terrestrial habitats, the erosion of the quality of life in the world’s urban areas is a very serious issue – and Hong Kong is a case in point.”

Schmidt by day practices as an architect with his own company Sepia Design Consultants Ltd, specialising in sustainable hospitality design. By night, he is sketching scenes for his fourth book in the adventure series. Where will bumbling Bob visit next? What will he and his eccentric mates stumble upon? We don’t know, but the last page of Bumbling Through Hong Kong might offer a clue.

The Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series makes a great gift for older children, young adults and anyone who needs to be clued in on the socio-environmental impacts of fast growing Asia. Apart from gaining insights on real life issues, readers will have many chuckles over the comic styled educational book that can only be Tom Schmidt’s landmark style.

About Thomas Schmidt

Tom Schmidt is an award-winning author who is still thrilled at having been invited as a speaker at TedX Hong Kong (nope, he didn’t bumble through that one). The Bumbling Traveller Adventure Series is published by Kakibubu Media Ltd, HK and distributed by Far East Media Ltd and MPH Distributors Sdn Bhd. Get all three in the series through and leading bookstores.